Month: November 2015

Oldest banded bird returns to Midway Atoll

Wisdom and her just hatched chick on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo credit: Ann Bell/USFWS

I saw an amazing story this week from the tiny Pacific island of Midway Atoll. The oldest known banded bird returned to the island to breed, as she has done every year since the age of five. Wisdom the Laysan albatross was banded on the island in 1956 and is estimated to be at least 64 years old. Laysan albatross spend a large part of their lives on the wing out in the Pacific Ocean, returning to Midway Atoll once a year to breed and raise their chick. Wisdom has raised 36 chicks and could have traveled over 6 million miles in total, the equivalent of circling the Earth 241 times!

Salmon stories- the final journey home

Over the past month the salmon run has been underway across the coastline of British Columbia. Each year Pacific salmon move upstream back to their spawning grounds. Salmon in British Columbia are a vital species, without them almost all the species that make this coastline the most diverse in Canada and famous throughout the world, would simply be unable to survive. In life and in death salmon feed the forest, a small sample of wildlife that relies on the salmon are the eagles in the estuary, wolves and bears of the deep forest, the scavengers such as gulls feeding off scraps of dead salmon and the mighty trees who gain nutrients from the dead salmon as they decay into the soil.

The salmon return to their spawning grounds to lay and fertlise eggs. What makes the salmon run so interesting is the contrast you see whilst observing it. Watching female salmon make a small ‘nest’ in the stream bed as males fight to fertilise the eggs she will lay is the start of a new generation of Pacific salmon. This is the beginning of a long lifespan that takes them away from the simple stream into the largest ocean on Earth and back again. Pacific salmon born in the streams of British Columbia spend the majority of their lives travelling the Pacific ocean; salmon have been tracked reaching as far as northern Alaska and Hawaii. Although many will die, a few will survive and return to the stream, the eggs I saw in the stream bed could return as adults. The salmon moving upstream today would have hatched in almost the exact same spot around 10 years ago. For them, their job is done, they, unlike so many others, have made it back, and ensured the survival of their species for another generation. They have completed the near impossible and made their final journey home.

On this trip I went into the rainforest to see one of the largest salmon runs in southern Vancouver Island.

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Corncrakes

This week I was reading a news story about one of the UK’s rarest birds, the corncrake. Corncrakes are a farmland bird species, and a member of the rail family. They are small and perfectly camouflaged, making them notoriously difficult to spot.

I remember becoming fascinated by this bird after reading about them in an old RSPB magazine when I was probably around 11 or 12. The article highlighted the work being done in the Hebrides to establish and grow the population. After reading this they were cemented as one of my favourite species.

Corn Crake

However because they are so secretive, they are often overlooked and forgotten about, I have decided to change the tide a little and shed some light on this little species. To start with, they are pretty unique, there are very few species like corncrakes in the UK. Shaped like a stretched out quail, corncrakes are only found in grasslands and meadows. Changes in agriculture such as intensive motorised cutting and a loss of grasslands caused corncrake numbers to dramatically decline, and despite a slight upturn in their population, they are still only found in very specific areas and remain red listed (species of highest conservation priority).

As mentioned they are notoriously difficult to spot, they are the masters of blending in to their surroundings. However despite being difficult to see, they are actually relatively easy (if you go to the right places at the right times) to hear. They make one of the strangest noises of any British bird. It sounds similar to rubbing a pen against a plastic brush. I first heard a corncrake whilst on holiday on the Isle of Colonsay in Scotland, it is a truly weird sound, and as they seem to pride themselves on not being seen, it is a sound that is very difficult to locate.

I think the most fascinating thing about the corncrake is that they migrate. This slightly awkward looking, small farmland bird flies thousands of miles from the UK to Africa every year. It is a remarkable thing, the BTO recently tracked a bird that traveled this year from Scotland to the Congo, totaling a distance of 4000 miles.

With the continued conservation effort from the RSPB and the BTO as well as many other groups, corncrake numbers are increasing. I hope with more coverage and education we can start to implement some changes in farming which can benefit this bird. As we start to look towards more sustainable and wildlife friendly agriculture, there may be a chance that sometime in the future we will hear the ‘crex crex’ call of corncrakes again throughout the UK.

Urban birding. Finally, my first barred owl!

One of the most common owl species in my local patch is the barred owl. It seems everyone has a story about when they have seen this mid-sized owl with a barred front, hence the name; either in the garden, on their deck or in some cases on lampposts in the centre of town.

Yet for some reason this highly adaptable, fearless and loud owl, which can be spotted during the day or night, has eluded me. I have lived on Vancouver Island for over 3 years, whilst I have seen a huge variety of species, both common and rare, the barred owl has somehow managed to avoid my birding list. ‘YOU’VE NOT SEEN A BARRED OWL’ is the reaction I get from students when I talk about this animal in my wildlife in schools education programs, which is usually followed by ‘I have (insert ridiculously high number) that come to my yard all the time’ or ‘there is always one sat in the tree outside our school, let’s go find it’ this then results in us all looking at a blank owlless tree, whilst I bemoan my luck.

However today was the day. I was walking my dog in the pouring rain just round the corner from my house, when suddenly I noticed something sitting on the ground in front of me. I thought it looked a little unusual, something I had not seen before, as it turned around I saw the bars, it was a flipping barred owl, finally my time has come! I of course had not brought my camera. By this point the owl had perched in a tree and seemed to be pretty settled. I needed proof that I had finally seen one, something to show my students; so I did what any birder would do, I told the owl to stay where it was as I ran home for my camera.

