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?


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…

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.


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!

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.

Nothing to say

24 10 2012

“Photograph: A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.”

– Ambrose Bierce

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.

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