Author Archives: Dan Brown

A new mammal ID frontier – Western Palearctic Canids

Dan Brown

From forest ghost and desert dweller, legends of folklore and Egyptian deities; the canids of the Western Palaearctic are shrouded in intrigue, respect and awe. This year saw a surprising twist in the tale (or should that be tail), and yet another great example of thinking and looking outside of the box when it comes to field ID 

When I first started writing this a few months ago I hadn’t fully appreciated just how complicated the subject matter was! The ID of WP canids has always been pretty straightforward; Grey Wolf & Golden Jackal, however a recent discovery has created an eye-opening twist to the story, and a true frontier in canid identification.

Grey Wolf. Top predator from tundra to deserts. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

Grey Wolf. Top predator from tundra to deserts. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

The story of WP canids is evolving rapidly. From two species last year to three species this year; and with one expanding its range exceptionally rapidly it pays to keep an open mind if you encounter one of these amazing predators. This article will focus on ID but it’s impossible to write a piece on Wolves and allies without covering some of the diverse cultural connections which surrounds them.

The species covered are:

  • Grey Wolf (Canis lupis)
  • African Golden Wolf (Canis anthus)
  • Golden Jackal (Canis aureus)
Presumed Golden Jackal Jerusalem. Amir Balaban

Presumed Golden Jackal Jerusalem. Amir Balaban

For as long as humans can remember we have had a relationship with Wolves. Through fear and through respect they have entwined themselves in legend, folklore and lives of remote communities. Sadly, as is so often the way, that which we fear becomes persecuted and across Europe the number of wolves has declined leaving isolated populations. It was formerly the most widespread mammal on the planet but its range has contracted by approximately a third. Thankfully, despite continued persecution, populations are increasing in some areas and overall it is considered stable.

Wolves feature heavily in fairy tales from Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs to Norse mythology. In the former the Wolf represents the night and consumes various characters that represent the sun or dawn (eg Little Red Riding Hood is likely to represent dawn when she is cut from the belly of the wolf). Many of these tales were probably a product of direct warnings to children not to venture in to forests at night where they could have realistically become prey for Wolves, this is particularly true in native North American culture. There are of course positive references to Wolves in the literature and in indigenous cultures where they are seen to remove weaker ungulates (especially Reindeer) from the population thus maintaining healthy herds which were generally managed by the Saami and other Reindeer herding communities.

Grey Wolf, Kuhmo, Finland. A species feared and revered. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

Grey Wolf, Kuhmo, Finland. A species feared and revered. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

Sadly there are still numerous instances of illegal persecution and continued hunting. Some countries in Scandinavia actively manage their Wolf populations for hunting and indeed they suppress the population to such an extent that species such as Elk/Moose are now overly abundant, similar to the situation we have in Scotland with Red Deer (we just need some Wolves to help with the population management).

The Grey Wolf is as a remarkable predator, and much like the Raven in the bird world, it has colonised all habitats from Arctic tundra to arid desert. A communal pack hunter, this animal is capable of working cooperatively to run-down and out-smart some of European largest animals. In the WP Wolves can still be found throughout Scandinavia as well as in the remoter areas of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Alps, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and through the Middle East to Israel.

Ancient history did not neglect Golden Jackals either. Anubis, the god associated with mummification in Egyptian mythology was thought to be based on the Golden Jackal (though the recent discoveries tend to point to it actually being African Golden Wolf rather than Jackal). Interestingly despite being one of the most heavily depicted gods, Anubis played little role in Egyptian Mythology.

Anubis, the greek name for the god associated with mummification and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion. We now know that the Jackal is in fact African Golden Wolf in Egypt

Anubis, the greek name for the god associated with mummification and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion. We now know that the Jackal is in fact African Golden Wolf in Egypt

In contrast to wolves, the Golden Jackal tends to be a solitary hunter, more opportunistic and more eclectic in their diet. They are found throughout the Middle east and south-eastern Europe however the last decade has seen a massive expansion in its range with animals recorded throughout eastern Europe as far north as Estonia, up to north-eastern Italy, Poland, Germany, and the first record for Denmark occurred only a few weeks ago. It seems not illogical to expect this expansion to continue and observers in France, Holland and maybe even Spain should be aware of the possibility of encountering Jackals.

Golden Jackals are generally solitary or found in pairs though multiples will occasional occur together at feeding sites. Zoltán Gergely Nagy / Sakertours

Golden Jackals are generally solitary or found in pairs though multiples will occasional occur together at feeding sites. Zoltán Gergely Nagy / Sakertours

Now a third species comes into the mix, African Golden Wolf. Until recently it was assumed that the North African animals were simply Golden Jackals however a study published this summer showed that in fact these animals represent a cryptic Wolf species Canis anthus.

