Out with owls

WESTERN SCREECH OWL

This past Saturday night was not the average Saturday night I must admit, as the masses headed towards the pubs and bars of the city of Victoria, I travelled to the outskirts of the city, why? Owls, and more specifically Western Screech Owls. I got the opportunity to volunteer in some Western Screech Owl research, and being a general owl lover and having never encountered one of these birds I was rather excited. The project is being undertaken to determine the Western Screech Owl population and see what locations the owls are living in. This species has declined 90% in 10 years in the Victoria area, mostly because of habitat loss and a large rise in the Barred Owl population, which out-competes the poor Western Screeches.

Now obviously being a nocturnal species, we needed to do the surveying at night, starting just after sunset. Myself and other volunteers were split up and each given a specific transect in an area to follow, the idea is to listen and watch for (although given the small size of the owl and the darkness of the forest seeing them was unlikely) Western Screech Owls and record this data. On the transects we were given specific points to stop and conduct the survey. Each survey is 15 minutes long, some owl calls are played over a speaker and the rest of the time was spent standing listening for any signs of life. They are listed as a Species of Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act, so my expectations for actually hearing or seeing them was pretty low, especially given my quite frankly shoddy luck with owls (I am a notorious Jonah when it comes to them).

After a few GPS issues, we found our first location and set up all we needed to conduct survey number one. We boomed the call of the Western Screech Owl from our speakers into the night sky (apologies to any local home owners and dogs) before settling down to listen. For the first few minutes, nothing, silence, but this was the first survey, nothing ever happens on the first survey we thought, until suddenly right above our heads, a noise. The recognisable call of a Western Screech Owl (see the recording below), their call is a fast hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. I could not believe our luck, one site down, one owl. The bird was calling the whole time we were at that site, despite our best efforts we could not see the owl, they are slightly bigger than a large thrush, and very camouflaged. We recorded our findings and I recorded the owl and then pulled ourselves away from the site.

My recording of a calling Western Screech Owl

Now I am not going to lie, the most exciting part of the evening was over, the other seven sites were owless. Not a peep, other than the deafening call of courting frogs (see below). However just to hear the one was more than enough, I had expected we would encounter the Barred Owl or Great Horned Owl, both are very common in the area, but to hear my first ever Western Screech Owl and to confirm its presence in the area definitely made it a successful evening! I am doing a couple more evenings and hope to hear some more Western Screech Owls, and possibly catch a glimpse, although again, a small camouflaged bird in a dense pitch black forest reduces my chances significantly.

Loud recordings of courting frogs, a constant throughout the night!

What do Killer Whales sound like??

On this weeks video, we answer the question, what do Killer Whales sound like?

A few years ago I was interning with the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, we would often record their sound as they communicated and hunted. These killer whales use echolocation to hunt their prey, salmon. As well as this they frequently communicate using a characteristic dialect of calls. Some calls are common in all three pods. Calls used by the Southern Resident Killer Whales are unlike the calls used by any other community of killer whales.  

Listen to these hydrophone recordings of these endangered wild Killer Whales found off Vancouver Island!

Let’s make some noise about noise pollution- Southern Resident Orca

In recent weeks new studies have been released showing the effect noise pollution is having on wildlife. One that particularly caught my eye was a study looking at the endangered southern resident orcas found off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State. The area is one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America, linking western Canada and the USA to Asia. The findings concluded that high-pitched ship noise could be disturbing orca communication and echolocation. This species uses sound, through echolocation, to hunt for its main food source, salmon. It has long been known that there are negative effects of low-pitched noises on larger cetaceans, however this is the first of its kind looking at higher pitch frequency.

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When one is spending time in this area it is hard not to notice the large number of ships, it is not uncommon to see four or more tankers in one particular area at a given time and this can be seen in multiple areas. In fact I could count on one hand how many days in a year I have seen no tankers in the Juan de Fuca Strait.

This conclusion comes as no shock to me. During my time researching this population of orca, we would often use a hydrophone to record their sounds and communications. When listening to the orcas on a hydrophone it would could be very difficult to hear them over the high-pitched background noise from passing ships. Most of the time we would not be particularly close to the ships themselves, yet the noise would still be loud enough to almost drown them out.

Here are some recordings taken from my time researching the orcas. You can hear the orcas communicating through squeaks and clicks with the background noise of passing ships. The noise is about 60 to 90 decibels which is the same as having the noise of a lawnmower in your ear every single day. The final recording is a recording without ship noise, the difference is obvious.

It may not just be the orcas that are affected, other dolphin species and porpoises are most likely impacted.

Noise reduction in the area might not be too difficult to achieve. Decreasing a ship’s speed by six knots would reduce noise intensity by half. Another option could be altering the technology of tankers as seen on other ships such as military vessels thus making them quieter.

New Video! Wildlife Watching- duck pond drama!

Day at the duck pond

For the first time in what seems like an eternity, I managed to go outside with my camera and film some wildlife. After a few disasters, including getting caught up in a storm, bringing the wrong camera and forgetting equipment, I finally left the house with all the correct equipment and a nice mundane overcast day.

I decided for my first attempt I would keep it simple, and go to a local duck pond looking for wood ducks, these beautiful tree nesting birds are common in the area, but seem to only prefer certain patches. I was hopeful that as they can be quite confident, especially in a flock, I would be able to get some good videos. I had heard of a particular pond that was good for wood ducks, so I set off. To my surprise as I approached the pond, there were perhaps close to a hundred ducks, a mixture of mallards and wood ducks spread across the road and car park, perfect. The wood ducks as expected were very confident and I was able to quickly set up my tripod and camera and start practising my filming. I focused on two impressive males sat together, making their distinct peeping call (wood ducks do not quack like other ducks). On the pond my attention was drawn to the other duck species. A male northern shoveler lurked in the background, surrounded by the stems of a weeping willow and American wigeon dabbled in small groups. I turned my camera to a group of ring necked ducks diving for food. Despite their name these small black and white ducks do not have a distinctive ring around their necks. The best way to tell them apart from other ducks is two white rings on their beaks. They look very similar to another species that was present on the pond, lesser scaup, very similar to a UK tufted duck; lesser scaup are difficult to tell apart from the ring necked ducks, the differences being a lack of rings on their beak and a white checkered back, the ring necks have a black back.

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Mallards & wood ducks

 

Lesser scaup (Left) & ring-necked duck (right).

Lesser scaup (Left) & ring-necked duck (right).

After getting some half decent videos, I decided to go and track down one of my favourite migratory species, the northern pintail. The males are characterised, as the name suggests, by their long pin tails. They have a brown head and blue beak, the females do not have long tails, but do have a lovely speckled pattern. The pintails are only really found at a couple of sites in Victoria, one being on a slightly smelly lagoon right next to a busy road. They are a shy species, but I was able to get within a good distance without disturbing them, I set up my camera and again managed to get some pretty decent film of them interacting. I have to say for filming practice ducks are a great species, they tend to move, but not too much or too quickly, they are easy to focus on and endlessly entertaining. The pintails were spread out on the beach and some in the water. After a little bit of filming the rain started and I decided to pack up and call it a successful duck filled day.

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Northern pintails (3 males & 1 females) & mallard

I will be uploading some of the footage to my Youtube channel ‘The Wild’ https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCa_8u9Lj13-NdPj5YNDkjA tomorrow (Wednesday), so have a look and let me know what you think. I will be continuing to practise my filming, as I really enjoy it!

 

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