“Hey, you want to see something neat?”
I turned from the entrance to the Allan Brooks Nature Centre to where a teenaged girl was beckoning from the shrubbery. She waved for me to join the knot of hunched figures bending low and peering intently at an ordinary looking bush.
“It’s moving,” said one of the others.
I hurried over. The group parted like the Red Sea and I joined a ragged circle staring into the choke cherry bushes.
Aha! A fat green caterpillar, as long as the first two segments of my index finger, raised its head. The excited observers, who I soon learned were interpreters and volunteers at the centre, told me all about the little critter, which was actually the larva stage in the life cycle of the western tiger swallowtail butterfly.
My introduction to the soon-to-be-butterfly was a highlight of my visit to the centre the summer it opened. A decade later, much has changed—and much hasn’t. The Allan Brooks Nature Centre occupies the old Environment Canada weather station on lonely Mission Hill south of Vernon. It stands as an isolated island in a broad open expanse of grassland that is part of the area known as The Commonage.
Founders of the centre had the vision of increasing public awareness and actually doing something to protect and reclaim the badly endangered grassland ecosystem. It was, and still is, all about spaces and species at risk, or as one insider put it: “Hey guys—wake up—open your eyes. It’s disappearing!”
You get a better idea of just what’s at stake in the Habitat Room where brilliantly coloured murals painted by local artist Andrea Toth, with bird and animal illustrations by Ginny Hall, depict four local ecosystems—the surrounding grasslands, wetlands of the valley floor, the ponderosa pine forests of the lower slopes, and mountain areas, and specifically the flora and fauna of Silver Star.
In the Discovery Room, exhibits change every few years. Currently it’s all about raptors. “Kids love Harry Potter’s owl,” says centre manager Mary Jong, pointing out the snowy bird in a glass case. But I’m more knocked out by the juvenile bald eagle with a wingspan as broad as my arms can reach (and I have very long arms) that seems to be flying in through the corner windows. A peregrine falcon is posed over its fallen prey while a hawk wings overhead.
Discovery is hands-on in this room. “We encourage people to spend as much time as they want to,” says Jane, a volunteer who helps kids spot the queen bee in the glass-walled hive or get an insect’s-eye view of the world through a multi-faceted viewer. She hands the little gizmo to Kaitlyn, a first-time visitor from Slave Lake, Alberta, who peers through the lens at her brother and grandmother. They’re busy studying the array of bird’s nests in a drawer. “Awesome,” she says. “It’s great to have something interesting to do.”
The centre commands a spectacular view. I stand at the lookout and do a three-sixty—taking in Predator Ridge; the blue finger of Okanagan Lake; the dry flanks of the Bella Vista Range; the entire city of Vernon with Swan Lake in the distance; Silver Star Mountain, Vernon Hill, Middleton Mountain, the Rimrocks, the lush ribbon of the Coldstream Valley stretching toward the white-tipped Monashees; and in the middle distance, Kalamalka Lake, like a chameleon gem—sapphire, jade or emerald—depending on her mood.
Excellent signage interprets the landscape beginning with the fault in the Earth’s crust that led to the formation of the Okanagan Valley about fifty million years ago. I can easily see the legacy of volcanic eruption in features like Bluenose Mountain and the effects of ice age glaciation and melting.
I spot the family from Slave Lake on the Grasslands Trail below and follow. It’s an easy walk, just 400 metres, through habitat that’s only found at low elevations in the hot, dry valleys of the BC Interior. If I’d been strolling this hillside a couple of hundred years ago, I’d have been wading through swaying grasses in a landscape splashed like a painter’s palette with the yellows, blues and reds of wildflowers. This fragile ecosystem is seriously threatened, but efforts are under way to turn back the clock.
Sadly, burrowing owls are gone, but a mom with three baby badgers moved in for a time this summer, no doubt attracted by the residents of Marmot City, a busy metropolis of furry little gopher-like creatures who live near the trail and on the hillside above the parking lot. Badgers love to dine on the little ones. By the time I visited in August, the badger family had departed, but I did meet a young marmot.
Bluebirds make good use of the houses installed on fence posts around the property. Mary tells me that spadefoot toads have returned to the pond and indigenous gopher snakes, rubber boas and yellow-bellied racers still populate the area although rattlesnakes have been eradicated. Overhead a turkey vulture rides the thermals and a red tailed hawk dives for a mouse in the grasses.
“You want to see something,” Mary asks, leading me to the now tall choke cherry bushes. She pulls aside a branch and points to a tiny round ball. “That’s a swallowtail egg,” she says. “And over here, is a larva.” Sure enough, there is another of the fat green creatures I saw that first day. We walk on to the Naturescape Garden, also now fully mature, where visitors can learn about draught tolerant native plants like the milkweed beloved of the swallowtails.
I have to believe that Major Allan C. Brooks, the centre’s namesake, would be very pleased—not with the damage humans have done since he lived in the Okanagan Landing area in the early 20th century—but with the hard work that so many volunteers are putting into reclamation.
The Commonage was one of his favourite birdwatching venues and forms the background for many of his paintings. His work was featured in publications like National Geographic Magazine and Robert Bateman says that Brooks’ pictures inspired him during his own formative years as a wildlife artist. A significant collection of Allan Brooks’ work is displayed at the Vernon Museum and Archives. But to get a real sense of what he was all about, you need to walk a mile in his shoes—and the nature centre is the place to do it.
Visit www.abnc.ca for hours and details on its two annual garage sale fundraisers. Help the volunteers keep this excellent project alive.—Laurie Carter
Photo by Laurie Carter