Azores: Autumn surprises

I have still been able to get out to sea around the windy days. After the remains of storm Paulette passed to the west, there were still some choppy seas for a few days. Once back on the water, it was nice to see that there are still sperm whales and sei whales around.

On the 27 September we even saw five species. Sperm & sei whales, as well as common, spotted and bottlenose dolphin and a turtle too. The group of whales is known as the “Chrissie/Willie” group and were first seen in August. They are usually on the south of Pico, but this was the second time they were seen to the north of Faial.

Nike’s group has also been seen to the north of the islands a few times. But they didn’t stay there. On 28 September, they were in the north, then on 2 October, they were on the south of Faial. They didn’t stop there and continued to the south of Pico on the 5th, where they have remained, at least up until the 11th. So they have circumnavigated Faial!

On 30 September we went to the north of Faial/Pico. Four sei whales had been seen in the morning and we managed to find them in pretty much the same place in the afternoon. They were making some short dives, circling in the same area, so probably feeding at depth. The sea was quite choppy, so not easy to spot them under the water or see footprints as we usually do. The large waves can make for some pretty spectacular photos, if you catch a whale at the top of a wave or coming out of one.

We went a very long way down the south coast of Pico to see some sei whales on 4 October. There have been sightings of them lunge-feeding in that area for a few days. Unfortunately, not while we were watching. They both had very well marked dorsal fins, so the long haul was worth it.

On our way back to Horta, we also got a glimpse of a whale shark. There were three in the area and one swam past our boat. These animals are not usually seen in the Azores, but there had been sightings for a few days and the lookout can see their large fins above the water. Whale sharks are filter feeders, eating plankton and small fish out of the water column. They are sharks, because instead of bone, they have a cartilaginous skeleton. They are called whale sharks, because of the huge size they grow to, the one we saw was at least 9 m. This is the first whale shark I have seen in 32 years of working in the Azores!

On the 5 October we were again to the south of Pico. Nike’s group present and accounted for close to Lajes, a group of common dolphin feeding with some Cory’s shearwaters and another whale shark encounter on the way home. This time, the visibility was much better and we could see the whole body of the animal as it swam slowly past our boat twice.

On 8 October, we were back to the north of Faial. It was quite choppy, but with the help of the lookout, we found sperm whales and then false killer whales found us! Only one of the sperm whales fluked, the others shallow dived and whether it was a response to the false killer whales in close proximity or they were going to socialise, we don’t know. There were quite a few head-outs and some changes of direction of the sperm whales. False killer whales aren’t known to attack sperm whales and it was also only a small group of them (4-6 animals). It was difficult to get photos of the dorsal fins, due to the choppy seas, but I got two. Hopefully they will match to the false killer whale catalogue. False killer whale sightings are few and far between – they usually follow big pelagic fish, such as tuna or mahi mahi. And we know that there are individuals that have been seen repeatedly since 2005. It is unknown what caused the marks on the sperm whale fluke; suggestions have included a virus, fungus or even a shotgun. The marks are well healed, if indeed it was an injury and not genetic.

On 10 October we were again south of Pico and Nike’s group showed up again after a short stop with some bottlenose dolphin. We were very lucky to arrive just as three of the sperm whale group were at the surface, although two weren’t at a good angle for photographs, but thanks to some very distinct markings one of them, it was identified, as well as the one we were actually following. We waited for the whales to return to the surface, but instead saw a different individual. The lookout then directed us in towards the shore and a group of around 30 false killer whales that was traveling along the coast. This time it was easier to get some dorsal fin ID photos. There were several calves in the group, swimming next to their mothers. The last couple of weeks, the south of Pico has had large schools of tuna, according to fishermen, and this is what the false killer whales are there for. We also had a small group of spotted dolphin, one with a very distinctive “flash” on the dorsal fin. We passed by the whale shark again, but this time only saw a bit of a shadow under the surface. Since they breathe via gills, they do not have to come close to the surface and it is only sometimes if they are feeding close to the surface that we can see them well.

