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GREEN SCENE: Volunteer for Planet Earth all year

It is entirely appropriate that Earth Day (April 22) should follow so closely behind Volunteer Week (April 10 to 16) because many volunteers are outstanding stewards of the environment.

It is entirely appropriate that Earth Day (April 22) should follow so closely behind Volunteer Week (April 10 to 16) because many volunteers are outstanding stewards of the environment.

Here in the Tri-Cities, an impressive number of groups make a huge difference to the local environment, whether it be restoring salmon to an urban creek, helping others to better appreciate nature or creating wildlife habitat through tree planting or nest box installation.

I can attest to the fact that volunteering has personal benefits, too. When I arrived here more than 20 years ago, becoming a volunteer helped me to put roots down in this community and introduced me to some of its most helpful and friendly residents.

One place where volunteers have made a difference is Colony Farm Regional Park in Coquitlam. In fact, without volunteers compiling information on its environmental attributes and pushing to have it protected, we probably wouldn't have Colony Farm as a delightful regional park.

Since its creation in 1995, volunteers have raised funds for a pedestrian bridge over the Coquitlam River, established a thriving community garden, undertaken a number of habitat enhancements for wildlife and documented the growing number of wildlife species that now call this park home.

For example, for more than a decade, the heron-watchers at Colony Farm have monitored great blue herons on a daily basis during the winter months.

This group of approximately two dozen volunteers has been recording herons hunting for frogs, fish and small mammals in the fields and ditches

Just like postal carriers, these volunteers have carried out their monitoring in all types of weather. And the data they compile is invaluable to Metro Vancouver when management plans are prepared for the various fields at Colony Farm.

Another group of volunteers at Colony Farm have built and installed nest boxes for several species of birds, including three species of swallows, chickadees, barn owls and wood ducks.

And because of the meticulous manner in which their records are kept, these volunteers have now identified a new species of wasp at Colony Farm - and a potential problem.

This European paper wasp was first accidentally introduced to northeast coast of North America in the 1970s. Since then, these wasps have spread across the continent and reached Saanich in 2003.

These paper wasps are not aggressive like yellow jacket wasps and are probably, like most wasps, beneficial for the environment overall. But because of their nesting preferences, they appear to compete with the bird species that nest in cavities or use nest boxes as a substitute.

(The European paper wasp superficially resembles a yellow jacket wasp with its black and yellow striped body but, in contrast, has orange antennae, although most people might not want to peer so closely at a wasp to be able to distinguish the colour of their antennae.)

At Colony Farm, volunteers first identified these wasps' nests in 2008 in only three swallow nest boxes. Quite unlike native wasp nests, these nests have an umbrella-like shape and an open structure - which may explain why the wasps seek out a protected area for nest construction.

By this year, more than 70% of the bird nest boxes in one area of Colony Farm had wasp nests in them. Ominously, most of these boxes were not used by swallows.

Led by Kiyoshi Takahashi (whose photos often accompany this column), volunteers are currently experimenting with techniques they hope will prevent these wasps from building nests on the inside of the bird nest boxes.

To date, nest boxes installed at other sites such as Minnekhada Regional Park and Widgeon Regional Park Reserve have not had nearly as many wasp nests in them. Volunteers hope they will be able to devise a solution before the problem becomes more widespread.

Volunteering to provide a helping hand to nature is a great way to get involved with the local community not only on Earth Day but throughout the year. One upcoming volunteer opportunity will be at the Port Moody Ecological Society's Fingerling Festival on Saturday, May 7 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you are interested in volunteering for this event, please contact Dave at 604-469-9106.

See you there?

Elaine Golds is a Port Moody environmentalist who is vice-president of Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and past president of the PoMo Ecological Society.