Azores: Cetaceans galore

We had a full day out on the catamaran on 24 July.

The lookout to the north had seen a couple of sei whales, while the lookout to the south had only seen dolphin. By the time we got to the north, the sei whales had disappeared. But there were hundreds of spotted dolphin feeding on horse mackerel along with Cory’s shearwaters. After watching for a while, we carried on a bit further offshore to one of the areas that is usually good for finding sperm whales. Just after hearing some sperm whale clicks on the hydrophone, we came across a loggerhead turtle eating a piece of squid! That squid was probably vomited by a sperm whale, so we knew we were on the right track. When sperm whales eat squid, they do not digest the beaks. After a time, the beaks become uncomfortable and the whale will vomit to get rid off them. By default, anything they have recently eaten will also come up, so we sometimes see chunks of squid or deep sea octopus at the surface when sperm whales have passed by.

At the end of the squid crumb trail we found a group of socialising sperm whales. One individual did four breaches and the juveniles and a calf were lobtailing and throwing their tails around in a social group. Unfortunately, when the whales are socialising, they do not usually show their flukes, since they aren’t diving. I managed to get one fluke of one individual that did make a deep dive at the very start of the encounter and then got the same fluke as she dived in preparation for a breach. It appears that she could be pregnant, looking at the size of her belly visible in one of the breaches. Sperm whales breed all year, since they do not depend on migrating to warm waters to have their calves. I guess if she is around later this year or next year, we may have our answer, if there is a small calf with her. She was accompanied by a calf in the suckling position before she dived the first time. Sperm whale females will suckle another female’s calf, since they live together their whole life, the favour will be repaid sometime in the future.

We also had a group of over 500 spotted dolphin feeding on mackerel along with 1000 or so Cory’s shearwaters. One individual had a lot of barnacles attached around its mouth. I have seen this occasionally on bottlenose dolphin and do not know if they have an impact on the dolphin’s ability to feed; this one certainly did not look skinny. This seems to happen when there is an injury to the jaw and the teeth become exposed for the barnacles to attach to.

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On 25 July we managed to avoid most of the rain showers and followed the lookout’s directions to four feeding sei whales accompanied by spotted dolphin. There is a lot of bait fish around for the sei whales to eat, which is why they are hanging around. Then it was out to the area where the sperm whales were. Out there, we also found another sei whale and striped dolphin too. The sperm whales have been seen before, one in 2015, another last year and the third one on 7 July. I thought I recognised one of the sei whales from the other day, but although the dorsal fins are similar, they are not the same. We also stumbled across a small group of Risso’s dolphin on the way to the whales, but were not able to spend much time with them, since the lookout kept telling us to get a move on!

The weather did not co-operate for a full day on 26 July, but we had a fantastic morning.

We started with a small group of spotted dolphin on the way to sperm whales. We just missed two flukes by 10 minutes, so we had to wait a bit to get our first whale. It turned out to be “2578” one of the “Whitehead” group. We saw another individual, but it fluked in a wave, so no ID on the second individual. It was quite bouncy out where the sperm whales were and they were heading into the waves, so we headed back towards shore where the lookout spotted a sei whale with some dolphin.

It turned into an incredible sighting of three individuals, including a mother & calf. The calf showed a bit of interest in the boat, with the mother patiently waiting for it to go back to her! There was a sighting of a mother & calf sei whale a couple of days ago in São Miguel, about 125 nm away from Horta. I have sent the dorsal fin ID photos of one of the biologists over there to see if these are the same individuals. Most sei whales passing through the Azores are headed towards Labrador, based on some tagging done by the University of the Azores, but there seem to be some individuals that do not make the long trip, instead preferring to find fish further south. At the moment, there is quite a lot of baitfish around here. They were seen feeding on snipe fish a couple days ago and we saw some mackerel bait balls in the north of the island two days ago.

There is a bit of wind arriving later this week, but until it arrives, I will be going out to see what is around. There are a few whale watching tourists around at the moment, which means that the support from Biosphere Expeditions will last a bit longer, if I can hitch rides with them.

Azores: Fantastic weather & sightings

The weather is fantastic, long may it last! There are still daily sightings of sperm whales and on 21 July, I re-sighted three individuals from the “Winter Whales” group. Two of this group were first sighted on 22 May, so they have been around for quite a while. I have started thinking that maybe this group tends to stick around the Azores all year round, since we have had now had sightings of them in spring, summer, autumn and winter, although not always in the same year. I don’t know where the other members of the group were today, but my colleague from Lajes had said they had been seeing the group a week ago.

