Fresh look at an iconic display: The Cortes Island Water Cycle

Wild Cortes came into being as a result of a series of interactions between Laurel Bohart and Lynne Jordan, former President of the Cortes Island Museum. They started in 2005, shortly after Bohart moved to Cortes Island.  

“I met Lynn Jordan on on the ferry. She had this parrot, an African grey, and it was dead and frozen. She wanted to find a taxidermist, so I mounted her bird. That was the beginning of Wild Cortes, because we did ‘Ravens Relations,’ and put it up in the museum for a few years. People were absolutely enthralled. They wanted to know if we would have more animals, so we dreamed up the original Wild Cortes, the story of water,” she explained.

Laurel Bohart with an Bald eagle she mounted – submitted photo

“The story being that waterfalls on high places trickle down to lower places and eventually flow to the sea or swamps or lakes. That was so popular we had it up for three or four years and then of course the Board decided to do something else.”

“So we took that down and there was a lot of upset because people were really attached to it. Lynne and I thought maybe we should recreate it. So we got a good size grant and recreated it here, and it’s been growing ever since.”

‘Wild Cortes’ opened, in the Linnaea Farm Education Centre, during 2017.  

Cortes Currents: Take us on a tour of this display, from the bluffs right down to the ocean. 

Laurel Bohart: “In the bluffs on Cortes, you will probably see Merlins. You definitely see vultures floating above. Grouse tend to live up high. They only come down in mating season, when the females are looking for places to nest. We have very few Grouse because we have so many predators that eat Grouse, including people because you can hunt them. Raccoons eat Grouse. Skunks eat Grouse. I don’t know a bird of prey that won’t eat Grouse. White people showed up. We have cats ,and they like to eat baby Grouse. They’re like chickens,  food for everything and everybody and because of an increase in predation, we have fewer of them around.”

 “Along with habitat loss, we are losing our birds and there aren’t very many Grouse left. I’m hoping none of the hunters here will take any, it’s because we don’t have very many.” 

She pointed to another bird. 

LB: “This is a Ruff, and there used to be Ruffs on Cortes, but they died out. Apparently none have seen for quite a long time.” 

“Cowbirds are the worst parasites of smaller birds ever. The problem is they take over nests of other birds and can leave five eggs in somebody else’s nest. So we don’t have any Vireos around anymore and Song Sparrows are disappearing. Purple Finches will too, because if she lays all these eggs, then Mama ends up feeding a whole bunch of babies that aren’t hers. Her own will starve, or be pushed out, and so she’s making many more generations of Cowbirds. So people with bird feeders have to really watch and make sure that when the Cowbirds show up, don’t put out any bird feed. Encourage them to go somewhere else.”

“There’s been a recent study about trying to drop their populations and the only thing that works is killing them.”

“On the eastern side of Cortes Island is where they have their flyaway and they tend to migrate up the mainland coast.  The west side of Cortes Island doesn’t see them much. I’ve seen them here at Linnaea, so they are here.” 

CC: What about Squirrel Cove? 

LB: “Everywhere. At my place there’s been tons and they come in waves. I had a cloud of about 50 and that’s a lot of parasites. Those birds are going to go on and have a really successful season. With climate change, we’re already losing our songbirds. We can’t afford to lose anymore.”

“So rain falls on the bluffs, eventually trickles down into the forests, but is not trickling down as much anymore because we’ve had much less rain.” 

“In the forest: you get more woodpeckers, Accipiter hawks and squirrels,  flying squirrels and hummingbirds. That’s a baby Black-headed Grosbeak, and that’s a female Evening Grosbeak, same nest and forest areas. So do Ruby-crowned Kinglets. This is actually an extension of Raven relations. Those are all  Passerine and Warblers like the MacGillivary’s Warbler also need forested areas. They like Alders, fruit trees, conifers- anywhere there’s insects they can eat. We had a whole bunch of Warblers earlier at my place, and I think all over Cortes. So if you watch them closely with binoculars, they’re darting out and snapping at insects. They’re  so little with such great eyesight, they can see aphids and they’re picking them off leaves and under bark.” 

“The Common Raven (Corvus coax) is the largest of the Passerines, and this particular bird is not a big Raven. The farther north you go, the larger the birds are, especially Ravens and Crows. I think probably because they need to be heavier in order to conserve energy because it might get too cold if they were too small.”

“Let’s see, what’s the most interesting bird in here?

“I just saw another one of these at my bird feeder several days ago, and  the last time I saw one was 2007.  It’s a male Bullock’s Oriole. These are birds that are usually found much farther south but remember things are warming. If there’s drought farther south and there isn’t enough to eat, they’re going to go north. That’s why we have doves from California.” 

CC: I noticed that you put the deer in the bluffs. 