And finally on 11 October, we once again spotted Nike’s group on the south of Pico. A small group of four bottlenose dolphin was then followed by a large group of common dolphin just outside the channel between Pico and Faial.
The main season is now finished on Faial, so I will have to wait for some good weather days to try and get out again.

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Tien Shan: community camera-trapping expedition

Maxim Koshkin, Askat Mukabaev + three local guides (Azamat, Janat and Shamil) are back from their 645 km camera-trapping trip and this is what they found.

The community expedition team (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Note that this is just what they found on the ground. The SD cards they brought back still need to be analysed and we will update everyone when we’ve done that.

Chom-Chykkan area

The approach to the camera traps was conducted using horses, starting from the road running along the Western Karakol river. During the 3-4 hour ascent they observed two small groups of ibex (12 +13) moving west, including at least four male ibex. They also saw two bearded vultures, one Himalayan griffon vulture, two long-legged buzzards, one golden eagle, four ravens and one common snipe over the two days they spent in the area.

Bearded vulture (c) Ilbirs Foundation

They reset and moved existing camera traps, changed SD cards and batteries.

They found no signs of snow leopard activity.

Approaching the Chom-Chykkan camera trapping site on horseback (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Zhooru-Bulak area

Here the team found possible snow leopard sign of activity at two of the three locations they visited (two scats and a scrape) and performed camera trap maintenance.

Camera trap maintenance (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Issyk-Ata/Kara-Tor area

The team installed two camera traps at new locations along a major ridge line and possible snow leopard movement corridor, finding possible signs of activity, including a track and an old scat.

 

 

Ibex on the ridge line (c) Ilbirs Foundation
Ibex on the ridge line (c) Ilbirs Foundation

Kegety

This site may be visited by snow leopards during a hunt as it is frequented by ibex according to local information. The team performed an SD card / battery swap, but found no sign of snow leopard activity.

In the mountains (c) Ilbirs Foundation

We’ll be back with information about what’s on the SD cards and the 2019/2020 report with the results of last year’s long citizen science expedition and the results of this year’s short community expedition will be out soon too. Watch this space.

Thank you to our community camera trappers and the Ilbirs Foundation for organising the community expedition and to our donors for making it possible.

Azores: Before the remnants of Paulette

The vigias on the north of the islands have been keeping us busy. On 12 September, we had a large spread-out group of sperm whales, 10 individuals were identified between myself and a friend on another boat! Some of the individuals were previously seen in 2016. After a group of three females plus a calf dived, we headed off in search of a group of Risso’s dolphin. We were lucky and found them. They were also very spread out and it didn’t seem like I was going to get any ID photos, but in the end we found a few groups of mothers and calves that were more approachable. There was a leucistic (lighter colouration) calf seen, this is only the second “white” calf that I have seen. A local expert says this is the third light calf that she knows about. Usually Risso’s dolphin calves are born dark and get whiter as they age, but this one was already white, with the foetal folds showing as dark creases, instead of the other way around. One individual breached a few times and there were also a few lobtails, so it looked like there was some socialising going on. Photos were sent to the expert, who has studied the Risso’s dolphin off Pico for over 15 years. She recognised some of the individuals as part of the “Faial Ladies” group often seen around Faial, including Resa, who has been seen on previous expeditions. Other individuals were unknown. There have not been a lot of sightings of Risso’s dolphin this year and it is not clear why. One possible factor could be the disturbance caused by swimming with dolphins. Risso’s dolphins do not usually show much interest in boats, so to be targeting this species for swimming, probably causes more stress than in other species. They are also resident, so usually use certain areas for resting and feeding. If those areas were no longer suitable for resting or feeding because of disturbance, it is possible that they have moved to other less trafficked areas. We also spotted a loggerhead turtle basking at the surface.

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On 13 September we were back to the north of the islands. In the morning I managed to get one sperm whale fluke, visibility was not great for spotting blows, so was happy with the one I got. We also had a sei whale and some pilot whales. In the afternoon, there were a lot of sperm whales spread out over a wide area to the north of Faial. A lot of distant breaches were seen in different directions. It appeared that a social group was going to form, since most of the whales that were approached, shallow dived, without showing their flukes, another indicator, along with breaching/lobtailing that indicates social behaviour, rather than feeding behaviour. In the end, I was lucky, two of the whales in the group that we chose to follow, fluked, just as we were giving up hope of seeing any flukes! Our patience was rewarded!

