Speaking up for the Southern Resident Killer Whale

An orca dorsal fin breaks through the ocean surface and reaches the sky.

I came across this picture in my research records from 2011, at that time the southern resident killer whale population was 87. Today, it stands at just 76. Since I took this photo 11 members of this magnificent, iconic and highly intelligent population have gone, each loss will have been felt by their pod and has pushed them closer to extinction. The population are losing their food source, as the salmon population continues to decline, they are exposed to high levels of toxins and pollution and face disturbance from boats and tankers on a daily basis, and the situation continues to get worse, as more and more tankers enter critical habitat.

We need to see and understand what is happening in our ocean. They may be declining, but extinction is not a guarantee. We have to fight for their survival and press the Government to take urgent and immediate action to save our southern resident killer whales. If you have the privilege to see orcas in the wild, you’ll see they’re just like us.

The Georgia Strait Alliance have put together an easy petition that sends a message to your local Member of Parliament and Prime Minister Trudeau  https://georgiastrait.org/speak-southern-resident-killer-whales/

Sperm whale spotted off eastern Vancouver Island for first time in decades

A sperm whale takes a dive in B.C.’s Johnstone Strait on Monday. (Jared Towers)

In the Johnstone Strait off the east coast of Vancouver Island, cetacean sightings are a common occurrence.  It is possible to see over five different species in one day. However, this week a special cetacean was spotted in the Strait, a sperm whale. Sperm whales are usually found far offshore, on the edge of the continental shelf, where they search for their preferred food squid and other cephalopods. So what makes this sighting so special?

Well, it is the first time since 1984 that a sperm whale sighting has been confirmed on eastern Vancouver Island and the sperm whales themselves are an incredibly complex and fascinating species. They are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid to eat and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives. They are toothed whales and eat thousands of pounds of fish and squid every day. They also have the largest brains of any species on Earth, weighing a whopping  7.8 kilograms, compared to an average of about 1.3-1.4 kilograms for human brains.

The team of whale researchers that found the animal, first heard it on their hydrophones, and will be continuing to monitor it as it moves through the Strait.

Have a listen to the Vancouver Island sperm whale, from the hydrophones of the incredible OrcaLab research station:

https://soundcloud.com/user-361819329/180211-sperm-whales-clicks?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=facebook

Grebe in the fog

Horned grebe on a foggy day

We are definitely in the dark days of winter, at this time of year Vancouver Island can be a bit of a gloomy place, and in comparison to summer, a bit devoid of wildlife. However, whilst the forests and the meadows are quieter than the Spring and Summer, the coast is filled with overwintering waterbirds, including the horned grebe. What I find so fascinating about the horned grebe, is how a bird with such a striking summer plumage, they have a fiery  red/orange and black colouration, with yellow ‘horns’ behind their eyes, can look frankly, quite bland in the winter. The horned grebes can be spotted across Vancouver Island, despite being a little dull looking, they are delightful to watch. You can usually spot them bobbing along close to shore, diving up and down feeding on small fish.

The Victoria coastline is a designated migratory bird sanctuary, because of the importance of the area to birds like the horned grebe. Most of the waterbirds wintering here will soon leave the area and head inland and north, to nest in the lakes and wetlands of central and northern BC and beyond. Migration really is a natural wonder, and I feel very lucky to be able to see it so close to home, these birds do brighten up the grey, foggy days on the west coast.

Sanderlings in (and out) the sea

When first stepping onto the beaches of the Pacific Rim National Park one is taken aback by the enormity and beauty of the area, the beach continues for over a mile ahead of you, on one side thick rainforest stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance large cone shaped mountains peek over the horizon, and on the other side the giant waves of the roaring Pacific Ocean sweep in and out across the sand.

The area is home to some of the largest and most impressive species in the World, but on this day I spent my time admiring one of the smaller species, the sanderling. A small wader that is common up and down the west coast (as well as in Europe). It is so wonderful to watch the small flocks of these tiny birds expertly comb the wild beaches for food. The flock I watched was playing a risky game, running in and out of the waves, narrowly avoiding being swallowed by the sea. They might not be the rarest or flashiest bird on the coast, but they are certainly one of the most charismatic, brightening up a gloomy winter day on Vancouver Island.

