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.


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.


Azores: good weather & sightings

We have been out on the water several days in a row, since the weather has been fantastic. The sightings have also been extremely good.

There have been sightings of sperm whales every day. The “Whitehead” group is still around (they were first sighted on 24 June) and the male sperm whale that we saw on 2 July hanging out with them, has been seen again on 11 July, with a different group of females. It is a bit unusual for the big males to hang around so long, because they are usually looking for females, going from area to area. But I guess because there have been several different groups of sperm whale females passing through, he can just stay put and let the females come to him! And once again, you can see the size difference between the fluke of the male and the fluke of the female as they dive together. One morning, we saw three different groups of female sperm whales spread out from the south of Pico to the south of Faial.

One day, we had a sperm whale make four tail throws, with poo! This is basically an upside down breach. The whale makes a quick dive and we were expecting a breach, where the whale jumps out of the water, but got the tail end instead. When they breach or tail throw, they often defecate, possibly due to muscle contraction involved in the activity. Breaches, lobtails or tail throws are usually signs that the group is going to socialise. They can also be done to slough skin or parasites, as well as communication.

Some of the fluke matching shows a couple of individuals that were seen in São Miguel in 2015, as well as a couple from a different group that were sighted last year. A couple of the groups have not been previously identified. There was a bachelor group of four males seen on one day (when males leave the family group, they hang out in groups of young males for a few years, before becoming more solitary); none of them had been seen before. One of the bachelors decided to have a look at the boat, with a headout, before resuming his course and diving. Sperm whales see down and out to the side, so when they lift their head, they are looking along the surface. I don’t know what caused the white scarring on its head.

With such calm conditions, we have also seen Sowerby’s beaked whales a few times. These whales are usually shy of boats and difficult to spot. They are deep divers eating squid. Another squid-eater has also been seen, i.e. more pilot whales just hanging about, with a bit of socialising from some of the juveniles.

Groups of dolphin have also been seen: spotted, striped and common, all with small calves present. The striped dolphin, surprised us one day by bowriding! This species in the Azores tends to keep its distance and only rarely comes towards boats. Spotted dolphin have been making some incredible aerial displays, which are fantastic to watch, but quite difficult to photograph. These aerial displays can be social or a way to herd fish and if they enter the water cleanly, they can be diving deeper.

One group of spotted dolphin had a melanistic individual, meaning darker than usual. More often, we see leucistic, lighter than usual, sometimes blotchy, cetaceans, but occasionally the darker versions appear as well. These are genetic variations.

We are expecting some wind from the east this week, so will have to hope it doesn’t get too choppy to get out to sea.

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Azores: matches & amazing sightings

First some match information and what what it means

In 2009, the match from the other day, “3724”, was seen with quite a few well-known animals “2044”, “2067” and “2726”, which have usually been seen in the spring or autumn. We just weren’t lucky enough to see them. This group doesn’t usually hang around for very long, so I am not sure if we will get a chance to see the rest of the group. But good to know anyway! “2044” has been seen on several Biosphere Expeditions.

ID photographs confirm that female sperm whales spend their whole lives together; it is the juvenile males that leave the group. Some of the animals observed in previous years have been seen together for 29 years. Usually when one animal from a group has been seen before, the rest of the animals in the group have also been seen. Sometimes, like this sighting, it is not possible to identify all the animals of a group on a given day, but repeated sightings of the same group over time give us more chances to catalogue all of the individuals from that group. Sperm whales live for around 60-70 years, so some of these animals re-sighted in the Azores have been recorded for almost half of their lives.

Also, the humpback whale we saw the other day has been matched to the Cape Verde Islands via the dorsal fin! Pedrin from made the match. This whale was first seen in the Cape Verde Islands by Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group in 2003, then by in 2015 & 2016 and finally by Beatrice Jann in 2018! Most of the sightings in Cape Verde were in Sal Rei Bay, Boa Vista (thanks Fred Wenzel). This is the first time it has been photographed in the Azores, maybe next time it will show us the fluke too!

Since 2004, the expedition has contributed 22 ID photos to the catalogue, which produced one match to the Cape Verde Islands in 2010 plus this new match and one to Norway in 2018 (unpublished data). The Cape Verde matches made by the expedition, as well as data collected outside the expedition and by Fred Wenzel and colleagues, suggest that most of the humpbacks that are seen in the Azores are part of the endangered Cape Verde population, rather than the Caribbean population, which was taken off the endangered list in 2016. Matching movements and populations is important, because little is known about the movements of the eastern Atlantic humpback whales and as an endangered population, it is good to monitor its status in order to take action as soon as possible if a decline is noticed.

And then for some amazing sightings over the past few days

We have had some spectacular weather the last few days and the whales and dolphins have not disappointed us. Eight different species have been recorded!

We have had sightings of sperm whales, including a big male hanging out with a couple of well known ladies from the “Whitehead” group. Males do not stay with the groups of females, they spend more time in the north, where there is more food to support their bigger body size.

We have also seen a very relaxed group of pilot whales, just resting at the surface, going slowly past the boat. And a group of curious false killer whales, which came over to investigate the boat. Both of these species appear infrequently, but we know from photo ID that some of the pilot whales have been seen in Madeira and some individual false killer whales have been identified over multiple years and also seen in Terceira & São Miguel. The false killer whales may be resident, just spending more time out around the banks. At least one of the false killer whales has been seen in a previous year in Terceira. More matching is taking place, so I should have some more info soon. The pilot whales are the short fin species and they spend more time in warmer waters, so in the winter, they probably move further south towards Madeira and maybe even the Canaries.

We have also seen sei whales a couple of times. The first time was a single individual travelling to the west, making one blow at the surface and then diving, returning to the surface around 3 minutes later. The second time, two individuals were travelling slowly through a glassy sea. Sei whales that have been tagged previously in the Azores by the university have almost all headed towards Labrador, where they spend the summer feeding, before returning to the south to breed.

We have also had a couple of sighting of striped and common dolphin, the striped dolphin making some spectacular leaps as they go away from the boat. In other parts of the world, they will bowride, but here in the Azores they usually avoid the boats. Often common and striped dolphin swim in mixed schools. The larger size school makes it easier to find food and also stay safe from any predators.

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Spotted dolphin have also made another appearance, although on this occasion, they were more interested in travelling to the southeast, than playing with the boat. There were many calves in the group.

With the calm seas, it is also easier to spot beaked whales. There is not a lot known about any of the beaked whales, because they are very deep divers and usually avoid boats. The groups that we have seen have been mother-calf pairs. The larger group stayed up for a few minutes allowing us to get a better than average look at these reclusive animals. One of the females had an overbite. Judging by the fact that she had a calf and appeared in good condition, I do not think this was affecting her feeding ability.

Also easier to spot with calm conditions are the loggerhead turtles as they bask at the surface. You can see two fish swimming over the turtle, possibly black sea bream. The fish eat the algae that grows on the turtle’s shell and also get a bit of protection by hiding their silhouette from any predators lurking below.

With some more good weather coming this week, what will we see next?

You can see our sightings on the Seafari App May & June 2020 on Google My Maps.

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