LB: Yes, Deer are everywhere and the males, the bucks, like to be up high when they start to rut.  Once they’ve finished sparring, they come down looking for girls and they’ll be anywhere. They even show up at your bird feeder. 

CC: Before we go into riparian, let’s talk about some of the animals.

LB: “Raccoons are pretty much everywhere. They like riparian zones with water and lakes because they like to eat crayfish and fish and they’re omnivores, so they’ll eat cherries, plums,  strawberries and any wild fruit they can. They’re very distantly related to bears . The interesting thing, of course, is their little hands, and they’re very intelligent. They’ll  eat your food in front of you and just watch your reaction.  Like a mama bear, they’ll send their kids or themselves inside, through a cat door for the cat food.”

She pointed to a creature much smaller than a mouse.

LB: “This is our smallest land mammal. It’s a Wandering Shrew or a Cinnamon Shrew. I’m not sure which, but when we looked at the skull and the teeth, we decided it was a wandering Shrew. To do that you need a microscope because it’s really hard to identify Shrew teeth just by your eyes because it’s so tiny.” 

“Whenever  we are not sure of a bat or a shrew, then you can look it up in a book. It explains the  tooth patterns, both top and bottom. They have sharp little incisors, which almost look like canines. If you watch them, they’re moving slowly through the grass. They’re almost blind, but they can find food, using their noses. They’re eating bugs, flies and whatever else they can find, moving along with them. They are like grounded bats. No wings, but they’re bat sized and distantly related.”  

CC: Are the shrews problematic for humans? 

LB: “No. Shrews are highly beneficial because they eat a lot of insect pests. So if your cat’s after shrews,  keep the cat inside or have a catio, or something like that.” 

“Try not to have outside cats if you possibly can because it’s not just birds, they kill. Most of the bats in this museum collection are cat kills. There’s great big holes in the wings and holes in their bodies, and it’s difficult to measure them accurately because they’re ripped open by cats and we need them more than we need cats. So if you possibly can, keep your cats in at night.”

CC: Contrary to what a lot of people think, Bohart described bats as totally beneficial.  

LB: “Bats do not get caught in your hair! First of all, they echo locate. They can see your hair coming a mile away. If they are getting caught in your hair, there’s something wrong with the bat and it’s probably sick. We’re getting white nose syndrome here, and if you see a dead bat with a blob of white in the tip of the nose, that may be a bat that’s been killed by  the fungus.”

“They may fly around you closely because you’re attracting insects, including mosquitoes. The bats won’t land on your head, but they get really close. Close your eyes and stand still. They won’t hurt you, but they’re relieving you of bugs that will hurt you.”

“So if you possibly can, keep your cats in at night.”

“If you ned to let them roam, make sure there aren’t any baby birs out there. And if you are going to let them roam, you can’t have a bird feeder because they will sit at the foot of the feeder and catch birds.”

CC: Wild Cortes also mentions a larger member of the cat family, I know we have some cougars on the island. 

LB: “Yes. We have them in Squirrel Cove. I happened to know that because we had paw prints at our place and  I heard her one night. She was in heat and screaming her head off. I thought it was a regular tom cat, so I wailed back. She was much louder than a tom cat. I got in the house. One of our cats disappeared at the same time.”

CC: I’ve heard of them preying on pets and chickens. Has there ever been an incident on Cortes of a cougar attacking a child?

LB: “I have not heard of one.”

“I do remember wolves surrounding children, at Gorge Hall, a number of years ago. The parents were there waiting for the school bus. The wolves came and were watching the children. I can’t prove this, but that’s why I believe that the provincial government sent in hunters and they took out a bunch of wolves. The wolves realized that they better go farther north and retreated back.”

CC: But we still hear or see wolves occasionally.

LB: “There happens to be wolf scat on the road right now. There’s an old road that  used to go across Basil Creek, but the bridge has fallen in. On the side that comes up  towards our place from the bridge, there were some good size prints and then scat.  We let the scat sit for a while and there was more scat later on. It was smaller and there were smaller prints. I looked at that and thought, ‘Ah, mama’s teaching baby to hunt!’ So we just leave them alone. The cub has to learn. They can do what they want around there.”

“The deer and the wolves are connected. If we have too many deer, the deer gets sick. If there are too many wolves, wolves will get sick and nature takes care of it.” 

“When we come to places, we tend to upset the balance all the time. We have to learn how not to do that, and I think we’re deciding that we can’t breathe polluted air and neither can anything else. So in the name of self-preservation for the entire planet, let’s just take a step back, look at what we’re doing really seriously and start changing things so we can all coexist. Then nobody has to become extinct because, honestly, humanity’s on that path now.”

