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…

NAAEE virtual conference & panel in Washington DC

Last month I had the pleasure of being selected as one of the North American Association for Environmental Education’s 30 under 30. If that was not enough, I was also invited to speak on a panel,  with three other amazing youth environmental educators, so I packed my bags and headed for Washington DC.

I was only in Washington for two days, but on the first day we were given the chance to explore the city and meet with the other participants. As well as the warm weather and beautiful architecture in Washington, one of my highlights  was seeing my first ever monarch butterfly, the large orange butterfly glided right over me, meaning I had a perfect view of it, monarchs are an iconic species and one I had not expected to see on this trip! Another eastern species that I had wanted to see showed up outside the Natural History Museum, the unmistakable blue jay!

On the day of the panel we spent the morning at an Audubon centre on the outskirts of Washington. Surrounded by thick deciduous woodland the area was filled with birds, from cardinals to nuthatches and an array of singing warblers, it was a birders paradise! We were there filming a few interviews about the work we do and about youth in environmental education.

The panel discussion gave myself and other young environmental educators the chance to discuss some of the challenges we face in our field and to highlight and share the work we do in our communities. I loved being able to share the work I and many others are doing across British Columbia. I was amazed by the overwhelming positive response I got for my work. It is rare for young environmental educators from different areas to meet up and share their experiences in environmental education and it was fascinating to learn about what environmental education looks like across North and South America. What really stuck with me was that many of the challenges we face in British Columbia and Canada, are very similar to those faced by other educators across the continent. It was also inspiring to see the number of youth that are involved in environmental education and learning about the incredible work young people are doing to inspire and provide opportunities for the next generation to connect with the environment around them.

The panel was an hour-long discussion, answering pre-set questions about our work and then taking some questions from the audience. At the end we received an award for outstanding leadership in environmental education, which I am so grateful to receive.

The trip was a fantastic chance to connect with others working in the environmental education field, promote the amazing work taking place in BC, but also to learn and discuss ways we can improve environmental education in our local areas. I left the conference with a fresh perspective and full of optimism. I truly believe that environmental education is vital if we are to have healthy and thriving ecosystems and that by actively engaging young people from all backgrounds in the environmental field we can create a better society.

I wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone at NAAEE for their amazing work and for recognising young people, as well as organising the event. Another huge shout out to my panel buddies Leandra, Lula, Ankita and Danni, I had never spoken on a panel before, so being able to share it with such remarkable and inspiring people made the whole thing such a fantastic experience.

To learn more about the work youth are doing in the environmental field, see all 30 of us in the link below:

https://naaee.org/our-work/programs/ee-30-under-30

Endangered southern resident orcas get 200-metre protection zone from boats

Canadian Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced today that new regulations would be put in place to ensure that boats will have to remain 200-metres from southern resident orcas. Currently the guidelines in Canada are that boats should be 100-metres away from marine life, however this is just a guide, not a requirement. In the USA the law is stricter, boats are required to keep 200-metres away from orcas, something that now the Canadian government will enforce.

This news has been welcomed by orca conservationists, and personally I am thrilled, this topic was the subject of my dissertation. I looked at the impact boat distance had on southern resident orca behaviour, comparing the difference in distance across the Canada-USA border. I found that the extra 100 metres the orcas are given in the USA had a positive impact on their behaviour. As well as this, there was a lot of confusion from boaters about the regulations in the orcas’ habitat, the Salish Sea. The international border runs through the sea meaning that two different regulations are in place, leading to confusion and often illegal activity, particularly with boaters getting too close to orcas in American waters.

I am happy to see the Canadian government take a first step towards conserving the endangered whales, however there is a real need for more action. A study published today shows a 25% chance that these iconic whales could be lost within the next 100 years. With appropriate and resolute actions, however, this risk of extinction could be significantly reduced. It found that increasing the abundance of their main prey, chinook salmon, and reducing vessel disturbance further are the key areas that now have to be implemented. I encourage anyone reading, who is a Canadian citizen/resident to speak with their MP about the need for greater protections for endangered orcas in Canada.

Tucker the conservation canine, known for sniffing orca poo retires.