To be my huge relief the owl listened to me, and stayed where it was for the 30 seconds it took me to grab my camera. It posed for some pictures whilst I stood and admired the wonderful and for me, elusive barred owl.

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Wildlife from my window- Belted Kingfisher

It has been a little while since I did my last wildlife from my window segment, so I thought today I would focus on one of the most common species I see by the sea here in Victoria, the belted kingfisher. This bird can be spotted darting around the coastline and lakes making it’s unmistakable rattling call. They are often seen in pairs, and I see them perched on the masts of boats, watching for fish in the water.

They are a large kingfisher, about the size of a pigeon. With a light blue head and back, and a spotted black and white tail. The name, belted kingfisher, comes from the rusty band across the front of the females.

In Victoria they are very common, there are not many beaches or bays where you will not see, or hear a kingfisher. It is not uncommon to spot them high in the treetops, before flying over the water, hovering and then diving quickly and grabbing a fish. They can be seen right across Vancouver Island, and seem to be as comfortable in the urban environment as in the wilderness.

I have been lucky to see them be banded/ringed, in order for their population to be better understood. It is only when you see them close up you notice their large size (for a kingfisher) and the scale of their long beak.

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Their behaviour is similar to other kingfishers, they nest in burrows that they dig themselves in soft earthen banks, which are usually over water. In Victoria we have a resident population, however in other parts of Canada belted kingfishers migrate south in winter as lakes and rivers freeze for months on end.

They are certainly characters and the area would be less interesting without their loud calls, cocky attitude and fantastic hairdo!

Autumnwatch(ing) on my patch- wintering wildfowl

As we head into November more and more migrant birds, especially wildfowl have arrived from the north. It is a bird bonanza right now, the first to arrive were the wigeon. In the last couple of weeks their numbers have almost tripled (rough unscientific guess). Whilst observing a flock of wigeon, I managed to spot an imposter; in amongst the usual North American wigeon was a bird I often see back in the UK, a European wigeon. The most noticeable difference being that the North American wigeon has green stripes on the side of their head, with a yellow middle stripe sandwiched between the green; whilst the European bird has an orange-brown head with a yellow stripe in the centre. What this bird is doing on the west coast of Canada I do not know, whether it was an escapee, a very lost migrant or perhaps an expat like myself, who knows, but it was nice to see a familiar face!

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European wigeon

The resident belted kingfisher could be heard, making it’s distinctive rattling call. Although the main sound was the loud and at times incessant peeping from killdeer, a small plover like wader.

 

Scanning further out, hooded mergansers could be seen, these birds do not often flock in large numbers, two impressively hooded males and one female were present. As well as hooded mergansers large flocks of the small, black and white bufflehead swam together, before all diving at the same time and then reappearing a few seconds later. Like synchronised swimmers! I had seen the hooded mergansers already this season, but this was the first time the buffleheads had been seen in large numbers on my patch. As the season continues I expect the number of wildfowl to grow.

As well as wildfowl,  highlights include waders such as the mentioned killdeer, lesser yellowlegs and oystercatcher, great blue heron, cedar waxwing, song sparrow and northern flicker.  Also the usual marine mammals, seals and river otter (I know that was very blasé, but they really are so common here!). A successful evening of birding!

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Hooded merganser

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Buffleheads

Sites of Special Scientific Interest to be protected from fracking

I did a blog in September about the UK government going back on it’s pre-election promise of protecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) from fracking. Back then the government had released some plans for fracking locations, and had failed to include SSSIs on the list of protected areas, which include national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. SSSIs are designed specifically to protect endangered, threatened and rare species and habitat, each SSSI has been purposefully chosen for protection because it stands out as an area in need of conservation.

However it was announced this week that the government would be taking a double U-turn on this issue, and will be adding SSSIs to the list of protected areas; thus preventing fracking to take place on the sites.

It should be noted however, there is nothing stopping companies from starting their drilling from the edge of a site and then moving underground to drill directly beneath the sites. Ultimately fracking is not good news for the environment, the amount of money and investment going into fracking, at the expense of renewable energy, which has seen huge funding cuts, shows the government has no intention of taking the country in a greener direction. But, the protection of SSSIs is a win and this is definitely some much-needed good news for wildlife conservation in the UK.

Salmon in the streams

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This is a really special time of year in British Columbia. Right now thousands of Pacific salmon are making their final journey, back to the spawning grounds where they were born. Each salmon heading up stream will face an almost impossible journey, fighting their way against the current, up waterfalls, rapids, past the hungry mouths of seals, eagles, wolves and bears, as well as people. Most will not make it, but some will, and those who do will lay and fertilise eggs thus starting the life-cycle again. Salmon are a symbolic species, seen as the providers of life. A species so key that without it, the forests would not exist. Salmon link the oceans and land, they feed the wildlife of the forest and the ocean, without the salmon, British Columbia would be without it’s rich biodiversity.

Salmon are making their way through this wonderful province, from the large expanses of wilderness in the north to the smallest Gulf Islands, salmon are winding past trees that have stood for a thousand years in the Great Bear Rainforest; whist others navigate through the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, some through the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan. All of these areas are vastly different, with different ecosystems, rivers and communities, yet one thing remains the same, the humble Pacific salmon.

Over the next month I will be doing a few more blogs to celebrate the salmon run. Looking at their importance, management and conservation in the Pacific northwest. As well as observing the salmon run in a couple of very different locations!

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