Tag: nature (page 1 of 12)

Sperm whale spotted off eastern Vancouver Island for first time in decades

A sperm whale takes a dive in B.C.’s Johnstone Strait on Monday. (Jared Towers)

In the Johnstone Strait off the east coast of Vancouver Island, cetacean sightings are a common occurrence.  It is possible to see over five different species in one day. However, this week a special cetacean was spotted in the Strait, a sperm whale. Sperm whales are usually found far offshore, on the edge of the continental shelf, where they search for their preferred food squid and other cephalopods. So what makes this sighting so special?

Well, it is the first time since 1984 that a sperm whale sighting has been confirmed on eastern Vancouver Island and the sperm whales themselves are an incredibly complex and fascinating species. They are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid to eat and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives. They are toothed whales and eat thousands of pounds of fish and squid every day. They also have the largest brains of any species on Earth, weighing a whopping  7.8 kilograms, compared to an average of about 1.3-1.4 kilograms for human brains.

The team of whale researchers that found the animal, first heard it on their hydrophones, and will be continuing to monitor it as it moves through the Strait.

Have a listen to the Vancouver Island sperm whale, from the hydrophones of the incredible OrcaLab research station:

https://soundcloud.com/user-361819329/180211-sperm-whales-clicks?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=facebook

B.C government ends the grizzly bear trophy hunt

Grizzly bear

The provincial government has just announced a complete ban on the grizzly bear trophy hunt throughout British Columbia.

This fantastic announcement ends two decades of campaigning by environmental groups to end the annual trophy hunt.  The spring grizzly bear hunt was scheduled to open on April 1, 2018, but the ban on hunting for resident and non-resident hunters takes effect immediately.

The B.C grizzly bear population is estimated to be around 15,000, and the province is one of their last strongholds in North America, despite this, they have been extirpated from parts of their former range, mostly southern B.C and their population has decreased dramatically. The bears play a vital role in the ecosystem, they help to distribute the ocean-derived nutrients in salmon carcasses through the forests, producing larger, healthier trees. They keep prey population levels sustainable and disperse the seeds of many plants and berries throughout the forest.

Banning trophy hunting was a vital step in conserving grizzly bears, as well as an acknowledgement of the important role they play in the ecosystem, their cultural importance to First Nations and to the people of British Columbia. The government has also finally recognised that a live grizzly bear is worth more to the province than a dead one.

George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, also stated that “Our government is committed to improving wildlife management in B.C., and today’s announcement, along with a focused grizzly bear management plan, are the first steps in protecting one of our most iconic species.” Hopefully this will focus on some of the key issues impacting grizzly bears, such as habitat fragmentation and human-bear conflict.

Swallowed by a whale (well, almost)

A few weeks ago, after bird banding, I got the opportunity to take a boat trip out into the Salish Sea, looking for some of the incredible wildlife that lives there.

It did not take long for us to find something cool, almost straight away after leaving the harbour we encountered two humpback whales. The area we were looking in surrounds Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, a small cluster of rocks, and includes a beautiful lighthouse. The area is fantastic for wildlife , with a great number of bird species present and a large sea lion colony, which is easy to see, hear and quite frankly smell (you can tell if you’re downwind from it)! The humpbacks were easy to spot, the water was calm and the sun was out, meaning the spray from the humpback blow was clearly visible. The blow can be up to four metres and looks like white smoke. After spotting the initial two, we realised that we were pretty much surrounded by whales. We were counting multiple blows as far as the eye could see. The humpback whale was once an endangered species in this area, but in recent years their population has boomed and now they’re probably the most commonly seen whale in the area. The whales we were seeing are preparing for their long migration south to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter months in warmer water. After watching the two closest to us  we decided to focus on the birds and moved towards a bait ball we could see in the distance, as we made our way there, we could see and hear humpback whale blows (and sea lions) coming from all directions.

We approached the bait ball and started birdwatching. Bait balls occur when small fish swarm into a tightly packed ball, this is pretty much their last line of defense against predators. They are a chaotic affair, with birds piling in from all directions. Here, the gulls were on the surface of the water and in the air, whilst below the waves, common and ancient murres were gliding effortlessly through the school, cormorants were also diving in and out, what was amazing, and a first for me, was that you could see the fish scales twinkling in the water. We counted at least ten species of bird that were predating the fish, however, we did not realise that a much larger predator was lurking deep below our boat.

