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.

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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?





Some nice photos

12 03 2015

“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed: by doing nothing.”

Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

It’s been a busy winter. It’s not that I’ve not had the time to post something on the blog, the problem is that there has been so much stuff going on that I’ve not been able to sum it up. It’s quite easy actually: Borolo’s sheawater things in the Canary Islands and twitching in Catalonia.

The project with the shearwaters is going well and the first two birds have been successfully tagged, both reporting data about their unknown foraging range. Since all the information about this is already in the project’ blog post, I’ll focus on some other experiences. First of all, while trying to mistnet shearwaters, we caught several Grant’s storm-petrels. This species is not formally described yet and… oh wait, Stephen already spoke about that too!

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Should I write about the twitching then? Much ink has been already spilled about the Brown shrike at Ebro Delta, the Isabelline shrike at Marjal d’Almenara, the Pygmy cormorant and the Ring-necked duck at exactly the same locality in Aiguamolls de l’Empordà and the local megas (almost first twitchable ever) Rock pipit and Purple sandpiper (both at Ebro Delta and surrounding areas).

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So, what’s left? 3 months without posting and you end up showing some lichen photos to add some freshness. Here they go, Lepraria sp. and Xanthoria sp.:

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Both photos were taken at Fuerteventura. The Eastern Islands are bright like I had never seen them before, both full of flowers that create a stunning carpet. Keeping in mind most of these plants are endemic, the ecological benefits of this year’s rain are invaluable. The photo shows the currently violet surroundings of El Golfo village, due to the flowered Echium lancerottense.

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Echium lancerottense B

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Fuerteventura shows a similar aspect, but what always impresses me the most are the sharp colors of the spurges Euphorbia canariensis. While Stephen was chasing some stonechats, I was taking photos of the scene.

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So this has ended up being a crappy post with no information and just some nice photos. Trust me, it’s not been that bad…





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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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.





Little things

2 04 2014

“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”

– Andy Warhol

In my last lonely day of the second round of the Barolo shearwater survey, tired and already waiting for Genís to join me, I decided to spend the day enjoying Fuerteventura, its landscape and especially its little endemic: the Fuerteventura stonechat.

I reached Cofete, the wonderful tiny village in the north of the Jandía peninsula, and saw the same restaurant I had been 7 years ago. Although it’s a bit expensive (due to the place, don’t expect iranian caviar), after several days eating tins of tuna I thought I deserved some relax. I guess all trip guides/webs already say that, but, just in case, you should go there! Either with friends, with the couple or alone, but to be sit in the terrace looking at the landscape and enjoying the classical potatoes with spicy sauce (papas con mojo) is a good way to chase problems away, at least for a couple of hours.

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After an abundant meal, Southern people usually sleaps but, since I got no sofa nor bed, the car was a complete mess and it was raining hard, I decided to immediately go and look for the stonechats. 7 years ago I saw quite a lot of them almost everywhere, but this spring they seem to be restricted to the south of the island, or at least much more abundant there. A long-term evlutionary ecology survey such as that of Galapago’s ground finches would probably show strong fluctuations depending on rain and who knows what other variables. In the current year, I found 3 nests in 3 hours, all of them in the Canary Islands spurge Euphorbia canariensis area of the Jandía peninsula. It’s nice to see an endemic bird breeding under an endemic plant surrounded by such an unaltered area.

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Already focused on one of the couples, I started looking at the moult to age them. Illera & Atienza 2002 described the moult of this species as almost exactly the same than in European stonechat rubicola, that is, a partial post-juvenile that includes LCs, MCs and some to all GCs and a lack of pre-nuptial moult that leads to a worn body plumage in spring (in contrast with Siberian stonechat). However, both members of the couple I was looking at had moulted much more, and some feathers not even mentioned in the article, such as all 3 tertials in the case of the male and medium alula in the female. Although the article does say males moult much more than females in their PJ (to reach a bright adult-like appearence), it looks like this moult can be more extensive than previously expected.

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To determine the extension of the moult in the female (e.g. number of GCs moulted) is a bit trickier, although A2 looked obviously moulted in the field. I was not able to see the other wing in detail, so it could be just a replacement, but A2 is not a feather usually lost and replaced. All in all, among lots of questions, it would be interesting to assess how many males do moult tertials. Since PJ moult (especially in males) has an ecologycal/behavioral reason, it would be nice to see if 1stS males with moulted tertials have a higher breeding success.

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Finally, just a photo of another Fuerteventura specialty for those visiting the Canaries: Black-bellied sandgrouse. They were already in couples, flying over the steppes emitting their magic call that brings me to my childhood summers in the steppes of Soria…

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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!








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