On 15 September, with the remnants of hurricane Paulette lurking on the horizon, we were out to the south of Pico, the most sheltered area. The vigia had seen a group of sperm whales, which turned out to be the “Nike” group and although she wasn’t seen, I did get a photo of “2529” and her calf as well as Nike’s calf from 2018.

The last trip before the windy weather arrived was also to the south of Pico on  17 September. We went out to try and find a sei whale that the lookout had seen, instead a group of sperm whales was found with the hydrophone about 10 miles off the coast. This group was last seen in 2019 to the north of Faial. On the way home, the lookout spotted the sei whales we had been looking for. They were quite elusive, but thanks to the help of a local fishing boat, we managed a glimpse of one of the individuals, before continuing towards Horta. Since then I have been stuck onshore, with the remnants of Paulette, passing by well to the west of the islands, causing strong winds in the Faial/Pico area.

Tien Shan: off we go after all!

The community team have recovered and the coronavirus numbers in Kyrgyzstan have gone down as the country seems to be on a different curve to Europe, for example.

So the team are heading into the mountains today from Bishkek to work with the community camera trappers, retrieve camera trap SD cards, service the camera traps and engage with the local community in the absence of a citizen science expedition this year.

They’ll be on horseback to speed things up. Watch this space for updates.

 

Costa Rica: Update from Pacuare beach 2

In Pacuare, we are continuing to run the project just with the local leaders, one research assistant and the biologist. The green turtle season is small and slow with just few nests, but because of this with a great success rate of saving nests from poachers.

For leatherbacks, the hatchling time has now finished with numbers similar to  previous seasons (see reports about those here). The eventual poaching rate was around 40-50% depending on the month.

Thank you again to all those who supported the continuation of work despite the pandemic. For most of you this was by donating from afar this year. But we hope to return in person in 2021 and our expedition dates in May 2021 are on the website. Do join us if you can!

Azores: After the wind, a couple of surprises!

After a few days of windy weather when we were unable to get to sea, we were finally back out on 9 September. We headed to the south of Pico, since the sea was going to be calmer there. We were lucky the whales were in an area without rain showers. I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group, since it was the area they had been for a couple of months now. But much to my surprise it was the “1019” group!! I was able to get three out of five flukes from the adults, with colleagues getting one of the other individuals. “1019” was first seen in 1988, but then not again until 2006, when she was observed with “3186” and they have been seen together ever since. This group was first seen in 2020 in the middle of June for a week and then they vanished. September is a more typical time of year for them to turn up in the Azores, but they have sometimes been seen earlier. I do not know where they have been for the past 2.5 months, I will have to wait for photos from São Miguel and Pico to see if they were sighted there in the meantime. I do not think they would have gone down to the Canaries and back again in this time. They have been observed in the Canaries during the winter one year. We also saw a shy group of striped dolphin and a small group of feeding common dolphin. As we crossed the channel towards Faial, a rain shower finally caught up with us and although it didn’t last very long, it was very wet while it lasted!

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On 10 September we were also back to the south of Pico, this time because no animals had been seen in the north, by the time we left. I wondered if we were going to see the “1019” group again, since they usually hang around for a while before continuing on their way. It was not to be, but there was another surprise. The “Nike” group, which is usually seen on the south of Pico most of the summer, was back in their usual area. I photographed one individual of this group to the north of the islands in the middle of July and have been expecting them to turn up on the south ever since. I did not see “Nike” herself or one other individual of the group, but did manage to photograph three adults and “Nike’s” 2018 calf. Getting a good photo of this individual was excellent, because I only had a photo of 3/4 of the fluke from 2018 from a side fluke photo. The matching program found the match straight away though, so now I have a full fluke photo to carry on with.