The current distributional limits of Golden Jackal and African Golden Wolf haven’t yet been fully established and evidence of African Golden Wolf DNA in Jackals in Israel suggests there is a hybrid zone. Until further work has been undertaken then a crude assumption would be that Golden Jackal occurs up to the Egyptian border and those animals in Africa represent African Golden Wolf. The situation is further confused by the presence of Grey Wolf right up to the Egyptian border and possibly even west of the Nile. A summary of recent events is as follows:

  • In 2011 the first suggested occurrence of Grey Wolves in North Africa came to light and was reported here.
  • Further evidence and pictures in 2012 including what looks like a superb full adult Grey Wolf west of the Nile were documented here:
  • Pictures and video from 2011-2013 in Morocco raise questions as to just what these animals are. Superficially some look large and robust but others slightly closer to African Golden Wolf. These can be seen here.
  • Genetic work undertaken in 2012 extended the range of Grey Wolf by 6000km to the west as far as Senegal and was published in a paper here.
  • This year a new paper examined the DNA of North African canids and discovered that they were not North African Grey Wolf as previously thought but African Golden Wolf with the divergence from Jackals being significant (6.7%). The paper makes no mention of any Grey Wolves in North Africa

The taxonomy in North Africa is still confused. The above links show animals that appear to be large and robust, occurring in the mountainous regions of Morocco whilst those in Senegal appear much slightly and more Jackal-like. Whilst this variation may be explained by differences in environmental conditions experienced by different populations, it may also represent cryptic species.

The more that we investigate these amazing mammals, the more questions we seem to be unearthing. Just how many species of canid there are in North Africa and across the rest of Africa and Asia is anyones guess!

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) walking in woodland wetlands. Kuhmo. Finland. July 2014. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) walking in woodland wetlands. Kuhmo. Finland. July 2014. Niko Pekonen www.pictoure.fi

In March 2015 Richard Moores and myself camera-trapped two animals in the Dahkla area of Southern Morocco which appeared to resemble the structure of a Grey Wolf as well as several African Golden Wolves (at this time we still assumed they were Golden Jackals). Whilst the most recent paper does not provide any indication or even mention the presence of Grey Wolf in Africa I feel that the possibility of its existence or of a superficially similar species shouldn’t be ignored. Hopefully further more extensive genetic work will clarify the situation.

Un-identified large canid, Dakhla Bay, Western Sahara, March 2015 Dan Brown

Un-identified large canid, Dakhla Bay, Western Sahara, March 2015 Dan Brown

Coywolf

Across the pond in the States the canid situation is also fascinating and evolving. Dubbed the ‘Coywolf’ Eastern Coyotes are evolving and adapting to the modern mosaic of environments including the urban landscape. Research has shown that whilst most of the DNA is Coyote, varying percentages of Dog and Wolf DNA is also present. These hybrids would have been borne during periods of low population density when individuals searching for mates couldn’t locate another individual of their own species, instead settling for a Wolf, Coyote or Dog. This hybridisation period has occurred over the past 100 years and has resulted in potentially a better adapted Coyote than previous ‘untainted’ Coyotes. Animals are bigger and better able to take down deer, they are also more accepting of urban environments and the food sources they bring. You can read more of this fascinating evolution here.

Identification

I’d like to say the ID of our three WP canid species is straightforward, however in general it’s not! If you encounter a Wolf pack on a cold clear snowy day in a Finnish forest then you will probably know exactly what you are looking at. Your heart will be pumping faster than should be physically possible and the yellow of the wolves eyes will cut right through you.

A few thousand kilometres to the south and the pressures of arid environments create very different beasts. Sleek, slim, and smaller Wolves can be easily confused with Golden Jackals. There are a few key features that you should focus on should you be lucky enough to encounter a Jackal or Wolf, although, like many complex species groups, a combination of features often proves the most reliable way of identifying individuals. You should also bear in mind that not all individuals may be identifiable to species on single views. Key features are:

  • Overall Size
  • Leg length and shape
  • Head proportions including: ear size and shape, and muzzle length and breadth
  • Throat and chest colouration and pattern
  • Tail colour

Grey Wolf:

Large and robust (especially northern individuals), large ears, broad face with cheeks as wide or even wider than ear base when viewed head-on. Heavy brow producing a distinct forehead. Muzzle broad and long with a large nose. Colouration is variable but generally shows large white clown-style lip which often extends into a white throat. Frequently shows a predominantly pale tail with a dark tip.