Suddenly, the birds all just flew away, for a split second the bait ball was quiet and calm. Then, whoosh, out of nowhere a humpback whale lunged to the surface, it threw open its gigantic mouth, extended its throat grooves and ingested the entire bait ball in one go. On the boat, we were screaming, we had no idea the humpback was around, we had not seen or heard any blows and we certainly could not see it under the water. Personally, I have never seen anything like it, a humpback whale lunge feeding right off our boat! We could see the baleen of the whale in such detail, I can only really describe the moment it burst through the surface as like an explosion of air. The humpback then surfaced once more, before diving deep again into the chilly depths of the Salish Sea. In total we counted 28 humpback whales, just in the small area we covered, what a conservation success story, and a successful boat trip!

Salmon in the stream

Last week I had the privilege to spend some time with one of BC’s most iconic species. Year after year the salmon return to the streams of BC to spawn. At Goldstream Provincial Park, near Victoria, you can get a close view of the salmon as they complete their epic life cycle. As I walked along the path, salmon carcasses were scattered across the forest floor , this is great for the ecosystem, as the salmon carcass decomposes the nutrients are used by the trees and other vegetation to grow, leading to the lush rainforest we see around us, it is said that in these forests, the trees are made of salmon.

As well as basically making the trees grow, they also feed almost every species that lives in this region. Bears are frequently seen in this area during the salmon run; on the west coast of the island, wolves rely heavily on the salmon, out at sea, orcas, sea lions and dolphins predate the fish, and right in front of me, hundreds of gulls are feasting on the salmon eggs, brains and eyes. Even the tiny, but charismatic dipper, zips back and forth collecting eggs, out in the estuary almost 50 bald eagles, catch the salmon as they enter the river, not the most ideal welcome home for those poor fish.

Seeing the salmon so close, in just one river, it can be hard to take in the enormity of it all. Along the BC coast, millions of salmon are making the same journey their ancestors have made for thousands of years. I really believe that the salmon run is one of the great natural spectacles on Earth. These salmon have navigated the Pacific Ocean, returning to the same stream they were born, the fact that they are able to tell exactly which stream is their home is miraculous. The salmon we see spawning have survived the endless list of predators, the harshness of the Pacific Ocean and the relentless currents of the rivers. On top of all that, they have survived the devastating impact humans have had on this region. Fisheries, disease from salmon farms, endless pollution, plastic and waste, habitat loss and industrialisation all threaten wild salmon populations.

Watching salmon complete their incredible journey, against all the odds, one might think they are indestructible, but this could not be further from the truth. The salmon run we see today only exists  because of the sustainable stewardship by those who have lived on this land for thousands of years. Salmon stocks are down again this year, they are on a consistent decline, the foundation of our ecosystem is starting to vanish in front of our eyes, and it is entirely preventable. If you do one thing today, I urge you to look at the ways you can help wild salmon in BC, and support those who fighting to save them, these fish are irreplaceable and their protection has to be our priority.

SOS (Save Our Salmon)

Bittern numbers booming across the UK

Bittern

One of the UK’s rarest birds is booming again across the country. The beautiful bittern, was once considered extinct in the UK, but now conservationists believe their population is at a record high. Found in wetlands, the bittern is a master of camouflage, conservationists have been able to count the birds by recording their incredibly loud, foghorn like, boom call.

The bittern was at serious risk of extinction in the 1990s, the rise in their population has been because of intensive conservation efforts from a number of groups that have focused on protecting their preferred habitat. Eastern England is still the best place to see and hear bitterns, however other areas such as Somerset and the East Midlands are also good spots to find this elusive bird. Having heard bitterns myself, at Rutland Water, I will definitely attest that is a wildlife experience unlike any other in the UK, and they are a bird that is well worth making the effort to see/hear. They are a fantastic example of how conservation can work successfully and save a species that at one time seemed doomed to extinction.

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!

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