Author: Connel Bradwell (page 1 of 18)

Tucker the conservation canine, known for sniffing orca poo retires.

During the summers of 2011 and 2012 (and a number of times since then), I worked on a research boat looking at the endangered southern resident orca, a subspecies of orca found around southern Vancouver Island. Whilst on the boats we would often encounter other researchers and chat about the work they were doing. One of my favourite boats to see and interact with was the Conservation Canines program that researches animals and their habitat by using dogs to help collect poo. Now whilst it may sound strange, poo is a highly valuable in wildlife research, the data collected from feces can determine the health of individuals, as well as a population and give an insight into their life cycle. For the southern resident orca project the ‘Conservation Canine’ is Tucker, the black lab, and Tucker has helped the team to publish papers on the health and diet of the orcas, and to see the impact that toxins in the water are having on the population.

It was always such a joy to see the excitable black lab hanging off the front of the research boat hunting for orca poo. Tucker is a great example about how working animals, mostly dogs, are a vital part of conservation. Tucker started the program in 2006, and at the grand age of 13, he has been given a well-earned retirement, but I know that many people who have worked on the water with the orcas will be sad to see him go. But, the Conservation Canine program does not end with him, starting next year Jack, a 5 year old Australian Cattle mix, will be taking over and sniffing out that important orca poo!

Have a look at Tucker in action in this video by the BBC!

Migration madness!

It is that time of year again, the end of summer is migration season, and here on Vancouver Island, thousands upon thousands of birds are making their way south along the Pacific flyway. Rocky Point Bird Observatory is located on the tip of southern Vancouver Island, everyday a dedicated group of banders and volunteers band/ring birds on their migration in order to monitor their populations, track migrations and gain a better understanding of the health and life cycle of a number of species.

The past few weeks I have been helping out with their banding and have been lucky enough to see some incredible birds. The bird observatory bands in two locations, one is located in a marina and is a mixture of forest and shrubs, and the other is on a secluded military base, this area is more wild, with forest, open grassland areas and beaches. The view from the banding station is incredible, and species such as orcas, wolves and bears can be spotted. Last week whilst checking one of the nets near the water, we heard the loud unmistakable sound of a whale breathing, a humpback whale was fishing close to shore, and we watched as the whale swam away surfacing just once more in the distance!

The day was a busy one for birds, as we caught and banded a steady number, at that time it was mostly warblers and sparrows that were starting to come into the nets. We mostly banded the beautiful savannah sparrow, these sparrows have neat brown bars down their back, with a black and white speckled front, and a striking yellow smudge on the top of their eye, which looks like they have some eye shadow on! Other highlights included yellow warblers and the brightly coloured Wilson’s warbler. Along with the songbirds, raptors migrate in large numbers, and Rocky Point is a particularly good place to see them. Hundreds of turkey vultures soar overhead, Cooper’s, sharp shinned, red tailed and Swainson’s hawks can be seen within the flock of vultures. Having seen a lot of raptors that day, we managed to get two in the net, both sharp shinned hawks (pictured), one male and one female. The female is noticeably larger, but the species is still small. Up close you can really see how perfectly they are adapted to predate on birds, built for soaring and speed, with large yellow eyes and long sharp talons. They are very light and agile, you have to hold them by their feet in order to avoid getting sliced open by their talons. As I was packing up to leave I heard a shout from across the field, ‘CRANES’ , having never seen cranes, but always wanting to, I grabbed my binoculars and ran, watching two elegant sandhill cranes fly right over my head, you could hear them calling to each other. Humpbacks, hawks and cranes, I could not believe my luck!

This week out at the marina site, Pedder Bay, we saw the scale of migration that is currently taking place. On average, I have found that banding around 50-60 birds is a good and busy day. However on Wednesday, we banded 198 new birds, a record for the site. The day was hectic to say the least, as more and more birds kept entering the nets. Sparrows were the most common by a mile. Often when banding through migration you see birds come in waves, one week one species or type of bird dominates, then the following week another, and that day was definitely a sparrow day. We had a few of the tiny ruby crowned kinglets in the nets, the kinglets (similar to goldcrests, for UK readers), will soon we travelling through in large numbers. Despite banding 198 new birds, we hardly scratched the surface, walking through the area it was clear that there were hundreds of birds, sparrows were flying out of the grass from all directions, we are still relatively early into the migration season, so it is pretty remarkable to have banded such a high number of birds! The migration of birds is happening right across the northern hemisphere, above our heads millions of birds are making long and treacherous journeys south, if you get the chance to get out and see them I would definitely recommend it. A lot of the birds we are seeing on Vancouver Island, have travelled from northern Canada, and are on their way as far south as Costa Rica!