We also had sightings of a small group of shy bottlenose dolphin, spotted dolphin, a group of elusive Risso’s dolphin and a huge group of travelling common dolphin, almost an unbelievable sight as they came towards and then past the boat. There were some very tiny newborn babies leaping alongside their mothers as they went. One dolphin kept leaping and crashing down onto its right side. Sometimes this behaviour is to try and dislodge a remora, which has attached itself to the dolphin, but in this case, we couldn’t see any.

On the 22 July we had another calm day, although a bit overcast. The lookout directed us first to a group of dolphin feeding alongside a couple of sei whales. One of the sei whales appeared to be skim-feeding on one occasion and also did a couple of lunges. We did see one small bait ball and it is likely they were feeding on horse mackerel. We then moved on to the sperm whales, although were interrupted by another sei whale! And after a few flukes, we headed over to some dolphins, then spotted a blow and first thought was another sei whale, but no, this was a sperm whale that surfaced just behind a group of dolphins! This whale has a very distinctive fluke, with a curlicue left end. This whale, “1702”, was first seen in 1993! It has also been seen in 2011. The other three animals had been seen on 3 & 4 July this year.

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We finally had a change of scenery on 23 July and were able to get to the north of Faial. A lookout that is usually on the south of Faial, changed his spot. It paid off! There were a lot of sperm whales about 3-4 miles offshore, including a brand new baby. This calf had probably been born over the last few days, the tail and dorsal fin were still floppy! We could also see the foetal folds very clearly, another indication of a very young animal. When its mother finally dived, the little calf came over to investigate one of the whale watching boats, unfortunately, not ours! We were quite green with envy as the calf circled the other boat three times. When the mothers dive, the boats are the biggest thing left at the surface and I think that sometimes, the new babies are confused and think we are another whale! The mother of the calf was seen last year, the others have not been seen previously.

There was also a single sei whale that appeared to be resting or travelling slowly to the northwest. We also came across a shy or deep-feeding group of bottlenose dolphin, which were making dives of 3-4 minutes. We also saw a huge pod of striped dolphin, probably at least 750 animals! They appeared to be travelling to the northwest and avoiding the boats, as they usually do.

Germany: final day deliverance

The last day delivered!  Three teams collected 12 scat samples, four of which were fresh enough for genetic analysis.

So in summary, over the seven days of our community expedition, we

  • walked about 250 km on foot and rode once by bike, an average of 14 km per group per day, as always on publicly accessible hiking trails as well as agricultural or forestry trails
  • covered 15 cells of the pan-European 10 x 10 km grid
  • identified 163 wolf scats in the field, 54 of which we collected for nutritional analysis and 7 of which were fresh enough to qualify for genetic analysis, the remaining 109 scats were too old or broken up for analysis

Scats for nutritional analysis will be sent to the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, Foundation and the genetic analyses will be performed at the Senckenberg Institute.

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It will be very interesting to see what “our” wolves have eaten and whether their pack composition has changed, the territories have shifted or evidence of reproduction can be gleaned from our samples.

So all in all we achieved a lot under this year’s difficult conditions of reduced time, funding and helpers due to the absence of our usual teams of international citizen scientists. But still, we were able to determine in which areas the wolves are not roaming at the moment 😉

Wolf commissioner Kenny is scheduled to investigate the remaining areas in the next few days to have a closer look where the wolves are now. Good luck, Kenny!

We would like to thank all supporters who made this community expedition possible – especially Biosphere Expeditions for the funding via their coronavirus appeal, their logistical support and equipment. We would also like to thank the wolf bureau at NLWKN, the Lower Saxony State Forests and, of course, our fellow wolf commissioners and helpers for their support. A very special thanks goes to Kenny and his Biohotel Kenners Landlust for their flexibility, accommodation and fantastic food.

We look forward to a ‘normal’ expedition in 2021.

Peter

Germany: scatless miles, then scats galore

Göhrde forest is usually a bank for fresh scats. But everything is different this year. Four teams in the forest all day Monday and we found almost nothing – just one old and one fresh scat. Local wolf commissioner Kenny was also baffled, wondering where the Göhrde could be, but then the area really is huge.

