Azores : 2022 expedition round-up

Twenty-three expeditioners from ten countries across the world joined the Azores expeditions in March and April 2022, the first expedition to run since the start of the Covid pandemic. This was the 16th edition in the Azores monitoring the movements, migrations, numbers, group structures and ecology of cetaceans.

During this 16th expedition, citizen scientist participants spent 16 days out at sea, adding up to 100 sea-hours while covering 1674 km around the islands of Faial, Pico and Sao George in the central group of the Azores. The expedition’s search effort resulted in 127 sightings of 10 different cetacean species. In terms of abundance, the common dolphins come in first, while the iconic sperm whale was sighted on 59 occasions. Baleen whales are known to migrate through Azorean waters in spring, hence the timing of the expedition. The expedition recorded six humpback whales during three different encounters, one minke whale just outside Horta harbour and three majestic blue whales. As for dolphins, most of which are resident, the well-known bottlenose dolphins were spotted five times, Risso’s dolphins on four occasions and and striped dolphins twice. Of the larger toothed whales, the expedition witnessed a feasting bonanza of 75 false killer whales on tuna and even caught a glimpse of five elusive beaked whales.

Cetaceans are no easy species to study, given that they spend most of their time under the water surface. Yet photographs of dorsal fins of dolphins and tails (flukes) of whales allow scientists to distinguish individuals. These can then be matched when photographed elsewhere along their migration route or as part of their movements within the Azores archipelago. Photo-IDs may sit for many years in a database before being matched, hence cetacean research and spatio-temporal monitoring requires long-term data collection and processing to reveal meaningful patterns – a perfect task for a citizen science expedition. In the long run – and conservation science is a long game – this gives relevant information on priority areas to protect to safeguard the many whale and dolphin species present in the Azores. Indeed the archipelago is considered a hotspot for both resident and migrating cetacean species.

Out of the total of 59 sperm whale sightings, the expedition managed to identify 44 individuals of which 18 (40%) were known individuals and 26 (60%) were new individuals of which fluke shots were added to the catalogue. Actually, one sighting of one individual was repeated within the expedition, sighted both on 28 March as well as 19 April. Within the known individuals, there are three well-known groups: the one of a whale called “Nr 19”, the group of “1598” and the group of “2808”, with calves of last year. The expedition also spotted a few males, one of which known is known as “Tiktok”, a male that seem to be more resident around the Azores archipelago, often sighted close to Sāo Miguel. This is rather unusual, as most males migrate to the Northern Atlantic for food, while the females are known to stick around. These data are precious to Lisa Steiner, the expedition scientist, an expert on sperm whales, having studied them for over 35 years in the Azores. As Lisa says “cetacean research progresses one fluke at a time”. It is remarkable how she has come to know some of these individuals very well and we witnessed her jumping up and down on the lower deck in joy after taking a fluke shot, saying “this is number 19, I’ve know her since 1987!”

As for the humpback whales, one of the North Atlantic researchers for the species confirmed that one fluke photographed by the expedition matched to an individual seen in October 2014 and in January 2015 in the Tromso – Andenes region in the North of Norway. Our most unique sighting was the one of a white humpback whale, named “Willow”. It is the only known 95% leucistic individual in the Northern Atlantic humpback population. Based on this feature and together with its fluke ID, the expedition was able to confirm that Willow has been seen in the breeding grounds of Guadeloupe in 2015, 2019, 2020, as well as in the feeding grounds of Spitzbergen even earlier, in 2012. A tissue sample had been taken there, indicating Willow is a male. “This story and unique encounter demonstrates how every single fluke photo adds pieces of the puzzle that make up the life history of these long-lived migrating baleen whales” says An Bollen, the expedition leader.

Regarding the blue whales, the two individuals seen travelling together by the expedition were re-sightings from the Azores. One was seen there in 2010 and the other one in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, as confirmed by the researcher Richard Sears, showing that at least some individuals use the same migration routes.

Dorsal fin photos were sorted by citizen scientists and have been sent off to Karen Hartmann, Risso’s dolphin researcher and to other colleagues working on bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales. These species are considered resident around the archipelago and indeed the expedition recognised some individuals with distinctive dorsal fins in groups of varying sizes, so as more feedback comes in form the colleagues, it will also add to an increased understanding of these dolphin species.

This year the expedition collaborated closely with the University of the Azores by testing the beta version of the Monicet app, which was released just before the start of the expedition. The expedition team provided several recommendations, which were included in an improved version, released by the end of April 2022. The idea is to roll out the use of the Monicet App to all whale watching vessels in the Azores to enable data collection and sharing. The expedition is proud to be asissting with this.

