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.

A Song to say Goodbye

7 07 2012

“Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr…”

– Ohne dicht, Rammstein

I am already in Barcelona again and I have in mind a post about this city (she deserves it) but I must talk about my last day in Tenerife, out in the field.

Natacha told me about a route from Los Silos to Monte del Agua, probably in my favorite place of the island (as I said before) and I could not imagine a better way to say goodbye to Tenerife. The route starts in a low bushland area and goes up entering the heart of the laurel forest. In the first part of the ascent, you pass beside some old typical Canary Islands constructions, surrounded by fruit trees and water courses. Some of that old houses are deserted and you feel obliged to think about the possibility of living there.

A few meters above, you cross an underground gallery built in the past times to transport water throw the mountains. When you exit the tunnel, everything is green, you heard the pigeon’s wings clapping in the trees and then you realize you are already in the laurel forest. Just when we leaved the gallery, we saw that Epaulet skimmer Orthetrum chrysostigma resting on the ground.

The whole trip was very nice. We were all the morning trying to identify as many plant species as possible. Sometimes we managed to do so, but some others were a bit more exasperating. Just as the butterfly Gonepteryx cleobule! I’ve been 5 months in Tenerife and it has been impossible to take a miserable picture of it. Some of them flew over us while consulting our plant field guide, one was even almost sat on a flower for a while, but it never stopped flying actually. Just another reason to come back.

One of the most stunning stages of the trip was the path surrounded by Isoplexis canariensis, a flower called “rooster-crest” by local people. This plant is pollinated by birds and therefore its whole structure is designed to attract birds and impregnate them with the pollen. The anthers are placed in the upper part of the flower, a part that birds can’t avoid to touch with the nape when sucking the nectar. Moreover, the color is in the orange wavelenght, like most of ornithophil plants.

It was also nice to see the Canaries madrone Arbutus canariensis without the bark, showing a stunning pinkish red trunk. There were many of them in what probably is their best area, as it is for many other localized plant species. The landscape was incredible and we decided to have lunch. Thank you Natacha for the sandwich and specially Esther for the honey!

In the way back, we saw some deserted houses again. As usually, walls were plenty of Tenerife lizards Gallotia galloti and we had to share the prickly pears we had collected since they seemed to be hungry.

Later on, already close to Los Silos, some dragonflies such as Red-veined dropwing Trithemis arteriosa fulfilled my thirst just enough to forget about wildlife for the rest of the day and enjoy a music festival at Buenavista del Norte. Esther defined the day as “perfect” and I couldn’t agree more.

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.

Coming from the past

30 03 2012

“For the majority of us, the past is a regret, the future an experiment”

– Mark Twain

Even the migration is stopped, I am still in a biodiversity paradise and it’s not worth to forget about that. The islands contitute huge evolution laboratories and the forces acting in the species ways are more noticeable in that ecosystems. Probably one of the first things Darwin observed as soon as he reached the Galapagos was the swimming iguanas. Reptiles have been always considered one of the oldest forms of vertebrate life and it’s possible to be aware of that just by looking at them. The colonization of an island depends mainly on 3 factors: the distance from another land mass, the age and the size of the island.

The Canaries are an heterodoxous group of islands. Not all of them emanated from the sea at the same time and the habitats are also extremely different between each other. That fact culminates in a complex phylogenetic tree of the genus Gallotia, endemic from the Canaries, already described by some works such as Thorpe 1994. The genus is represented by 2 species in Tenerife, althought one of them is very scarce and restricted to the northwestern corner. The other, Gallotia galloti, is present in most of the areas and you can get good views of it if you wait for a moment near a wall or even near an Opuntia plenty of fruits. Its diet is extremely variable and it can goes from insects to fruits. The size of the head and specially the size of the jaws is correlated with the diet and it shows a high sexual dimorphism very useful when sexing some individuals with a female-like colouration.

Yesterday, while waiting for a Barbary falcon couple in a typical cliff surrounded by tabaiba bushland, lots of lizzards were sunbathing and I felt it was time to look at them finally. The males are impressive, althought some of them are not as brightful as others are. Note the extremely prominent pterygoid muscle, in contrast with females.

Females are more approachable. One of them was moulting its skin. It does so part by part, not like snakes do. The head profile is slimer and jaws are not as powerful as in males.

Finally, the falcons appeared and I returned to my birding routine…

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