Month: July 2015 (page 1 of 3)

Bee-eaters in Cumbria

A few weeks ago I blogged about the increasing numbers of mainland European birds being spotted and nesting around Britain.  Well in the past couple of days the RSPB has confirmed a bee-eater nest site in a quarry in Cumbria.  Bee-eaters are a colourful Mediterranean species, and not one you often associate with northern England, but they seem to have settled well on the site.  Although it is a little early to say, this could be the start of a new permanent population in the UK, other species that have successfully made the jump across to Britain include the spoonbill and little egret, whose populations in the UK have increased, and they are now seen pretty frequently.  The RSPB is allowing people to go and view the birds in Cumbria, and the full story is in the link below.  I certainly hope we will begin to see more and more bee-eaters breeding in the UK!

http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/investigations/archive/2015/07/30/come-and-see-brilliant-bee-eaters.aspx

Cecil the Lion

The death of Cecil the lion has been gathering huge momentum recently, and rightly so.  The shocking and barbaric death of the well studied and famous Zimbabwean lion has captured the headlines across the globe.  As the attention grows and the outcries continue, the hope is that Cecil the lion becomes the catalyst of real change.   The truth is conservationists and activists have been campaigning for years against trophy hunting, to many of us this was not a huge shock.  Trophy hunting is not a new concept, neither is the constant reminder that in this world, every animal has a price.  Dr Walter J. Palmer is not the first trophy huntsman and will not be the last.  Unfortunately for him he has become the face of  a ‘sport’ that is having its entire existence criticised and condemned.

I am no expert, but trophy hunting in Africa seems to be little more than exploitation, in a continent with some of the richest natural resources, yet poorest people, it seems that the hunting elite have preyed on this situation. Placing cash bribes to countries and parks for them to sell their souls, and deplete their vibrant and diverse land.  There is the argument that the money gained from trophy hunts is put back into conservation, however logically I cannot see how this can ever be a long term strategy.  Especially given the long list of alternative tourist opportunities Africa has to offer.  It is very easy to put money into African tourism and conservation and not kill anything, for example Safaris.

However as a resident of British Columbia, it is very important not to be quick to judge African parks that offer trophy hunting.  In this Province the government sells a number of licenses to hunters, for them to kill grizzly bear.  We as a Province must look at the situation in Africa and turn our attentions to our own backyard, we are not some of the poorest people on Earth, we do not need trophy hunting in our Province to survive.  The wave of attention must not stop at this one lion, it must carry on, we cannot stand idly by anymore, whilst our largest and most impressive species are sold off to the highest bidder.  A lesson needs to be learnt from Cecil; in Africa the trophy hunting debate is a complex and difficult issue, however in British Columbia I do not believe it is.

Watch live belugas in Canada’s Hudson Bay

Every summer as the sea ice retreats in the Arctic a large number of beluga whales move into Hudson Bay in northern Canada, the belugas are known to head towards the coastline and tend to stick to river estuaries.  Not a lot is known about the beluga whale, but researchers track and monitor a population that spends the summer around the Churchill River estuary each summer; and now thanks to explore.org, you can watch live images of belugas, taken from a research boat in the Bay.  Have a look at these amazing animals as they swim past the boats, you can hear them calling and interacting.  This unique set up gives us a glimpse into their secretive world.

To follow the beluga boat cam follow the link here: http://explore.org/live-cams/player/beluga-boat-cam-underwater

National Parks Week and National Marine Week highlight the severe lack of protection given to the marine environment

303532_521294667886453_658302232_nGrowing up in Leicestershire, right in the middle of England, the sea was always a novelty.  I think when you are from the Midlands, you feel drawn towards the water, but it is an unusual, almost foreign environment.  This draw to the sea meant that pretty much all my childhood summer holidays would be spent somewhere on the coast.  Walking along the coastal paths and trails, looking out at the clean blue waters, sitting on long stretches of sandy beaches and watching the marine wildlife that is so numerous across the UK, it was easy to think that this area is surely protected.

This week the Wildlife Trusts are launching National Marine Week, a week of activities to highlight and celebrate the Great British marine environment.  It is also National Parks Week, a week launched by the National Parks to highlight and celebrate Britain’s National Parks.  As we celebrate these weeks side by side, the contrasting protection of our land and sea can be directly compared, and it shows a pretty shocking difference.