A northern Grey Wolf. Large, powerful, broad-faced, large ears and a long broad muzzle. The white throats and chin are also distinctive on this individual. Niko Pekonen. www.pictoure.fi

A northern Grey Wolf. Large, powerful, broad-faced, large ears and a long broad muzzle. The white throats and chin are also distinctive on this individual. Niko Pekonen. www.pictoure.fi

A desert Grey Wolf. Still a large and powerful animal but slightly sleeker and lighter-weight than its northern counterpart. Meidad Goren, Ramat HaNegev Birding Center

A desert Grey Wolf. Still a large and powerful animal but slightly sleeker and lighter-weight than its northern counterpart. Meidad Goren, Ramat HaNegev Birding Center

Desert Grey Wolf, Israel. A side profile and despite being a arid-dwelling individual it still appears large and powerful with long legs and a powerful head and jaw. Meidad Goren, Ramat HaNegev Birding Center

Desert Grey Wolf, Israel. A side profile and despite being a arid-dwelling individual it still appears large and powerful with long legs and a powerful head and jaw. Meidad Goren, Ramat HaNegev Birding Center

African Golden Wolf:

Medium to large canid, formerly considered to be Golden Jackal though subtle field differences are apparent. Large triangular ears create a top heavy appearance to the head with a long, thin muzzle and smaller nose, forming a pointy face. Within its current taxonomic status there appears to be significant variability within its appearance with large robust animals in the Atlas Mountains and much smaller, slimmer individuals in the deserts. There is still the possibility that these represent two species.

An African Golden Wolf near Aousserd, Western Sahara. A much slimmer animal than more northern and mountainous populations with large ears, and a long slim muzzle. This animal has a distinctive dark saddle as well. Manolo Garcia

An African Golden Wolf near Aousserd, Western Sahara. A much slimmer animal than more northern and mountainous populations with large ears, and a long slim muzzle. This animal has a distinctive dark saddle as well. Manolo Garcia

African Golden Wolf near Aousserd, Western Sahara. Dan Brown

African Golden Wolf near Aousserd, Western Sahara. Dan Brown

Golden Jackal:

A medium sized dog with smaller more rounded ears, a slimmer and shorter muzzle which generally ends in quite a pointy nose. The pelage is often richly golden brown or even rufous-toned and animals can exhibit an extensive dark saddle. Jackals appear long-bodied and shorter legged than Wolves. Many also show the distinctive pale throat, darker collar and pale chest patterning which is typical of all our WP canids.

A European Golden Jackal, showing the distinct golden pelage, a more fox-like facial appearance with small ears and a slimming face to a pointed muzzle. Zoltán Gergely Nagy / Sakertours

A European Golden Jackal, showing the distinct golden pelage, a more fox-like facial appearance with small ears and a slimming face to a pointed muzzle. Zoltán Gergely Nagy / Sakertours

A presumed Golden Jackal in Jerusalem, Israel appearing slightly broader faced than the European animal and with a distinctive dark saddle. Amir Balaban

A presumed Golden Jackal in Jerusalem, Israel appearing slightly broader faced than the European animal and with a distinctive dark saddle. Amir Balaban

Golden Jackal in India showing a structure intermediate between the Israeli and European Golden Jackals. Dan Brown

Golden Jackal in India showing a structure intermediate between the Israeli and European Golden Jackals. Dan Brown

Golden Jackal, India. This animal as in some others shows a very distinct sloping face and almost completely lacks any distinct brow. Dan Brown

Golden Jackal, India. This animal as in some others shows a very distinct sloping face and almost completely lacks any distinct brow. Dan Brown

Sri Lankan Golden Jackal. Still classed as a Golden Jackal but potentially a new species?? This animal is very distinctively coloured with a black tail and richly-coloured fur. The face, like some Indian animals, lacks a brow. They also appear to occur is lose packs. An all together different animal from those in Israel and Europe. Amy Squirrel www.worldpictured.co.uk Flickt @Amysquirrel

Sri Lankan Golden Jackal. Still classed as a Golden Jackal but potentially a new species?? This animal is very distinctively coloured with a black tail and richly-coloured fur. The face, like some Indian animals, lacks a brow. They also appear to occur is lose packs. An all together different animal from those in Israel and Europe. Amy Squirrel www.worldpictured.co.uk Flickt @Amysquirrel

Dogs and hybrids:

Theoretically hybrids could show any number of intermediate features, or even almost identical features to one of other parents. It should be borne in mind anywhere in the range of any of these species that hybrids could and probably do occur. In fact we already known that hybrid Golden Jackal x African Golden Wolf occur in Israel so the chances are high that other hybrids also occur.

Where to see:

Grey Wolf:

Finland – Niko Pekonen’s amazing images above were all taken from his Wolf Photography hide in Finland. You can find out more about visiting his site here, and also his Facebook page

Spain – Wolves are now proving to be regular sighted in Cantabria. A number of tour companies run trips to find them

Israel – Israel offers the best opportunities of encountering desert wolves in the WP. Populations are still reasonable good and areas such as Sde Boker are a good bet, especially around the Vulture feeding station at Ramat HaNegev Birding Center, as well as in the Negev.

