Observations by a Backyard Naturalist I: Vertebrates

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Winter view from our living room.

I am very fortunate to live in a semi-rural part of Nanaimo. From our living room, we look out at Richard Lake, a small, shallow lake surrounded by grass-covered land that gets flooded every winter. Extraction of peat appears to have been done in this area in the past, creating a number of additional ponds, which serve as habitat for various creatures. Our backyard backs onto the edge of this area, providing a naturalist’s paradise. This blog is an attempt to describe some of the animals that we have viewed in or from our property over the past 4 years.

Mammals. In terms of charismatic megafauna, we have our share of visitors. An American black bear (Ursus americanus) visited us two years in a row, scaling and damaging our fence in the process. The purpose of the visit was to gorge on apples, which I managed to capture with my trail camera. We are now more diligent in making sure that the apples are picked up, although climbing is something that black bears do exceedingly well, so we are certainly not completely bear-safe. Along with bears, we also have regular visits from

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Family of Black-tailed deer that took advantage of an open gate.

raccoons (Procyon lotor). Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionug columbianus), a subspecies of mule deer, cannot get into the yard except when you leave the gate open. They enjoy munching on plants in the front yard to our consternation, however. We also see deer behind the yard on a semi-regular basis. From our yard, we regularly see North American river otters (Lutra canadensis) and beaver (Castor canadensis) on the lake, and on one occasion I also saw a mink (Neovison vison). Less charismatic (and all introduced) animals that use our backyard are eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) (we do not have feral European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) where we live), both Norway (Rattus norvegicus – aka brown rat) and black rats (Rattus rattus – aka roof rat), mice (Mus musculus and perhaps other species), as well as gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that show up to raid my bird feeders from time to time. A few years ago I set up a bat house, and to my delight, a few bats use it every year. I don’t know which of the 9 or 10 Vancouver Island species frequent our area, but just having them around is good enough for me.

Bats of VI

Excerpt from “BC’s bat species” table published by Community Bat Programs of BC https://www.bcbats.ca/index.php/bat-basics/bc-bat-species

Bat caveat

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Black-headed grosbeak male, one of the most beautiful species.

Birds. Although I am an entomologist by profession, bird watching has always been a favourite pastime of mine. Luckily, our backyard and the marsh and lake behind our home provides ample opportunity to serve as my private hotspot. At the time of writing, my tally of species seen or heard from our yard is 86, which is very close to 1/3 of the 261 species listed for the entire Nanaimo region (just south of Nanaimo to Deep Bay along the east coast of Vancouver Island) in the recently revised Seasonal Bird

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Sharpshinned hawk resting after an unsuccessful raid of my bird feeders on a very miserable day.

Checklist published by the Arrowsmith Naturalist Club. Considering that a fair number of those are marine or high elevation species, and that as a casual birder I am likely to miss many species that are difficult to identify or are heard rather than seen (I normally get about ¾ or less than what ‘experts’ find), the proportion of Nanaimo region species may be 50% or perhaps even more. The species I have recorded so far (over close to 4 years) can be seen in the table below.

Birds at home table

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Willow flycatcher singing his heart out just behind our yard.

Reptiles and amphibians are rather scarce, but they do show up on a regular basis. Pacific Chorus Frogs (aka Pacific Tree Frog), Pseudacris regilla, can be heard year-round

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Pacific chorus frog

when the temperature is approaching 10 oC, but the best time is in May, when they really earn their name by serenading the neighborhood at full volume. The invasive American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus, rarely shows up in our yard, but its deep call can be heard in late spring – early summer when they breed. We are very pleased to have breeding Garter Snakes, Thamnophis spp., in our yard, although it does make mowing the lawn stressful as we worry about injuring these harmless and attractive snakes. The adults are relatively easy to spot, but the newly hatched snakes are only about 10 cm long, so they are easily overlooked. There are three species of garter snake on Vancouver Island, but the most likely species would be the Western Terrestrial (or Wandering) Garter Snake.


This feisty little Western Terrestrial Garter Snake was found a few km away from our home, but this beautiful specimen deserves to represent the species. It responded to our presence by a rather convincing display of aggressiveness, although it didn’t bite when I picked it up and moved it to a safer location.

In the next installment of this blog, I will cover the invertebrates in our yard.

About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
This entry was posted in Biology, Birds, Nature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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