During the summers of 2011 and 2012 (and a number of times since then), I worked on a research boat looking at the endangered southern resident orca, a subspecies of orca found around southern Vancouver Island. Whilst on the boats we would often encounter other researchers and chat about the work they were doing. One of my favourite boats to see and interact with was the Conservation Canines program that researches animals and their habitat by using dogs to help collect poo. Now whilst it may sound strange, poo is highly valuable in wildlife research, the data collected from faeces can determine the health of individuals, as well as a population and give an insight into their life cycle. For the southern resident orca project the ‘Conservation Canine’ is Tucker, the black lab, and Tucker has helped the team to publish papers on the health and diet of the orcas, and to see the impact that toxins in the water are having on the population.

It was always such a joy to see the excitable black lab hanging off the front of the research boat hunting for orca poo. Tucker is a great example about how working animals, mostly dogs, are a vital part of conservation. Tucker started the program in 2006, and at the grand age of 13, he has been given a well-earned retirement, but I know that many people who have worked on the water with the orcas will be sad to see him go. But, the Conservation Canine program does not end with him, starting next year Jack, a 5 year old Australian Cattle mix, will be taking over and sniffing out that important orca poo!

Have a look at Tucker in action in this video by the BBC!

Migration madness!

It is that time of year again, the end of summer is migration season, and here on Vancouver Island, thousands upon thousands of birds are making their way south along the Pacific flyway. Rocky Point Bird Observatory is located on the tip of southern Vancouver Island, everyday a dedicated group of banders and volunteers band/ring birds on their migration in order to monitor their populations, track migrations and gain a better understanding of the health and life cycle of a number of species.

The past few weeks I have been helping out with their banding and have been lucky enough to see some incredible birds. The bird observatory bands in two locations, one is located in a marina and is a mixture of forest and shrubs, and the other is on a secluded military base, this area is more wild, with forest, open grassland areas and beaches. The view from the banding station is incredible, and species such as orcas, wolves and bears can be spotted. Last week whilst checking one of the nets near the water, we heard the loud unmistakable sound of a whale breathing, a humpback whale was fishing close to shore, and we watched as the whale swam away surfacing just once more in the distance!

The day was a busy one for birds, as we caught and banded a steady number, at that time it was mostly warblers and sparrows that were starting to come into the nets. We mostly banded the beautiful savannah sparrow, these sparrows have neat brown bars down their back, with a black and white speckled front, and a striking yellow smudge on the top of their eye, which looks like they have some eye shadow on! Other highlights included yellow warblers and the brightly coloured Wilson’s warbler. Along with the songbirds, raptors migrate in large numbers, and Rocky Point is a particularly good place to see them. Hundreds of turkey vultures soar overhead, Cooper’s, sharp shinned, red tailed and Swainson’s hawks can be seen within the flock of vultures. Having seen a lot of raptors that day, we managed to get two in the net, both sharp shinned hawks (pictured), one male and one female. The female is noticeably larger, but the species is still small. Up close you can really see how perfectly they are adapted to predate on birds, built for soaring and speed, with large yellow eyes and long sharp talons. They are very light and agile, you have to hold them by their feet in order to avoid getting sliced open by their talons. As I was packing up to leave I heard a shout from across the field, ‘CRANES’ , having never seen cranes, but always wanting to, I grabbed my binoculars and ran, watching two elegant sandhill cranes fly right over my head, you could hear them calling to each other. Humpbacks, hawks and cranes, I could not believe my luck!

This week out at the marina site, Pedder Bay, we saw the scale of migration that is currently taking place. On average, I have found that banding around 50-60 birds is a good and busy day. However on Wednesday, we banded 198 new birds, a record for the site. The day was hectic to say the least, as more and more birds kept entering the nets. Sparrows were the most common by a mile. Often when banding through migration you see birds come in waves, one week one species or type of bird dominates, then the following week another, and that day was definitely a sparrow day. We had a few of the tiny ruby crowned kinglets in the nets, the kinglets (similar to goldcrests, for UK readers), will soon we travelling through in large numbers. Despite banding 198 new birds, we hardly scratched the surface, walking through the area it was clear that there were hundreds of birds, sparrows were flying out of the grass from all directions, we are still relatively early into the migration season, so it is pretty remarkable to have banded such a high number of birds! The migration of birds is happening right across the northern hemisphere, above our heads millions of birds are making long and treacherous journeys south, if you get the chance to get out and see them I would definitely recommend it. A lot of the birds we are seeing on Vancouver Island, have travelled from northern Canada, and are on their way as far south as Costa Rica!