Italy – If you want to experience Wolves in an atmospheric setting then Abruzzo National Park in central Italy is the place to go. Visit the park in Autumn and you stand the chance of experiencing howling wolves alongside rutting Red deer as this beautiful soundscape illustrates.

Golden Jackal:

Given its rapid range expansion you should bear in mind that you could encounter Jackals almost anywhere in eastern Europe, from Matsalu Bay in Estonia to Israel, Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and Italy, they are possible. With Denmark getting its first record recently observers out in Holland, the Alps and even France and Spain should be aware of the possibility of encountering one.

Saker Tours offer Jackal photography. For more info see here.

African Golden Wolf

We currently recognise this species as occurring throughout North Africa and most recent sightings seem to come from birders visiting Morocco; Tan Tan, Guelimin, Western Sahara (especially the Aousserd Road). It is no doubt a widespread and probably fairly common species and any areas of relatively undisturbed open landscapes should be worth checking.

Anyone encountering a canid in North Africa should endeavour to gather images as I’m sure there is still a twist in the taxonomic tale of this species to come.

Golden Jackal Israel. Where ever you are and which ever species you encounter it is sure to be a memorable day. Dan Brown

Golden Jackal Israel. Where ever you are and which ever species you encounter it is sure to be a memorable day. Dan Brown

 

 

A-G-P easy as… actually maybe not!

Dan Brown

I’ve always thought that golden plover ID was relatively straight-forward given good views, but it turns out not all individuals fit nicely into our pre-defined boxes!

A couple of weeks ago I had a pleasant but not too noteworthy couple of days in Caithness. The weather was stunning and there thousands of birds around. Goldcrests were in every bit of vegetation that could support them, and some just on the rocks! The odd Yellow-browed and Sibe Chiff brightened up the birding. I checked the fields at the Quoys of Reiss. They are great for plovers, and in the past I’ve had Upland Sandpiper and American Golden Plover here. The first day revealed a small flock of Golden Plovers but nothing more. On the second day the flock had tripled in size and one bird instantly smacked me in the face as being different. A ‘lesser’ Golden Plover and no doubt an AGP. The light wasn’t brilliant and I rattled off a few DSLR shots from inside the car whilst parked up on the verge.

I stopped to check the images and during my chimping the whole flock rose and headed down slope and over the brow of a shallow hill, out of sight. This was the last I saw of the bird. All that remained were the few images I had. I hadn’t even seen the underwing colour.

Whilst the bird had struck me as being different something didn’t feel right for it being a ‘lesser’ and it prompted me to look into it further. Both Paul French and Nils van Duivendijk provided some great feedback (thanks chaps) which has provided both answers and questions.

The bird in question: lower-centre right. Small, sleak, & contrasty. A pale forehead and dark crown and generally very grey toned.

The bird in question: lower-centre right. Small, sleak, & contrasty. A pale forehead and dark crown and generally very grey toned.

Whilst I frequently see cold grey Golden Plovers, they always look just that, standard EGPs in a cold tone. At first glance this bird has a slightly smaller and more rangy in appearance than an EGP, longer legs, and a slightly more attenuated rear end. The crown is very dark and the face very pale, all pro ‘lesser ‘ GP features.

The treats support this being an EGP - too finally notched, yet the primaries are still surprisingly long. The bird also appears too golden for an AGP yet the mantle patterning is very pro-AGP

The treats support this being an EGP – too finally notched, yet the primaries are still surprisingly long. The bird also appears too golden for an AGP yet the mantle patterning is very pro-AGP

A closer look though reveals the tertials to be too finely notched for either American or Pacific, and the bill looks pretty standard for an EGP. The mantle feathering is dark and coarsely notched, more AGP than EGP.

So what is it? It’s not a ‘lesser’ Golden Plover that’s for sure, and the most likely explanation is that it’s an aberrant European Golden Plover, however with the number of AGPs that arrive in the UK each year the possibility of a hybrid should not be excluded.

What it is will remain a mystery but the most likely explanation is an aberrant EGP, however the possibility of a hybrid should not be excluded

What it is will remain a mystery but the most likely explanation is an aberrant EGP, however the possibility of a hybrid should not be excluded

Hybrid Pacific x American have been frequently recorded in the USA especially Alaska where breeding ranges overlap, but to date there are no instances of European x American Golden Plover (Handbook on Avian Hybrids of the World 2006).

This article in Birdwatch deals with some pitfalls of EGPs and ‘lesser’ GPs and also mentions a possible hybrid in Somerset in 1987-88.

