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Spy Hopping: Marine mammals from the air!

Dan Brown

New aerial survey techniques for monitoring marine birds are proving to be valuable tools in monitoring other marine wildlife

It’s amazing what you can find on GoogleMaps. With an impending visit to Norway I thought I’d have a look for potentially suitable Beluga areas in the north of the country. Belugas love shallow bays so using the satellite imagery to identify suitable sites is a great starting point before actually getting out in the field and finding the real thing. Ninety seconds of searching later and this is what appeared on the screen…

https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@69.7898558,30.8214049,304m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

It looks very much like a pod of Beluga at the mouth of a shallow sandy estuary! Belugas typically form tight pods and spend much of their time close to the surface. I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks whether they were still there!

But there’s a more mileage in these aerial images than you may think. If you follow anything marine-based or environmental on twitter you may have seen some superb aerial images of marine wildlife from our UK waters recently. These images were shot by the HiDef (http://www.hidefsurveying.co.uk) team as part of a European Shag survey of waters around the Isles of Scilly for Natural England. You can follow them @HiDefSurvey

 

Risso's Dolphin: 16km WNW of Bryher, Isles of Scilly 12/06/2014. 3m long; grey and white mottled body; prominent ‘melon’ and indistinct beak; tall falcate dorsal fin

Risso’s Dolphin: 16km WNW of Bryher, Isles of Scilly 12/06/2014. 3m long; grey and white mottled body; prominent ‘melon’ and indistinct beak; tall falcate dorsal fin

Harbour Porpoise: Dogger Bank June 2012. Mother (1.8m) and calf – small size, indistinct beak, fairly uniform colouration, dark pectoral fins

Harbour Porpoise: Dogger Bank June 2012. Mother (1.8m) and calf – small size, indistinct beak, fairly uniform colouration, dark pectoral fins

Aerial surveying of marine wildlife has become increasingly common and provides a superb way of documenting and monitoring a range of marine species.  All surveys follow pre-determined transect routes using a small aircraft flying at close to 2000 feet carrying four super high definition cameras. These cameras take digital video footage at several frames per second providing a snap shot of seabirds and other marine wildlife on or close to the surface of the sea.

Northern Right Whale: mother and calf  east of Virginia, USA. Mother (identified from images as ‘Blackheart’) 14.0m, calf 6.5m, identified by barnacles on lips and narrow upper jaw

Northern Right Whale: mother and calf east of Virginia, USA. Mother (identified from images as ‘Blackheart’) 14.0m, calf 6.5m, identified by barnacles on lips and narrow upper jaw

Whilst you may expect that monitoring seabirds and marine mammals (as well as turtles & sharks) would be impossible using aircraft so high above the sea, it is surprising how frequently they are encountered when analysing the images, and how easy they are to identify.

Fin Whale: east of Virginia, USA 15/02/2013. 16.5m Long slim body, small dorsal fin far back on body, white lip on right side.

Fin Whale: east of Virginia, USA 15/02/2013. 16.5m Long slim body, small dorsal fin far back on body, white lip on right side.

Common Dolphin (10): Outer Bristol Channel on 25/05/2009. Average 2.2m long, typical ‘hourglass’ pattern on side, pale pectoral fins, large splash from recent breaching

Common Dolphin (10): Outer Bristol Channel on 25/05/2009. Average 2.2m long, typical ‘hourglass’ pattern on side, pale pectoral fins, large splash from recent breaching

These recent surveys have identified three species of cetaceans around the SW English coast as well as Blue Shark, Sunfish and Leatherback Turtles, even though they are not the target of the surveys, showing how valuable this new technique is and how important our coastal waters are for marine wildlife. We can no doubt look forward to more fascinating marine revelations and a better understanding of the distribution and abundance of many species.

Leatherback Turtle: 20km west of Isles of Scilly 02/07/2014. 2m long (= adult) with prominent ridges down back

Leatherback Turtle: 20km west of Isles of Scilly 02/07/2014. 2m long (= adult) with prominent ridges down back

Blue Shark: 16km south of Western Rocks, Isles of Scilly 02/07/2014. 1.8m (=immature) slim snout, blue-grey colour, long pectoral fins

Blue Shark: 16km south of Western Rocks, Isles of Scilly 02/07/2014. 1.8m (=immature) slim snout, blue-grey colour, long pectoral fins

 

Clamorous Reed Warbler Acrocephalus stentoreus

One of the BIG three

Well done to all who had a go. Last weekends wacky weekend warbler was the giant Clamorous Reed Warbler, which along with Great Reed Warbler and Thick-billed Warbler form the big three (at least in the old fieldguides and old taxonomy ;).

