The Ocean is everything

8 06 2016

“Ocean: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man – who has no gills.”

– Ambrose Bierce

Some weeks ago, I was lucky, so extremely lucky, to came across 3 Blue whales Balaenoptera musculus off Sao Miguel, Azores. I’ve seen loads of both Fin and Bryde’s whales so I had expected the Blues to be the same but bigger. I was wrong, so terribly wrong. Their enormous size makes you feel insignificant but, at the same time, the peace and the slowness of their swimming makes you feel safe and comfortable. An encounter with these blue giants should therefore sum up the relationship between the oceans (and nature in general) and humans.

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It’s not been the case. Humans have killed whales for centuries and some whaling structures are still kept around the Azorean harbours, only as past times witnesses. Fortunately, the Azoreans switched whale hunting for whale watching some years ago and, although the whale watching business also have an obvious dark side, the situation is undeniably better nowadays. The same happens in other corners of the world, especially since the International Court of Justice finally banned the Japanese whale “research” in March 2014.

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Whales have traditionally attracted everybody’s attention but their prosecution is just one of the threads the ocean and its inhabitants face. I could now talk about my beloved tubenoses, the most endangered seabird species. But the ocean is everything. Having worked in the Canary Islands, one gets aware of how ocean-dependant most of in-land ecosystems are. The Azores aren’t an exception and some endemic taxa wholly depends on the oceanic environment. Azorean bullfinch Pyrrhula murina is the icing on the cake of a very charismatic Macaronesian habitat: the laurel forest.

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Its origin is none other than the ocean: The sun warms up the water-rich air over the water surface and hence it ascends along the steeply slopes while its temperature decreases. Eventually, it reaches a point where the temperature is that low that the water condensates forming clouds. Those clouds stop ascending when they hit a wall created by the constant hot high winds predominant in the region. At this point, the clouds are carried by the wind on its direction but, when they hit a mountain area such as those oceanic islands, they create a sea of clouds. Some plant species such as the Laurel take advantage of the situation by fixating this water suspended in the air. They effectively work as natural desalination plants originating this stunning landscape:

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So it’s not a coincidence that we saw both Blue whale and Azorean bullfinch within a 50 km. radius. Today, in the World Oceans Day, I want to point out the importance of the oceans not only for charismatic animals like whales but also for in-land high biodiversity areas and their endangered (sometimes endemic) species. To preserve one habitat while forgetting about the others would be just focusing on the palliative cares of a sick planet without actually understanding the nature of the disease.





El Hierro, El Hierro, El Hierro…

7 06 2015

“Is that a seagull?”

– Crístel Reyes

To find a rarity at sea is always something strange, especially when you are not even looking for birds. We know the habitat it’s not the same all over the sea, since the currents and the shape of the depths can make some areas better than others, but, at a glance, the sea looks just like an infinite flat blue plain. You can’t search because you can’t get out of the boat you are in, you don’t depend on your call recognition skills (despite some terns are easier to spot this way)… You just sit and wait.

Maybe this is why you feel especially lucky when a rarity shows up out in the sea. It’s usually not a prize for your id skills but for the number of boring hours you’ve been there, waiting for such an improbable event. As in ringing, from a taxonomic point of view, everywhere there is an interesting common species to look at while waiting for the actual prize: Band-rumped storm-petrel in La Concepción Bank, Cory’s shearwaters at El Hierro, Yelkouans and Balearics in the Mediterranean.

This time the unexpected emerged in the shape of a Red-footed booby, the third to be seen in Spain. We were taking photos of a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins feeding with Yellow-finned tuna and Cory’s shearwaters when Crístel said “is that a seagull?” I took a look and immediately said “No, it’s a 3rd summer Gannet”. The bird was flying towards us and I had seen black secondaries. It was not until I got profile views of it that I saw a “Sula face” and a long-tailed bird. Without direct comparison, the size and structure wasn’t particularly striking, what makes me think they can get surprisingly easily overlooked. To be honest, if the sighting had only lasted 30 seconds, I would had not identified it.

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Fortunately, the bird flew over the top predator feast we were photographing and gave close views of both underwing and upperwing patterns. At a glance, I thought it had to be an adult, but the bare parts of the face were not as brightly colored as I had seen in some photos. Moreover, when it flew over us, I noticed some dirty spots in the underwing. Because of embarrassing freaky reasons not worth-mentioning, I had brought my copy of Pyle to a Beaked whale survey in El Hierro. What seemed to be a stupid idea keeping in mind Ryanair’s strict baggage policies, become suddenly useful and, in a village with just a slow wi-fi connection in the local “zumería” (juice bar), I was still able to get some information about the age of the bird.

