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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.

Land ho!

7 10 2012

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

– Eric Cantona

Not an easy work those days in Galicia waters. The galore that came from actually I don’t know were and the strong swell rocked the ship all night long, making sleeping almost impossible. The rain and the cold winds kept me awake during the day, but after dinner time, at nightfall, I dropped down dead. However, the sea was plenty of birds and I specially enjoyed the large numbers of Sabine’s gull. I’ve seen more than 3000, being a flock of up to 800 the maximum together. Most of the flocks were composed by around 100 birds, with a Long-tailed skua embedded in. The skua landed in the sea or took off when the gulls did so. When the gulls came to eat the fishes we were throwing away, the skua also came to steal it.
The great skuas were also abundant, but their targets were the lesser black-backed gulls and the gannets. In the first days, Arctic skua was the 2nd commonest skua species, but this tendency changed in the middle of the campaign: Pomarines got more and more abundant until finally reaching last year’ levels.
Long-tailed skua would always be the smartest species of the seas. Apart from the birds within the Sabine’s, there were many long-tailed skuas migrating. The 80% of them were already juveniles, I guess adults must be in Senegal nowadays. The birds in the extremes of plumage variation were my favorites, both all-dark and white-headed.
Tubenoses were scarcer than last year. Great shearwaters may be in the rear-end of the Bay of Biscay, were people is reporting thousands of them. My maximum was 122 following the ship, but most of days I saw no more than 30. In the other hand, I saw 2 strong migration days of Sooty shearwaters, with some Manx in between. Cory’s were present in the area, but it’s hard to say what were they doing… maybe that’s why I like the English word “foraging”. I managed to see a presumed Scopoli’s in a flock of up to 40 birds.
European storm-petrel was a common species this year. They were present in all the edge of the continental shelf, specially abundant in front of Finisterre headland, where I saw a flock of more than 400 birds. In the Rías Baixas area, there were lots of Wilson’s storm-petrels and a Band-rumped, one of the few sightings in the coast. Leach’s soon appeared, but in low numbers and scattering around, just as always.
The terns were more abundant than last year, but I had no success in my search for the roseate. Arctic was quite common some days, and there were still some unexpected adults. I caught an injured juvenile with a hole on its breast, caused probably by a skua or a large gull. I healed it and it finally flew southwards. Good luck for him!
In the afternoons, if it was not too windy, the common terns were sat in the cables of the ship. A nice image, but better with a roseate whithin… Anyway, that brought me the chance to read a PVC ring and to study 1st summer plumages, the commonest those days.
And of course the cetaceans… We had bad weather conditions and that always makes hard to find a fin in the middle of the scummy sea. The first days we were happy with the short-beaked common dolphins and their impressive jumps, but the only morning we had a respite, we saw 5 unidentified whales, 1 Minke whale, a group of Long-finned pilot whales and the always present common dolphins. That was our best whale-watching moment.
In a week, I will be working in the sea again, this time in the Canaries and this time with cetaceans. I’ve never got sick, I never get tired, I would never have enough.


18 09 2012

“To step out into the dark
Now I’m ready”

– Ready to start, The Arcade Fire

Tomorrow is the day! I take off at 18:45, landing at Vigo airport at 9:30. The whole day feeling nervous, anxious… The Cornide de Saavedra, an old but warm research vessel, will be my home in the next 17 days. Wake up early in the morning, take a coffee and go out to the deck. The first image of each day being a flock of great shearwaters, some pomarine skuas, terns, gulls, gannets, storm-petrels. I couldn’t be happier.

I would like to share some of the highlights of last year’ campaigns since I didn’t have the blog yet. I prospected the Mediterranean coast, the Atlantic coast, the Cantabric coast, the Gulf of Cádiz, Moroccan coast and of course the Canaries, seeing most of Iberian seabirds and meeting unforgettable people. I will be out in the sea for a few time this year, so I will try to take profit of each minute.

The history started in July 2011, at Castelló harbour. That campaign finished in Málaga, so I saw the Mediterranean species. Audouin’s gull was one of the commonest gull species. It was interesting to see some juveniles in Cabo de Gata area… maybe a breeding evidence? The Scopoli’s shearwaters were brightful, with some unexpected Cory’s in between.
Other highlights included an adult Long-tailed skua, an Eleonora’s falcon and lots of Mediterranean storm-petrels.

The next campaign was in september at Banco de Galicia, a mountain placed 120 miles off Galicia. This is a well-known good area for Band-rumped storm-petrels and I saw more than two hundreds of them among some Leach’s and Wilson’s. The fresh plumage shown by all the individuals pointed to the winter population, foraging in the area in their way back to breeding grounds. There I saw as well my first Fea’s/Desertas petrel, some White-faced storm-petrels, Long-tailed skuas, Sabine’s gull, an offshore Short-eared owl and the rest of commoner migrants. The last day, 3 hours before entering Celeiro harbour, a nice adult Roseate tern did culminate my work.

