Our third day at sea saw us venture into new waters, for the 2016 expedition. This time we headed south of Faial.
Under rather grey skies, common dolphins and loggerhead turtles were among the first sightings of the day. They have been the consistent ‘data points’ for each day so far.
For the second day running, we also encountered another fin whale. A relatively brief encounter, but nevertheless an important one. With GPS positions logged (as we do for all sightings), data recorded and photos documented, we moved on. Heading further off the southern coast of Faial.
As the weather improved in the afternoon, so did our luck, with multiple sperm whale encounters. At one point we were trailing five individuals in a line. There won’t be many days when you get to linger behind five sperm whales! Though when trying to document the tail flukes of each whale, as well as monitor blow rates, activity on the boat can get fairly frantic. And you can always guarantee that multiple sperm whales will appear when we have some of the team on bird or turtle surveys.
The upshot was another great day of data collection, aided by some great weather and calm seas. More of the same tomorrow please!
Fin whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke (taken by Craig Turner)
Sperm whale fluke for ID (taken by Craig Turner)
Multiple sperm whales (taken by Craig Turner)
Following sperm whales (taken by Craig Turner)
Celine recording data (taken by Craig Turner)
Southern coast of Faial (taken by Craig Turner)
Some of the team on lookout (taken by Craig Turner)
Fieldwork invariably offers variety and the unexpected.
We started our first full day at sea with a hint from our lookouts that we could probably expect to see bottlenose dolphins. The strange-looking dolphins that we soon encountered were in fact false killer whales – not a whale, but another dolphin species that is less common than the bottlenose dolphins in the Azores, so a great find.
False killers were quickly followed by a false alarm, as two dark objects with ‘long fins’ were spotted on the sea surface, silhouetted in the glare of the sun. As we approached we quickly realised that the two kayakers wouldn’t add much value to our data set!
With our error forgotten, we were quickly surrounded by some 30+ individual false killer whales, spread over several hundred meters, and close to the coast of Pico island.
After an hour-long encounter, we decided to head further south. But our ‘hunt’ for our first true whale sighting was interrupted by several brief encounters with Risso’s dolphins.
And then…..nothing and more nothing. The weather and sea conditions were almost perfect, but the cetaceans were ominously absent, as we sailed on and the hours ticked by, the whale sighting count stayed firmly at zero. We continued to sail south, towards a 500 m deep sea mount, and with the hydrophone deployed, we finally located a sperm whale.
And then our luck truly changed, with the sighting of a solitary fin whale – the second-largest species of whale.
Fieldwork can often also be frustrating, but it will also often reward persistence and patience!
More oryx, fewer rodents and efforts for wolves in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
Twelve expedition team members from four different countries in January 2016 participated in a Biosphere Expeditions conservation project to evaluate the oryx and gazelle population in the Dubai Desert Conservation reserve in the United Arab Emirates. The research work also involved setting live traps to capture the endangered sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat. Rodents were also captured in small mammal traps.
The data gleaned in this way will now be analysed by the local scientist, Stephen Bell, who will soon be releasing a report detailing the outcome of the 2016 expedition. He explains that “we captured only few rodents and this could be a reason for the absence of the desert eagle owl, which was not spotted over the week, as well as the wildcat.”
130 fox dens were also checked and several new dens logged. This high number of Arabian red fox could be “detrimental to the balance of the reserve’s ecosystem”, according to Bell.
39 of 42 observation cells (an area of 2 by 2 kilometres) were surveyed in the course of the week throughout the 227 km² reserve. Expeditioners navigated to their cells in the desert by 4×4 and then walked to elevated points to count the animals they could sport with binoculars and spotting scopes. That way over 400 oryx, almost 140 mountain gazelle, around 50 sand gazelle and two hares were counted over the course of the week. The rare lappet-faced vulture was spotted on several occasions and in great numbers when a fresh carcass was found.
Since starting its partnership with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) in 2012, Biosphere Expeditions has made several important contributions to the management of the reserve and its rare species. Initially expedition work prompted the DDCR to change oryx feeding patterns, resulting in a much healthier population. Rare Gordon’s wildcats and a very rare and elusive sand fox were captured by the expeditions over the years, prompting the reserve to increase research and conservation efforts for these threatened species. Finally, data gathered by the expeditions showed that the introduction of the Arabian wolf would be beneficial. The UAE government accepted these arguments and the DDCR is now investigating processes and options to make what will be a major showcase conservation success story for Arabia become reality.
Tracking wolf, bear and lynx in Slovakia’s Vel’ka Fatra National Park
This is the fifth year that Biosphere Expeditions has run its winter lynx, wolf and bear conservation research project in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park, located in the Western Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia. The study site in the Lubochnianska valley, where the expedition operates, continues to support large carnivores, which have disappeared from most of their former ranges across Europe due to hunting and habitat destruction.
Although designated as a national park, the Vel‘ka Fatra, is still subject to logging and hunting. Biosphere Expeditions is working with local scientist and wildlife filmmaker Tomas Hulik to collect scientific data on the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in Lubochnianska valley.
Each year the expedition runs for two weeks in February when the valley slopes and trails are usually covered in snow, providing a canvas on which the tracks and trails of the large carnivores are painted. Data are collected by citizen scientist volunteers walking the forest trails on snow shoes, recording evidence of large carnivores and their prey. This includes recording tracks, scats and prey remains. Cameras are also left out on trails to record passing animals and identify them by their coat patterns. Although the weather this year was unusually mild, there has still been sufficient snow to collect significant amounts of data on the large carnivores using the valley.
Expedition scientist Hulik explains: “We do not expect expedition participants to have any scientific background. The expedition leader and scientist provide all the training necessary to recognise field signs and collect meaningful data.”