The expedition also worked with more advanced GPS units, which allow it to generate maps and other visualisations of results and effort.

This sums up the 16th Azores edition, which is only possible thanks to an international team of citizen scientists Lisa Steiner us and dedicating their free time, energy, resources and enthusiasm to collecting data and contributing to the conservation of these fascinating animals. Biosphere Expeditions will be back in March 2023 to continue its citizen science programme and keep contributing to long-term cetacean monitoring.

Some photo impressions of the expedition:

Some video impressions of the expedition:

Kenya: Trail blazed

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Group 1 left on Friday with Roland driving a small contigent to Mulot, others making their way to the Maasai Mara for safari and still others choosing to fly from the local airstrip. The first leg of this expedition has passed in the blink of an eye and group 1 have left big boots to fill for the upcoming groups.

Below are some headline data that outline the hours of hard work put in by our first group:

  • Over 10,000 total animals recorded. 164 raptors and endangered birds recorded in 79 sightings including 28 grey crowned cranes in one sighting.
  • 9572 mammals recorded on 14 vehicle transects with a total distance of 260km.
  • 9 foot patrols completed recording scat including samples of aardvark and jackal scat plus footprints of elephants and hippos were photographed close to human settlement.
  • Two 14-hour waterhole observations with hyaenas, civet and lots of zebras, buffaloes and giraffes.
  • 308 iconic species recorded whilst not on transect (lions, leopards and elephants among others).
  • 6 hotspot cameras placed in locations with good chances of recording charismatic species.
  • Countless hours spent by Roland hunched over a laptop like a mad scientist, tweaking and perfecting the Cybertracker app and ironing out the quirks found on individual phones so that we can collate these data.

Group 2 – we look forward to meeting you and get stuck into the science all over again. We are set up to welcome you and the sunsets promise to put on a display. See you tomorrow.

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Kenya: Educational day

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Wednesday saw the first local school education day of the Kenya 2023 expedition. We spent Tuesday afternoon planning the day and group 1 had some great ideas with activities planned to engage the students including discussions around human-wildlife conflict and poaching, hands-on demonstrations of scientific equipment and the processes we use to collect data.

The students were split into four groups named the Lions, Hippos, Elephants and Crocodiles. These names were chosen specifically as they are among the most prominent in terms of human-wildlife conflict. The morning was spent visiting the school in Emarti and meeting the excited students and teachers before heading into the conservancy for a game drive. This experience was eye-opening for us, as the vast majority of the students had not encountered the animals that live right on their doorstep. When we sighted a herd elephants, it was an emotional moment for the students and citizen scientists alike, many united in spotting their first elephants in the wild.

After lunch, the citizen scientists took the opportunity to explain the reasons drew them to visit Kenya and the Maasai Mara and offered insights into their home countries – many with stories of historic poor conservation and loss of wilderness. The students were especially interested in hearing about our lives back at home and everyone was happy to share photos and stories! After lunch (with the chefs continually trying to keep the buffet table topped up!) there were discussions around the relationships between humans and wildlife and the students offered their perceptions on the animals the four groups were named after. This was particularly insightful and provoked lively discussions between the students, citizen scientists and teachers. The citizen scientists were able to share their joy and enthusiasm for the sheer magnitude of biodiversity within Kenya with the students and teachers balancing the discussion with local concerns and conflicts.

Before the last activity there was a short talk and activity from Jane with everyone planting a tree and then onto the last activity – a gadget-filled hunt for camera traps placed nearby. After a short training session on compasses, GPS units and rangefinders, the students were given the clues to locate the camera traps. This activity was a hit and the students were enthralled and engaged throughout. Sadly for everyone this was the end of the day and time to return to Emarti school with full hearts and big smiles.

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Kenya: Elephants and lergy

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

As the team emerged from the adventures of their day off on Saturday with tales of lions feeding on zebras, close encounters with white rhino and sunsets over hippo-laden watering holes, Covid has reared its ugly head once again. We currently have two people isolating, the rest of the team have adjusted and adapted where necessary. For the most part it is business as usual. The staff at base are doing a great job of keeping everyone fed and assisting the expedition team.

Outside of the camp, we have continued with our prolific collection of scientific data. We have had teams completing foot transects in Mbokishi and Ol Chorro, vehicle transects in Enonkishu and camera traps placed in areas of interest (known as hotspots). We have placed a camera trap in an area said to be frequented by leopards and we are hoping to catch a glimpse into the life of these secretive creatures. With any luck we will have some photographs to share with you soon. We have also assisted our local rangers with the servicing of the permanent camera trap grids within the conservancies.

