July 31, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

Weaving Whistler's web of life 

Canada's longest running BioBlitz has a hand in telling Whistler's natural story over the last decade

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - Weaving Whistler's web of life
  • illustration by jon parris
  • Weaving Whistler's web of life

The natural world seems bigger and bolder on the chairlift ride up to the alpine on Blackcomb Mountain — white snow on dark jagged peaks, open grassy slopes cutting swathes through the forest, and wide open sky above.

At least, that's how it appears to the untrained eye.

But riding the chairlift with one of Whistler's best-known naturalists, the passing world below opens up in stark, minute detail.

The grass becomes a revolving spectacle of nature, the sky full of sounds, the forest an untapped world of discovery.

There's Indian Paintbrush, says Bob Brett, quickly correcting himself to drop the word "Indian," as the chair floats upwards above the ski run. There's fireweed. Cow parsnip. White orchid, and if you ever get the chance to smell that flower up close, he adds, don't turn that down. He sees an alpine robin up above.

"They're apparently in the Arctic now," he muses, as he continues to document everything in his yellow notebook, the list growing longer with each passing chairlift tower.

The robin, he later explains, is a very adaptable bird — as the climate changes so, too, will the robin, showing up in places it's never been before.

There's nothing unusual about Brett's list which is quickly creeping down the page; there are no new species, no rare finds. Then again, it's just 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. The 10th annual BioBlitz has just begun. Every year reveals something new — a new insect, a new fungi, even a new amphibian (more on that later). Just how many species the visiting scientists, the passionate amateurs and budding students will find in the next 24 hours all remains to be seen.

"The case for looking for everything is partly because it's interesting and partly, I believe, important in terms of understanding ecosystems," says Brett.

"You are finding out how many ingredients there are that make up the web of life in your area."

Longest running BioBlitz in Canada

The Whistler area has long attracted people keen to record its web of life.

There are records of plants and animals dating back 100 years. But there was never a definitive master list.

The records were mainly birds and mammals — the marmots on the mountains, the Steller's jays in the sky, the skunk cabbages stinking up the valley below. The obvious and the cute.

And then came the Whistler Biodiversity Project in 2004 — a multi-year project to catalogue and help conserve Whistler's native species from slime mould to black bears and everything else in between.

When it began, there were 435 publicly accessible documented species in Whistler. Today there are almost 4,000. BioBlitz, an intense period of biological surveying to record all living species in the area, has had a huge hand in shaping that list.

The first Whistler BioBlitz was in 2007.

In nine days over the past decade, volunteer scientists and amateurs have found 1,086 new species (not including the 2016 tally).

"It is really, really remarkable," says Brett during his presentation to the crowd Saturday night.

On average, he adds, 20 per cent of the species counted at BioBlitz every year are new to the list. This year, for example, the early counts put 15 to 20 new mushrooms on the list and 30 to 50 new insects. There are four new snails, a possible new Dragonfly and a "pretty obvious fern that just skipped our notice before," says Brett.

"It accumulates over the years and it really does make a difference.

"It is still really remarkable that there is still that much biodiversity left to be known."

'Geeking out with nature nerds'

It's saying something that BioBlitz is the top event of the summer for Whistler naturalist Melanie Tardif. After all, this is a town packed full with events from May to September — such as Ironman, Tough Mudder, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and Crankworx.

"I love BioBlitz," says Tardif, who helps organize the event and calls it a time where she can "geek out with nature nerds."

"It's my favourite event all summer."

Part of its charm is this building bridge between local science and nature and ordinary folk. Every year the BioBlitz weekend includes a public-education component that includes booths where scientists can show their finds to the public like the very elusive northwestern salamander, found this year at the wetlands along the highway.

This salamander was in the neotene stage — that transformative stage between larvae and adult with external gills on the side of its head. It will eventually lose those as it matures to adult. This seemingly innocuous little salamander can secrete poison from its head, body and tail, strong enough to kill some small predators, such as snakes and shrews. It will only cause mild skin irritation in humans.

"It's really cool-looking, like a dragon," says Davina Dube, a BCIT student who was part of the team that found the salamander this year. Dube has just finished her first year of the two-year Fish, Wildlife and Recreation Diploma program at BCIT. This is her first BioBlitz.

"I want to do it every year," she says after a day tramping through wetlands, creeks and forests just before she heads out batting in the evening.

At a booth at Alpha Lake Park, a group of kids peer into the sides of another glass temporary enclosure housing the Northern Alligator Lizard and the Valley Garter Snake with its strange blue eyes.

"He's about to molt," explains Whistler naturalist Kristina Swerhun of why the eyes are bright blue.

She pulls out the Northern Alligator Lizard, holding it out for the kids to touch, explaining why she keeps her hands open and her arms out.

"So he always has somewhere to go," she says.

The kids move on — painting T-shirts with paw prints of various animals.

Despite the rain, there are a lot of interested people keen to learn more about the natural world around them.

And yet at the 10-year mark, despite the success of BioBlitz, both in the field and with the public, it's getting harder and harder to find a weekend for the volunteer-run event.

It's simply a function of how busy Whistler has become in the summertime with limited free weekends for an event like BioBlitz.

"This shows how important it is to have events like this to keep in the public eye the fact that nature is still important in Whistler despite all these crazy recreation events," says Brett.

He adds with his trademark humour: "Put it this way, it's very hard to look for snowbank mushrooms when you're barrelling down the hill at 40 km/hour on a downhill bike."

Back in the Alpine

"What makes the snow pink?"

How many times has Brett answered that question — perhaps the most obvious one that comes to mind — for anyone new to the hiking trail on Blackcomb Mountain? Snow patches still cover the subalpine as Whistler's summer takes its time coming this year and the light pink stain against the white snow is seemingly out of place in the natural environment.

"Chlamydomonas nivalis," says Brett. "It's a green algae."

He launches into an Abbott and Costello 'Who's on First' story about the green algae that's actually red.

While it may look unusual, it's as much a part of this mountain environment as the marmots and the wildflowers, that are just beginning to bloom.

Moving along the trail, Brett hears a sound from above. A hermit thrush.

"That is the nicest sounding bird," he says, his eyes trained skyward. "It's basically a robin, with a good agent."

He stops when he thinks he's spotted the bird and you can hear the excitement in his voice.

"That is it," he exclaims. "I've never seen one."

He trains his binoculars to the very top of a tree when the bird is perched singings its song, if at all possible making the world around it come even more alive, more vibrant.

The hermit thrush is small and brown, like a plain robin.

"It's a pretty nondescript bird," says Brett, its appearance somehow at odds with its magical fairy sound.

Hiking with Brett you get to eat flowers (the delicate white Indian Potato); you learn how to spot a pika's home, which is a little hay pile in front of a pile of rocks; you stop to marvel at an ordinary bumblebee and realize there's nothing all that ordinary about it and wonder when you last really stared at a bumble bee; you learn that a couple of marmots live close to the top of the chairlift; you can see how tall a Whitebark pine is 15 years after it was planted in the subalpine (not tall at all), which puts the idea of old-growth forest into reality.

It may not be the best day for a BioBlitz — it's 3°C in the alpine, misty with rain threatening. The butterflies and the dragonflies are hard to come by.

And yet, it's still a day out in nature with its never-ending things to see.

After a few hours, Brett's list is much longer.

Visiting mycologist Paul Kroeger is quick to show off his finds from the alpine. It's a good day for mycologists: biologists who specialize in the study of fungi.

Kroeger, who hasn't missed a Whistler BioBlitz in the last 10 years, pulls out a plastic container from his pocket and shows off his mushrooms, which have flourished in the alpine under the melting snow.

"Over the winter there's a lot of stuff that gets incorporated into the snow," explains Kroeger. "Tree needles, bits of lichen. And then the snow melts and it gets condensed into this slimy layer of nutrient-rich stuff that melts out of the snow. And that's what these things feed on. They take advantage of that first burst of nutrients in the spring."