However, I was not fully satisfied with the information comprised in my otherwise beloved Pyle. According to this author, they can only be aged up to 2nd cycle, since after the 2nd pre-basic, they already show the definite plumage: all white underparts and upperwing coverts, dark eye and brightly colored bare parts. However, 2nd cycle birds are meant to show a dusky tip to the bill. This bird showed an adult pattern in its bare parts, just less colored. The plumage was not adult, but obviously closer to that than what I’d expect for a 2nd summer.

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So I followed the natural sequence of references and checked Howell’s Rare Birds of North America. This time, however, my freakiness had not reached that far and I had to wait until I was back in Barcelona to read what it’s said there. After some minutes admiring Lewington’s wonderful plates, I focused on the aging section. Surprise! Seemingly, some birds can be aged up to 4th cycle, mainly on the basis of remaining brown areas. According to Howell, 3rd cycle birds still can show extensive brown areas in the rump, back, scapulars, inner lesser coverts, axillaries, and underwing secondary coverts. All those areas become white as 3rd pre-basic moult goes on.

El Hierro bird showed all-white upperwing and body and the brown feathers were restricted to lesser under-secondary coverts. It would had fitted therefore with an advanced 3rd cycle if it had not shown an incipient primary moult. The bird is indeed growing P4, what makes me think it’s more likely an early 4th cycle. I’m not sure however if it could had already lost most of the brown areas during the moult of this 3 and a half primaries, what would make it a 3rd cycle. It would be interesting to know (if possible) what is more common: a 3rd cycle with an early stage of primary moult with almost all-white adult plumage or a 4th cycle with remaining brown in the underwing. Comments are welcome!

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Finally, there was still the origin issue to be discussed. The variation in the species is huge, but not all the authors agree to classify it in terms of subspecies. There are 2 morphs: brown and white, and both show 2 “sub-morphs”: white-tailed and dark-tailed. Seemingly, all possibilities can occur everywhere, but in different proportions. The Caribbean and Atlantic population (what would be more likely) belong mainly to the white morph or white-tailed brown morph, whereas 85% of birds from Hawai show a dark tail. As usual, it seems that, in this case, the most-likely explanation seems to be the good one.

It feels like the number of sightings of Red-footed booby in this side of the North Atlantic is increasing, with some recent records in the Iberian Peninsula, France, Canary Islands and especially Cape Verde. Red-footed booby, the next species to start breeding in the WP?





Lanzarote Pelagics ^3

18 09 2014

“- And what do you wish? +That what should be shall be”

– Frodo to Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Just a quick review of what’s been an amazing week leading Lanzarote Pelagics trips to the Bank of la Concepción. First of all, many thanks to Dani L. Velasco and Juan Sagardía for giving me the chance to take part once again in these crazy but rewarding adventures.

This time, we’ve organized 3 2-day trips within 10 days. What we had expected to be exhausting, ended up being just encouraging. The prize came in the second trip in the shape of a ringed (??) Swinhoe’s storm-petrel.

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monhoris ring

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monhoris castro

 

The highlights in the first trip included an adult Sabine’s gull, 2 White-faced storm-petrels, quite a lot of Bulwer’s and the usual dozens of both Wilson’s and Band-rumped. Suprisingly high numbers of European storm-petrels as well, usually kind of scarce out there.

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Everything in the second trip was obscured by the Swinhoe’s, but, actually, we saw some other nice stuff. An adult together with a juvenile Roseate terns were the best, keeping in mind it’s still a national rarity, but one of the most unexpected highlights were at least 2 Mackerel sharks that came to eat the whole block of chum. A couple of Scopoli’s and some Great shearwaters were also nice to see.

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And it was not until the third trip when we actually managed to get some White-faced feeding on the chum. All the birds we’ve seen during these 10 days turned out to be juveniles. It feels like it’s been an early breeding season for them.

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Here’s a tricky shearwater seen also in this third trip. It’s a Cory’s in my opinion, with a bluish-greyish tones in the head, deep bill and 2 spots in the 2 outermost underpimary coverts. However, it shows 2 tongues in P9 and P8 respectively. In P10 we trust!

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And what about cetaceans? I have to say I had never seen that many dolphins before. Adittedly they were all Atlantic spotted and Bottlenose, but still… Loads of them following the boat all day (and all night) long. Also some Bryde’s whale and a pot of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the north face of the Bank. Sadly, no Sperm whale this year… Let’s leave something for the future!

