Month: January 2017

New calf for Scottish/Icelandic orcas!

Have a look at this beautiful picture from Iceland, where a new orca calf has been spotted! According to the non-profit Orca Guardians, the new calf is a member of an orca population that spends their time in Iceland and Scotland. The new Scottish/Icelandic orca calf was seen swimming close to its mother, which has been identified as orca 012 in Scotland and SN200 in Iceland. The orcas spend this time of year in Iceland and can be seen around northern Scotland in the summer. Orca Guardians is partnering with groups in Scotland, and will continue to keep track of the calf, as well as the rest of the pod. Orcas are fairly rare around the UK, with Scotland being the best place to see them.

Study finds that yellowhammer songs which have disappeared in the UK still exist in New Zealand

The yellowhammer is a small, bright yellow farmland bird, found throughout the UK (and Europe). A beautiful little bird, and one I have been lucky enough to see quite regularly in the Midlands, they tend to perch on bracken, hedgerows or small shrubs and sing. The famous expression for the yellowhammer song is ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, with a number of additional notes either side; each male has its own distinct notes and many regional dialects have formed throughout the country.

However, due to a population decline, that now sees the yellowhammer red listed, a number of the regional dialects have disappeared. But this week, a new study showed that the lost birdsongs of some yellowhammers are still alive and well, not in the UK, but on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. In the 1860s and 70s, 600 yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand, and a population still exists today. A group of scientists began comparing recorded calls from the UK and New Zealand, and to their surprise they found that the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as the birds in the UK. The lead author described the findings in The Guardian as the “avian equivalent of what happens with human languages. For example, some English words, which are no longer spoken in Great Britain, are still in use in the former British colonies.”

The findings are now believed to show that the birds in New Zealand have retained a number of songs and dialects, that were originally from the UK, but have since been lost in their native land. Listening to the songs of the yellowhammers in New Zealand is almost like travelling back in time and hearing one of the sounds of the UK countryside 150 years ago.

Battling the weather for birds.

Harlequin Ducks

I love winter on my patch, although this year is testing my patience somewhat. For Canada, Vancouver Island is mild in winter, with temperatures and weather similar to that in the UK. But this year has been a different story, snowstorms and Arctic gales have consistently hit the island. This has meant that the usual enjoyable birdwatching trips around my patch have looked more like something out of March of the Penguins.

The reason I love winter here so much is because of all the birds. Yes, summer brings a number of smaller, brighter species, but on a good winter day at my local beach I can easily see 30-40 species without even trying, and this is about 5 minutes away from the city centre, perfect for any urban birder. Today the wind was the issue, gale-force Arctic winds coming straight off the sea; the birding can generally be quite good on windy days, as many birds move into the harbours for a bit of a shelter.

Walking down the street the ground was covered in American robins, I imagine that the cold weather further north from us has brought many into the city. American robins are a common species, different to the robins we see in the UK, they are a member of the thrush family, and act as so, they are often seen scuttling along the ground or up in the trees eating berries. An Anna’s hummingbird was buzzing away, perched on a phone line, it is amazing to see such a tiny bird braving the elements in winter. This individual had a bright pink front and was showing it off as I passed.

After reaching the harbour I ducked next to some rocks to get a bit of a break from the wind, the harbour was filled with the usual suspects. A male hooded merganser was showing off his impressive white hood to a group of seemingly interested females. A pied-billed grebe was foraging away further out, and a flock of common mergansers passed me by, keeping an eye on me in between dipping their faces in the water. I was also very lucky to see one of my favourite birds, is it ok to have favourites? Three harlequin ducks were resting on the far shore, two males, one female. The males are so beautiful, I know it is wrong to like a bird based on appearance, but with their sleek neat pattern, blue/grey feathers on the head and body, red/orange sides topped off with distinct white bars on their face, neck, around their breast and horizontally along their body, it is hard not to admire them.

Cormorants (I think double-crested cormorants, but I struggle to guess the species) were braving the wind, flying out of harbour. After a glimpse of some surf scoters in the distance, and a belted kingfisher bashing sticklebacks on the side of a boat, I decided to call it a day, my hands were basically frozen onto my binoculars at this point.