Participants this year came from many countries including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, UK and the USA. The expedition also offers placement opportunities for local people committed to wildlife conservation. This year the expedition was joined by Karolina Skrivankova, a Slovakian student hoping to pursue a career in biology. Karolina says she “liked the cooperation between participants and expedition leader, group leaders and scientist” and “thank you for the chance to participate, it was amazing”.
The youngest participant this year was thirteen year old Samantha from the USA, with ambitions to be a wolf biologist. Samantha joined the expedition with her mother, Tiffany, who described the experience as “a once in a lifetime trip that Samantha and I will always remember with great memories of the food, people and tracks. We both learned so much!”.
All evidence collected is carefully measured, photographed and its location recorded using GPS devices. As the expedition progresses, a picture develops of the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in the valley. The study site is divided into grid cells (2.5 x 2.5 km), which allows for the expedition’s large carnivore data to be entered into an internationally recognised database. The results help to inform population estimates for wolf, bear and lynx numbers in the valley and changes between years to be monitored. This year the expedition participants walked a total of 460 km along 33 transects, covering 26 grid cells. Hulik describes this as “a really great effort, which resulted in the recording of 32 wolf signs, 5 lynx signs and 4 bear signs, as well as the collection of 6 wolf scat and urine samples which can be used for DNA analysis”.
The scientific data collected during the expedition are reported each year in a full expedition report. The findings are presented to the government’s national park and national forestry departments and help inform estimates of large carnivore numbers in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park. The data also contribute towards realistic estimates of population sizes, which inform conservation measures and therefore increase the long-term survival changes of these iconic predators in the Vel’ka Fatra.
This year’s Biosphere Expeditions leader Paul Franklin says: ‘‘We have had another very successful year surveying large carnivores in the Lubochnianska valley. The team has worked hard to survey the transect trails each day in all weathers and these data are valuable to enable us to monitor population changes of large carnivores between years. The financial contribution from participants makes it all possible by funding the research, expedition logistics and local scientist. This research will make a meaningful contribution to wildlife conservation in Slovakia”.
Tomas Hulik, the expedition scientist, adds: ‘‘This was another very successful year with volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions. We collected a lot of data on the presence of wolf and lynx in the valley, including locating all three resident wolf packs and at least two resident lynx with an additional individual likely to have migrated into the valley for mating. The mild conditions and relatively thin snow cover enabled us to achieve our second highest coverage of the study area transects in the five years that the expedition has been running”.
Below is selection of pictures from the expedition (also mirrored on Facebook).
Our multi-national team all arrived safely, via a mix of routes and modes of transport. So the first slot of 2016 begins.
With initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, this morning we dived headlong into the research element of the expedition – the main reason why we have all travelled to the Azores. The scientific training began with familiarisation of equipment, which was followed by data records training, and rounded off with a boat orientation.
Our volunteers have clearly been good to the climate gods, as they have brought great weather with them. The team’s new-found cetacean research skills were soon put to the test, with sightings of common dolphins.
The luck continued, with a loggerhead turtle sighted during one of our designated ‘turtle time’ survey periods. Normally we see them outside ‘trutle time’, when they are logged as ‘random sightings’. A great job by Ralf in spotting the turtle, and custom has it, that such a sighting means our scientist Lisa buys a drink for each member of the team – thank you Ralf!
The sightings continued with a small group of Risso’s dolphins, located close to Pico Island. This species is resident in the Azores. When born they are very dark in colouration, but become ‘scratched’ with age, through social interactions, exhibiting unique hieroglyphic markings on the bodies and dorsal fins. The scratch marks can be used to identify individuals.
The day was rounded off learning key identification features of species we will hopefully encounter. The team are now poised and ready for action. So a great start to the expedition and the data collection. The whales will have to wait for another day…but you always have to have something to look forward to…
It’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner (on the left below) and I’ll be your Expedition Leader in the Azores this year.
If expeditions are a journey with a purpose, then the first part of that journey is complete. I arrived in the Azores (coming from Scotland) on Friday to prepare the expedition. It wasn’t quite all as planned, as we had an unscheduled stop in Porto, for a medical emergency on the plane. The delay meant I ending up chatting to a Brazilian academic about his PhD work on film translation, and on the second flight I bumped into Jim, one of our hosts from Banana Manor.
It is great to be back again and to meet up with friends and colleagues from previous years, not least, our scientist Lisa Steiner (looking through the ladder below). If you want to find cetaceans in the Azores, then she is the person to find them. Last year, our first day at sea scored our one and only humpback whale for the expedition – so you never can be too sure what ‘data’ we will collect. With Lisa already reporting sightings of humpbacks and sperm whales, we could be lucky again. We now just hope that the weather and whale gods are on our side and we can look forward to some great fieldwork (and data collection) over the next few days.
I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, wet and dry. Like the weather in Scotland! Don’t forget your waterproof trousers – you’ll thank me when you are stationed on the bow as a lookout and the weather is choppy (so also bring your motion sickness pills/patches – if you know you need them!).
So with the local team in place, whale sightings already logged by Lisa, all we are missing is you. This Monday morning is hopefully one we are all looking forward to….. It will be great to meet you all.
This reminds me to mention communications on the island. There’s cell/mobile reception on Faial in addition to internet here and there, but remember the golden rule of no cell phones while we’re at sea. Hopefully you can resist the need for frequent international comms, and why not go off the grid for the expedition, and soak up the experience of Atlantic island isolation. My mobile number here is (+351) 962 338 060. Hopefully you and I won’t need it, but there you have it, just in case of emergencies, such as being late for assembly.
Safe travels and we look forward to meeting group 1 on Monday and groups 2 and 3 in due course.