Hybrid Golden Plovers should definitely be on the radar when faced with an unusual Golden Plover in future, but hopefully for your sake you’ll be faced with a stonking clear-cut PGP!

Follow the White Whale…

Dan Brown

As if you needed any more encouragement to head to the coast at this time of year, National Whale and Dolphin Week has its final weekend this coming Saturday and Sunday, so if you are free and keen then get out and record some cetaceans as well as seabirds!

More information can be found here.

And just to put the icing on the cake of temptation, a Beluga was filmed swimming along the Northern Irish coast at Dunseverick, Co Amtrim, yesterday. The video can be viewed here.

Beluga - exceptionally rare in Irish & British waters

Beluga – exceptionally rare in Irish & British waters

 

The Saiga saga

Dan Brown

The Saiga mass-mortality event has finally come to an end but with the loss of 50% of the population in just three weeks
A tragic sight as deceased animals are heaped together for burial.

A tragic sight as deceased animals are heaped together for burial.

You will no doubt have heard of the recent mass mortality amongst Saiga Antelope Saiga tatarica in Kazakhstan. The final official death toll stands at 134,252 animals, that’s 50% of the entire world population dead in just three weeks in Kazakhstan.

The Western Saiga - a bizarre antelope with the proboscis for filtering out dust in the summer and heating sub-zero air in the winter.

The Western Saiga – a bizarre antelope with the proboscis for filtering out dust in the summer and heating sub-zero air in the winter.

At the end of the last Ice Age roamed from western Europe right through to the pacific coast though gradually contracted their range until they were restricted to the asian steppe, including Eastern Europe. Still in their millions their great herds would have rivalled and probably surpassed the spectacle of African ungulates. Every year these animals would have made seasonal movements in search of fresh pastures and when spooked they can run at 80kmp/h, a sight in itself.

Normally Saiga run with their heads down to avoid ingesting too much dust from animals infant of them

Normally Saiga run with their heads down to avoid ingesting too much dust from animals infant of them

Saigas were once found right across the Palearctic. The males are characteristic in having horns, which the females lack.

Saigas were once found right across the Palearctic. The males are characteristic in having horns, which the females lack.

Dawn the nineteenth century, and like a dark shadow over the species, population numbers started crashing. The use of Saiga horn in Chinese medicine rocketed, and in fact became more popular than Rhino horn, and by 1930 the millions had been reduced to a small population on the Kalmyk Steppe in Europe. Just in time, strict anti-poaching measures came into place and by 1960 numbers were back up to 500,000 on the banks of the Volga and 1.5 million in Kazakhstan. Cue the breakup of the USSR, and a reversal in the fortunes of the Saiga. Once again uncontrolled poaching came in to play and the population crashed by 95% to a low of 50,000. Yet again a slow recovery has taken place up to 250,000 earlier this year but now the population has suffered a 50% decline.

An incredibly depressing sight as an entire herd dies almost in one go.

An incredibly depressing sight as an entire herd dies almost in one go.

This is not the first time a die-off has occurred though. In 2012 12,000 animals out of a population of 25,000 dropped dead following a harsh winter, and an unknown trigger. The cause is likely to have been the same then as now, haemorrhagic septicaemia, caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida. Thankfully the outbreak is now over but once within a herd it successfully killed every animal within a few days. One of the main reasons for the mass die-off is that all the females calve within a week of each other creating perfect conditions for the disease to spread between animals.

Mortality rate has been exacerbated by the simultaneous occurrence of calving in the population.

Mortality rate has been exacerbated by the simultaneous occurrence of calving in the population.

The re-introduced population in the Ukraine and the populations of the similar Mongolian Saiga thankfully appear to be untouched. With concerted conservation efforts it should be possible to bring Saiga numbers back up to former levels but with populations occurring in politically volatile areas this task may be far from easy.

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Mammal of the Month: Orca

Dan Brown

Killer Whales or Orcas are highly social, intelligent and stunning animals. For those of us living in the UK we stand an excellent chance of seeing these ultra-predators close-up off the Scottish coast and now is the time to do it! 
Bull Orca off Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Bull Orca off Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

There is no better time than now to feature the most effective marine predator on our planet. It’s half way through Orca week up in Caithness and this time of year generally marks the start of Orca season up north. Whilst you might not think it, the UK is actually a brilliant place to catch up with the largest, most attractive and charismatic of Dolphins. We tend to think of them as a Norwegian, Antarctic, Argentinean or British Columbian specialty, but they are very regular in the UK and with a bit of time and luck you stand a very good chance of seeing them.

