Month: October 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Let it grow

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I saw in the paper from my hometown of Loughborough, a story about how the council has announced it will be cutting grass more often after residents began to complain. The article was followed by a number of pictures of road verges and roundabouts with uncut grass (the horror), that had been left for a matter of weeks. The council blamed cost cutting as the reason for the verges being left over grown. Whilst some residents saw the grass as an eyesore, myself and I am sure many others, saw it as one of our most undervalued habitats for urban wildlife. The potential for roadside verges and public land to be used for wildlife is there, but yet so little of it is managed in a way that is wildlife friendly.

With more and more urban areas springing up, wildlife needs all the habitat it can get, a small unkempt piece of grass may look untidy to some, but for wildlife it is an oasis in a concreted barren landscape.  In fact in Britain alone there is around 600,000 acres of roadside verges, just waiting to be managed in a more wildlife friendly way.

The reality is two thirds of UK wildlife has had population declines in the past century, with some of our much loved urban wildlife facing extinction. By making small changes, and adopting a more wildlife friendly attitude, we can reverse some of this decline. Recent studies have proven that small areas of habitat are often as important as larger areas. If we managed our roadside verges and patches of public land with wildlife in mind, suddenly areas of small habitat link together and form larger areas of suitable habitat for many species; reducing the fragmentation of our countryside.

A patch of native meadow, used by bees, butterflies, birds and small mammals, including the ever declining hedgehog, is surely a much better sight than a run of the mill, pristine (frankly mundane) piece of grass. Lets start inviting wildlife back into our towns and let it reclaim just a fraction of what it used to have.

I have written to my local council and simply told them to ignore those who call for the grass to be short and boring, and to instead let native plants grow and hold off on the cuttings, giving wildlife a chance to thrive in the town; so cut costs instead of cutting grass. So I say, for the sake of our urban wildlife, LET IT GROW.

Tofino Tragedy

I just wanted to acknowledge the desperately sad loss of life from the whale watching boat tragedy in Tofino, BC. It really is devastating news, my thoughts are with the passengers, crew, emergency responders and their families. The community of Tofino and the local First Nations are wonderful people, who love and protect the stunning wildlife found there. They did amazing things to help the passengers and crew. Vancouver Island is a small island with a small population, when this kind of thing happens so close to home, it certainly has a deep effect. Everyone involved are in our thoughts.

Marine mammal madness!

On Saturday afternoon I was given the opportunity to head out to sea, and spot some wildlife. The goal as always when spending time on the water around Vancouver Island is to see some marine mammals, particularly orcas.  Leaving Victoria, we had word that orcas had been spotted off the west coast of San Juan Island, over the border in the USA. We began to dart across the strait towards the island, and had our fingers crossed that the reports were correct. On the way we encountered one of my favourite marine mammals, the Dall’s porpoise. This porpoise is a sociable animal, living in small pods, they are incredibly playful and the five or so we saw, were shooting through the water at speed, before heading towards our boat, hoping to ride the bow waves. They have a unique black and white striped pattern, and almost look like mini orcas. As we watched the pod move along, our attention turned back to the big black and whites, news from San Juan was positive, and we were confident that we could see at least one or two orcas as they fed along the west coast of San Juan.

The orcas we were hoping to see were the endangered southern residents, this group of only 81 individuals are only found off the west coast of Canada and the USA.  They are different to other orca types, because of their prey, they only feed on fish, mostly chinook salmon. They are also genetically different, southern residents only breed with other southern residents and thus have a different gene pool to other orca types. As we approached the island, all eyes were peeled, looking for the blow of an orca. The captain turned the boat engine off and we waited, suddenly we heard it, the unmistakable deep blow of a marine mammal, from the bow we saw a huge male with a giant dorsal fin, swimming in front of us. Whilst watching this big male, we realised he was not alone, suddenly orcas were popping up all around us, another male was close behind the male we had seen at first, with another large male in the distance. The smaller females were now approaching, maybe four or five adults were in the area, hunting for fish.

Seeing orca in the wild is an amazing experience, despite their large stature, they have an elegance unlike many other marine mammals. There is nothing quite like watching such an intelligent and adapted animal in its natural habitat. It is a strange feeling to watch southern resident orca in the Salish Sea, they have a huge cultural significance in the area, they are widely featured in First Nations art and stories, for thousands of years the people of this area, and the orca have had a connection, and you feel it. It is a very hard thing to explain, I am not an overly spiritual person, but there really is a spiritual feeling that comes with watching these animals in this environment.