We also saw a pair of sei whales milling around, possibly feeding at depth. One of them was quite thin. This time of year, the whales should be finding a lot of food to fill out the “hollows” caused by not eating for four months or so while they are on their breeding ground. Hopefully it will find enough food over the next few months to survive. Both of the sei whales had nicks on the top of their dorsal fins at the leading edge, rather than the trailing edge. This type of nick is usually caused by monofilament line, slicing through the dorsal fin. We didn’t spot any dolphins and unfortunately missed a sighting of a whale shark. It disappeared about five minutes before we arrived to the area.

Azores: It’s September already

On the last day of August, the lookout said he had seen four sei whales to the south of the islands. What he forgot to mention was that the wind was whistling through the channel between Pico and Faial, making it extremely difficult to spot the whales. We waited in the area for almost an hour, moving slowly towards the west, when finally, I spotted a blow! A single sei whale seen in between the waves. It seemed to be avoiding the boats, so we did not stay too long. The camera stayed safely tucked inside its case. I am not sure if I would have obtained an ID photo anyway with all the waves and unpredictable movements of the whale, but there was a very good chance the camera would get wet!

Summer was back on 1 September. We went a long way down the south coast of Pico, where I was expecting to see the “Whitehead” group yet again. But when the first whale showed the fluke, I was surprised, it was not the “Whitehead” group after all. Finally some different individuals. There were two seen, one with a fairly small calf. When matching the flukes later in the day, I got a second surprise, “1368” has been seen in 1990, 2015 and now 2020. The other individual had been seen in 2015 as well.

After the sperm whales we were directed to a group of pilot whales. I do not think I have seen such calm pilot whales in a very long time. At one point there was one individual about 3 m from the boat. Although at the end, they “woke up” and all dived quite quickly. We also had a couple of groups of common dolphin on the way home. One of the common dolphin had quite a distinctive fin, probably from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. The light was amazing and I even managed to get a couple of nice photos of the main seabirds that we see in the Azores. The Cory’s shearwater and common tern.

On 2 September, we were again working towards the north of the islands. The lookout had seen sperm whales as well as baleen whales. We were lucky to find the sperm whales, because they had just started to socialise at the surface, which means they are not clicking, so we would not be able to use a hydrophone to find them. There was a very very small calf with three adults. It appeared to be a “meet the calf” encounter. The calf had a floppy dorsal and flukes that were still curled as well as distinct foetal folds. Luckily, the whales showed some of their flukes while socialising, so we did get the ID images. They also showed their heads out of the water with their mouths open, giving us a chance to see their teeth. Then it was further out to sea to where a couple of sei whales were feeding with spotted dolphin. One of the sei whales made a few lunges to scoop up schools of baitfish, unfortunately a bit far to get good images.

The north of the islands has been full of whales the last few weeks and we were back to the north again on 3 September. First stop was a sei whale that may have been feeding at depth, it was making dives of 2-3 minutes. The sperm whales were a bit further out today and they were next, with a group of spotted dolphin seen along the way. At one point there seemed to be sperm whales in every direction. I got five flukes in the morning and then in the afternoon, we saw three different groups of sperm whales. First it was the same as the morning, with a sei whale surfacing about 200 m from where one of the sperm whales dived! This sei whale was the same as the lunging whale from yesterday. It was time to see some dolphin and a group of spotted dolphin were feeding, with a few making some spectacular leaps (when the camera wasn’t pointing their way). As we headed for home, we thought we might detour towards where the sei whale had been seen, but instead we found a group of six sperm whales that became seven just as we were leaving. Only one of these whales showed its fluke, it appeared that a social group was forming. But the sperm whales weren’t done with us, because I spotted yet another blow as we were on the way back to harbour and this time it was one of the “Northern Ladies” one of our well-known groups from the north of Faial. Matching photos in the evening, I had another surprise, more long-term matches. Two of the whales from the morning were first seen in 1995! We also saw a large group of striped dolphin, which were their usual shy selves.