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Finally, in our inland guidings, we had extremely good views of Houbara bustard, Lesser short-toed lark, Eleonora’s falcon, Barbary falcon, Trumpeter finch and the rest of Lanzarote specialties. A Pectoral sandpiper and a Glossy ibis were both Canary Island’s a tick for me. Here’s some photos of one of the Houbaras, a female Eleonora’s falcon and the Pectoral. Surprisingly streaked rear flanks and almost undertail coverts…

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Oil them all

30 05 2014

“Truth will rise above falsehood as oil above water.”

– Miguel de Cervantes

Yesterday, the Spanish Ministry of the Environment decided to concede a positive environmental impact assessment to the oil prospecting promoted by Repsol in the Canary Islands. That’s great. It means, in case they find something, we won’t have to care about petroleum supplying for the next 10 years.

In the meanwhile, seismic prospecting can hurt cetacean’s hearing (their way to find food), kill adult fishes and avoid larvae development. Who cares? Dolphins will be still in the documentaries we fall asleep looking at and both scallops and hakes will be still in Christmas’ meals. If anybody sees a single disadvantage, feel free to comment this post. (Photo: http://www.scienceinseconds.com/blog/beaching-it)

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That’s under the water. What would happen in the surface worst case scenario? An oil spill. The Canary Islands hold several UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves for both marine and island ecosystems. Even at El Hierro I feel like being at home, Lanzarote (especially the northeastern islets) is probably my favorite one. Montaña Clara. What a couple of words. As soon as you land there, you have to care not to walk over the White-faced storm-petrel colony, since you can raze the burrows down. Raise your head! There are several Eleonora’s falcons hunting on lost migrating passerines and the local couple of Osprey, the actual kings of the islet, can fly over you at any time. It gets late and the moon is still hidden. Seabirds start to come in: Bulwer’s petrels, Band-rumped, European and White-faced storm-petrels, thousands of Cory’s shearwaters (don’t forget to look for a Cape Verde, there are already 3 records at this place!) and, in case you are not entranced yet, a sudden male Barolo shearwater makes an appearance. Can you feel it?

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Now remove this feeling. Remove it because everything it’s been polluted. Oh, how sad this is… is it? Everybody is enjoying the four miserable drops of petrol they painfully found and only the handful of researchers that used to go to this wonderful islet would missed it as it was. Things that  happen either under the water or in the far wild, far from our urban state of prosperity, those are the things people would never actually care about.

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Did you even know about the existence of this islet? Did you even know about what species do breed there? How threatened are they? Maybe you signed the popular petition at http://savecanarias.org/ (124100 up to date already did) but did you actually know what were you signing? Please read! The more we know, the less they can lie to us. If you don’t want to, you’d better leave them oil them all.

 

Useful references:

– Wiens et al 1996: Effects of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on Marine Bird Communities in Prince William Sound, Alaska. PDF.

– Varela et al. 2006: The effect of the ‘‘Prestige’’ oil spill on the plankton of the N–NW Spanish coast. PDF.

– Kharaka et al 2005: Environmental issues of petroleum exploration and production: Introduction. PDF.

– Engelhardt 1989: Environmental effects of petroleum exploration: A practical perspective. PDF.

– Gordon et al. 2004: A Review of the Effects of Seismic Survey on Marine Mammals. PDF.

– Alonso-Álvarez et al. 2007: Effects of acute exposure to heavy fuel oil from the Prestige spill on a seabird. PDF.





Jackpot

27 02 2014

“Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me.
Oh no, not again,
I’m stuck with a valuable friend”

– Ashes to ashes, David Bowie

This is turning into an obsession… After the shearwater odissey, a pleasent cetacean survey at El Hierro. As always, beaked whales were the main target, but, to be honest, I’ve enjoyed much more the re-encounter with people. This time the crew was composed by Gala, Anya, Casandra, Néstor, Víctor and the fireproof Carol, Nerea, Agus, Crístel and Natacha. An unexpected visit by the Tonina’s team Efra and Manu was also welcomed. Especial mention goes to Cacho and his mother, who kindly supplied us with shit loads of extremely nice local food.

Is worth-saying this project is funded by the University of La Laguna and the Government of the Canary Islands. It’s not so easy to find such a long-term project with a continous and generous funding, so, from this little forum, many thanks also to them.

