Photo; A new vineyard in the Qualicum River basin as humans move in & replace the wildlife.
even in a place as beautiful as the Little Qualicum River estuary, his office for 30 years as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, he sees the unravelling of “the web of life.”
"It’s happening very quickly," he says.
A recent news report focussed on the precipitous decline of barn swallows on Vancouver Island.
That is certainly true, says Dawe, who starting in 1978 worked on the Royal BC Museum’s four-volume Birds of British Columbia project, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
People will focus on the extinction of a species but not “the overall impact,” he says. When habitat diversity is lost, “it changes the whole dynamic.” In 1975, when Dawe was assigned to study the newly created Marshall-Stevenson Unit of the Qualicum National Wildlife Area, which is part of the Little Qualicum River estuary, there were 24 nesting pairs of blue-and-rust barn swallows in an old barn that still stands to this day after 125 years.
However, their numbers began to decline as the area was developed. The trees were logged and milled, parts of the estuary were mined for gravel, rock walls were built to stop erosion, and a straight channel, in use to this day, was dug so the river no longer wound through the estuary, shifting course with the seasons.
All that meant fewer insects and that meant weak and hungry barn swallows, now susceptible to the larvae of the blowfly.
One by one, the nesting pairs slipped away over decades, Dawe says. “When I left there were none.”
There are still barn swallows in the area but there aren’t as many: between 1966 and 2011, barn swallows in B.C. have declined at a rate of 4.96% a year.
They’re among more 30 B.C. birds known to be in decline, including the iconic Great Blue Heron (1.7% per year), the Rufous Hummingbird (1.91%), the beautiful killdeer (3.8%), the American Goldfinch (4.85%) and so on. Forty-five of the 57 coastal waterbirds using the Strait of Georgia were in decline between 1999 and 2011, including the Brant sea goose (4.7% per year), Greater Yellowlegs (10.5%) and Western Grebe (16.4%).
But it isn’t just birds. The inconspicuous Pacific crabapple, once a mainstay of the estuary, is all but gone. Dawe points to a scrawny metre-high specimen near a road. “I’d guess it’s a hundred years old,” he says.
The Douglas fir and Sitka spruce are all but gone. The life-giving grassy carex, as Dawe and fellow biologist Andy Stewart reported in 2010, is being stripped from the estuary by resident Canada geese at a rate of 15-18 metric tonnes a year.
"Most of these plants here now are invasive species," he says.
Indeed, in his 35 years of studying what is supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary, it has almost all changed, and it no longer supports the life it once did.