On Tuesday we met with our old friends and fellow wolf commissioners Ulrike and Volker to explore various areas in the Wendisch Evern territory. The key question in this area is whether there are offspring. A pair of wolves has been documented there for a while, but reproduction has never been proven. There, too, we were only moderately successful, despite having had four groups in the field for the day in six different areas. We found only one scat good enough for nutritional analysis. The think the core area of the wolf pair is probably on a restricted military area, which we are not allowed to enter.

So we walked over 200 km on Monday and Tuesday and only had very scarce findings to show for it.

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But Wednesday was the day. We drove to the Amt Neuhaus area on the eastern side of the river Elbe with four teams. Teams 1 and 4 were reasonably successful, team 3 found an unbelievable number of almost fifty 2-4 week old scats! However, most of them were no longer usable for nutritional analysis, as theywere too old, rotten or incomplete – so those stayed in the field. But team 2 stole the show and brought home 29 samples, some of them fresh and complete enough to run genetic analysis on. As a reward for all the kilometres we covered, we treated ourselves to ice cream!

Thursday is our last day of the community expedition. Too bad, as there is still so much to do and we’ve also had great fun together. It only goes to show how important the full international expeditions, with more people and more time, are for gathering monitoring data actively. We are doing what we can this year, given the circumstances, but are already looking forward to having a full expedition out again next year (see the dates and join us then!).

Kenya: empowering local communities through technology

I just wanted to let you all know that the CyberTracker technology, which the expedition introduced us all to this February before the pandemic hit, is now a full-on success with my team. It’s also been a great success for the expedition, as you can read in the expedition report, which we published recently.

In the Q2 quarterly report just published, Bolton was able to make a heat map showing how the density of wildlife has shifted more to disturbed areas. This was in an effort to make my case for bringing visiting livestock into the blocks our herds haven’t reached. I finally won that battle, and sure enough one week after the visiting herd was in B10, abundant wildlife on T5 again!

Hopefully this means happier neighbours (they were getting a little annoyed at their livestock competing with wildlife for grass) and less human-wildlife conflict (16 lions killed three zebra in one incident right outside Kaelo’s boma in May)!

So I am very happy that you have introduced us to this tool – and also for Bolton’s affinity at dealing with it! Thanks so much!

Rebekah Karimi
Conservancy Manager
Enonkishu Conservancy

 

Azores: Tons of sightings and a road trip

I have been busy once again. The weather has calmed down allowing us to get to sea for a few days now. We have had a couple of extended days out since there are not many whale watching tourists and these days are funded principally by Biosphere Expeditions, covering the cost of the fuel and the lookout. Other days I go out for half a day, with whale watching clients aboard the boat as well.

On  13 July, we knew there were sperm whales, but there was also a surprise waiting for us after the first fluke. False killer whales! This was the second sighting of 2020. The group was very spread out and there were a few calves seen, including a newborn, with very visible foetal folds. These marks are caused by the calf being folded inside the womb, before birth. At one point, we saw them feeding on mahi mahi (dolphin fish). We got some ID photos of the dorsal fins and after a quick look, a few of the individuals have been seen in previous years. This could be the group that was seen further to the east the other day. This species is somewhat resident and individuals have been sighted in multiple years and between islands. I presented a poster on these findings in Barcelona at the World Marine Mammal Conference in December with some help from Biosphere Expeditions for the conference cost.

The sperm whales were the same group we had seen on 11 July, which includes a couple of animals that have previously been seen in São Miguel, 125 nm to the southeast of Faial. We know that some of these groups move around to the different parts of the Azores, while others seem to prefer one area or another.

On the way back to Horta, we came across a travelling group of bottlenose dolphin. Some of them came to the boat, while others just carried on. We could not spend too much time with them, because they were travelling in the wrong direction. Some of the individuals looked like the resident animals that we can see all year round. We identify them by their dorsal fins.

Then we went to have a look at a dead sperm whale that the lookout had seen earlier in the morning. There was no obvious cause of death and it appeared to have been dead for a few weeks/month at least, because all of the skin was white and the cartilage of the flukes was already decomposing, so there was no possibility of an ID photo. The carcass was towed to the harbour and removed so that the skeleton can be preserved.