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As well as the orca, we came across a number of humpback whales, we could see their huge blows, some going as high as five metres into the air. As we approached we were surrounded by what I believed to be six whales, although it could have been more. Unlike the orca, the humpbacks are a little difficult to watch, they tend to come to the surface two times then deep dive, whilst diving they can be under the water for more than 15 minutes, and often pop back up again in a completely different place. The animals we saw were feeding, they are currently migrating towards Mexico and Hawaii.

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Not only were we seeing cetaceans, we also ran into a few pinnipeds, more specifically the loud, and quite frankly foul-smelling, sea lions and seals. The two types of sea lions we could see were California sea-lion and the endangered Steller’s sea-lion. This time of year the males group together, we saw them at an ecological reserve called Race Rocks, a small group of islands. As you can imagine hundreds, if not thousands of male sea lions congregating together in one small space, it can be a little chaotic at best. Even in the brief time we watched them, we saw numerous fights, some blood, and one sea-lion confidently stand up to two larger males, before being pushed off the rocks into the sea below.

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On top of all these mammals, the number of sea-bird was staggering, gulls filled the sky and the sea was covered in auks, auklets, guillemots and common murre (pictured below). All in their lighter winter plumage. At this time of year, the seabirds are flocking into the area, and gathering in large groups.

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The diversity and richness of wildlife on and around Vancouver Island still amazes me,  I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to live on this wild west coast.

Drones are allowing researchers to capture amazing footage of endangered orca

Have a look at this wonderful footage from the Vancouver Aquarium, using a drone to observe and research endangered orcas in the Salish Sea, British Columbia. The team of researchers use the footage to analysis body condition, weight and behaviour. Using the drone is a fantastic example of how technology and wildlife research and conservation go hand in hand. The drone is a great technique because as well as providing researchers with these images, and allowing them to assess the whales from a better vantage point, it is also non-invasive for the orcas.  As well as being great for research, it is also just brilliant to watch these orcas undisturbed in their habitat!

Wolf Awareness Week – British Columbia is killing wolves to ‘save’ caribou, a program doomed to fail

Today marks the final day of wolf awareness week, a week designed to celebrate the importance of wolves, and to raise awareness of their plight. I felt that this week was as good as any to blog about a shameful attack on wolves in British Columbia.

The message of this blog is simple; it should be more widely known that the British Columbian government is killing wild wolves in the southern part of the province, as a desperate management strategy to save endangered caribou. Not only is the government ignoring large amounts of public criticism, it is also ignoring the science around the relationship between wolf and caribou populations and the real cause of caribou decline.

It is justifying the cull based on the overly simplistic idea that because wolves kill and eat caribou, therefore a reduced wolf population will cause the population of caribou to increase. If wolves were the main cause of caribou decline, then the government would have an argument for culls, however as usual it is not that simple. Caribou numbers in southern BC have dropped dramatically in recent years, the main cause being, major habitat loss. Over the past decade there has been a huge amount of deforestation in the area, right through critical caribou habitat. The loss of habitat has caused fragmentation, and has split the species into small isolated herds. Whilst the government carries out the wolf cull, habitat loss is still taking place. Without viable habitat the caribou will be unable to survive with or without wolves.

Previous programs in Alberta, to save caribou showed that culling wolves had no effect on population dynamics. The program saw no impact on calf survival, and failed to have any positive effect on caribou population. Wolves and caribou have co-existed for thousands of years and wolves have been proven to be a keystone species. They have a vital role within the ecosystem and a loss of wolves has been shown to cause a loss in biodiversity, and has often been followed by a collapse of the ecosystem.

The message is clear; a wolf cull will not save caribou in BC. As a conservationist, the idea of the caribou becoming extinct in southern BC is a horrible thought. By being against the wolf cull, I am certainly not advocating the extinction of caribou from southern BC. The simple fact is however, the government is unwilling to act on the real issue of habitat loss and deforestation, a much more complex issue to solve, instead it is bulldozing through the wolf cull program in order to appear as though it is doing something to conserve caribou. A program that is doomed to fail.

Pacific Wild and Raincoast Conservation Foundation is doing amazing work to stop the BC wolf cull:

http://pacificwild.org/take-action/campaigns/save-bc-wolves

http://www.raincoast.org/

 

Wolf Awareness Week – Why are wolves important?

There are not many animals on the planet that are surrounded by so much controversy as wolves. We are at the end of wolf awareness week, a week dedicated (as the name suggests) to raising awareness and dispelling some myths about the ‘the big bad’ wolf.