On land our National Parks have been granted protected status since the 1940s, in the 1950s a list of 10 parks were drawn up and since then this has expanded to 15 UK National Parks located up and down the country.  Our National Parks have seen over 50 years of protection, however our equally diverse and important marine areas have been protected for just 3 years (roughly).  Even this does not tell the whole story as the Marine Protected Areas are not at the same protection level as National Parks.  For decades our ocean has been polluted and overexploited and this has taken its toll on the ecosystem.  As we head into a time where our marine ecosystems are getting some kind of protection it is time for us to demand more.  As an island nation we have a longstanding connection to the sea, and we should judge ourselves on how we care for and protect not just one of our best ecosystems but arguably our most valuable asset.205881_521294584553128_1317905266_n

This past week gulls have strangely been attacked by the government and national papers.  Perhaps instead of complaining that they are stealing our chips, we could have a conversation about why we are seeing more gulls in our towns and cities, perhaps bringing the conversation back to the real issue, that the oceans around Britain are struggling.  Gulls are unable to feed and thus are forced to move into urban areas and scrounge for pasties.

This issue is broad and complex, but there is a simple way of making a huge difference.  We need to introduce greater protection our oceans, we need larger scale and broader Protected Marine Areas, both at the coast and offshore. We have to stop ignoring the issue; just because we cannot see what is happening beneath the surface does not mean it is not happening.  We have to start delving deeper into the issue, and educating ourselves about our marine environment and bringing the levels of protection for the marine environment in line with the land would be a very good starting point.

The early bird catches the bird! Bird ringing/banding at Witty’s Lagoon

A 4 am alarm is not the most welcome noise on a damp and chilly Saturday morning, however it was bird ringing (also called banding in North America) day, and as the saying goes, ‘the early bird catches the worm’ (or bird in this case).  So I ventured off, slightly cursing the birds for getting up at such unsocial hours, to Witty’s Lagoon, about a half an hour drive from Victoria.  To be fair there are definitely positives to getting up so early in the morning.  The roads were quiet, the birds were singing, and once you get over the tiredness it does feel nice to be up and out the door early, also most importantly it is the best time for bird ringing.

Once at Witty’s Lagoon, myself and the group of hardy birders hiked down to the ringing site.  An area closed off to the public, located within an orchard.  After reaching the ringing site, the first job was to open the nets.  The nets used are called mist nets, they are attached to two poles, and spread across an area, the best example I can give is like a volleyball net, but with slightly more netting.

The site was set up with all the equipment, ready to begin ringing the birds. Each ring has a unique I.D number on it, and birds that are recaptured can be identified by their ring number.  The data from bird ringing is shared throughout North America; it is a crucial way of tracking bird movement and health.  As well as being ringed the birds are weighed, their fat levels are recorded, age and sex are noted and any health issues are also uploaded into the database.  The group that ring birds in and around Victoria are the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, they have been doing this for many years, so have a huge amount of data and records; from this they are able to see trends and patterns such as population changes, migration times and other data.  The rings are tiny and sit on the birds’ right leg; each ring has very little weight and has no affect on the bird.

The first round of net checks, (a net check is conducted every half an hour to ensure no bird is left in the net for too long), brought us over ten birds, which indicated it was going to be a busy morning.  Chesnut- backed chickadee; Pacific slope flycatcher and the beautiful Wilson’s warbler were the first species to be caught.  These birds are all common at Witty’s Lagoon, so it was no real surprise that they were the most numerous birds caught in the nets.

During each net check, 2 or 3 people, who are experienced in extracting birds, go to each net on the site (there were 12 at Witty’s Lagoon).  Once a bird has been sighted in the net, it is gently extracted and placed in a small flannel bag, this dark and soft bag keeps the birds calm whilst being moved to the ringing station.  Once there the birds wait to be processed, when it is their turn they are removed from the bags and dealt with quickly, as mentioned above and released once all the information is gathered.  They are released in the same spot they were caught, (although a little further from the nets to avoid recapture).  It is actually quite interesting at how calm most birds are; no bird was overly stressed, although many did like to bite the handlers (including me!).

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Wilson’s warbler

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Chesnut- backed chickadee

A female western tanager was captured in the second round of net checks, along with more chickadees. Chickadees group together in small flocks, so it is common to catch many in one go.  More and more Wilson’s warblers and Pacific slope flycatchers were caught.  As the morning progressed, some new species were coming in, including a Cassin’s vireo, a bird not often caught at Witty’s Lagoon.  One of my favourite birds to see up close was a northern rough-winged swallow.  The smallest to be ringed, a rufous hummingbird; because hummingbirds have such high metabolisms they need to be processed very quickly.   The rings on hummingbirds are so tiny, they can only have 2 numbers on them and the bird has to be wrapped in a small piece of material which is clipped, almost like a hummingbird straitjacket.  A feisty American robin came in and was set on biting everyone, flapping constantly and generally causing as much chaos as possible.  Two brown creepers on the other hand were very patient and timid, these tiny birds called treecreepers in the UK, spend their lives flitting between the trees and are perfectly camouflaged with the tree bark.