Walking back round the coast I noticed another birder watching something out at sea (top birdwatching tip, don’t always watch the birds, watch the people). I scanned where he was looking and spotted a marbled murrelet bobbing among the waves. This is a special species, a small seabird, the marbled murrelet is a member of the auk family, and is listed as endangered in BC. They spend winter on the ocean, but in spring they have a secret that eluded ornithologists for years. Unlike other seabirds you will not find marbled murrelets nesting on cliff faces or the rocky shoreline, they nest in the ancient old growth temperate rainforest along the coast, their nest can be as far as 45 miles inland. They make their nest within the giant mossy trees, travelling back and forth at dawn and dusk, like tiny ghosts of the forest. They are a remarkable link between land and sea and a great example of the connection between the cold seas and tall trees on Canada’s Pacific coast.

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Martin Hughes-Games is sort of right. Nature in the media needs a more realistic balance

Photograph: David Willis/BBC

Photograph: David Willis/BBC

Planet Earth II was an incredible series, showing wildlife across the world in the most incredible way. At times the footage had me sat in stunned silence, and it did have a message on conservation within it. This week Martin Hughes-Games wrote a seemingly controversial piece calling Planet Earth II a ‘disaster for the world’s wildlife’. He backed up this statement by claiming that the show had only focused on entertainment rather than conservation.

Whilst I think that the term ‘disaster’, and the accusation that programmes like Planet Earth somehow contribute to extinction, is a little exaggerated. I do think that Martin has a point, and the debate that has been sparked as a result of his article is an important one for conservation going forward. He did not suggest that Planet Earth II should not have been made, and personally programmes like the Planet Earth series, and other nature documentaries have certainly shaped my life and had an impact on me growing up. However I was always interested in nature, and therefore after watching a programme, I would then go forward and learn about the issues, whilst actively becoming involved in conservation.

However for those watching Planet Earth II as a form of entertainment who do not think about the wider issues, their view of the natural world could be skewed. If Planet Earth II is the only link you have to wildlife, it is hard to relate to the issues highlighted. A family in Nottingham may now know the impact that city lights are having on turtles, but do they know about the local SSSI that is under threat, or what endangered species live in their area? And what they can do to save wildlife at home is often not made clear.

I do think that nature documentaries are an important tool for conservation, ultimately our jobs would be a lot harder without them, as they are a useful way of educating the public about wildlife. It is not ultimately their responsibility to save wildlife, but I think that as Martin suggested, more balance on the reality facing the world’s wildlife is needed. I would say that it is not that we need less Planet Earth II on our TV, but that we need a broader range of nature documentaries and series throughout our media, some that celebrate nature worldwide and some that focus in on what is happening to wildlife and the how we can protect it both at home and abroad.

Heading for extinction? Another southern resident orca confirmed dead


The oldest southern resident orca, J2 (also known as Granny), has died. The sad news has been confirmed by the Center for Whale Research, the female orca has been recorded by researchers since 1976 and was estimated to be 78 years old.

Her death comes just two weeks after another southern resident orca, J34 died aged 18, from a suspected ship strike. It is uncertain what has killed J2. The population of these unique orcas has continued to dwindle with a loss of food source, increased pollution and vessel activity in the Salish Sea believed to be driving their decline. Despite a recent baby boom the population has seen a steady decrease and is now down to 78.

The orcas are a vital part of the ecosystem in the Salish Sea, and have a strong cultural and economic role in the area. The loss of a species like this in our waters would have a devastating impact on the area as a whole. I wish there was a positive spin to put on this story, but the reality is that the population is sliding towards extinction, despite being listed as endangered since 2005, very little action has actually taken place by multiple Canadian governments to address the real issues facing these orcas.

Unfortunately, the urgent conservation plan they need to survive is not coming anytime soon, instead we have a pipeline and more tankers through their habitat. It is sad to say, but over the next few months and years, they will be washing up on our beaches and disappearing offshore one by one until they are gone completely. Their only hope is a radical change in policy, it is time for British Columbians and Canadians who value the lives of this population to stand up and take action. If you want to help save endangered southern resident orcas, please get in touch with your Member of Parliament and tell them that it is time to stop ignoring their plight, and save the southern resident orca before it is too late.

This link shows every Member of Parliament in Canada, with all their contact information:


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