As children we are read stories about magical kingdoms, far off lands and exciting adventures, when reading these stories something seems to come up consistently, the big bad wolf. Depicted as villains often terrorising villages and harassing children dressed as an old lady, wolves are portrayed as being the worst of the worst. Nasty, conniving and always out to eat and injure  people, or potentially worse, turn you into a half man, half beast werewolf. Wolves are never shown in a positive light. In reality however wolves are very different to the ones you read about in books.

European grey wolf

In fact wolves are gentle, shy and social animals, they live in very structured packs, and are known to actively avoid humans. During the past 100 years in North America, there have been two reported cases where healthy, wild wolves have killed people. To put this into some perspective two people are killed every year in North America from shaking vending machines resulting in them falling, despite this, we do not have a fear of vending machines.

The importance of wolves cannot be underestimated. Ecologically wolves are vital to the ecosystems they live in, they are a keystone species (a species that plays a key role in the maintaining the health of an ecosystem). As the top predator (apex predator) wolves keep the ecosystem in balance. The perfect case study for this is Yellowstone National Park. In the 1920s wolves were exterminated from the park, causing a chain of events that caused the ecosystem to collapse.

The ecosystem had been destroyed, taking the wolf out of the equation meant that the biodiversity of the park was decimated. In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.  Resulting in a massive regeneration of the parks biodiversity. When the wolves were reintroduced, the elk population fell. Willows and aspen began to grow back, providing food and materials for beaver, which saw a large population increase. Beavers built dams again, stopping the flow of streams and bringing back marshy ponds, which meant the fish, amphibian and bird species returned. The dams reversed the damage done by increased water flow, and the river reverted back to its original size and course. Coyote population reduced, increasing small mammal numbers alongside birds of prey. The biodiversity was restored, all as a result of bringing the wolf back to Yellowstone. Yellowstone is not the only example, in the UK the loss of our apex predator changed the landscape. Wolves have a positive ecological impact in every place they are found globally. When an ecosystem is healthy and the wolf population is protected, species thrive as a result of the wolves.

So despite the positive effect wolves have on the ecosystem, which has a positive impact on us, we still persecute and in many places cull wolves. Wolf populations are a fraction of what they were 100 years ago, they now live in isolated pockets dotted across North America, Europe and Asia. It is about time we see wolves for what they really are, gentle and shy creatures of the forest, that we should hold in high regard for keeping the ecosystems around us in balance.

Migration update – wonderful waders

I have said it a few times in recent blogs but this time of year is brilliant for birds. Migration is one of the best natural phenomenons, and I definitely feel very lucky to be able to witness it first hand.

Some of the facts around migration are simply mind blowing, for example the little goldcrest in the UK, a bird that weighs the same as a 10 pence coin, migrates from northern Europe, across the North Sea and to the UK every year. The same can be said for the golden-crowned kinglet from Canada, this bird is very similar to a firecrest, and weighs the same as a quarter (25 cent coin) and migrates from northern North America to southern North America every year. This shows the amazing resilience of birds.

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Golden-crowned kinglet

In the UK, we have already started to see the arrival of birds like redwings, and surprisingly Bewick’s swans, a whole month earlier than last year. Below average temperatures in Siberia and good migration conditions are believed to be the cause of the early arrival (indicating an ominous winter to come for the UK).

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American wigeon

Here on Vancouver Island, I have been out bird banding/ringing, a few times seeing a lot of different species migrating south through the island. Some of the water birds are also beginning to pass through, although this will increase next month. I have been lucky to see my first loons and wigeon of the season.

As well as the duck species, the main highlight recently has been the influx of waders, Victoria is positioned so that the sea surrounds pretty much the entire city, this gives a great opportunity to watch waders without having to leave the town. Right now, black turnstones are flocking in large numbers along the shoreline, this type of turnstone is very different to the ruddy turnstone that I have watched in the UK. Larger in size, the black turnstone also seems to have a more aggressive nature than its ruddy cousin, the birds would spend a good deal of time squabbling for positions on the ledge (despite the fact that there was clearly enough room for them all)! Amongst the large flocks of turnstones other species such as surfbird can be spotted, this bird is a little inconspicuous, seeming to enjoy just minding its own business on the shoreline, they are grey with yellow legs and a stubby yellow bill. On my recent birdwatching walks I have been seeing a number of lesser yellowlegs, a lovely almost elegant looking shorebird, that is migrating through Victoria from northern Canada. Grouping together in small numbers on the shoreline, I managed to get very close to these lovely birds! As more and more birds pass through Victoria, I am going to take my birding up a notch and try and find a lot more species, including, hopefully some rarities, ideally this winter I would love to see a marbled murrelet and red throated loon, I do not think this is too ambitious, so I am hopeful (for now)!