Sightings of special interest have continued to come in with our first elephants spotted during a transect, alongside reports of leopards, lions, civet cats, hyaenas, waterbuck, giraffes, zebras and a plethora of birds and ungulates.

So our expedition does, what an expedition does. Pursuing a purpose and coping with lost bags, delayed flights, broken down vehicles and now Covid as part of the adventure and expedition life.

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Kenya: Groove

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

We’re in the groove – more or less. Vehicle transects have been driven, foot transects walked, rangers introduced to our Cybertracker data recording app, with some taking to it like ducks to water and others less so. We have also checked camera traps (results later), where we could find them, been on night drives (for fun and a bit of data recording) and started waterhole observations, which presented their very own set of challenges (see below) 😉

We’ve recorded lions, hyaenas, civets, giraffe, topi, dik-dik, duiker, zebra, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, eland and much more. Cheetahs have been seen in the study site, but not yet caught during the surveys. The elephants are making themselves scarce and are elsewhere in the Mara. The leopards are elusive, as they tend to be.

The first star of the expedition has been awarded for Germanification of the daily activities grid.

Roland has put in a heroic effort to get the Cybertracker data transfer working reliably. The team continues to work hard and diligently, so the data are flooding in, putting a smile on Rebekah’s face.

Beaming too is the sun over the Mara. Our 06:00 breakfasts are chilly with lots of jacket and hat-clad people going about their business with quiet confidence now, packing up equipment and getting ready to head out. As the sun crests over the Mara, engines fire up and people leave to their destinations, be it a waterhole, a ranger pick-up point or a transect. A couple of hours into our survey work, the jackets come off and the suncream comes on for us muzungus. By lunchtime the sun is high and hot and, the siesta until 15:00 appreciated, ready for another round of activities in the afternoon. This is an expedition after all, not a bloody holiday!

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Kenya: Trailblazers

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Team 1 has arrived. Trailblazers we called them and trailblazers they are. Missing baggage, northern accents, naughty dogs, long hours or data-collection apps on mobiles don’t faze them.

Two days, some Teutonic organisation, plenty of laminating sheets (great thing we have so many) is all it took to get them up to speed and convert them into citizen scientists and 4×4 fiends.

So on day three, as the sun shines and the Mara bursts with life, they are already out on their second vehicle transect – spotting, recording, off-roading and beavering away in a very sciency way.

Now all we need is for inseparable K&J to be less smelly, J&D to sing, R&E to restart their phones, B&Y to train the rangers, R&R to relax, J to take over, G to order the driver to continue, S to continue chauffeuring and N to find some Wellingtons, and we’ll be in expedition heaven.

But, no really, well done team 1 so far! You are creating big boots to fill.

First three days
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Kenya: Groove, sort of

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Baggage: arrived. Roland: arrived. Cars: fixed, sort of. Preparations: finished. Team: missing. That’s our status here in Enonkishu.

There’s been lots of changes over the last three years, so group 1, you will be our trailblazers. Bear with us, work with us and get us in the groove. Remember it’s a team effort and we’re here to lead, not to serve or nanny you. So, I hope you have:

  • a copy of the field manual ready for your own use (essential for your work)
  • downloaded the Cybertracker app (essential for your work)
  • downloaded the Earth app (new, essential for your work, see below)
  • downloaded the BirdLasser app (not essential, only if you are really into your birds)
  • downloaded the iNaturalist app (not essential, only if you are really into your natural history)

We’ve decided to use Earth for on-site navigation, so please download the app. If you’re into things like that, you can also import into Earth three files and have a play. We will send you these files and also some others so that you know what’s coming 😉 If you are not into this, then don’t worry, we will explain everything on site and get you set up once you are here.

Roland and I will be driving to Nairobi in a minute. See you there at 08:00 tomorrow, group 1.

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Arabia: Final entry

Update from our wildlife conservation volunteering holiday in Dubai (UAE) working on oryx, wildcat and desert species

This year’s Arabia conservation expedition is over. Writing this, I am at Dubai airport waiting for my flight back to Frankfurt. Group 2 left on Monday after helping to break our lovely desert camp. On our last day on Sunday, we picked up nine camera traps in the morning, reviewed their pictures, finished up data entry, had lunch and a final de-brief with Aline back at the DDCR office. She provided a summary of animal sightings and data recorded – quite impressive what a dedicated team of citizen scientists can achive in only six days:

Group 2 recorded 766 animals of 32 species (7 mammal, 16 bird, 4 reptile and 5 insect), conducted 42 quadrat surveys, checked fox dens in 6 different areas, as well as possible eagle owl nesting sites, and 2 ‘blind spot’ surveys. Well done, group 2! Overall, the two expedition teams surveyed the entire study area of 227 square km (62 quadrats).

