I’m here because of that

28 05 2012

“At times in my life, the only place I have been happy is when I am on stage”

– Bob Dylan

A friend of mine told me once that when he is waiting for a wolf, early in the morning, in a huge valley lost in the middle of the deep Galicia, he imagines a stage with a lot of instruments on its floor, the light turned off, the curtain closed. Suddenly, when the wolf appears, someone opens the curtain, switchs on the lights and the music starts.

I am not happy on stage, I am happy seeing the nature (and specially some mythic species) on it. The Canary Islands are one of the best stages in the world, I know that since the first time I came, but sometimes the show can even overwhelm you. The last 5 days, I’ve been volunteering at El Hierro with Dr. Natacha Aguilar (from the Universidad de la Laguna) and her extremely nice team, working on cetaceans in the University of La Laguna, and the show can justify by itself a 6 months stay at la Laguna. It must be said the project is performed by the University of la Laguna with permit from the Canary Islands Government. Therefore, all the pictures below were taken by me but are property of the university.

First of all, let’s talk about el Hierro. The most tropical island of the Canaries, it houses one of the most enviable Biosphere’ Reserves of the world, placed in the southern coast of the island: el Mar de las Calmas. What makes it as special is that it was the local fishermen who decided to create it, worried about the strong decrease on captures. Everyone at el Hierro knows a lot of things about the birds, the cetaceans, the geology and even the plants of the island. Everyone is proud of being “herreño” and I must say they are completely allowed to be so. If you think about going there, you must know the local cheese is excellent and the time would be stopped as soon as you land on the sole peaceful airport of the world.

Our work consisted on taking pictures of as many beakes whales as possible to identify the individuals and try to see how is its biology and specially their social structures. The main purpose were the beaked whales, but we also gave some atention to Bryde’s whales, Atlantic spotted dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins and (personally) some nice birds. The methodology was quite accurate: there was an observation point in the coast and then a boat that can go all over the bay. Most of animals were detected from the coast and then they told the position of the sighting to the boat using a radio. The place is a cetacean paradise and it’s possible to enjoy 2 species of beaked whale just by looking from the coast with a scope. Most seawatchers would have to recognize that’s not what we are used to! It’s enough saying the average is 1 sighting of beaked whales per hour, but you won’t be never bored since you can enjoy the Bryde’s whales Balaenoptera edeni and (most of days) a lot of dolphins while waiting for the beaked whales. The area had also been one of the hot spots of the Canaries to see the red-billed tropicbird Phaeton aethereus, but those days I’ve not been lucky with that.

Each day was a different experience. In the first one, we saw an elusive big whale that was probably a Bryde’s and then, thanks to Jacobo’s sailing skills, we enjoyed some Cuvier’s beaked whales Ziphius cavirostris as I hadn’t did before. The day finished with a party of Atlantic spotted dolphin Stenella frontalis playing with us.

The next day I saw, for sure, one of the most impressive things of my life (at least till now!): 4 Blainville’s beaked whales Mesoplodon densirostris surrounding our boat, coming to breathe at the surface just a couple of meters by our side… They dove as beaked whales are supposed to do (they only spend the 9% of its time on the suface), but they come again near the boat faster than we could had expected. To have such a close and long encounter with beaked whales is a gift, these are shy creatures specially evolved to avoid researchers. Even in a place like El Hierro, one of the best in the world to see them, the research team has to wait many hours, sometimes days, watching continuously under the hot sun to get just a short glimpse of these deep diving creatures that spend 2 min at the surface every 20 min to 1 hour dive (on average, up to 1.5 hours!). The day was livened up by a Loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta and a 3rd summer Pomarine skua Stercorarius pomarinus.

The following day I was destined to the land observation point. The wheather was nice, Boettger’s Lizards Gallotia caesaris were feeding the peel of the fruits we were eating and a couple of Barbary falcons Falco peregrinoides were sat in a close cliff. More of the same but from a different (not worse at all!) point of view. Some unidentified (probably Bryde’s) whales and (probably Atlantic spotted) dolphins and the best of the day: 3 Cuvier’s beaked whales jumping in its singular style. Moreover, the first Bulwer’s petrel Bulweria bulweri I’ve seen from the coast passed throw.