Mycologists couldn't ask for a better year this year. The wet conditions in Whistler have yielded lots of interesting finds.

But Kroeger isn't here just for the fungi. It's the people that make this fun and interesting and keep him coming back year after year.

The people of BioBlitz

Some of the top experts from around the province congregate for the weekend count in Whistler. They come year after year. They come not just to count; they come to see friends, check in after a year's passing and, perhaps most importantly, have fun.

Agnes Lynn, who comes from Vancouver Island, calls BioBlitz addictive: "Just because you go and you have such a good time and you learn so much from all the people that you just want to go again.

"You never know what you're going to find. And I'm one who likes everything. I'm a naturalist, not a specialist. I'm just an amateur. But I just love to learn."

It's a common theme.

You can hear it as they get up and speak one after another. They talk about slug sex; they delve into slime mould; they talk about moss; they regale the room with the thrilling discovery of lynx tracks.

Though they are specialists in distinct areas, be it fungi or birds or amphibians, they share the common love of nature.

Brett says: "My best times at BioBlitz have been when you're with a bunch of people of a different speciality than yours and all of a sudden you go 'wow that's really neat. What you're doing is really neat. And I really never cared about it before!'"

Whistler's Fire Chief Geoff Playfair was in the audience Saturday night and shared the story of a tourist who mistook bear scat for a pile of fresh berries along the side of the trail, approaching him to ask if she could eat them. He tried his best to dissuade her.

"I appreciate the work you do and hopefully you can help people reconnect with nature in a way that will let them understand what's out there," Playfair told his audience.

"The people that live in cities and spend a lot of time disconnected from nature, they need to be reintroduced to it not just from a physical health perspective but a mental health perspective and perhaps a public safety perspective!"

Night falls and the bats come out

As the sun dips below the mountains Saturday and the clouds skitter across the sky, occasionally shrouding what little light is offered from the crescent moon, nature is still calling.

It's colder than it should be for a July night in Whistler, not cold enough to see your breath but enough to give you the occasional shivery chill.

Dusk has swiftly turned to night. And though we're just 15 minutes from the base at Creekside, the lights from town feel very far away.

It's time to go off in search of bats.

Felix Martinquez attaches his bat detector to his iPhone and holds it aloft. Bats are not blind, he says, dismissing the first myth. But they use echolocation to hunt for insects in the dark.

Human hearing ranges from 15 to 20 kHz depending on age. Bats can hear sounds at a much higher frequency. They emit a series of ultrasounds, high squeaks that come out via the detector.

"If they're flying in the forest the echolocation has to be very frequent," he explains, to give the bats an up-to-date photo of what's in front of them.

The bat detector also identifies the bats flying over the Creekside area including Little Brown Myotis, California Myotis, Yuma Myotis and the Silver-haired Bat. To definitively tell the species, however, it's critical to catch them in nets and study them.

"I wanted to study bats because they're not really well understood," says Martinquez. "They're really mythified."

"I wanted to change the mentality of people, that they're not really evil, they're not going to suck your blood!"

In fact, they feed on insects and some of them — namely mothers that are producing milk for their young — are able to eat their own body weight in one night.

A few years ago, through the Whistler Biodiversity Project, bat researchers found Keen's Myotis bats, a rare species in Whistler. The last known records of this bat in Whistler date back to the 1940s and there was some debate if the species, which is usually found near or in old-growth coastal western hemlock forests, would still be here, surviving in the face of Whistler's growth.

Keen's Myotis are on the B.C. government's red list: a species at risk. A red-listed species is highly endangered whereas blue-listed species are less endangered but of concern.

And therein lies the power of BioBlitz.

"Of the 100 species at risk that we know about in Whistler, over half have come from the Whistler Biodiversity Project and a number of them have come from BioBlitz," says Brett.

While the new white bear cub dubbed "the little white wonder" on Blackcomb Mountain makes for amazing video and photos, it's the slime mould and the slugs and the mushrooms and the flowers and the birds and the flies and the 4,000 others that tell the complete story of Whistler's web of life.

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