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On 4 September, the weather began to turn and we headed to the shelter behind Pico, rather than have a very bouncy wet trip in the north. The lookout had seen a sei whale early on, but then rain obscured his view. We headed out to a group of bottlenose dolphin, hoping that the whale would re-appear. And we were lucky, after a spread-out group of feeding bottlenose dolphin and another group of spotted dolphin, we observed a single sei whale moving in large circles making dives of a few minutes, most likely feeding at depth. On the way home, we encountered a group of common dolphins that had a small mating group within it. There was also an individual with anomalous markings. There was also a group of 200 spotted dolphin, one of which had a chopped dorsal fin, probably like the common dolphin above from an encounter with monofilament fishing line. As a bonus we also spotted the same group of bottlenose dolphin as the morning, which although still spread out were exhibiting some signs of socialising, with spectacular leaps.

Another interesting bit of news came up. I was contacted by the researchers that spotted a mother and calf humpback in the Mediterranean to see if I recognised the fluke photo. I didn’t, but put them in contact with other people around the Atlantic and a match was found, with the Happy Whale program. The adult had been seen previously in Dominican Republic in 1986 and was spotted off Genoa in late August! It is very unusual to see humpback whales in the Mediterranean. Hopefully she will find her way back out, otherwise they will be on their own, without any con-specifics in the future. This is the link to the photo of the match, but if you want to see the rest of the info, you will have to scroll down on their page: https://www.facebook.com/associazione.menkab/photos/pcb.3532459813454641/3532349790132310

And while we are talking about links, there is now a page on ResearchGate, a networking site for scientists and researchers to share knowledge and contacts, that lists all the expedition reports and other publications that have come out of our expeditions in the last 16 (!) years. The Azores is the longest-running Biosphere Expeditions project and I could not have done all this work over the years, or been on the water as much in this coronavirus year, without the help of the hundreds of citizen scientists who have joined me over the years. Thank you very much! I hope to be welcoming you to the Azores again in 2021.

The weather has now turned windy for the next few days, which can happen sometimes in September, hopefully we will get a couple of days out on sea next week, before the next unsettled weather arrives. Signs that winter is coming.

Azores: Still “Whitehead” group and sei whales, plus dolphins

The windy weather eventually passed and I have been back on the water the last few days.

On  26 August, despite it still being a bit windy, we braved the elements. The “Northern Ladies” turned up for the first time this year, in their usual location to the north of Faial. There is a calf with a white head in the group, so we now have a “Whitehead Junior”, not to be confused with “Whitehead” from a completely different group! We also had a mixed group of striped and common dolphin, but it was a bit windy for the camera to come out.

On 27 August the seas had calmed down quite a bit, so it was easier to observe the animals. In the morning, we had at least some of the same animals as yesterday to the north of Faial, including a fairly new baby that we hadn’t seen yesterday (but we didn’t see the mother either). In the afternoon, we went to the south of Pico, since the whales in the north had disappeared offshore too far for the vigia to see. “2578” of the Whitehead group was seen as well as a single milling sei whale and then a mother and calf sei whale. The calf was very interested in the boat, circling us several times, appearing unexpectedly behind us a couple of times. We also saw spotted dolphin in the morning and again in the afternoon, plus a large group of bottlenose dolphin with calves in the afternoon. We also came across the biggest sunfish that I have ever seen. The fin, looked like an orca dorsal cutting through the water!

On 28 August, we were once again to the north of the islands. A very nice surprise, when I looked at the photos. “1333” first seen in 1990 as well as “2906” and “2907” first seen in 2005. Unfortunately, the wind picked up and I was unable to get more photos of the group in the afternoon.

On 29 August, we started the morning out with a sei whale before heading on to the sperm whales. Surprise, surprise, the Whitehead group are still hanging around on the south of Pico! Westerly winds prevented us getting back out in the afternoon.

And finally on 30 August, we were back to the south of Pico, where, I think, the Whitehead group was waiting for us! There was also a sei whale feeding on fish alongside spotted dolphin. We ended the morning with a mixed group of striped and common dolphin. The striped dolphin doing what they do best, run away from the boat! In the afternoon, the vigia could not see the whales, which had headed towards Pico when we left them. We will have to try again.