The survey itself was kind of strange, with several days of bad weather and the beaked whales even more elusive than usual. However, in the end we managed to take photos of a presumed immature male and a family group of Blainville’s beaked whale. The Cuvier’s were distant and elusive, with unpredictable emersions in terms of time and place.

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Dolphins of several species were also present in the Mar de las Calmas bay. Rough-toothed, Short-beacked Common, Bottlenose and Atlantic spotted were all hanging around, although not always in the same number. Brief and distant views of a presumed Bryde’s whale filled out the cetacean trip list.

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Thanks to the bad weather, we got 2 free days to visit the north of the island. In the mythical pond in Frontera, there was a 1W female Lesser scaup and a Common teal, among the noisy coots and the worth-checking Common sandpipers. The number of nominate White wagtails (not less than 10) was also noticeable, keeping in mind this island is in the very last end of the Macaronesia. The lasts galores have brought some Kittiwakes this far south. One adult came to follow our small non-fishing boat for a while.

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However, the very best in terms of sightings was a stunning Red-billed tropicbird. I spotted it from the land-station, while I was meant to be looking for beaked whales, but let’s pretend I saw it by chance…

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The bird passed W, just by Tacorón, and started looking for a place to stop in the Montaña Roja (Red mountain)’ cliff. It hoovered for a few seconds in front of a corbel, didn’t like it and went for a short flight just before coming back to check another corbel. Seemingly, none of the putative nesting places looked suitable for the tropicbird, so it decided to fly straight to La Restinga, where I lost it. When it was gone, I realized I had been more than 1 hour enjoying the bird and taking photos, although in my head it had not lasted more than 20 minutes.

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To end up, one of the best night hearings of Barolo shearwater: together with all the crew, at Orchilla lighthouse and after having eaten nice grilled local fishes. We heard at least a male and a female, hope nobody who was there will ever forget it!





Black and white feelings

18 09 2013

“Nothing is black-and-white, except for winning and losing, and maybe that’s why people gravitate to that so much.”

– Steve Nash

Back in Sweden after a week in Lanzarote, it’s time to evaluate the trip and see how to improve it in the next years. Even we have not seen any megas, the pelagic has been a success: very nice views of a Fea’s petrel Pterodroma feae and loads of the commoner stuff: the 3 species of storm-petrel which are always the main target of the trip (White-faced Pelagodroma marina, Band-rumped Ocenaodroma castro and Wilson’s Oceanites oceanicus), some nice migrants (Long-tailed skua Stercorarius longicadus, Sabine’s gull Xema sabini, Red phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius, etc…), some cetaceans (Bryde’s whale, Sperm whale, and 3 species of dolphin: Stripped, Atlantic spotted and Common) and some unexpected sightings such as several quails, 1 nightingale, 1 reed warbler and 1 Common Kestrel migrating 70mn offshore.

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The 2 sailing boats departed from La Graciosa on Friday night and arrived to La Concepción Bank at 10 in the morning. After some Cory’s shearwaters, Bulwer’s petrels and an adult Sabine’s gull, the first bird we saw was a stunning Fea’s petrel. The bird came together with a Band-rumped storm-petrel, flew over the chum for a couple of times (beating the wings just once!) and went away as it had come: nobody had seen it coming, it just suddenly appeared.

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The shape of the bill was perfect for a Fea’s/Desertas, with the nail starting in the bases of the narines and an overall deep impression. Even it doesn’t look so pot-bellied in the photos, in the field the bird didn’t look like a Zino’s. Aggg Zino’s… one of the most longly-awaited species in Spanish waters!

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The challenge was, once again, between Fea’s and Desertas. Moult timing should be diagnostic if we know the age of the bird, but this was not the case. However, some body feathers where retained, what may rule out a juvenile bird. Keeping in mind Fea’s is a winter breeder and Desertas a summer breeder, the fresh primaries should point to Fea’s. This species should be coming back from the other side of the Atlantic together with Grant’s storm-petrel and both should show a similar state of primary’ wear.

Pterodroma feae

Talking about Grant’s, we saw all sort of birds: extremely fresh (summer breeder juveniles?), quite fresh (winter breeder adults?), worn and actively moulting (summer breeder adults?) and a bird with intermediate primary wear and growing secondaries (f*** knows).

moulting secondaries

juvenile castro

White-faced storm-petrels were more straightforward. All the birds we saw were adults except for one recently fledged juvenile. It still showed the white edges in the primaries and secondaries and an ever more naive expression. Is impossible to get tired of seeing them. Both Fea’s petrel and White-faced storm-petrel were a lifer for all the crew in the boat I was leading, but the reaction was much more exaggerated after the White-faced tick. Definitely, one of the most impressive birds in the world.

