Victoria: Humpbacks to Hummingbirds

Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.​

​The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.

Members of a transient pod of orcas

After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.

On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!

Steller sealions seen on the way back to harbour in Victoria

I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.

The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.

The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.

Humpback whales spouting off Victoria, BC with the mountains of Olympic Park in the background.

One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.

The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.

Anna’s Hummingbird settled in a street tree in Victoria, BC.

The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!

Starling Murmurations

Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.

There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.

The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.

Starlings are a common sight, but they are actually a red list species. Each bird in the UK is given a colour-coded assessment based on the current status of the species. This works on the traffic light system – green indicates least conservation concern whilst red indicates the highest conservation priority. Starlings are on the red list because, despite these large winter flocks appearing impressive, long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology shows that starling numbers have fallen to just 1/3 of their population in the mid-1970’s. If this decline were to continue along the current trend, then it would be only a short time before starlings were all but extinct.

The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.

If you’re looking to commision ornithological surveys such as wintering bird surveys in the midlands, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here.

Horseshoe bats in Leicestershire? Never say never!

There was a report last month of the first greater horseshoe bat recorded in Ireland*. Ireland is missing a number of species which are common on the mainland; most famously snakes but also woodpeckers and the noctule bat amongst others. Perhaps, like woodpeckers which are increasingly recorded, the greater horseshoe might be about to establish itself but it seems more likely to be an individual who is lost, blown over from the mainland perhaps. This is one of the rarest species of bat in the UK and its range is restricted to the south-west of England and the south of Wales. The reason for this range is largely climatic, partly related to landscape features and perhaps also linked to the availability of suitable roosting sites, particuarly for hibernation*.

This species, surprisingly, turns up in the biological data records around Grantham – the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) has a recording of this bat just beside Melton Mowbray, some 10 miles to the west of Grantham and a good 100 miles from the tip of its normal range. The site of the record was once a mine, now home to bats – principally myotis species such as Natterer’s bats – which gather in mating roosts in the autumn and then hibernate through the winter. The members of the Leicestershire and Rutland Bat Group, who monitor the site, got quite a surprise when they found that, alongside the usual small, crevice roosting myotis bats was a large, free hanging greater horseshoe who had settled beside them for the winter. Most of our UK bat species, contrary to popular depiction, actually roost sideways, face up or face down in holes, cracks or crevices. The only two species who you will always find in the  classic upside-down bat-hang pose are the two members of the Rhinalophus genus, the greater and the lesser horseshoe. The greater horseshoe in this mine therefore stuck out like a sore thumb, hanging by its weak back legs, wings wrapped tight like a cape around a bat the size of a small pear. Where this species spent the remainder of the year is unknown, but for several years it returned to this winter roosting site although it has now been absent for some 20 years.

It could be that this individual was part of a colony within the species’ normal range and made an exceptional commute to cooler winter climes, or even is a member of a hitherto unknown northern colony but it is much more likely that he became lost or separated from his usual range, perhaps due to bad weather or the destruction of a roost, and was simply making the best of his new situation and continuing to lead a horseshoe lifestyle as best he could, admittedly without the company of his kin. Herein lies the long-term problem, without a mate he was never going to establish a new population. This is the difference between the range of a species and the tolerance of individuals; it may well be quite possible for a bat to exist outside of their normal range for a period of time but it is a different matter to expect a population to survive and thrive. Horseshoe bats are relatively long lived for such small mammals; they are known to reach 30 years*. The disappearance of this individual after only a few may be due to old age or migration to a more suitable habitat. But it could be that the winters were a little too cold, the landscape was a little too fragmented, the range of suitable roosting sites was too lacking to suit the year-round changes in conditions.

This is why we must conserve species where thrive, rather than assume they will be fine whilst numbers are still good and concentrate conservation around the edges. Greater horseshoe bats used to be much more abundant within their range in the UK as little as a century ago – a Victorian naturalist suggested they be counted in their roosts by the square yard as the individuals were too numerous and densely packed to count each. I wonder if they would believe tgat now a roost of 20 bats could be considered large. The parallels can be drawn with other species which are common but declining; starlings still seem to be everywhere but there are only 20% the number there were 32 years ago* and a continued decline of this magnitude could soon see them relegated to a rarity alongside the horseshoe bat. Many species of butterfly, including the meadow brown, have undergone similar population drops in recent years.

The great crested newt often receives a bad press for holding up development and the economics-uber-alles mantra of the current government has led them to conclude that we should opt out of the European level protection afforded such species. It is true that, compared to species such as the horseshoe bats, stone curlews, pine martins and the large blue butterfly, the great crested newt is not exceptionally rare in this country. But on an European level, it is, and that is why it is so important to take care of it here, where it is in its range and where it can flourish if care is taken to safeguard its habitat.

We often can not see the big picture if we simply look out of the window and extrapolate to the rest of the county, or country, or continent. You would never expect to see a greater horseshoe bat foraging through woodland on the edges of Grantham. Similarly, you would never expect to see the day when starlings, brown hares or meadow browns were extinct in the UK but the recent State of Nature report indicates startling declines in the populations of a wide range of native UK species. Never say never.