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Black turnstone

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Lesser yellowlegs

Rewilding our rarest habitat, highlighting the Caledonian Forest

Loch Affric  A couple of weeks ago I did a blog highlighting Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Well today I decided to blog about another ancient forest, Scotland’s Caledonian Forest.  This area is one of my favourite places to go wildlife watching in Britain, the forest is a unique habitat in the UK and home to some of the rarest and most illusive species we have. I spent time volunteering in the Cairngorms National Park, working within osprey conservation. During my time there I was lucky enough to see a huge variety of rare wildlife including the pine marten, crested tit, the endemic Scottish crossbill, red squirrel, osprey and golden eagle. Those species are joined by other incredibly rare wildlife such as the capercaillie and Scottish wildcat. 

Capercaillie 208 Tetrao urogallus

One of Britain’s rarest birds, the capercaillie, relies on the forest for survival.

Once covering around 1.5 million hectares, the Caledonian Forest has been decimated by deforestation, 99% has been lost with the remaining forest scattered across Scotland in isolated patches, with the largest area being around the Cairngorms National Park. The forest was once home to a number of Europe’s largest mammals, bears, wolves, elk and lynx. These species are long extinct in the UK and as mentioned the species found within the forest today are some of the rarest in the country. Because of the small size of much of the remaining patchwork of forest, and the loss of key species, the ecosystem is unbalanced, despite much of it being protected, the forest is still declining, due to overgrazing and loss of the natural cycle.

 

Scottish Wildcat

Britain’s rarest mammal, the Scottish wildcat.

There is hope however, rewilding has been largely reported and discussed recently. Rewilding has been suggested as one of the big conservation movements of the future, but in the Caledonian Forest it has already begun, the group Trees for Life have already planted 1 million trees, with the plan to plant another 1 million before 2018. They are also working on projects to remove invasive species, protect areas from overgrazing and therefore naturally regenerate existing areas of forest. They are joined by other organisations all working to rewild the forest.

Feasibly when we discuss rewilding in Britain, the north of Scotland is one of the areas where rewilding has the potential to be a real success, it has so many positives for rewilding, a low human population, already existing national parks and forest, and is an area where rare and specialist forest species are found.  The Caledonian Forest is our hope to see a true area of unique wild forest in Britain flourish. The big hope is that through regeneration and rewilding, they can connect the dots and reduce the fragmentation of the forest, whilst increasing large areas of viable habitat for native species. It is also one of the sites where a carefully managed and planned reintroduction of larger species such as lynx and wolf could actually work. The future of one of Britain’s best natural sites is finally beginning to look bright.

Sharing my lunch with some local wildlife!

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Whilst out and about yesterday lunchtime, I came across this little guy down at the dock near my house. This river otter is resident in the area, I often see it fishing slightly offshore. However this time was a little different, the otter seemed to take a fancy to my lunch and in a similar way to a dog, it sat right next to me, almost begging for me to share my sandwich! I feel very lucky to have this lovely species living right by where I live, they are a pretty common species in Victoria, and seem to thrive despite being in an urban area. This otter certainly had no fears of people. After sitting staring at me for a good 20 minutes, the otter gave up on getting some sandwich and went back to fishing. What a lovely little urban wildlife encounter!

Celebrating National Badger Day

Today (October the 6th) marks National Badger Day, a day to celebrate, highlight and work to protect one of Britain’s oldest mammals, the badger. The badger has been present in our countryside for up to 400,000 years and is a key part of the ecosystem that surrounds us.

National Badger Day is not designed as a political statement , it is purely to encourage awareness and education on badgers in the UK. However the reality is that badgers in Britain continue to be persecuted, this badger day we must recognise the importance of badgers on our landscape and learn a lesson from history. When a species is not adequately protected, and the Government allows it to be legally killed, it sets a dangerous precedent, altering public opinion and shifting the species into decline, we must not allow badgers to join the list of British mammals that are now extinct from our countryside.

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There are a number of badger themed events happening up and down the country. As I said National Badger Day is a day purely to celebrate one of our wonderful native mammals. There really is nothing quite like seeing the unmistakable black and white striped face of a badger, as it snuffles through our woods and gardens feeding during the night.

For badger events and ways to celebrate check out the website: http://www.badgerevents.org.uk/

For more information on badgers and to see the hard work done by The Badger Trust, there website is here: http://www.badgertrust.org.uk/

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