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Northern roughed winged swallow

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Pacific slope flycatcher

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Hummingbird rings, with my finger tip as comparison

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Brown creeper

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Cassin’s vireo

We closed the nets at noon after catching 60 individual birds.  I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Rocky Point Bird Observatory (http://rpbo.org/) for letting me volunteer with them.  I have got a number of other bird ringing sessions lined up with them including owls, which is very exciting!  It was an amazing morning, seeing so many different birds up close and learning about all sorts of bird facts and tips.  If you are interested in bird ringing around Victoria, they are always looking for volunteers.  If you are interested in the UK the British Trust for Ornithology is where I have volunteered in the past.

Stranded orca saved along BC coast

The small First Nations community of Hartley Bay has been getting some deserved attention in the past couple of days after the tiny community along the northern British Columbia coastline pulled off a remarkable rescue of a young orca calf that had become stuck on rocks.  The young whale had seemingly been caught out by the tide and was unable to free itself as the tide got lower and lower.

The animal was spotted by a local environmental worker, who immediately went about keeping the orca wet and cool whilst calling for help.  Local residents and other environmental workers rushed to the site.  Knowing they could not move the orca because of the rocks, the rescuers decided the best course of action was to wait until the tide became high enough to free the whale naturally.  The group spent 9 hours keeping the orca wet and cool, using wet blankets soaked with buckets of water.  It is essential that marine animals are kept wet and cool; when an animal becomes dry and warm it sets off a number of physiological issues that eventually lead to death.

The group managed to keep the orca alive and calm for 9 hours the tide slowly began to rise, eventually to the point where the orca could free itself.  The rescuers watched nervously as the young orca managed to shuffle her way off the rocks and out into the open ocean.  It was heard vocalising and a pod of orcas (believed to be the stranded orca’s family) was spotted a short distance away.  Scientists and researchers from the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as other groups will try to keep track of the orca over the coming days, and hope there are no lasting injuries caused by the stranding.

 

The Vancouver Sun has some pictures from the rescue, so definitely have a look because it is amazing:

http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Stranded+killer+whale+rescued+North+Coast/11236628/story.html?tab=PHOT

CTV also released some video footage sent from the rescue:

http://vancouverisland.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=663839&binId=1.1180928&playlistPageNum=1

100th Rutland osprey chick takes flight

Rutland Water nature reserve is renowned as one of the best reserves in England, and is the base for the Rutland Osprey Project.

Rutland Water was home to the first osprey chick to fledge in central England for 150 years, this took place in 2001 and 14 years later they are celebrating again; this time the 100th Rutland osprey chick has fledged on the reserve. After the long and arduous task of reintroducing birds like osprey to central England, the team at Rutland Water has created a self-sustaining population.   This is not only a triumph for wildlife in the East Midlands, but for the UK as a whole, as the population of osprey from Rutland have spread right across England and Wales.   This bird, once extinct in the area and only found in tiny numbers in Northern Scotland is now becoming a much more common sight across the country, a direct impact of the reintroduction at Rutland Water.

After taking its first flight the young bird will continue to hang around the nest. However in a few weeks, like all osprey young, the bird will leave the UK and head towards West Africa.  A lot of the time the young have not even caught a fish for themselves before migrating, and even more remarkably they travel alone, they get no help from their parents!  In fact a lot of the time the parents leave first.  They somehow know what they are supposed to do, and have the directions almost imprinted in their brains.

1004900_686626574686594_2134483179_nI definitely have a soft spot for ospreys, they are an amazing species that I have worked with in the past.  I remember seeing my first ever osprey, at Rutland Water in what was probably 2003 (ish) when I was 12; possibly a little before.  In fact the first osprey I saw was flying over the car park at the Birdwatching Centre, we headed over to Rutland from Loughborough with the hope of seeing one (they were still pretty elusive back then) and got out the car with generally low expectations and suddenly there it was!  It is always nice when wildlife surprises you in unconventional places.  I also did some work with the RSPB up in Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms and worked at the osprey hide watching the ospreys and recording data such as prey type and behaviour.  I was lucky enough to see one of those chicks fledge.  Before they actually dare to jump off the nest, they hover over it and then land very suddenly.  They do this on and off sometimes for days before either committing to jumping off the nest, or in the case of the chicks I watched, they get blown away from the nest by the wind.