 “I’m looking at the effect on the land.” 

“Here on Cortes, we’re starting to lose trees. They’re going brown. Look at the bluffs, we used to have healthy looking big old Douglas firs. There’s dead trees up there because it’s becoming a more Mediterranean area, and that means it’s going to be dryer and dryer.”

We won’t be able to have gardens unless we have endless water, which we don’t have.

CC: Ironically, right after that discussion we came to the wetland display. 

LB: “A really good example is Sprungman’s Pond.  It’s really accessible if you want to see a good wetland. Right now there is a mama Mallard with a bunch of babies there. So if anybody wants to stop their vehicle and get their binoculars and take a look, they might spot them.”

“There is another wetland beside Kw’as Park (the Beaver Pond).  It often has Tree swallows nesting in the old trees. There used to be Bank swallows here, but Tree swallows like riparian areas because there are lots of insects, swamps are a really good source of mosquitoes and other things.”

“You usually get mink in wetlands and by the sea.  They’re looking for fish, insects, baby birds, frogs, snakes, whatever they can catch that doesn’t run as fast as they do. ” 

“The Virginia-rail is a swamp bird. This particular bird and the baby came from Gunflint Lake . These birds eat insects and I think insect larvae, maybe in the water. I’m not sure.”  

“You’ll see lots of insects.” 

Dragonflies are predators, so they eat flies and they go after mosquitoes and Gnats, things like that.” 

Pintails and Mallards tend to go into swamps and the same with Scaup Ducks.” 

“If you go to BlueJay farm, there’s wetlands on the right. In the winter bird count we saw a bunch of Scaup.  They were still there even though there was a lot of ice.”

“The otters, of course, will be in lakes and river systems. They’re called River Otters, but they’ve adapted to the sea. The otters you see swimming around out in the ocean are River Otters, not Sea Otters, which are only on the west coast and the northern tip of Vancouver Island, slanting down toward the eastern side.”

“This is ‘the Woodpecker Tree,’ which was originally in the main museum too. Those square holes  are  always made by Pileated Woodpeckers. Other birds, like Sapsuckers and Hairy Woodpeckers make a round hole.”

Flickers are the ones that make a lot of noise. They’re drumming on a roof or some tin or something like that: Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. They make that sound for territory, both to show other males that ‘this is my place’ and to alert a female that ‘I’m here, I’m ready, and we can make a nest together in a tree.’”

“Kingfishers like to hang out around lakes and rivers and creeks as well as the sea. That’s a female. Males would have more rust on them.”

“This is the waterbird section and the ocean. Herons of course, will also wander through lakes, but most of our herons here are on the ocean. You knew about the rivalry between eagles and herons, correct? You know why?”

“Eagles are at  a huge disadvantage when it comes to herons because they eat the same prey, Midshipman fish, and other small fish. Eagles and herons both like to hang out in places like Smelt Bay where we have all these nice tidal pools. It’s the same down  at the Manson Lagoon.”

“You get a few tidal pools and you get small fish  concentrating in there,  while the heron is wading along the bank or in the water. Nice long legs to get into the water. Eagles can’t do that. They have to sit on a rock, spot the fish, leap up into the air, get some height and come down to catch the fish.”

“By that time the Heron wading through the water spots the fish, which darts under rock, knows where the fish is, angles that beak under the rock, gets the fish, swallows it and is onto the next. So they probably have 5 or 6 fish compared to the eagle’s 1.”

“They’ve changed their nesting habits. The herons had to do that because the eagles were coming in and destroying an entire area that had held nests. They like Alder trees.  Ed Piggot’s Farm had an Alder grove  and I used to go up and find the eggshells on the ground and look at the herons, but they had their nests right beside an eagle’s nest. Those eagles probably didn’t eat the baby herons because they were busy chasing off other eagles from their territory. “

“If the nests are all clustered together and baby herons make one tremendous racket, the Eagles will go after the baby herons,  throw the eggs on the ground and destroy the chicks.”

“What the herons have done is spread themselves out.  Two nests here, three nests way over there, two nests over there, a couple more nests over there- so now they’re not attracting as much attention with a lot of noise. So they’re surviving.” 

The Great-blue Heron on display at Wild Cortes was predated by an eagle. 

LB: “Jay Johnson  found it  in the Gorge area, right by the store and called me. It’s a lovely male bird and by the time I got there, it had just died.”

“We have another one frozen, which will be a study skin. It’s another eagle kill from the Gorge area. I think the eagle was spotted killing it and dropped the bird in the water. I think it was dead by then, I hope.” 

CC: Tell me about some of the other birds. 