And the butt-ugly mammla- Yees and Egyptian Mongoose. Both photographed at Ma’agan Michael in November 2013.

Here’s the Clamorous along with some pond side friends: same place, same day.

Clamorous Reed Warbler 1 Clamorous Reed Warbler 2 Clamorous Reed Warbler 3

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Smyrna Kingfisher- one of three showy kingfisher species on site

Smyrna Kingfisher- one of three showy kingfisher species on site

first winter Night Heron with bits of moult going on

first winter Night Heron with bits of moult going on

smart looking Little Egret

smart looking Little Egret

and ending with my next planned find at Flamborough before the summer is out please... A Great White Egret

and ending with my next planned find at Flamborough before the summer is out please… A Great White Egret

 

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Migration Festival: Chairman and MG answer questions

Who, What, Where, When, Why.

With grateful thanks to Dave Tucker who asked Rob Adams (#Migfest Chairman) and I a few question about the forthcoming Migration Festival at Spurn on 5th-7th September 2014.

Have you booked in yet?  More info click on how to book your ticket

Be great to see you there!

 

wryneck-spurn-12-8-11-c

Spurn Migration Festival one

 

 

A WEEK OF DIGISCOPING CHALLENGES!!

Common Swift

Common Swift  about to enter its nest.

Recently I made a trip to Hornsea to hopefully see some of the reported Little gulls on the mere, a few distant birds where present and after scoping them i thought i would head for the seafront for a spot of seawatching which was quiet to say the least. so my attentions turned to the local Swifts and wondered if i could manage to Digiscope them thease are my best efforts.

Common Swift

Common Swift

A few days later i paid a visit to my local reserve Hatfield  Moors NNR birds of interest were in short supply, but there were lots of Damselflys hawking around just in front of the Boston park hide. my next challenge.

Common Blue damselfly

Common Blue damselfly coming in to Land!!

Common blue Damselfly's

Common blue Damselfly’s

GOOD DIGISCOPING!!

 

 

First for China: STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW in Beijing!

By Terry

Streak-throated Swallow occurs from Oman in the west, through Pakistan and India to Nepal and Bangladesh in the east, occurring as a vagrant in Sri Lanka, the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. Just a month before the Beijing record, one was seen in Kuwait.            

With so few birders in Beijing, we know we are only scratching the surface in terms of understanding the birds of the capital, let alone China as a whole..  We always expect the unexpected.  But on 4 May something extraordinary happened – a South Asian species appeared in China for the first time.. not in Yunnan Province, the far south-west as one might expect, but in Beijing!  This almost unbelievable sighting was superbly documented by Beijing-based Colm Moore, just reward for his dedication to working his local patch at Shahe Reservoir.  You can read his full story on the Birding Beijing blog.  Wow!

STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)

STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).  The first record for China.

 

Offshore in the Pacific

South Seas ferries- The public pelagic

By Sam

The south Pacific- an unfathomably vast expanse of water peppered with myriads of sun-baked and hurricane-beaten islands- is relatively daunting territory for an independent travelling birder wishing to cover ground and experience the veritable smörgåsboard of spectacular natural history highlights on offer.
Although rife with terrestrial endemism, diversity is understandably very low on most islands and protracted periods spent in one location often lead to birding stagnation and sometimes insanity (in no given order).

Fortunately, however, as is the case with most island nations, regular (if not sometimes tenuously scheduled) boat services provide the main transport between islands. Although often creaky and a little uncomfortable, with an unevaluated capacity to deal with emergency situations at sea, these weathered bastions of the Pacific provide often unrivalled opportunities to spend cheap, quality time offshore in some of the least watched but most exciting pelagic locations in the world.

The unsung pelagic vessel?

The unsung pelagic?