Looking for a VERY STRANGE seabird

Last week I went to the coast of Vancouver Island, looking for a secretive and strange seabird, the Marbled Murrelet! They held a secret for many years, but what is it?

Marbled Murrelets are moving from their summer grounds out to sea for the winters. These plucky birds are able to survive a harsh winter out in the Pacific Ocean.

Wild days on Pender

Dotted throughout the Salish Sea are the beautiful southern Gulf Islands, despite being close together these islands each offer something slightly unique. One of these islands is Pender Island, and last week I took a couple of days to go and see what wildlife it has to offer.

Driving around the island you cannot help but notice the large number of trails that head down towards secret bays and beaches. Because of the small size of the island, it is very easy to explore. The days we were there were hot and sunny, perfect weather to see turkey vultures soaring above the fields and roads. They are expert gliders, and you can see them making subtle movements to steer, without needing to flap their wings, however their time in the area is coming to an end as soon they will begin migrating in large numbers south, into the USA.

We hiked up Mount Norman, a fairly steep hill located within the national park, at the top, an incredible viewpoint gives you a birds-eye view of the area. The hike is through a mixed patch of woodland, and on the walk the loud call of pileated woodpeckers was echoing around the forest, ravens flew overhead and a lovely downy woodpecker was pecking away directly in front of me, these tiny woodpeckers are black and white, with a bright red patch on the back of their head.

Walking down the trails towards the bays and the beaches, you are never really sure exactly what you’ll find, each beach is different, with a different view, rock formation etc, but one thing that is a constant is the kingfishers. Belted kingfishers are all over the island, the long chatter, described as a mechanical rattle can be heard in pretty much every bay and on every beach. An interesting species to watch, they confidently patrol their territory ready to chase any unsuspecting gull, heron or kayaker that is passing through. They are a large kingfisher that stands at about 30 cm, their size means it is easy to watch them fish, they hover over the water before loudly plopping in and grabbing their prey.

As the nights start to draw in I am trying to see as many summer sunsets as possible, and so I followed a trail down to the water to watch. The bay I found was surrounded by arbutus trees, a large native species, with twisted branches and unmistakable orange/red peeling bark. The bay was quiet, a large fried egg jellyfish (named perfectly, seriously, look it up!) was bobbing in the shallows. From around the coastline one of my favourite birds appeared, a lovely osprey, the white, fish eating raptor. I could not believe my luck as the bird starting to gracefully circle, the sky was glowing pink, the sea was calm and it was going to fish right in front of me, a perfect wildlife moment I thought! But, guess who showed up to spoil my peaceful scene, the confident kingfisher, rattling away. The belted kingfisher came out of the trees and flew directly at the osprey, escorting it out of the bay, before proudly perching back in the trees.

The last bit of wildlife came that night, as owls hooted in the forest behind where I was staying. I decided to go and listen, half asleep and clutching my phone for light, I had a new wildlife experience, bats, now I have seen bats plenty of times, but never in the forest. I watched the bats flying through the trees, weaving around them expertly. Their clicks were audible, I have no idea what species they were, but seeing them in this setting highlighted how incredible they are. To navigate a thick forest, in the dark is beyond impressive, a brilliant end to a wild couple of days on Pender Island.

Searching for the largest woodpecker in North America

This week I went out with my camera looking for the largest woodpecker in North America, the pileated woodpecker. This beautiful woodpecker can be seen right across Canada, and is common on Vancouver Island, they are however, a little tricky to see when in thick forest. If you want to know what I found in the forest, then have a look at the video, and learn a little more about these amazing birds!

Answering questions on the white moose!

A white moose has been filmed in Sweden and it has been all over the internet. Many people have asked questions about whether it is real and why is it white? I made a video to answer some of these questions and explain why the moose is white and why the antlers are white too!

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