In Canada ospreys are not endangered, in fact it seems as though they are everywhere.  Out here I have seen them fishing on numerous beaches, in fact at one point I was watching six osprey on one small beach.  On the beach they have to be wary as bald eagles love to watch them hunt and then steal their prey from them.  I observed one osprey catch four fish, only to lose them all to a large bald eagle, who was perched in the trees watching.  The osprey would dive and before it could get away, the eagle would fling itself from the tree, quickly flying at the osprey until it dropped its catch.  In the Rocky Mountains it is not unusual to watch osprey fish in lakes and rivers, they are often seen nesting on telephone poles.  There was one time I remember we were on a verge, looking down at a huge osprey nest on a telephone pole.  Because the species is so common it really is not a big deal to see them, I often find myself watching them whilst people (even birders) take no notice.  There is a very ‘we see them all the time’ attitude, which is not a bad thing of course, because it means they are numerous, but I always feel they are slightly undervalued.

The project at Rutland Water is a big deal for the area and for wildlife in the UK, at a time when Rewilding is a current hot topic, it is interesting to see an example of a highly successful reintroduction in England (and from a biased East Midlander point of view, it is lovely that it takes place in the East Midlands!).

Cuckoos continue south

It may feel as though summer has barely even started, (especially with the UK weather recently), but it is in fact already time for a well known British migrant to leave our shores behind and head south.  The British cuckoos are on the move, and thanks to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) you can follow their journey south, and see their locations every day.  Since 2011 the BTO has been tracking cuckoos as they complete their annual migration from the UK to Central Africa and back again.  As of yesterday, three of the cuckoos had already made the daunting flight over the Sahara from Southern Europe; whilst the remaining are dotted across Europe.

Cuckoos are a species that has seen a major decline in their population.  My experience watching cuckoos is actually pretty minimal, as I have only ever seen one.  A strange bird, to look at they are very similar to birds of prey, but act in a very different way.  Their distinct ‘cuck-ooo’ call is one of the highlights of spring in the British countryside.  The tracking website is really great and becomes slightly addictive as you watch each bird change location day by day (each bird is named too).  Satellite tagging is being used on a number of species, and is really helping us to understand the behaviour and movement of wildlife.

Have a look at the BTO cuckoo tracking website and see where the cuckoos are today! http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking?curr_year=2014

 

 

Weekend Whales

It is a beautiful day here in Victoria, so before heading out to enjoy it, I am going to just highlight a nice little story for the weekend.

The ocean around Vancouver Island is bursting with life, and we are known worldwide for our populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans).  In fact I even had the privilege of  working on a killer whale research boat a few years ago (which I will properly blog about at some point), however did you know that in the UK we have 28 recorded species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.  My little snippet of news today is that this year is a bumper year for cetacean sightings in the UK.  Up and down the country from Cornwall to Shetland, cetaceans are being spotted in larger numbers than previous years.

If you are looking for cetaceans in the UK here is a list of some of the best places to go:

However this is just a small list of places, where sightings are more common, cetaceans can actually be seen off any coastline in the UK. So next time you’re on the coast it is definitely worth keeping a watch out to sea.

If you do happen to see any species of cetaceans in British waters, make sure you report them to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) as they are putting together a large database on cetacean sightings and numbers in British waters.

Pine marten spotted in England.

At last, after a mere 100 year absence, England has had a confirmed pine marten sighting.  The elusive pine marten was seen in the Shropshire hills and it is likely that this individual (and perhaps a few more) has been living undetected for a number of years.  The pine marten is just one of many species highlighted recently by the Rewilding Britain campaign, which aims to reintroduce pine martens into parts of England to gain a sustainable population. Currently pine martens can be found in Scotland, (which has the greatest numbers), Northern Ireland and small areas of Wales.  As a native predator, a sustainable pine marten population would do wonders for the English countryside.  An example from Ireland is showing that increasing pine marten numbers are leading to a decrease in the invasive grey squirrel, which are not adapted to dealing with a predator such as the pine marten; which in turn is driving up the native red squirrel population.  As a native species red squirrels are well adapted to surviving in an area with pine martens, therefore the population does not suffer.  However as shown across the country their population rapidly declines as a result of grey squirrels.

From my time volunteering with the RSPB in the Cairngorms, Scotland, I was lucky enough to see pine martens.  I was walking through Abernethy Forest and suddenly heard a scratching above me, I looked up and found I was face to face with one of Britain’s rarest mammals.  I noticed then that there was not just one but two within the same area, I watched as they stared at me briefly; then they climbed and jumped through the trees with ease.  It is one of my highlights of my encounters with wildlife.  They are a delightful species, perfectly adapted to living in the forests of Britain.  Their small isolated populations is the reason they have been unable to re-establish naturally across the UK, and with the continued efforts of a number of Wildlife Trusts and now the Rewilding Britain campaign, I hope that we will not have to wait another 100 years to see wild pine martens in the woods of England.

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