At sea in Polynesia

A long winter on the island of Tutuila in the American Samoan archipelago, Polynesia, working on terrestrial birds offered scant opportunity to get offshore, but the chance to visit a field crew working on an island nearby finally offered some decent time travelling between islands. Buckets of chum no where to be seen, some of the finest bathymetry in the Pacific beckoned as we struck out to a stormy sunrise aboard as fine a craft for exploration as any- an old rusty ferry chuntering into the grey blue yonder..

The outbound journey, interspersed with heavy rainshowers, provided short spells of interest with numerous Tropical-type Shearwaters, revealing insights into the ongoing taxonomic conundrum of the Audobon’s/Little Shearwater Puffinus complex. These birds are likely to pertain to the dichrous central Pacific group of Tropical Shearwater.

Tropical Shearwater

Tropical Shearwater wheeling around against a dark and stormy sea at dawn

A handful of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters kept tubenose interest up, while a pod of Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphins joined in the fun. Sulids, in the shape of Red-footed and Brown Boobies provided plenty of close fly-bys as well as the vast feeding flocks of Black and Brown Noddies, with the odd Blue Noddie, White-tailed Tropicbird and Bridled Tern added to the mix.

Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphin pup

Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphin pup (note the Cookiecutter Shark wound)

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby (white morph)

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Wedge-tailed Shearwater- interestingly, all individuals observed and reported are dark morph birds in the immediate region

Although this outbound journey provided plenty of interest in commoner fare, the real target tubenoses remained elusive, as did a distant breaching cetacean (likely a Spinner Dolphin) or large pelagic fish sp.
Far less elusive, however, were more Hawksbill Turtles than you could shake a palm frond at, cruising around with tropical abandon in the balmy waters in the harbour of the island of Ofu.

Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle

Subsequently, a week spent in the beautiful Manu’a islands group allowed for a clean sweep of the terrestrial birds, including several endemic races (including the to-be-split and disjunct powelli race of Fiji Shrikebill). Good at-sea conditions heralded a much anticipated return crossing, the morning after we watched an unseasonal Humpback Whale puffing away offshore.

Seawatching Pacific style

Seawatching from shore Pacific style

IMG_1821

Striking out again, this time to brighter and less moody skies, albeit on a smaller vessel, a steady stream of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters throughout the crossing indicated birds were on the move. Greater luck was had when a pale-morph Herald Petrel appeared seemingly from nowhere on the port side and seared past at no more than 20ft away, fading into the horizon as quickly as it came.
Further interest was spiked shortly after, when a breaching Humpback provided wonderful, if not again too brief, views; perhaps the same individual as the previous evening. Finally, however, the main target tubenose materialised, the commonest of one the rarest genera of tubenoses, Pseudobulweria, in the shape of a Tahiti Petrel, giving exceptionally close views before banking away in our wake.

Tahiti Petrel

Excellent views (albeit without photos to match) of Tahiti Petrel with its trademark massive bill easily distinguishable.

Shortly after this initial encounter, a second petrel, almost certainly another Tahiti, was seen briefly carving away to our starboard side. This time, however, being on a smaller boat was not in our favour as the bird was rapidly lost behind the swell and never to be seen again. Two large and very brief dorsal fins relatively close inshore shared the same story, staying frustratingly elusive but perhaps pertaining to the inshore population of Rough-toothed Dolphins around the island of Tutuila.
Wedge-tailed Shearwaters continued to provide plenty of enjoyable viewing well into inshore waters, despite many hours of seawatching from shore not yielding a single tubenose.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater close inshore

Wedge-tailed Shearwater close inshore

All too quickly the return journey was over and we were back onshore amidst hordes of invasive Myna’s and the bustling, polluted harbour of Pago Pago. My mind, however, was still firmly offshore, wondering what else is really out there…

The opportunities and discoveries to be made offshore in vast regions of the Pacific are untapped and fully deserve more attention, with recent examples such as the putative discovery of New Caledonian Storm-petrel paying credence to this . Although the efforts for more adventurous travel and birding come with inherent elements of difficulty, the rewards often vastly outweigh the difficulties from both a travel and natural history perspective.

I encourage anyone wishing to seek adventurous and exciting birding; the outcomes of which could have genuinely useful outcomes for so many poorly understood pelagic seabirds; to consult your bathymetry, identify an interesting island chain and get offshore and explore the Pacific. What finer way to do so as well than allowing the rusty ferry to facilitate your journey.

Just imagine the possibilities!