And then we came across a large group of Risso’s dolphin on the way to the port. It was a mixed group of the “Faial Ladies” and also some unknown males, according to Karin Hartman of the Nova Atlantis Foundation, who has studied this species for 20 years. There have not been many sightings of this species so far this year, so every sighting is important to know who is around. This species is not boat friendly, yet people are allowed to swim with them. This swimming activity has been shown to affect their behaviour and it may be that the dolphins have got tired of sharing their space and move to another area. We have seen pilot whales more often this year, than Risso’s and they are eating the same food, but swimming is not allowed with the pilot whales. Time will tell if the Risso’s have relocated to a quieter area.

On 17 July we saw a group of sperm whales that have only been seen once before in 2015. We managed to get two flukes, before the group started to come together to socialise. This behaviour renews the social bonds between the individuals of the group, since the females will stay with the same group they are born into for their whole life, while the males will leave somewhere between 13-16 years of age.

On 18 July I made a road (& ferry) trip to Pico. There had been some sightings of Northern Bottlenose whales off Lajes, which is a long way from Horta and we usually don’t get that far during regular trips, so I decided to go out with another company, closer to the “hot zone”. My trip was a success and I got to see a group of about ten bottlenose whales as well as sperm whales, sei whales and bottlenose and spotted dolphin during the afternoon.

Three sei whales appeared to be milling around. They did not seem to be feeding or socialising, so maybe they were resting. We did not spend too long with them, because the sea conditions were not great and it was difficult to keep track of where they were going to surface. We also wanted to get to the bottlenose whales!

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The bottlenose whales only appear in July or August and don’t tend to stick around. It is not known why they migrate down to the Azores, from their habitual northern habitats. Maybe it has to do with removing parasites/diatoms from their skin. Orcas in Alaska are thought to make short trips to warmer water for this purpose and it has recently been hypothesised that baleen whales also get this benefit when they are in warmer waters breeding or having young. The group had covered quite a lot of sea from the morning, by the afternoon, they were halfway back to Horta! I got some good photos of the dorsal fins and for a brief moment thought we had a match to 2010, but the nick is not quite the same.

After the bottlenose whales, we went back to the area where the sperm whales were and got two flukes, which I do not recognise, so will have to run them through the matching program.

19 July saw another busy morning with four sei whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, striped and common dolphin! One of the sperm whales had been seen on 7 July as well.

The group of three sei whales of 20 July were different to the sei whales on 18 July and the lookout had seen others in the area as well. So it would seem that there are some sei whales that are appearing in the Azores during the summer and not making migrations further north to traditional feeding areas. There may be enough food for them to stay further south, like Bryde’s whales do. Good ID photos were obtained for all three dorsal fins and will be matched in the future.

The pilot whales were once again resting at the surface, mothers & calves as well as some larger males were in the group. So far 2020 has been quite good for pilot whale sightings, possibly due to a lack of Risso’s dolphin, which usually chase the pilot whales away, since they are competing for food.

On the way back to Horta, we passed by a group of dolphin, which turned into a group of dolphin and a sei whale! It appeared that there was some feeding going on with the whale tracking some of the dolphins’ movements. The dolphin were a mixed group of common and striped, which were more interested in finding food than playing with the boat, although a few did eventually come over.

And finally on 20 July, we again had “Whitehead’s” group, although I still haven’t got a photograph of her! I know she is there somewhere, so maybe tomorrow. This group has been here since 12 June, which isn’t unusual for them, they usually hang around for a while before disappearing. We also had a couple of groups of spotted dolphin, one of which appeared to be focused on mating. There was one incredible leap several metres high and a couple of the dolphin had some interesting markings, which are being investigated as to what might have caused the white patch in the dorsal fin on one and the dark patch behind the eye in another.

The weather is looking good for the next week, so I am sure we will be out on the water as often as possible.

Costa Rica: Update from Pacuare beach

The work with sea turtles at the Pacuare Project is particularly unusual this season with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. A nesting project that depends heavily on funding and labour from international citizen scientists to protect sea turtles from poaching pressure was left with only four local guides, a biologist and two international research assistants. During full season, the 7 km beach has up to six or seven patrols a night, and around the clock care of our hatchery.

When the coronavirus started to spread, many countries, including Costa Rica, quickly closed their borders. This left the project with little funding and few helpers. We had to scale down to only one or two patrols a night, leaving several hours each night and at least 2 km of beach unmonitored.

