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.





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!





Round 1. Fight!

25 02 2014

“If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize”

– Muhammad Ali

Maybe one of the most important things I’ve done in my life so far is what I’m currently doing: a project for Barolo shearwater conservation in the Canary Islands. Although I don’t fear being ambitious when it comes to preserve nature, the several tasks to do in order to execute it properly make the field work hard, very hard. It is divided in three rounds of work and we’ve just finished the first one. Most of days’ work has included census from vessel between islands, from-land census with a scope and night hears in the breeding colonies. Some of this work carried in isolated islets, some of them hard to reach and of course not comfortable to live in.

However, after only a couple of days resting at home, things look much better. The experience is invaluable from a personal point of view. To hear several Barolo shearwaters entering the colony inside of the volcano in Montaña Clara islet, late at night, after a hard and cold time sleeping on the rocks can be only described as magic and goes straight to the podium of my birding memories.

The adventure started at La Gomera. Although for me it will be always one of the greenest islands of the Canaries, the fact that the areas we were interested in were all in the dry south combined with the extensive burnt area right in the heart of Garajonay National Park gave me a different taste than in my previous visits. However, we enjoyed good views of some birds typical from the Macaronesian laurel forest such as this Tenerife goldcrest. This taxa is not recognized as a species nowadays and, risking sounding like a twitcher, I don’t understand why. Note the dark grey head, the yellow-creamy wing bar and the dirty flanks. Keeping in mind this population is 4000km from the nearest breeding ground of regulus and the Madeiran firecrest has species status, I just don’t get it. I know, the genetic distance is not big enough, but neither it is in swifts and eiders.

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Anyway, it was time to move to Fuerteventura to carry on with the shearwaters. Bizarrely, we got rainy weather there, so again I got a different taste from this dry island than in my previous visits. Some of the Houbara bustards were already displaying with their high-speed version of Great bustards’ foam bath. Bad views of Cream-colored courser and a good study of a couple of Fuerteventura Common buzzards were the only stuff we got time for.

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These buzzards are indeed interesting. They are meant to be insularum like in the rest of the Archipelago, but the truth is they look more like Long-legged buzzards. Structure and tail band should be enough to rule out the north African cirtensis, but it’s hard to avoid thinking those birds don’t have any influence from this species. Judge by yourself:

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The plan for the next two days was to go to Lobos islet. Not so much to say about this small islet… Apart from an impressive landscape and a (too) big colony of Yellow-legged gull, it’s not as good as it could be for seabirds. Nowadays it’s packed of mice but it’s worth saying the last cat died there because it was really old. We are not talking about a big island but about an islet, where monitoring and management should be a priority.

After an extra night in Fuerteventura double-checking some good places for shearwaters, we faced Lanzarote, an island that I’ve always seen in a hurry. The bad point about leading the trips to La Concepción Bank with Lanzarote Pelagics is that I’ve rarely have time for birding in the island itself. This time was not that different… we were still focused on seabirds, although this time not as far away from the shore. However, we enjoyed the Houbaras and especially the Cream-colored coursers with even better views than at Fuerteventura.

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The coursers were already mating. This couple hidden behind some vegetation… not so different from humans actually.

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A visit to Janubio saltpans was quite nice to see some waders and ducks. Nothing of interest apart from Black-tailed godwits and the always stunning Ruddy shelducks. Nice to see as well the flock of Black-necked grebes that is wintering there. We counted 21 birds, but the maximum has been 23.

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Finally, a quick check at Tías golf course. This place has given so many rarities that is worth checking just in case. However, the only remarkable birds present were a flock of White wagtails and some Trumpeter finches. Even they are always there, for a birder from the Peninsula is always nice to see them, especially with these good views.

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And that’s it… Hard but enjoyable field work somehow. Now it’s time for another cetacean survey at this paradise called El Hierro, combined with more research on Barolo shearwaters.





Ode to a wader

6 05 2013

“Tell me what you’d like to hear me sing. I’ll sing whatever you like, after which I will take up a collection, if you don’t mind…”

– Edith Piaf

It’s not the first time I’ve realized my life has changed by looking at which species I am targeting at work. One year ago, I wrote a similar post about Laurel pigeon and today, it’s time to take a look to another species that is breeding close to the place where I am living: the Dunlin. These 2 species seem to share opposite fates: while Laurel pigeon is experimenting a notable increase due to hunting prohibition and habitat protection, Southern dunlins Calidris alpina shinzii are declining dramatically.

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Everybody knows the Arctic is in serious trouble. The increase of the global temperature together with the accumulation of contaminants is leading most of Arctic species to extinction. However, the firsts changes in their populations can be noticed further south, in the little spots of tundra (or its equivalent southern moorland habitats) where these species do also breed. Sometimes these areas are well-protected and local researchers are not able to explain why the population of such species keeps on decreasing. In these cases, the conservation strategies must be global, acting in the heart of the populations, sometimes in places where a decline has not been noticed yet. This means to study the still healthy populations, assessing their threats, even if they come from further south like contaminants or occur further south like human pressure in wintering grounds. To ensure the main range of a species guarantees its future and it would be the species itself who would send advanced scouts to establish satellite populations in this isolated southern spots of habitat.

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I am working in one of those spots: southwestern Skåne. The population of dunlins here is fragmented and declining despite the big effort performed by local researchers. Vellinge Ängar is already my favourite area among the 8 comprising the breeding bird survey. It’s a beautiful wet wasteland, with some channels across carrying water from the adjacent farmland area to the main lagoon. Migrating waders forage along the muddy shore, always in large numbers, while the breeding species display in the middle of the heath. Oystercatchers, redshanks, lapwings, ringed plovers, avocets and of course the dunlins make up a orchestra that plays every morning, even (who knows if especially) when there’s nobody to enjoy it.

In the first visit to the area, I saw 4 males dunlin and 2 females. All the males were crazily singing, but both females seemed to belong to the same lucky male, a very old one ringed (as an adult) in 2006. Males are supposed to take care of the brood and therefore a shorter bill is positively selected, since it is useful to forage in terrestrial habitats. The short bill is also typical of Southern populations C. a. schinzii, so the short-billed impression in males schinzii is quite impressive. Moreover, the date of arrival of breeding dunlins seems to be correlated with bill length and body mass. The pairs composed by a small and short-billed male and a big and long-billed female (like the gorgeous TC) arrive earlier to the breeding grounds, while the pairs composed by average-sized birds arrive later (Jönson 1987). Most of the birds I saw were short-billed males and long-billed females, what make me hope yet another arrival of dunlins in the following days.

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Despite this fact, the number of dunlins in the area already represents a remarkable increase with respect to last year’s numbers. A promising breeding season for them, in the end! There’s still a long way to success, but at least the initial settings couldn’t be better.








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