After all this, we spent a well-deserved relaxed Sunday afternoon/evening at camp around the campfire, where we enjoyed a self-made dinner and chatted away far into the night.

The data gathered by the expedition will contribute a big piece in the DDCR’s jigsaw of effective wildlife management and conservation and I would like to thank Gerhard, Aline and Basil of the DDCR for welcoming and having us all camp in the most precious, protected and beautiful spot within the Reserve. Thank you for your cooperation and support in all aspects of this joint project and expedition.

A big thank you also goes to the teams. You have been great to work and share time with. Thanks for putting your time, effort and money into the project and sharing your knowledge and experience with us. The expedition would not happen without you, of course.

Best wishes

Malika Fettak
Expedition leader

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Kenya: Stutter start

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Matthias and I are off to a stutter start of our Kenya biodiversity volunteer expedition.

First, our baggage (with important expedition equipment) did not make it to Nairobi. So far Kenyan Airways have proved incompetent in even locating it. Then our first hire 4×4 broke down after 5 km and we had to leave it with the mechanics. The second just made it to Enonkishu before the clutch gave in. Thank you very much Market Car Hire! And on the way, we were harassed by a greedy and self-important policeman.

But we got there in the end and it is good to be back. Lots of changes. More wildlife, more people, more rain. Lots of work to do. New (very good) cook!

Rebekah, our local scientist, has been busy devising our surveys, now in three conservancies rather than one (see photos, all to be explained during training when you get here). We in turn have busied ourselves with paperwork and setup. Replacement cars are here and we hope this will be breakdowns and police harassment out of the way for the expedition, but don’t hold your breath.

The Mara is as beautiful and welcoming as ever. It’s a bit chilly in the morning (jacket or long sleeves required), but gets hot by mid-day, cooling off in the evening. As I type this, rain is gently pattering on the tin roof and vervet monkeys are playing in the trees nearby, sounding like elephants when they venture on the wet tin roof. Tonight the hippos will be grunting us to sleep as they always do. Sweet dreams and safe travels group 1. See you on Sunday. One more diary before then, perhaps.

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Arabia: Dune adventures

Update from our wildlife conservation volunteering holiday in Dubai (UAE) working on oryx, wildcat and desert species

Our Arabia desert volunteer expedition is on its last day this year. Three teams are out collecting nine camera traps set from group 1 on the very first expedition day. Rupa and Jim volunteered for data entry and sharing expert knowledge of optimising datasheets and streamlining all the data that has been put into the computer so far. The three of us are at the office right now, everyone typing on their computers eagerly.

All quadrat, fox den and eagle owl surveys were completed by Thursday evening – great job, team 2! That allowed us to spent a whole day with ‘Blind spot surveys’ – 11 pairs of eyes and ears out in the field exploring remote areas the scientist know little about. Out of eight specific areas (see map) the teams explored the terrain between Tawi Suhail and Tawi Manana in the morning.

Two teams parked their 4×4 on the north road and walked straight south, the other two teams parked on the south road and walked north, the distance between starting points being 500 metres. Reaching the end point, each team was then supposed to find a car parked on the roadside about 500 m away. So far, so good – one team picked up the wrong car, but other than that, the logistics worked well. All teams did a great job navigating and arrived safe and sound ‘on the other side’ bringing back valuable data from the field. After the successful morning test run, we did the same in blind spot D13 in the afternoon.

It was quieter than usual during the de-brief. Everyone looked pretty tired from walking in sandy dune terrain in the sun for a whole day. Thanks for your effort & well done, team!

One team found a dead fox, another team discovered an eagle owl hunting outlook under a fire bush, located on a steep sandy slope, overlooking a large gravel plain. Many pellets of different ages showed that this spot is used frequently for hunting by at least one owl. The location is definitely worth revisiting.

We have not spotted lappet-faced vultures for a few days now. But today a team is on the lookout specifically around the area where a gazelle was killed by a feral dog yesterday.

Apart from the field work, we will catch up with data entry and have included this activity in today’s planning.

Despite the the great effort put in by this group, most expeditioners make it to base camp before the survey de-brief at the DDCR office to take a quick shower or have a well-deserved a cup of coffee.

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