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.

IMG_5743

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.

IMG_5756

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.

IMG_6419

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:

IMG_6291

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.

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (220)b2

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.

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (213)b

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!

EH_2015.05.22_MarcelGil (209)b

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!

Lanzarote 104

Canarias 360

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).

cristatus1

Delta de l'Ebre 147

Catalunya gener 2015 382

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.:

Canarias 099

Canarias 109

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.

Echium lancerottense4

Echium lancerottense B

Echium lancerottense3

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.

Canarias 042

Canarias 138

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.

monhoris castro2

monhoris ring

monhoris

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.

sabines

 

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.

Isurus oxyrhinchus2

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.

pelagodroma2

pelagodroma

 

 

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!

calonectris borealis tongues

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!

balaenoptera edeni

frontalis

tursiops

 

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…

melanotos2

melanotos3

 

Lanzarote 163

houbara

 

 

 

 





Gull-watching in Sweden

12 08 2014

“They all should be called Larus larus – Guillermo Rodríguez Lázaro

Looking for gulls doesn’t sound like a good way to spend a day off after several days of hard ringing in Flommen reedbed but, since it had been a long time since my last serious gull-watching session, I really enjoyed yesterday’s trip to Shimrishamn and the east coast of Skåne. First of all, I should say thank you very much to Walter Wehtje for such a nice day off the peninsula.

We arrived to Simrishamn harbor quite late in the morning, but there were still some gulls to look at. There we found our first 2 juveniles Caspian gull, but one of them quickly hid away behind the breakwater and the other was boringly sitting among Great black-backeds and Herrings. Nice re-encountering with this fresh juvenile plumage, one of the rarest in Spain, where it seems restricted to early arrivals to the NW coast. Despite the black mask lacking in most of 1stW, it keeps its depressive appearence that makes me like them and feel sorry for them at the same time.

cachinnans juvenile1

After half an hour uselessly waiting for the bird to stand up and do something, we head south following Ulrik‘s suggestion, stopping to check each flock of gulls sitting on the shore. The next time we had success was around Brantevik harbor, where we found another juvenile Caspian plus a 1st summer bird. I didn’t know in which stage of moult would I find these 2cy now, but I had expected them to be done with their complete. However, this 1stS was still growing p9 and the number of unmoulted secondaries was surprisingly (or maybe not that much…) high. The tail was also being renewed.

cachinnans 1stS

While waiting for this bird to fly, I took a look at the Canada geese that were peacefully swimming around the rocks. Walter had already seen one putativa hybrid Greylag x Canada, but there was actually a whole clutch of them. The freaky family was made out of a presumed male Canada, a really confused presumed female Greylag and 5 odd-looking fledglings. Dear geese: please, stop doing that.

hybrid geese

Our next stop was at Skillinge. There was nothing in the harbor, but lots of gulls south of it and it turnt out to be the best place among the ones we checked. We spotted a couple more juvenile Caspian, one of them giving close views of its whiter head and genuine bill profile.

cachinnans juvenile2

It was then when Oscar Danielson suddenly appeared with a bag of trashy food, ready to re-join Ulrik after a brief but profitable incursion into civilization. They had been birding even further south and seen almost the same number if Caspian gulls we had seen. We saw together the stincky Ruddy shelduck that Emil and Erik had found something like a week ago and we came back to gull-watching since the most interesting stuff (this is, the less identifiable stuff) was still to come. After a couple more juvenile Caspian (between Oscar and Ulrik and us, we might ended up seing like 20 of them), I spotted an adult bright ‘yellow-legged’ gull sitting on a rock. It went for a short flight and landed nearby. Here in an out-of-focus photo just to compare leg colour.

yellow-legged

And here chasing an adult Herring showing its wing tip pattern. As can be seen, the mirror in p9 is quite big and it lacks the subterminal black band in p10. This pattern has been described for eastern Yellow-legged gulls (by Chris Gibbins, for instance: here).

yellow-legged3

However, in this last record shot, it’s posible to see the recently grown p5 with just an unsolid black subterminal band. This, together with the same mantle coloration as the Herrings around, makes me sceptic of it being a Yellow-legged gull, or at least a pure one. All in all, keeping in mind we are in Sweden and it was indeed in the Baltic were we saw this bird, I’d call it omissus or yellow-legged type Herring.

yellow-legged4

When we thought this was gonna be the most interesting bird of the day, Ulrik spotted a 2cy whatever that looked tricky. The overall dark coloration and the Caspish jizz made me think about Heuglin’s, but the bird was too advanced in primary moult and too delayed in body moult. Ulrik managed to take some flight photos where you can see a really dark underwing and completely dark new primaries. p9 and p10 are still juvenile, all GCs seem to be moulted and the white bar in MCs might be a whole line of feathers missing, so moult pattern fits with both Herring and intermedius Lesser black-backed. The coloration of the new feathers points to LBB but structure and especially bill shape (with such a pronounced gonys) points to nominate Herring. My conclusion: I don’t know.

IMG_6429

IMG_6432

So we left having seen plenty of interesting stuff, including these 2 youngsters. Don’t ask me what the hell are they doing in the photo. Don’t ask me about Oscar’s t-shirt or Ulrik’s cap neither. Those are even bigger misteries than some of the trickiest gull’s identity…

ulrik and oscar





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)

whale-wide

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?

El Hierro 516

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.

Benetton - duck on oil

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.

EH_2014.02.20_GalaSerrano 783

EH_2014.02.22_NereaGarcia 992

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.

EH_2014.02.19_ULL_  (403)

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.

EH_2014.02.21_MarcelGil 539

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…

rabijunco present

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.

rabijunco2

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!








%d bloggers like this: