Study finds that yellowhammer songs which have disappeared in the UK still exist in New Zealand

The yellowhammer is a small, bright yellow farmland bird, found through the UK (and Europe). A beautiful little bird, and one I have been lucky enough to see quite regularly in the Midlands, they tend to perch on bracken, hedgerows or small shrubs and sing. The famous expression for the yellowhammer song is ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, with a number of additional notes either side; each male has it’s own distinct notes and many regional dialects have formed throughout the country.

However, due to a population decline, that now sees the yellowhammer red listed, a number of the regional dialects have disappeared. But this week, a new study showed that the lost birdsongs of some yellowhammers is still alive and well, not in the UK, but on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. In the 1860’s and 70’s, 600 yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand, and a population still exists today. A group of scientists began comparing recorded calls from the UK and New Zealand, and to their surprise they found that the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as the birds in the UK. The lead author described the findings in The Guardian as the “avian equivalent of what happens with human languages. For example, some English words, which are no longer spoken in Great Britain, are still in use in the former British colonies.”

The findings are now believed to show that the birds in New Zealand have retained a number of songs and dialects, that were originally from the UK, but have since been lost in their native land. Listening to the songs of the yellowhammers in New Zealand is almost like travelling back in time and hearing one of the sounds of the UK countryside 150 years ago.

Battling the weather for birds.

Harlequin Ducks

I love winter on my patch, although this year is testing my patience somewhat. For Canada, Vancouver Island is mild in winter, with temperatures and weather similar to that in the UK. But this year has been a different story, snowstorms and Arctic gales have consistently hit the island. This has meant that the usual enjoyable birdwatching trips around my patch have looked more like something out of March of the Penguins.

The reason I love winter here so much is because of all the birds. Yes, summer brings a number of smaller, brighter species, but on a good winter day at my local beach I can easily see 30-40 species without even trying, and this is about 5 minutes away from the city centre, perfect for any urban birder. Today the wind was the issue, gale-force Arctic winds coming straight off the sea; the birding can generally be quite good on windy days, as many birds move into the harbours for a bit of a shelter.

Walking down the street the ground was covered in American robins, I imagine that the cold weather further north from us has brought many into the city. American robins are a common species, different to the robins we see in the UK, they are a member of the thrush family, and act as so, they are often seen scuttling along the ground or up in the trees eating berries. An Anna’s hummingbird was buzzing away, perched on a phone line, it is amazing to see such a tiny bird braving the elements in winter. This individual had a bright pink front and was showing it off as I passed.

After reaching the harbour I ducked next to some rocks to get a bit of a break from the wind, the harbour was filled with the usual suspects. A male hooded merganser was showing off his impressive white hood to a group of seemingly interested females. A pied-billed grebe was foraging away further out, and a flock of common mergansers passed me by, keeping an eye on me in between dipping their faces in the water. I was also very lucky to see one of my favourite birds, is it ok to have favourites? Three harlequin ducks were resting on the far shore, two males, one female. The males are so beautiful, I know it is wrong to like a bird based on appearance, but with their sleek neat pattern, blue/grey feathers on the head and body, red/orange sides topped off with distinct white bars on their face, neck, around their breast and horizontally along their body, it is hard not to admire them.

Cormorants (I think double-crested cormorants, but I struggle to guess the species) were braving the wind, flying out of harbour. After a glimpse of some surf scoters in the distance, and a belted kingfisher bashing sticklebacks on the side of a boat, I decided to call it a day, my hands were basically frozen onto my binoculars at this point.

Walking back round the coast I noticed another birder watching something out at sea (top birdwatching tip, don’t always watch the birds, watch the people). I scanned where he was looking and spotted a marbled murrelet bobbing among the waves. This is a special species, a small seabird, the marbled murrelet is a member of the auk family, and is listed as endangered in BC. They spend winter on the ocean, but in spring they have a secret that eluded ornithologists for years. Unlike other seabirds you will not find marbled murrelets nesting on cliff faces or the rocky shoreline, they nest in the ancient old growth temperate rainforest along the coast, their nest can be as far as 45 miles inland. They make their nest within the giant mossy trees, travelling back and forth at dawn and dusk, like tiny ghosts of the forest. They are a remarkable link between land and sea and a great example of the connection between the cold seas and tall trees on Canada’s Pacific coast.

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Martin Hughes-Games is sort of right. Nature in the media needs a more realistic balance

Photograph: David Willis/BBC

Photograph: David Willis/BBC

Planet Earth II was an incredible series, showing wildlife across the world in the most incredible way. At times the footage had me sat in stunned silence, and it did have a message on conservation within it. This week Martin Hughes-Games wrote a seemingly controversial piece calling Planet Earth II a ‘disaster for the world’s wildlife’. He backed up this statement by claiming that the show had only focused on entertainment rather than conservation.

Whilst I think that the term ‘disaster’, and the accusation that programmes like Planet Earth somehow contribute to extinction, is a little exaggerated. I do think that Martin has a point, and the debate that has been sparked as a result of his article is an important one for conservation going forward. He did not suggest that Planet Earth II should not have been made, and personally programmes like the Planet Earth series, and other nature documentaries have certainly shaped my life and had an impact on me growing up. However I was always interested in nature, and therefore after watching a programme, I would then go forward and learn about the issues, whilst actively becoming involved in conservation.

However for those watching Planet Earth II as a form of entertainment who do not think about the wider issues, their view of the natural world could be skewed. If Planet Earth II is the only link you have to wildlife, it is hard to relate to the issues highlighted. A family in Nottingham may now know the impact that city lights are having on turtles, but do they know about the local SSSI that is under threat, or what endangered species live in their area? And what they can do to save wildlife at home is often not made clear.

I do think that nature documentaries are an important tool for conservation, ultimately our jobs would be a lot harder without them, as they are a useful way of educating the public about wildlife. It is not ultimately their responsibility to save wildlife, but I think that as Martin suggested, more balance on the reality facing the world’s wildlife is needed. I would say that it is not that we need less Planet Earth II on our TV, but that we need a broader range of nature documentaries and series throughout our media, some that celebrate nature worldwide and some that focus in on what is happening to wildlife and the how we can protect it both at home and abroad.

Heading for extinction? Another southern resident orca confirmed dead

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The oldest southern resident orca, J2 (also known as Granny), has died. The sad news has been confirmed by the Center for Whale Research, the female orca has been recorded by researchers since 1976 and was estimated to be 78 years old.

Her death comes just two weeks after another southern resident orca, J34 died aged 18, from a suspected ship strike. It is uncertain what has killed J2. The population of these unique orcas has continued to dwindle with a loss of food source, increased pollution and vessel activity in the Salish Sea believed to be driving their decline. Despite a recent baby boom the population has seen a steady decrease and is now down to 78.

The orcas are a vital part of the ecosystem in the Salish Sea, and have a strong cultural and economic role in the area. The loss of a species like this in our waters would have a devastating impact on the area as a whole. I wish there was a positive spin to put on this story, but the reality is that the population is sliding towards extinction, despite being listed as endangered since 2005, very little action has actually taken place by multiple Canadian governments to address the real issues facing these orcas.

Unfortunately, the urgent conservation plan they need to survive is not coming anytime soon, instead we have a pipeline and more tankers through their habitat. It is sad to say, but over the next few months and years, they will be washing up on our beaches and disappearing offshore one by one until they are gone completely. Their only hope is a radical change in policy, it is time for British Columbians and Canadians who value the lives of this population to stand up and take action. If you want to help save endangered southern resident orcas, please get in touch with your Member of Parliament and tell them that it is time to stop ignoring their plight, and save the southern resident orca before it is too late.

This link shows every Member of Parliament in Canada, with all their contact information: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members

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World’s oldest known bird lays another egg

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Last week there was lots of wildlife news, from the release of the red list of endangered species, which highlighted the plight of a number of animals including the giraffe to the incredible final episode of Planet Earth, which featured some amazing footage, looking at wildlife in our cities. However, one of the standout stories was from the tiny island of Midway Atoll, a remote Pacific island, about 1200 miles northwest of Hawaii, where a Laysan albatross has laid an egg, so what is so standout about that? Well, this albatross named Wisdom, is the oldest known seabird in the world, at an incredible 66 years old. Wisdom was first banded in 1956 and has been returning to the Pacific island for 6 decades. Having laid this egg, she is also now the oldest breeding bird in the world. This beautiful species spends much of their time on the wing travelling vast distances across the Pacific, returning to Midway Atoll to breed, the island is crucial for their population and is believed to support about 70% of the world’s Laysan albatross. How long can Wisdom live for? Well, we aren’t 100% sure, but this story certainly highlights the longevity of birds and why their conservation and preservation is so important. What a bird!

Youth for Wildlife Conservation launch

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http://www.youthforwildlife.org/

Oh my word, it has been a bit of a busy couple of weeks with presentations and various other side projects, and blogging seems to have been at the bottom of the list, which needs to change. However I am so excited that one of the side projects Youth for Wildlife Conservation officially launched today. Youth for Wildlife Conservation is a new organisation set up by 34 youth environmental leaders from 25 countries, in order to create a network that supports youth conservationists and encourages youth participation with the goal of conserving wildlife and helping our communities. This is a follow up to the Youth Forum for People and Wildlife that took place at CITES 2016 in South Africa. The organisation is of course very new, but there are some amazing things coming up and I am incredibly proud and excited to be a part of such an amazing group. The website is above, check us out and you can follow us on various platforms!

Canada now has a national bird, meet the Gray Jay

Gray jay in flight

Canada has an incredible diversity of birds, with over 450 different species calling it home. With so much bird life across the country, birds make up an important part of Canadian life and culture. Birds are deemed so important that every Province has a provincial bird, we also have our noisy neighbours to the south being so proud of their bald eagle (which could have easily been our bird, given their population in Canada), it seemed slightly odd that it has taken so long to officially choose a national bird. For over a year Canadian Geographic has been running a poll to finally decide which bird Canadians wanted to represent them, the shortlist was then whittled down to five, with the winner being announced tonight, the gray jay. It had some tough competition, it was up against the iconic loon, the fierce snowy owl, the well known Canada goose and the adorable black-capped chickadee.

Whilst the loon or the snowy owl may have been the more obvious choices, I am pleased that the gray jay was chosen in the end. This highly intelligent and hardy bird is found across every Province and Territory, given Canada’s scale there are not many species like that, they are also sparsely found in the USA, and are much more common north of the border, they are a true Canadian bird. They are renowned for not just being smart, but being good natured, fearless and determined, ask any mountain hiker what bird is most likely to steal your lunch, I bet they will say the gray jay, or as it is also known, whiskey jack.

They are not intimidated by our winters, sticking it out and getting on with it. They are even known to start nesting in the winter and have been seen incubating eggs in -30. They may not be the most flashy or colourful bird, but they are understated and a perfect fit in their habitat.

I won’t lie my vote was for the snowy owl, I deemed it to be a fitting species for Canada, but when looking at the arguments I saw the flaws, why choose a national bird that many Canadians may never see, yes they are a gorgeous species, perfectly adapted to the north, but do they have a clear connection with people right across Canada? Also they are the provincial bird of Quebec, and being a provincial and national bird seems greedy.

To some, choosing a national bird seemed pointless, but it is important for us to start talking more about our own wildlife, to have over 50,000 people vote, and widespread media coverage, it was refreshing to see a large number of people in Canada come together to talk and learn about our incredible birds. Well done to all involved, and what happens now? Well I say, national mammal, fish, insect, tree, flower? Let’s complete the set!

Killer Whales in crisis, as another endangered Orca dies in Salish Sea

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The Salish Sea around southern Vancouver Island and Washington State have been home to a unique type of orca for hundreds of years, however this could soon end as the southern resident orca faces a population crisis that will lead to extinction unless immediate action is taken.

In the past week it was announced that J28 an adult female has died somewhere off Vancouver Island, her death also means her young calf J54 will subsequently die as it is still reliant on it’s mother for food. After a baby boom last year sparked some hope for the species, 2016 has seen the number of southern resident orca drop from 85 to 80. It is estimated that their population could have exceeded 200 prior to human disturbance. During my time working with these animals I saw first hand how highly intelligent and complex they are, with tight bonds and strong traditions. They are unlike any other orca in the world, they are truly unique to this area. It is hard to fathom that we could soon be losing a species that is not only vital for the ecosystem, but also holds a strong place in First Nation’s culture, not to mention the huge economic boost they give to the area through tourism. I fear that what is needed to save the southern residents will not happen in anywhere near the time-frame necessary, despite being listed as an endangered species in both Canada and the USA.

So what is needed? As with any endangered species the issues are complicated and often argued from many sides, however it is clear that the orcas are struggling for food. They are reliant almost exclusively on Chinook salmon and this species has seen huge declines in the area as a result of pollution, climate change and human disturbance to their breeding sites. Campaigns in the USA are focused on the removal of dams, which are believed to be blocking key salmon spawning grounds and in Canada the focus has been on overfishing and restoring key salmon habitat on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

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Another issue is disturbance and noise, the orcas rely on sound to communicate, hunt and navigate. Their habitat has become noisier over time: the Salish Sea is the main gateway from western Canada and the USA to Asia via the Pacific, and this means that a large number of shipping vessels use the sea everyday, including ferries, fishing boats, whale watching, pleasure boaters and the Navy. The true impact is unknown, but it is believed to affect their feeding efficiency and behaviour.

It is difficult to know exactly what we can do to save this species, however a starting point would be government action in order to protect them. This endangered species that is so important to the area must become a priority for our politicians. What we can do is send a message to our local politicians telling them that we care about the protection of these animals and that the government must take stronger action to save them before it is too late.

Here are two links one from Canada and the other from the USA with some ideas of how to help save the Southern Resident Orcas:

http://www.raincoast.org/projects/marine-mammals/killer-whale/

http://www.whaleresearch.com/about-salmon

 

Happy Halloween! Creepiest Creatures In The World

 

Global wildlife populations fall 58% in 40 years

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Wildlife populations across the globe have fallen by 58% in just over 40 years, according to the Living Planet assessment. The assessment is published every two years with the goal of assessing the state of wildlife across the world.

The report highlights large decreases for freshwater species, as a result of human activity, as well as larger species that are prone to over-exploitation and poaching. The world is currently experiencing a mass extinction event, only the 6th in the history of life, and the endangered species list is consistently growing. Current trends show that two-thirds of wild animals will be lost by 2020. There are a number of factors that cause wildlife populations to decline, including major habitat loss and development of wild areas, pollution, overfishing, poaching, wildlife trade and climate change.

The method for collecting this data is not perfect and has been criticised, however given the complexity of determining wildlife populations, this is as close as we can get to assessing the overall situation.

The statistics and predictions are shocking, but the continued decline of wildlife is not inevitable, and with swift and direct conservation action, species can recover. This study must be seen as a wake up call to all of us to assess how we interact with wildlife and to demand better environmental practices from our governments and businesses. Humans are directly causing the extinction of thousands of species, but we also have the power and the opportunity to turn the tide. We need more people to fight for wildlife protection and conservation before it is too late.

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