Looking for a VERY STRANGE seabird

Last week I went to the coast of Vancouver Island, looking for a secretive and strange seabird, the Marbled Murrelet! They held a secret for many years, but what is it?

Marbled Murrelets are moving from their summer grounds out to sea for the winters. These plucky birds are able to survive a harsh winter out in the Pacific Ocean.

Wild days on Pender

Dotted throughout the Salish Sea are the beautiful southern Gulf Islands, despite being close together these islands each offer something slightly unique. One of these islands is Pender Island, and last week I took a couple of days to go and see what wildlife it has to offer.

Driving around the island you cannot help but notice the large number of trails that head down towards secret bays and beaches. Because of the small size of the island, it is very easy to explore. The days we were there were hot and sunny, perfect weather to see turkey vultures soaring above the fields and roads. They are expert gliders, and you can see them making subtle movements to steer, without needing to flap their wings, however their time in the area is coming to an end as soon they will begin migrating in large numbers south, into the USA.

We hiked up Mount Norman, a fairly steep hill located within the national park, at the top, an incredible viewpoint gives you a birds-eye view of the area. The hike is through a mixed patch of woodland, and on the walk the loud call of pileated woodpeckers was echoing around the forest, ravens flew overhead and a lovely downy woodpecker was pecking away directly in front of me, these tiny woodpeckers are black and white, with a bright red patch on the back of their head.

Walking down the trails towards the bays and the beaches, you are never really sure exactly what you’ll find, each beach is different, with a different view, rock formation etc, but one thing that is a constant is the kingfishers. Belted kingfishers are all over the island, the long chatter, described as a mechanical rattle can be heard in pretty much every bay and on every beach. An interesting species to watch, they confidently patrol their territory ready to chase any unsuspecting gull, heron or kayaker that is passing through. They are a large kingfisher that stands at about 30 cm, their size means it is easy to watch them fish, they hover over the water before loudly plopping in and grabbing their prey.

As the nights start to draw in I am trying to see as many summer sunsets as possible, and so I followed a trail down to the water to watch. The bay I found was surrounded by arbutus trees, a large native species, with twisted branches and unmistakable orange/red peeling bark. The bay was quiet, a large fried egg jellyfish (named perfectly, seriously, look it up!) was bobbing in the shallows. From around the coastline one of my favourite birds appeared, a lovely osprey, the white, fish eating raptor. I could not believe my luck as the bird starting to gracefully circle, the sky was glowing pink, the sea was calm and it was going to fish right in front of me, a perfect wildlife moment I thought! But, guess who showed up to spoil my peaceful scene, the confident kingfisher, rattling away. The belted kingfisher came out of the trees and flew directly at the osprey, escorting it out of the bay, before proudly perching back in the trees.

The last bit of wildlife came that night, as owls hooted in the forest behind where I was staying. I decided to go and listen, half asleep and clutching my phone for light, I had a new wildlife experience, bats, now I have seen bats plenty of times, but never in the forest. I watched the bats flying through the trees, weaving around them expertly. Their clicks were audible, I have no idea what species they were, but seeing them in this setting highlighted how incredible they are. To navigate a thick forest, in the dark is beyond impressive, a brilliant end to a wild couple of days on Pender Island.

Searching for the largest woodpecker in North America

This week I went out with my camera looking for the largest woodpecker in North America, the pileated woodpecker. This beautiful woodpecker can be seen right across Canada, and is common on Vancouver Island, they are however, a little tricky to see when in thick forest. If you want to know what I found in the forest, then have a look at the video, and learn a little more about these amazing birds!

Answering questions on the white moose!

A white moose has been filmed in Sweden and it has been all over the internet. Many people have asked questions about whether it is real and why is it white? I made a video to answer some of these questions and explain why the moose is white and why the antlers are white too!

Eighth endangered right whale found dead off the Canadian coast, pushing the population to the brink

North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whale species on the planet, with just over 500 individuals left. Over the past two months, eight whales have been found dead off the Canadian coastline, with the latest being found on July 20th. The whales have all been found in the same area in eastern Canada, between New Brunswick’s Miscou Island, Quebec’s Magdalen Islands and northern P.E.I.

To lose eight individuals is devastating for this species, the loss makes up just over one percent of their entire population, at the moment it is not clear what killed the whales, although two were said to have signs of blunt trauma (likely from a ship) and another had been tangled in fishing gear for weeks. North Atlantic right whales are at huge risk from ship strikes and entanglement. The areas in which the whales are found, are often along busy shipping lanes (such as the Gulf of St Lawrence, where the eight have been found dead). Entanglement impacts marine mammals around the world, and researchers have spotted a number of right whales that have become entangled recently. In fact just last week Joe Howlett a Canadian fisherman, died after freeing a right whale from entanglement off the Canadian coast.