Scottish orcas return to Iceland

Today I saw some fantastic news from a good friend Marie, who runs Orca Guardians, an independent conservation non-profit dedicated to the protection of orcas in Iceland.

For the first time this winter season, they spotted Vendetta/Mousa (SN069) and her core group back along the Icelandic shoreline! These individuals travel between Iceland and Scotland. The orcas spend time off the coast of Iceland between November and March, returning to the Scottish coast (including Shetland and Orkney) numerous times starting in May and throughout the summer.

Orca Guardians have put together a fantastic ID catalogue, which helps them to keep track of the orcas that visit the waters of western Iceland, they work collaboratively with organisations in Scotland and have been able to match individuals that are spotted off Scotland in the summer with individuals they have been seeing in Iceland, giving us a greater understanding of their behaviour, movements and migration. You can find all the information on the groups as well as their matching IDs here: http://orcaguardians.org/id-matches/

B.C government ends the grizzly bear trophy hunt

Grizzly bear

The provincial government has just announced a complete ban on the grizzly bear trophy hunt throughout British Columbia.

This fantastic announcement ends two decades of campaigning by environmental groups to end the annual trophy hunt.  The spring grizzly bear hunt was scheduled to open on April 1, 2018, but the ban on hunting for resident and non-resident hunters takes effect immediately.

The B.C grizzly bear population is estimated to be around 15,000, and the province is one of their last strongholds in North America, despite this, they have been extirpated from parts of their former range, mostly southern B.C and their population has decreased dramatically. The bears play a vital role in the ecosystem, they help to distribute the ocean-derived nutrients in salmon carcasses through the forests, producing larger, healthier trees. They keep prey population levels sustainable and disperse the seeds of many plants and berries throughout the forest.

Banning trophy hunting was a vital step in conserving grizzly bears, as well as an acknowledgement of the important role they play in the ecosystem, their cultural importance to First Nations and to the people of British Columbia. The government has also finally recognised that a live grizzly bear is worth more to the province than a dead one.

George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, also stated that “Our government is committed to improving wildlife management in B.C., and today’s announcement, along with a focused grizzly bear management plan, are the first steps in protecting one of our most iconic species.” Hopefully this will focus on some of the key issues impacting grizzly bears, such as habitat fragmentation and human-bear conflict.

Swallowed by a whale (well, almost)

A few weeks ago, after bird banding, I got the opportunity to take a boat trip out into the Salish Sea, looking for some of the incredible wildlife that lives there.

It did not take long for us to find something cool, almost straight away after leaving the harbour we encountered two humpback whales. The area we were looking in surrounds Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, a small cluster of rocks, and includes a beautiful lighthouse. The area is fantastic for wildlife , with a great number of bird species present and a large sea lion colony, which is easy to see, hear and quite frankly smell (you can tell if you’re downwind from it)! The humpbacks were easy to spot, the water was calm and the sun was out, meaning the spray from the humpback blow was clearly visible. The blow can be up to four metres and looks like white smoke. After spotting the initial two, we realised that we were pretty much surrounded by whales. We were counting multiple blows as far as the eye could see. The humpback whale was once an endangered species in this area, but in recent years their population has boomed and now they’re probably the most commonly seen whale in the area. The whales we were seeing are preparing for their long migration south to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter months in warmer water. After watching the two closest to us  we decided to focus on the birds and moved towards a bait ball we could see in the distance, as we made our way there, we could see and hear humpback whale blows (and sea lions) coming from all directions.

We approached the bait ball and started birdwatching. Bait balls occur when small fish swarm into a tightly packed ball, this is pretty much their last line of defense against predators. They are a chaotic affair, with birds piling in from all directions. Here, the gulls were on the surface of the water and in the air, whilst below the waves, common and ancient murres were gliding effortlessly through the school, cormorants were also diving in and out, what was amazing, and a first for me, was that you could see the fish scales twinkling in the water. We counted at least ten species of bird that were predating the fish, however, we did not realise that a much larger predator was lurking deep below our boat.