Without time to digest that sightings, I found myself again aboard, this time off Vigo and surrounding the Galician coast, heading north. The first days were promising: another roseate tern, Wilson’s storm-petrel… but when we passed Finisterre, it got even better! 2 South polar skuas and a Barolo’s shearwater… what else?

My next step was the Gulf of Cádiz. I didn’t know what to expect there… Mediterranean species, Atlantic species? The result was a nice mixture of both. I saw a Wilson’s storm-petrel and some Leach’s, but also 3 Yelkouan shearwaters and many Scopoli’s. My last 2 Sabine’s gull of the year and at least 5 great shearwaters, noting compared with the large amounts of them I had seen in the Bay of Biscay but good numbers keeping in mind they are still rarities in Andalucia.

An then… going south to the Canaries. The voyage was quite boring. Leach’s, band-rumped and white-faced storm-petrels near Banco de Dacia and la Concepción and a Green turtle off Casablanca were the best. In the Canaries, the story did not change too much, but cetaceans are always present in that waters and the sighting of 3 Killer whales in the Bocayna strait did compensate my efforts. A week after, in 2 consecutive days, a Fea’s/Desertas petrel each day were the only bird in 18 hours of census. I was lucky to take some pictures, maybe the first ones good enough for species identification in Spanish waters.

I don’t have target birds for this year, I just will be patient.

Canary Islands, Pelagics

29 08 2012

I am the lizzard king, I can do whatever I want”

– Jim Morrison

The weekend of August 18th and 19th was the first time for me for many things. It was the first time I had entered Lanzarote, since the others I was not able to spend more than a night at this wonderful island. Moreover, it was the first time I’ve leaded a trip for a birding enterprise: the already famous Lanzarote Pelagics. Finally, it was the first time I had seen a Black-bellied stormpetrel, only the 3rd sighting for the Western Palearctic.

The weekend started on friday morning, when I was told to go birding with some nice guys from Switzerland. Our main purpose was to find something rare, but there was not migration and then we decided to see the local species, which are even more impressive than a rarity. We saw plenty of Cream-colored courser and Houbara bustard at Llanos de Famara, an excellent place to look for them. Later on, in a water point together with a farm, hundreds of Berthelot’s pipit, Lesser short-toed larks and Trumpeter finches were drinking and bathing. Also 5 Houbaras inside of the farm! You can see almost all the birds of the island in 5 minutes in that place… it would be good for a Big Day.

The pelagic trip started on saturday. We take off from Orzola harbour and went to Banco de la Concepción, where many tubenoses are suposed to be foraging. During the way to the Banco, we already saw lots of Bulwer’s petrels and Cory’s shearwater. Cetaceans were also present: a Bryde’s whale early in the morning and some groups of both Atlantic spotted and Stripped dolphins did suddenly appear.

Already in the Banco, we stopped our boat and put the chum on the water. Just a minute after, a Wilson’s storm-petrel was feeding on it and both Madeiran and white-faced storm-petrels did come soon. Bulwer’s petrels seemed to be shyer and just flew over the chum. Everyone was able to take beautyful pictures of that 4 pelagic species and then we moved to another point: the exact place where 2 south polar skuas were seen last year.

When we arrived to the waypoint, we saw a skua but it was a Long-tailed skua in an interesting 1st summer plumage. When we were taking pictures of the skua, something magic happened. A Black-bellied storm-petrel suddenly appeared and, instead of flying away, it foraged close to the boat for 20 minutes. Nice to see Richard Bonser making a lifer for his WP list, an image maybe even rarer than the storm-petrel!

The rest of the day was not so profitable. We managed to see some interesting cetaceans such as sperm whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale and quite a lot Bryde’s whale. Of course also some dolphins: a group of lovely Bottlenosed dolphins showing their acrobatic skills and another group of Bottlenosed and Risso’s dolphins feeding together with hundreds of Cory’s shearwaters in a classic sea-ecology image.

Sunday was a hard day. Everyone was more tired and all of us had seen the Black-bellied storm-petrel the day before, so people’s birding activity experienced a strong decrease. However, some of us kept on searching and managed to see an adult Roseate tern, unfortunately too distant to enjoy it. Adults of both Sabine’s gull and Long-tailed skua came to hello us for a while and then kept on his way south.

The trip finished with a nice dinner at a traditional place in Orzola. Couldn’t avoid to feel sad.

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.

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…

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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