North Atlantic right whales are found in both Canadian and USA waters and authorities and researchers on both sides of the border are scrambling to save the population, 2017 calf sightings have been low and it looks as though it will be a year of decline for the North Atlantic right whale.

Entangled right whale

Entangled right whale

Beautiful bee-eaters found in East Midlands quarry

European Bee-eater merops apiaster near Tiskanias River estuary Lesvos 11/05/10

European Bee-eater (picture not taken in Nottinghamshire).

This past week I have had some major bird envy, as just 10 minutes from my hometown in the UK, a small flock of European bee-eaters have been spotted. European bee-eaters are possibly one of the most beautiful birds you could hope to see. Found across mainland Europe and parts of Africa, they are not birds you often think of spotting in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, most excitingly the bee-eaters are showing signs that they could breed on the site. Bee-eaters live up to their name by feeding on bees and other invertebrates such as butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

There have been lots of people visiting the site to see the bee-eaters and I am so happy to see the coverage of them and of wildlife in the area. I may be a little biased, but I think the East Midlands has some of the best wildlife in the UK and can often be a little overlooked, I hope our newest arrivals stick around for the foreseeable future (at least until I am home next so I can see them!).

Swallows by the sea

By JJ Cadiz, Cajay – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4256704

In my opinion there are few birds more magical than swallows. For myself (and many others), swallows are the sign of a changing season, a light at the end of the tunnel from the grey and dark winters. They stay in BC throughout the Spring and Summer and do not just blend into the background, they are a noisy, sometimes chaotic species and truly are a joy to watch.

The four main swallow species I see are barn, tree, northern rough-winged and violet-green swallow. The latter are less common, and I hardly see them in the city. Northern rough-winged are brown with a light front, and I have seen them nesting in small holes in a quarry. The violet-green, as the name suggests, are the most striking and can mostly be seen around wetlands and marshes.

In the city tree swallows are a lovely species, with deep-blue iridescent backs, it is not uncommon to suddenly find yourself surrounded by a large flock, picking off insects around trees.

However the swallow that dominates my coastal neighbourhood is the barn swallow.  I am lucky enough to see the swallows every day on my walks along the coast and beach. For a bird that spends half the year in the tropics, they are very much at home on the Canadian coast. Like little acrobats in the sky I watch them twist and turn in the meadows, manouvering between trees and skimming the grass in search of insects. I watch in awe as they are skim from one end of the meadows to the other, before dropping over the cliffs and down onto the beach. They keep low to the ground, dodging waves, in order to feed on the small insects found on the seaweed and sand. It is really easy to feel a connection to the swallows, they follow people as they walk along, gobbling up each insect that is disturbed by their steps. At the moment it is the adults who expertly dodge your legs and feet, but soon the young will be out of the nest, and learning to fly,  this leads to a few hairy moments where a collision between swallow and shoe seems inevitable. Swallow numbers are continuing to decline in our area, the cause is poorly understood. Despite it just been June, I am really making the most of seeing them before they head off again in a few months on their amazing journey south.

Beautiful barred owls

What a glorious weekend it has been, finally the sun is shining on Vancouver Island, and more excitingly I had an unexpected encounter with some beautiful barred owls. When it comes to owls my record of seeing them compared to other birdwatchers is poor at best. Quite a few times I have been tipped off on the best places to see owls, only to find empty branches and owl shaped shadows in the forest. This weekend however, was different, I was walking through a small patch of woodland, that is well known for barred owl sightings. The barred owl is a widespread, fairly common species of owl found right across the island. They are adaptable and seem very comfortable with life in our towns and cities.

I sensed my luck was in almost from the minute I entered the woods, I could hear some commotion further up the path, it sounded as though 3 or 4 hummingbirds were very upset about something in one of the trees. A good tip for finding owls and other raptors is to see how smaller birds are behaving in an area, when a raptor is present, it is very common to see a number of small birds mobbing it. As I walked down the path I could hear the hummingbirds very clearly, and after reaching the tree I was met with the unmistakable stare of an owl. A beautiful male barred owl sat on the branch, clear as day, undeterred by the hummingbirds, who were taking it in turns to dive towards it. This owl lives in an urban park, and was not fazed as people walked and cycled past.

Another tip for watching wildlife is to not only watch the wildlife but also the people around you. I saw a woman looking up the tree behind me and it turned out that she was looking at a baby barred owl. We swapped what we were looking at (she had not yet spotted the male). High in the tree sat a little fluffy blob, with their head down, trying to get a little bit of rest. I have never seen a young owl before and I enjoyed watching it scratching, yawning and generally just sitting around. Now I know where the owls can be found, I will definitely be going back to visit this family of owls that are very much at home in the middle of town!

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