Although COVID-19 has put most people in quarantine, it has not stopped the immense poaching pressure. In fact, poaching pressure has remained the same or arguably become higher. Without work during the pandemic, there’s less money and less food. Poachers have more time to search for turtle eggs at night, whether it’s to eat them or sell them on the black market. This season, nearly 45% of nests have been stolen. Green sea turtles are poached for their meat and hawksbills are hunted for their carapace to make jewelry out of.

Support from the Coast Guard has also been limited, as they can’t perform their regular patrols during the pandemic either. However, when called upon for help, their presence is highly effective in relieving poaching pressure.

Despite everything going on with the pandemic, we’ve been able to adapt and perform exceptionally well. Even being limited to one or two patrols a night, we’ve been able to infer information from false crawls and environmental conditions to increase our probability of finding nesting females. Because of this, we’ve been able to protect more than 55% of the nests in 7 km of beach from February to May, which is the third highest protected season since 2012. Without a doubt, we’ve been able to achieve this thanks to the community, the support of the local guides and research assistants. We continue to patrol daily, protect nests in our hatchery, and safely return baby sea turtles back to the ocean, almost all voluntarily, without losing hope that everything will return to normal in the not too distant future.

If you want to help until it does, please do consider helping from afar by giving to the Biosphere Expeditions appeal.

Eduardo Altamirano, Biologist Pacuare Project

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Germany: scats, sunshine and drizzle

When we all met at base on Sunday, Lotte, Jana and Lea with detection dog Molly had already finished some surveys the two days before. Their study area was the Walle territory as the status of wolves there is currently unclear. They only found old wolf scats, some of which can still be used for nutritional analysis, but not for genetic studies, as they were not fresh enough.

We started our community expedition with a brief review of methodology and sampling procedures. Wolf commissioner Kenny gave us up-to-date information about the wolves in the areas to be surveyed. In short, we want to help prove that wolves are reproducing in the study areas, ideally via genetics.

After the introduction, we spent the rest of the day in the field in three groups until dinner. In the afternoon the sun burned down hard on us, so at the end of the day, everyone was very glad to have a chilled drink at our Kenners Landlust expedition base. We found some wolf scats, but it’s too early to make deductions based on those alone.

This morning a few of us went on an early morning excursion before we had breakfast with the late risers. We made no significant findings, but spent a wonderful morning in Göhrde forest. Our day today involved four teams out in the field in light drizzle. More in the next diary entry.

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Tien Shan: spanner in the works

Our plans have been thrown into disarray once again by the coronavirus.

We thought Kyrgyzstan was doing well and keeping the virus in check, but as it turns out we are only just at the beginning of the country’s first wave.

We have also just found out that all of our Community Camera Trap Monitoring Group (CCTMG) members are sick with COVID-19 symptoms. They are all from the village closest to our expedition base camp and from what I’ve heard, nearly every household in that village has at least one sick person in it.

So in the interest of all, we have postponed the community expedition. We will keep assessing the situation and keep you updated on here.

Some good news though is that recently in June, before they got sick, the CCTMG team was able to go into the mountains, do some more survey work and collect another SD card from a camera trap in our study area.

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On this camera were more grainy night images of a single snow leopard, as well as some ibex and other species.

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This is great news amidst the pandemic. Let’s hope that our people and the country can recover to a point where we can get back up into the mountains.

Germany: funding target reached & ready to go

Many thanks to all the generous donors who have contributed to making our community expedition possible this year. Having reached our target recently, we are now all systems go and will start at the end of this week.

We will meet with our wolf commissioner colleagues, the wolf bureau, Lotte, Lea with dog Molly, and some incorrigible scat seekers from the region. Many thanks to the wolf bureau, the Lower Saxony State Forests and our base for this year, Biohotel Kenners Landlust.

Some of us are already doing pre-expedition surveys to investigate some more distant areas before setting up our base with all participants on Sunday.

As always, we want to find wolf scats for genetic studies and nutritional analysis, and as every year, I am very intrigued about what we will find in the field. As many of you know, although much is know about wolf territories in Lower Saxony, there is also a significant lack of data and therefore understanding about wolf individuals and their reproduction in many parts of our study site. Our expedition this year, although much smaller than usual and planned due to the pandemic, aims to address this.

Wish us luck and watch this space for further updates.

Peter