LB: “This is a cormorant. It’s double crested and it’s molting very heavily, which is why no crest. They’re seabirds just like the Common murre and the Marbled murrelet. Common murres and birds like this one, the cormorants, nest on Sea Islands.  Mitlenatch will have these cormorants and Common murres, but not Marbled murrelets, which nest at the top of really big trees.” 

We have two species of gulls throughout Cortes. 

We have the Glaucous-winged Gulls in the winter, spring and fall, and then they go off to nest. I have two Glaucous-winged Gulls and one of them I found in Campbell River.

CC: Where did you find the other one?  

 I think that might have been Nanaimo. 

CC: It’s a lot bigger than I would’ve thought.

LB: Everything looks bigger when you’re closer to it.  They’re the same size as a Red Tail Hawk and have a greater wingspan. The wingspan  was about four feet. It’s not quite as wide as the Vultures, but they’re big birds. 

The eggs are delicious if you’re a researcher and you’re hungry and it’s May or early June and they haven’t finished their clutch of four eggs to a clutch.  Like a chicken, they keep on laying till they have a full nest. And for a Glaucous-winged, four eggs is a full nest. So if they had three, you can still take one. So myself and the researcher had lots of  Glaucous-winged egg lunches.

Mew Gulls are here in summer. Where they nest, I don’t know. That’s an immature Gull (on display). The adults have the typical white head and black wing taps, golden eyes. That one was found on Whaletown Road close to Squirrel Cove. 

These are Kittiwakes (on display) and Kittiwakes are also Gulls but they’re found on the west side of Vancouver Island. They came from some place in Victoria, which has a wildlife centre.  The same with the Auklet. They live in places like Cleland Island or Bear Island off Tofino, which is a research place. It’s great for research. It’s got all kinds of sea birds. 

The Dunlin is a local bird. Mike Manson found it. It had been dropped by a falcon, I guess it was being chased by another falcon. 

The Killdeer we have comes from Beban Parking Lot in Nanaimo, and was found by the Ministry of Environment. 

Those eggs over there are Oystercatcher eggs. Doreen Guthrie told me she had an Oystercatcher female’s nest on the beach, fairly close to her place. So she kept a very good eye on that bird and the eggs to make sure nothing was going to attack them.  The summer people showed up and  stuck their  kayaks a foot or two feet from the nest, so mama abandoned it. They didn’t see the eggs. Doreen  waited about five days to a week, and of course it was hot. One of them was broken open already and they were very smelly. I  took them away in a box.

So I used a mixture of formaldehyde and Isopropyl alcohol, injected the eggs and dried up  the decay and put them in here.

CC: What about the Canada Goose?  

LB: That bird comes from Squirrel Cove.  It was found floating in the water. It was actually quite thin too. So it may have been sick. 

CC: Do you mount many fish? 

LB: A Chum Salmon, also called a Dog Salmon. It’s a good sized salmon. It’s not a mating color. It’s still an ocean-going animal and it would be green on the top and pink along the sides. So that was pre spawning. They come back to Basil Creek every year.

The only time we had a bear in the area was when we had about a thousand fish come back up that creek a few years ago and the bear was there eating fish. 

CC: You’re talking about the Squirrel Cove Bear

LB: We still have a Squirrel Cove Bear.  

CC: There haven’t been any more reports of it raiding neighbourhood fruit trees, compost, or garbage cans. 

LB: But we still have a bear apparently. 

CC: What about the seal?  

LB: 2007 in Cortes Bay. It was my birthday. Tom and I were in the canoe. I saw a vulture circling towards the Red Granite Hill area. So we paddled over there to see what they had and the seal had just died. It took both of us to even think about getting it in the canoe, it was so heavy. Then we paddled back again and it went into the freezer and I mounted it.

CC: Is your freezer packed with dead animals and birds? 

I have a number of freezers packed with animals. The museum freezer is  packed with animals. In my house I have two freezers.  I have a little freezer in my greenhouse area, which is also packed full and the larger freezer is in what we call the goat shed, which did actually house goats once, but now it’s a storage shed. It’s has a seal skin in it, which  my students will probably work on this fall.

CC: When I asked Laurel Bohart for any final thoughts, she alluded to the exhibit’s title, ‘the Cortes Water Cycle.’ 

 LB: All I can say is water is life, and without water there’s no life.  

Related Posts on Cortes Currents:

This article was originally posted on June 9 and additional pictures added on June 23, 2023.

Top photo credit: Ravens Relation’s displayed in the Cortes Water Cycle – courtesy Donna Collins

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One thought on “Fresh look at an iconic display: The Cortes Island Water Cycle”

  1. The bird labeled as a Black-headed grosbeak is really a Bullock’s Oriole. The Grosbeak has a shorter & thicker beak with more black on its head, while the Oriole has more orange colouring on its head & a thin black lateral stripe behind its eye.

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