Equally stunning close-up or set amongst stunning coastal scenery

Equally stunning close-up or set amongst stunning coastal scenery

They’ve had a bad reputation in the past; a ferocious predator, a killer of whales and even Great White Sharks, but reality is somewhat different. Yes they do hunt whales, including Blue Whale calves, and yes they can cause the entire Farallones population of Great White Sharks to vanish over-night, but there has yet to be a human fatality involving a wild Orca. They are exceptional social and intelligent, in fact the populations along the west coast of North America have one of the most stable societies known among non-human animals. Their social structure is matrilineal within which is clearly defined hierarchy. The matriline is the most basic of social tiers and is most often what we see in British Orcas, ie a group of up to ten or so animals keeping very close company. These groups very rarely break apart, and if they do its only ever for a few hours. The next social tier up is the pod. This consists of several (normally 1-3) matrilines of related animals, but these may separate for several weeks at a time. In the Northern Isles we frequently see several groups of animals appear at roughly the same time, these are likely to be separate matrilines from within a pod. The third social tier is the clan which brings together all pods with similar vocal dialects, a direct reflection of maternal ancestry and an excellent example of a non-human cultural tradition. The final social tier is the community which is defined by pod association patterns and not clan membership. It has been shown that pods may associate with other pods from different clans but very rarely associate with pods from different communities.

A matriline off Caithness recently

A matriline off Caithness recently

Many groups of animals have been defined by their feeding preferences and their movements are often directly related to seasonal abundances in food. Those Orca appearing around the Scottish coast now will predominantly feed on seals and other marine mammals, however later in the summer the same individuals they have been shown to hunt Eiders around the Faeroes and then Herring off Iceland during the winter.

Researchers documenting Orcas off Shetland

Researchers documenting Orcas off Shetland

In the North Atlantic there has been a significant amount to research into the various social groups. Work is still on-going and more information can be found on the Icelandic Orcas Facebook page. Many of the individuals have been photographed well enough to allow individual recognition, and if you are lucky enough to get any images of Orcas these could prove useful in determining the movements of the North Atlantic populations.

'Mousa' a well-known female Orca (characterised by the nicked fin) that spends the summer around Scotland and the winter in Iceland.

‘Mousa’ a well-known female Orca (characterised by the nicked fin) that spends the summer around Scotland and the winter in Iceland.

Orcas are not boat shy!

Orcas are not boat shy!

Globally they can be found in every ocean where distinct populations exist based on behaviour, patterning, and size. Recent research into the genetics of these populations may well reveal the presence of several different species and certainly if you’ve been lucky enough to encounter Orcas around the Antarctic then you may well have noticed the yellow colouration to the normally white patches, these are probably Type B Orca, whilst a similarly coloured but smaller animal will probably be Type C Orca. The population occurring around New Zealand, Type D Orcas are particularly distinct in having a more bulbous forehead (melon), a much reduced white eye blaze and a very sickle-like dorsal fin. This recent video by the Sea Shepherd off New Zealand nicely illustrates the latter features. Of course we should probably give these true Birding Frontiers names such a Sickle-finned Sea Panda, and Dwarf Sea panda, suggestions welcome 😉

It would be good to get this combo in the UK!

It would be good to get this combo in the UK!

A young bull with a typically triangular dorsal fin

A young bull with a typically triangular dorsal fin

The ID of Orcas is very straightforward although just occasionally slow moving, distant groups of Risso’s Dolphins may be mistaken for Orcas with their tall dark dorsal fins. Hopefully any half decent view of the body of head should reveal the correct identity.

The only confusion species - Risso's Dolphins have tail dark fins and can be confused with Orcas at a distance.

The only confusion species – Risso’s Dolphins have tail dark fins and can be confused with Orcas at a distance.

Sadly Orcas are still being captured for our entertainment. Russia appear to be the biggest problem makers yet venues in the States still support the use of captive Orcas for our entertainment, something that will hopefully change under the weight of public pressure. Thankfully they are still widespread and relatively common and here in the UK there is a very good chance of encountering them in the wild given a bit of patience and making sure you’re in the best areas.

When and where to see Orca

Orcas can be encountered at any time of year around the Northern and Western British coasts, however the best time is late Spring and Summer around the Northern Isles and Caithness.

Orca Watch is currently running, based at Duncansby Head, Caithness and will be daily until Saturday. Start times for meeting are as follows:

Weds 27th 11am, Thurs 28th 12pm. Fri 29th 1pm & Sat 30th 2pm

Keep an eye on the Caithness Swatch Facebook page for up to date sightings. So far this week they have had Orca, Humpback Whale breaching on two days, Minke and other common cetaceans.

Other good spots in Caithness include Noss & Dunnet Head, as well as Strathy and Stoer Points in Sutherland. The advantage of the Caithness coast is the linear nature of it making tracking these animals relatively easy. Other hotspots such as Orkney and Shetland have many islands and voes for cetaceans to get lost in, as well as proving difficult for the observer to track them.

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You cant beat looking down on Orcas from the Scottish coast!