To forget about the sadness of my last day, again aboard, a Bryde’s whale surrounded by hundreds of tuna fishes emerged extremely close. For those who had seen that, you would know that it’s not possible to think about other things when seeing an extremely close big whale. Bryde´s whales used to stay in El Hierro all summer in the years, not so long ago, when many fishermen came from all the Canary Islands to fish tuna. Both, tuna and the whales, arrived together following their prey, and fishermen used the whales to find the fish. Now, maybe because the water temperature has changed, maybe because tunas are overfished before they arrive to the Canaries, there are not so many tunas and not so many whales. However, still Bryde´s whales cross El Hierro in their annual migration, and this year is specially good for pelagic life, with lots of food in the ocean thanks to special oceanographic conditions, so this spring the sea in the Canaries is being a miracle of life, full of dolphins, whales, birds, and fish, as it should always be.

I have to thank all the team for that oportunity: Natacha, Jacobo, Andrea, Agus (specially her, why not?), Juliana, Hernán, Nerea, Silvia, Mar and Fátima. Also to the nice local people Cacho, Raiko and Ale. We laughed, we worked and now we all have some unforgetable images taped in our memories.

First ringing day

21 05 2012

“Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!”

-Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Usually, you don’t know how much you need something you used to do until it comes back. The last day I ringed was too much time ago and, I confess, I am addicted to ringing. It brings me the chance to study birds, to be aware of the thin relation between the biometrics and the biology. I like to check the wing formulas, to see the moult as a identification key and, of course, it’s nice to see some elusive species at a close (the closest!) range.

However, ringing here is a bit different. There is no bibliography on the majority of local birds so wing formulas and moult patterns have not been discovered yet. Everything it’s new and it’s a real challenge to apply what you knew from european serin or common chiffchaff in canary serin or Canary Islands chiffchaff. Everything modified by evolution, a force of special importance in an isolated ecosystem such as Tenerife.

My first dose of ringing in Tenerife was at Tejina ponds, a place where there are always lots of chiffchaffs. The afternoon started good. I was not alone, Laura and Raquel made the time even better, and there was a constant trickle of birds during all the afternoon long. Not too much, just to don’t get bored and have enough time to study all the individuals as they deserve. Total numbers were 8 Canary Islands chiffchaffs, 1 Sardinian warbler, 1 blackcap, 1 Blackbird and 1 Canary serin.

All the species would have their own post, but, to sum up, I can already say Canay Islands chiffchaff has a strange moult. Some individuals had moulted the inner primaries and the greater coverts were moulted in a disordered way. Only 1 bird showed breeding patch but I didn’t catch any 1st calendar year. I don’t know where are the youngs, but I guess they were born at least a month ago.

Now I’ve remembered my addiction, I won’t be able to give up. I will keep on ringing on the following weeks and I promise to share my drugs with everyone who needs them.

Rest in peace

19 05 2012

“Evil. I am cast upon a horrible desolate Island, void of all hope of Recovery. Good. But I am alive, and not drown’d as all my Ship’d Company was.”

– Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

During the heat wave, I looked across the window and thought I must go out. Some African birds must be there… Of course the best option would be to check a desertic place, potentially good for larks and wheatears, but most of that habitats are in the fur south. My experience told me the importance of reacting the sooner the better when the wheather forecast predicts something good for birds, so I decided to visit the Tejina ponds again.

The first I noticed was a complete emptyness of birds. Most of them were hidden in the reedbeds, some others just rested like the stones, but it was quite obvious that there was nothing new. My surprise was to see the same 2 sedge warblers in the same place as a month and a half ago. They were doing the same. Eating, calling, nothing else. They didn’t show more breeding activity, they neither sung nor defended territory. Nothing, they just were there, but for more than a month.

The following day, I decided to go south. 6 days with the correct southeasternly winds, as dry as the Sahara itself. There must be something interesting, the oposite couldn’t be possible. I reached el Médano scrubland after 3 hours of bus, including some boring waits just by the highroad. If the justice had existed, I would have found at least a couple of Spoon-billed sandpipers mating. However, the only bird present in the area (except for some Berthelot’s pipits and great grey shrikes) was a curlew sandpiper. I’m sure it’s the same which is still present for a month. I enjoyed it since it was already in partial summer plumage, but then… I took a bath. It was not the best I could do but the only I could do. It was hot and I was in a beach.