Suddenly, the birds all just flew away, for a split second the bait ball was quiet and calm. Then, whoosh, out of nowhere a humpback whale lunged to the surface, it threw open its gigantic mouth, extended its throat grooves and ingested the entire bait ball in one go. On the boat, we were screaming, we had no idea the humpback was around, we had not seen or heard any blows and we certainly could not see it under the water. Personally, I have never seen anything like it, a humpback whale lunge feeding right off our boat! We could see the baleen of the whale in such detail, I can only really describe the moment it burst through the surface as like an explosion of air. The humpback then surfaced once more, before diving deep again into the chilly depths of the Salish Sea. In total we counted 28 humpback whales, just in the small area we covered, what a conservation success story, and a successful boat trip!

Salmon in the stream

Last week I had the privilege to spend some time with one of BC’s most iconic species. Year after year the salmon return to the streams of BC to spawn. At Goldstream Provincial Park, near Victoria, you can get a close view of the salmon as they complete their epic life cycle. As I walked along the path, salmon carcasses were scattered across the forest floor , this is great for the ecosystem, as the salmon carcass decomposes the nutrients are used by the trees and other vegetation to grow, leading to the lush rainforest we see around us, it is said that in these forests, the trees are made of salmon.

As well as basically making the trees grow, they also feed almost every species that lives in this region. Bears are frequently seen in this area during the salmon run; on the west coast of the island, wolves rely heavily on the salmon, out at sea, orcas, sea lions and dolphins predate the fish, and right in front of me, hundreds of gulls are feasting on the salmon eggs, brains and eyes. Even the tiny, but charismatic dipper, zips back and forth collecting eggs, out in the estuary almost 50 bald eagles, catch the salmon as they enter the river, not the most ideal welcome home for those poor fish.

Seeing the salmon so close, in just one river, it can be hard to take in the enormity of it all. Along the BC coast, millions of salmon are making the same journey their ancestors have made for thousands of years. I really believe that the salmon run is one of the great natural spectacles on Earth. These salmon have navigated the Pacific Ocean, returning to the same stream they were born, the fact that they are able to tell exactly which stream is their home is miraculous. The salmon we see spawning have survived the endless list of predators, the harshness of the Pacific Ocean and the relentless currents of the rivers. On top of all that, they have survived the devastating impact humans have had on this region. Fisheries, disease from salmon farms, endless pollution, plastic and waste, habitat loss and industrialisation all threaten wild salmon populations.

Watching salmon complete their incredible journey, against all the odds, one might think they are indestructible, but this could not be further from the truth. The salmon run we see today only exists  because of the sustainable stewardship by those who have lived on this land for thousands of years. Salmon stocks are down again this year, they are on a consistent decline, the foundation of our ecosystem is starting to vanish in front of our eyes, and it is entirely preventable. If you do one thing today, I urge you to look at the ways you can help wild salmon in BC, and support those who fighting to save them, these fish are irreplaceable and their protection has to be our priority.

SOS (Save Our Salmon)

Bittern numbers booming across the UK

Bittern

One of the UK’s rarest birds is booming again across the country. The beautiful bittern, was once considered extinct in the UK, but now conservationists believe their population is at a record high. Found in wetlands, the bittern is a master of camouflage, conservationists have been able to count the birds by recording their incredibly loud, foghorn like, boom call.

The bittern was at serious risk of extinction in the 1990s, the rise in their population has been because of intensive conservation efforts from a number of groups that have focused on protecting their preferred habitat. Eastern England is still the best place to see and hear bitterns, however other areas such as Somerset and the East Midlands are also good spots to find this elusive bird. Having heard bitterns myself, at Rutland Water, I will definitely attest that is a wildlife experience unlike any other in the UK, and they are a bird that is well worth making the effort to see/hear. They are a fantastic example of how conservation can work successfully and save a species that at one time seemed doomed to extinction.