You cant beat looking down on Orcas from the Scottish coast!

On Orkney, Scapa Flow and the Southern Islands seemed to be particularly favoured.

Female and calf in Scapa Flow, Orkney

Female and calf in Scapa Flow, Orkney

Play-time for a juvenile Orcas in Scapa Flow

Play-time for a juvenile Orcas in Scapa Flow

On Shetland, Mousa Sound, Yell Sound, and Sumbrugh Head all have regular sightings, and a trip with Shetland Nature offers an excellent chance of connecting with Orcas.

Orcas are not shy of being close to the coast which often allows for amazing views (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Orcas are not shy of being close to the coast which often allows for amazing views (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Elsewhere the Hebrides and Western Ireland, as well as the Minch all have occasional sightings.

Further afield The Strait of Gibraltar, the Lofted Island off Norway and Iceland are the top three places in the rest of Europe for catching up with Orcas.

A juvenile Orca off Caithness two weeks ago

A juvenile Orca off Caithness two weeks ago

More juvenile Orca fun!

More juvenile Orca fun!

And finally…

No doubt you will all have seen these before but some excellent videos showing the amazing hunting, social and inquisitive element of Orcas:

Try and ignore the backing music but a great example of Orcas hunting Dolphins

Orcas deliberately beaching themselves in Argentina to hunt sealions

Fun or hunting!?

The inquisitive side of Orcas!

 

A forest ghost: The Eurasian Lynx

Mammal of the Month: Eurasian Lynx

Dan Brown

The Lynx is a near mythical beast, a shadow within the forests, and has always been subject to intensive persecution. Thankfully it is now increasing in Europe and plans are afoot to reintroduce it to the UK. This spring has also seen the opening of the first Lynx hide in Europe!

Not only is it mammal of the month but Lynx is most definitely mammal of the moment.

They are a stunning animal. Sleek with a stumpy ink-dipped tail, some spotted, others plain, long wispy-tipped ears and piercing yellow eyes set in a wizened face. They are very much ghosts of the forest, seemingly impossible to see, the ultimate prize for the mammal watcher, unlike their Iberian counterparts which are comparatively easy to see given some time in the right place.

A large male Lynx pads along a forest track

A large male Lynx pads along a forest track

and a Roe Deer in the same location for scale

and a Roe Deer in the same location for scale

Lynx are a predominantly solitary animal that are mainly active at dawn and dusk, however they can be encountered at any time of day, and can often be comparatively fearless of humans. Home ranges vary between 20km2 and 2000km2 depending on the habitat. The largest of the Lynx species, Eurasian Lynx is a predator of ungulates especially Roe deer and in Scandinavia semi-domesticated Reindeer.

Satellite-collared female Lynx in Norway

Satellite-collared female Lynx in Norway

Closely followed by its cub. This animal will likely remain with the female for only another month or two

Closely followed by its cub. This animal will likely remain with the female for only another month or two

In Europe the Lynx is distributed in the more remote or mountainous areas such as the Alps (following reintroductions), Carpathians, Balkans, and throughout Scandinavia though it is generally scarce, suffering at the hands of hunters and other human pressures. Formally they were distributed right across the Western Palearctic and hopefully they may once again be.

Commercial hunting interests serve to maintain populations in countries such as Norway and Sweden but the populations there could still be larger, and the emphasis is very much on protecting populations for sport rather than conservation. Due to this interest there are a number of good websites set up for Lynx, Brown Bear and Wolf including Skandobs. This is well worth a look if you like pics of Lynx!

This stunning animal was followed by two more a few hours later

This stunning animal was followed by two more a few hours later

It has been immensely satisfying for us at BiOME Consulting to work on Lynx over the last few years and start to get a feel for what different animals do. Over the last eight months we have monitored a site in Norway which has revealed the presence of up to four Lynx including a satellite tagged female and cub as well as a large male, whilst our long-term studies in Estonia have shown the regular movements of Lynx across our land. After three years of trialling and testing different attractants to draw Lynx in, we have now opened the first Lynx watching hide in Europe (for more info see BiOME Nature). Whilst its not a guaranteed it definitely offers the highest chance of seeing Lynx (as well as plenty of other mammals and birds), anywhere in Europe. Estonia probably ranks as the best country in the world to see Lynx whether from the hide or by night driving the forest and meadow tracks and densities here have been shown to be very high. Our first in-field experience occurred in Estonia where one proved how fear-less they are as it remained sitting for 30 minutes only 200m away from us and proceeded to clean itself before slinking off into the night totally unperturbed by our presence.