The final news on the harp seal is that it was an old male, judging by the teeth, and had not been feeding for some time. The only thing in its stomach were stones. Stones are not unusual to find in the stomach of seals, because they can not chew their prey, the stones help to break down the fish they are eating.

 

Azores: Plenty of sightings

On 22 August the day was split, with the morning spent to the north of Faial and the afternoon to the south of Pico. We started out with a group of bottlenose dolphin that included some small calves, followed by a few groups of feeding spotted dolphin. The sperm whales were next and after initial matching, have not previously been seen. The vigia also spotted a sei whale, so we detoured further offshore to see it. On arrival, looking at the dorsal fin photos, it was one of the sei whales seen the day before in the channel between Pico and São Jorge. It appeared to be feeding again. We saw the right side of the animal and it had a healing wound just below and behind the dorsal fin. At this moment, I do not know what caused the injury. Most likely is either a shark or orca attack, but it could have been something else.

In the afternoon, we started out with sperm whales. After the first fluke, I identified “2578” of the “Whitehead” group. I don’t know how long they are going to stay, but they have been here for two months now, which is remarkable. The lookout also spotted a group of pilot whales further offshore. On the way to the pilot whales, we came across a small group of bottlenose heading rapidly the other direction, so after a few minutes, we continued on to the pilot whales. There were no calves in the group of pilot whales that we saw, which is a bit unusual. So it is likely that the calves were in a part of the group that we did not see. On our way back towards Horta, we came across the same six bottlenose dolphin, this time heading back the other way! They did stop for a quick minute to ride our bow, but then continued on their way. Just before we got to Horta, a much larger group of bottlenose dolphin was seen to the south of Faial, probably the same group that we had seen in the morning.

On 23 August, we were looking to find a bit of calm water, since the wind had arrived a bit earlier than predicted. Unfortunately, the sperm whales had other ideas. They were spotted to the north of Faial and although the lookout said the conditions were ok, they were not great. We were delayed by a group of bottlenose dolphin just as we arrived to the north of Faial, that were heading towards Pico, so we didn’t remain with them for very long, since the conditions were only going to get worse where the sperm whales had been located. The sperm whales were not easy to spot in between the white tops of the waves, but I did manage to get a couple of fluke photos. Whether this was part of the same group as yesterday morning, I don’t know. But the two individuals I photographed do not appear to be in the catalogue. On the way back, we headed in closer to the coast to find some shelter. We also found at least 1500 spotted dolphin! They were small pockets that appeared to be feeding on baitballs and the group was very spread out, all heading towards the west.

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In the afternoon, we headed out to the south of Pico, where the mountain blocked some of the wind. Only dolphins had been spotted when we left the harbour. First up was the group of bottlenose dolphins that has been seen for the last couple of days, with the calves. A couple of the individuals look quite scarred up from interactions with other bottlenose dolphin. One of the juveniles did a huge spyhop (head out of the water), but I only caught the very last part as it was sinking back down into the water. Then it was onto a couple of groups of common dolphin. The first group appeared to be feeding as they moved towards the west, with a lot of common terns flying overhead, hoping for scraps. The second group was headed in the direction of the first group! Then came the shout over the radio “Blows”! The lookout had seen a sperm whale. So we raced offshore to the southeast. We didn’t arrive in time to see the first fluke, but over the hydrophone sperm whale clicks could be heard, so we were in the right area. It took a while, but eventually two whales came up and as they double fluked, I identified the 2014 calf of “2776”, yes you guessed it, from “Whitehead’s” group. Another whale popped up, this time it was Whitehead herself. Then we had a long bumpy ride back against the waves to Horta.

There are a few days of windy weather now, so onshore entering data into the SEAFARI App, so there will be a nice map for all the August sightings.

On 24 August, I received sad news from Pico, the harp seal has died in Lajes do Pico. Hopefully a necropsy will be done to determine what was the cause of death. There was some speculation that maybe it was dehydrated, since in addition to water from their prey, they eat ice when in their normal habitat. So a very sad ending to an unusual encounter.