Almost extinct, meeting Canada’s rarest owl!

To see some footage of the northern spotted owl and an interview with Jasmin from the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, have a look at the video above!

Ok so I’ll start this blog by admitting that I am an owl addict, I cannot get enough; from watching barn owls in the fields of the Cowichan Valley (and in the UK at Cossington Meadows), spotting barred owls in the centre of town, ringing/banding tiny migrating saw whet owls, audio surveying for western screech owls, or seeing an all time favourite the snowy owl on logs in Boundary Bay, I seriously cannot get enough! But there is one owl I never thought I would come face to face with, the illusive and critically endangered northern spotted owl. So when I was given the opportunity through work to visit the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program in Vancouver, I jumped on the earliest ferry and headed for the mainland.

The northern spotted owl is an ancient temperate rainforest species, found on the west coast of North America, they are a highly specialised species, only found in forests that are around 150-200 years old or older. The northern spotted owl population has been decimated in recent years in BC, as much of our ancient rainforest has been lost to deforestation. Now only small pockets of ancient forest survives, and much of it is isolated and fragmented. This loss of forest has caused the wild northern spotted owl population to decline to just ten, this makes it the rarest owl in Canada and one of the most endangered species in the country.

Another issue impacting the northern spotted owl is the invasion of the barred owl, traditionally an eastern species, barred owls have made their way across the country and are now BC’s most commonly seen species. The barred owl is slightly bigger than the spotted owl and they are a generalist species, that is able to out compete the spotted owls, this has caused spotted owls to be pushed out of suitable habitat and whilst it may not be the main driver in their population decline, it certainly is not helping.

The day started with one of the strangest wildlife encounters I have ever had, on arrival to the breeding program we opened the boot of my colleague’s car and discovered a bat sitting on the lid of the boot. After getting over the initial surprise we scooped the bat into a paper bag and took it to a wildlife rehabilitation centre, we suspect it was looking for a roost somewhere and crawled into the car looking for somewhere warm. I had seen this firsthand with mice, but never with bats! The bat was fine and they will find it a much better place to roost!

Anyway back at the breeding program we met with the lovely employees who work with the northern spotted owls at their facility. They gave us a fantastic tour, showing us the work they are doing to breed and eventually release northern spotted owls back into the ancient forests of BC. The program currently has 20 owls, the initial work has been to learn how to effectively breed the owls. Northern spotted owls are not simple breeders, they are a long living species that does not start reproduction for many years, their eggs take 88 hours to hatch (most birds take half that) and are very susceptible to infection. The next stage of the program is to start reintroductions, with the overall goal to reach a population of 200 wild northern spotted owls in BC.

The highlight of the tour was of course seeing the owls themselves. We walked through the absolute pouring rain to the aviary to see a 23 year old male. The large aviaries are full of branches with many places for a spotted owl to hide, but this owl was pretty simple, he was sat at the back under some shelter, which was a very sensible decision! It was incredible to come face to face with a spotted owl, what was so striking was their markings, not only were the spots very clear, but their darker browns and patterned feathers fit so perfectly with the darker and often gloomy BC forest. It was fascinating to compare them with the owls we mostly see in the forest, the barred owl, their lighter colouring often sticks out in the forest, and this is because they are an eastern species and are more adapted to lighter deciduous forests found there. It was a unique opportunity to directly compare a native and non-native species, and see how the native species truly fits within the ecosystem.

The Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is doing incredible work to try and save such a stunning species that belongs in the ancient forests of British Columbia. It was such a privilege to get to see such an endangered bird, and to learn about the conservation techniques that are being implemented to ensure that they do not become extinct. I wanted to say a huge thanks to the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program for the work they do and for letting us tour their facility. Without groups of people like them, northern spotted owls would already be extinct in Canada, but hopefully with their hard work we will one day see a sustainable population back in our ancient forests.

To learn more about the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, follow them on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/nsobreedingp…

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