A view from the new Lynx hide in Estonia showing the typical meadow and woodland habitats favoured by them here

A view from the new Lynx hide in Estonia showing the typical meadow and woodland habitats favoured by them here

It’s been 1300 years since the last Lynx prowled the British countryside but now there’s a movement to bring these stunning animals back. The Lynx UK Trust has proposed the reintroduction of Lynx into Britain a move that, so far, seems to widely supported. There are the usual objections from farmers and some folk who seem to think that the introduction will ‘medel’ with the environment, but as far as I can see it will do nothing but good. Lynx are not a major threat to livestock preferring to hunt within forestry thus controlling deer numbers. In fact its likely that more sheep are knocked down by cars or killed by dogs every year than will be taken by Lynx but there isn’t a call to ban either of those! They also predate Foxes too which is far from a bad thing in many areas, and will hopefully help get them on-side with land managers. The presence of these keystone predators in the ecosystem is critical and was illustrated nicely in Yellowstone, USA, where the reintroduction of Wolf packs caused a complete change in the environment by reducing the number of large grazers as well as mid-sized predators creating an all together healthier ecosystem from freshwater streams and grazing meadows right through to forests and mountains.

For more information on the proposed re-introduction see The Lynx UK Trust.

Eurasian Lynx - one of the   most elusive European mammals

Eurasian Lynx – one of the most elusive European mammals

 

Mammal of the Month: Otter

Dan Brown

 

From historic villain to come-back king, the Otter is now widespread throughout the UK, though getting decent views of one is far from easy. Here’s a few top tips on tracking and seeing Otters close to you

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

The Otter (Lutra lutra) is one of Britain’s most charismatic and endearing mammals. It seamlessly manages to combine the cute and cuddly appeal, with the tenacity of an animal that has mastered all the Atlantic can throw at it, and if that wasn’t enough they have suffered mercilessly at the hands of humans.

Otter are however the come-back Kings! For as long as can be remembered they have been hunted, firstly for pelts then latterly in a war against aquatic predators raiding fish ponds, stocked lakes, and important fishing rivers. More recently pressure from agricultural changes including the use of organochlorines and the loss of suitable river-side habitat has further pressured the populations. Thankfully things are on the up. Otters are now fully protected and have re-colonised much of their lost ground. Recent population estimates suggest that the Scottish population is at carrying capacity whilst both the English and Welsh populations have seen dramatic rises. Their rural increase and the provisioning of artificial holts has helped them spread into urban areas such as Glasgow and Newcastle, as well as inner city Birmingham.

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Otters are easily identified. Their aquatic nature is a good starting point although they do spend up to 50% of their time out of the water and, in preference, somewhere close to woodland. In general however it is close to water that we see them. Occasionally they can be mistaken for Seals along the coast but the presence of the tail at the surface plus the very obvious bum and tail as they up-end and dive makes them easily identifiable.

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

On land they have a low and long silhouette, with powerful hind quarters. They can be frequently heard before being seen producing a high pitched whistle, amongst other calls. In fact its even possible to whistle Otters in if you can reach the high notes!

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

One of the great things about Otters is how easy they are to track and detect. Riverbanks, lake and seashores can all produce signs of Otters from fresh tracks in mud, sand or snow to spraints (distinctive curls of dung in prominent places). The tracks are distinctive in often showing the webbing between toes, and if not visible, the toes are generally well spread and the pad elongate. The long tail is also frequently visible in the tracks as it trails along the ground. The tracks/movements are not just confined to the proximity to water as Otters can and will make considerable movements overland so encountering tracks, often miles from the nearest suitable habitat, is not impossible.

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Spraints can are generally found on prominent features close to rivers, lakes or seashore. They can also be found around holts and couchs. In general they act as territory markers so can be particularly noticeable at the confluence of rivers. Fresh spraints are pungent and not pleasant but this in itself makes them very distinctive. As they decay they often leave the indigestible elements of the meal such as fish and amphibian scales and bones respectively. In general locating spraints is the first indication that Otters are in the area.

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Otters tend to solitary, coming together to mate, although later in the year, once kits are large enough, family groups consisting of a mother and her offspring maybe seen. These can be playful and often very approachable given caution and a bit of fieldcraft. As you approach an otter remember to freeze every time it re-surfaces or turns to face you. Using this technique you should be able to edge closer and get great views of a stunning animal.

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Thankfully Otters are now incredibly widespread across the UK, and seeing one is more a matter of perseverance than going to specific sites, however, there are a few very reliable sites where Otter can be encountered including:

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk

Minsmere, Suffolk,

Leighton Moss, Lancashire,

Loch Fyne, Argyll,

Portree Harbour, Skye

and by far the best of all, Shetland. In fact Otters are so obliging and well-studied up there that Shetland Nature now offer tours specifically to enjoy these amazing animals, see here.

For more info on Otters see:

http://www.ukwildottertrust.co.uk/the-team.php

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/