Birds here are like shipwreckeds. They are not in the correct place, most of them would not succeed in breeding this year but, surprisingly, they seem to be grateful to stay alive and they reward the island with their presence for a long time.

Saturday morning fever

15 05 2012

“Who is friendly to the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
Banished to ground in the midst of hootings (…)”

The Albatross, Ch. Baudelaire

The last saturday of my 5th year of University, at the end, the Professors decided to show us how the field work is. I can say the wait was justified since the work chosen by Professors was offshore cetacean research. It was nice to see the Short-finned pilot whales again, this time showing a more “natural behaviour”, not pressured by the tourist’ boats. A party of males, females and youngs were sailing, diving and finally resting in the surface to recover their lungs.

My main interest was to take pictures of a dolphin species I’ve seen many times but never managed to photograph: Atlantic spotted dolphin. This species is suposed to be the one that interacts more with boats, but maybe the ferry I’ve taken in many ocasions is too fast for them. This time, with the boat stopped and waiting for them, we enjoyed a female with a young swimming around us. I still want to see an adult male in that way or, even better, jumping… By the way, it’s enough for the moment.

Despite last week Bulwer’s petrels seemed to have reached the island in a huge influx, they are still scarce… and the same for Barolo’s shearwater, Band-rumped stormpetrel and the rest of seabirds except for the faithful Cory’s. I don’t know why but they are increasing in the western coast of Tenerife, maybe because there is a lot of food here at the moment. I did what a mediterranean birder must do: pay atention to the underwing pattern. All of them showed the typical black primaries expected for Cory’s and some had dark feathers even in the under-primary coverts or the axillaries. The dark edge of the forehand seemed also to be broader than in Scopoli’s. Moreover, when the birds rested in the water, the bill looked extremely thick.

We are suffering the efects of a Saharian heat wave that already lasts 5 days. It’s hard to go out birding but Moussier’s redstars must be somewhere, waiting for a brave birder…

¿Lifeless? things

9 05 2012

“If I had hunger, it would be hunger for earth and stones”

– Arthur Rimbaud

How is it possible? An island emerged from the sea… the position of all the stones depends on the luck, the landscapes are only a conjuction of quite a lot improbable things that have happened all together. And, however, is still a beautyful place.

Getting high

4 05 2012

“No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.”

Moby Dick, Hermann Melville –

Another day at la Gomera with the typical stuff. Both Laurel and Bolle’s pigeon and the rest of forest species extremely abundant in the island. From the outward ferry, we saw the first Bulwer’s petrels of the year. At least 5 birds flew westwards, always accompanied with hundreds of Cory’s. The cetaceans seemed even shyer than usual, and we only managed to see Short-fined pilot whales and a too brief party of Atlantic spotted dolphins. Already in the ferry, waiting for the departure to Tenerife again, I looked at the city of San Sebastián de la Gomera and tried to count how many colours are there. The multiple styles in which people paints their houses conforms a single style and I must admit it’s nice to see…

Anyway, the highlight of the day was in the way back to Tenerife. It started as always except for 2 distant Bulwer’s. This species must be common from now on but is still hard to see from the land. A woman that seemed to have fun just by looking at us scanning the sea suddenly noticed a strange foam just by the boat, something about 20 meters from starboard. We saw a strange shape under the water that had to be a whale and, earlier than we could had concluded that, the animal emerged to breathe. The spectacle of a whale breathing increases exponentially as the distance decreases and this one couldn’t be closer.

I felt the need to take pictures of the head pattern and try to identify it. That was not a hard task actually! My happyness was at his maximum when I saw it was a Bryde’s whale Balaenoptera edeni, with their typical 3 rostrum ridges, dark colouration above and an erect and sickle-shaped dorsal fin. It’s not a rare species here in the Canaries, but still a lifer for me.

When I lived in Barcelona and I looked at the sea, I could only expect some Pomarine (just in the right season!), parasitic and great skuas, some Mediterranean (European) storm-petrels, Cory’s, Mediterranean and Balearic shearwaters. Cetaceans are rare enough to don’t even think about them. Here, pilot whales, dolphins and larger whales are in my daily agenda. Let’s enjoy it!

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