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Pelagodroma + madeira

Pelagodroma

In land, very good views of Houbara bustard, Stone-curlew, Laughing dove, Plain swift and of course Lanzarote landscape.

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Stone curlew

Even there’s been no megas this year in Lanzarote Pelagics, the species list is still impressive and Fea’s petrel has been seen in 2 out of 3 pelagics trips this year. Gadfly petrels were one of our main challenges and it seems we are starting to get the way of attracting them. Let’s see what happens in 2014, but I think this has only started.





This is not a goodbye

20 02 2013
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, take down this book and slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.”
 – William Butler Yeats
El Hierro must be one of the best places to feel the sea as a part of you. Hence, these 2 weeks has been the best way to say goodbye to the sea, since I will be working with ground birds at Falsterbo for the next 3 months. We have had a taste of all: African heat haze, northern cold winds, rain, burning sun, fogg and of course the Canary Island’s typical trade winds. Fortunately, we managed to take profit of almost all the conditions we were coming across.
The first days were quite normal. The beaked whales (once again the target of the survey) seemed to be scarce, but the Mar de las Calmas bay was plenty of Spotted, Bottlenose, Common and Rough-toothed dolphins. Birds were also present since there is a Barbary falcon nest close to the land-based observation point and the local ospreys were also prospecting the area. The sea was infected of both pyrosomids and Portuguese Man o’war, as seems usual in the Canaries during early spring. We took the first underwater images.Image
After 3 days of normal work, a northern front was near to force us to suspend the campaign. We already had made our package when a last look at the forecast encouraged us to rest in el Hierro. Even it was impossible to go out the sea during the 2 following days, we profited to see the island once again. The idea was to show to the volunteers working on the survey almost all the local bird species and this would represent for me the chance to check if there was something new in the pond at Frontera. We first saw some Bolle’s pigeon in the high part of the forest, together with Tenerife goldcrest, Tenerife blue tit and the rest of common endemics. In the end, we reach the pond. A lesser scaup had been sighted there in late December but I didn’t expect to see it. The first bird I saw apart from some yellow-legged gulls was a new female ring-necked duck, but the female lesser scaup suddenly appeared. A quite typical image in the Macaronesia: two nearctic ducks together in the same pond.
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Later on, already in the east coast of the island, we found a dead deep water fish of a still unknown species. Any comments on the identification will be welcome! Anyway, the landscapes from both here and El Verodal beach were stunning. I won’t never forget that dusk with Borja, Efrain, Manu, Nino, Crístel and Agus (even she had a cold) at the Orchilla lighthouse.
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The following days were more normal. The bay was still plenty of dolphins, specially Rough-toothed Steno bredanensis. These smart animals were swimming simultaneously, in its unmistakable way. Most of the groups contained calves that were particularly actives, jumping and flapping the surface with the tail. In one of the groups, we notice there was a dead calf that appeared and disappeared intermittently. Finally, we saw what was presumably the mother of the calf taking the lifeless body an putting it downwards in an attempt to avoid gull’s attacks. The calf seemed to be dead since more or less 1 day ago, so the tenacity of the mother was remarkable.
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Most of days, the Atlantic spotted dolphins overfill the bay. These animals are extremely social. They either come and jump below the prow or play with the bubbles of the engine. Together with them, a huge group of Short-finned pilot whales appeared just for one day but enough to get very good views. Perfect to try some aquatic pictures!
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In the time being, the land-based station was surrounded by Boettger’s lizards Gallotia caesaris and Canary Island’ ravens, both doing some display. This stunning panoramic landscape (thank you Efrain) shows the place we were working at. Wonderful when weather conditions do respect.
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And what about beaked whales? They insisted in their scarcity, but finally we managed to take good pictures of a group of 3 Cuvier’s beaked whales. It’s the first time I am able to notice its red eye in the middle of its friendly face. One of the animals passed diving just below the prow and both Borja and me enjoyed an unforgettable image of the whale wagging its tail impulsing the huge body into the depth. The same day we saw an impressive Bryde’s whale that was near to wet us with its blow.
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Now it’s time to face Falsterbo. Probably I will miss the Canary Islands sometime, but I am sure I will come back sooner than expected. Meanwhile, I will remember them by reading my book.







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