At risk bird, Hutton’s Shearwater, has lost an estimated quarter of their population


A landslip caused by the 7.5 earthquake has wiped away half of a breeding colony for the at-risk Hutton’s Shearwater bird.

The Hutton’s Shearwater is an endemic bird that only breeds on New Zealand land, and as a result of human contact, predators and lost habitat, its numbers are declining.

“The total population was only 110,000 — quite small really, for a shearwater,” said seabird expert Karen Baird.

Baird predicts that at least 25 percent of the population will have been wiped out by the earthquake — though the number could be as high as 49 percent, according to an Important Bird Areas report.

“It’s horrible, it’s our worst nightmare,” Baird said.

“Both of our main colonies are up in the mountain in Kaikoura. They’re only in Kaikoura.”

Shearwaters are not known for their resilience — adults are long-lived and slow-breeding, laying only one egg a year at most.

This means they cannot replace their population quickly.

That the slip occurred during breeding season is an especially cruel blow, Baird said.

“It’s going to be devastating for the population. We lost adults, who we need to keep the population. It’s horrendous.”

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article: Philip McSweeney
photo: New Zealand Birds Online


Meet our national bird: the gray jay


The gray jay, also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay, is Canadian Geographic’s official recommendation for National Bird of Canada.

  • The gray jay is found in every province and territory, but is not already a provincial or territorial bird. Several of the other front-runners in the National Bird Project, meanwhile, already had this designation, including the common loon (Ontario), the snowy owl (Quebec), the black-capped chickadee (New Brunswick) and the common raven (Yukon).
  • Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.
  • Historically the companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers and voyageurs, gray jays are today common visitors in mining and lumber camps and research stations, and follow hikers and skiers down trails in provincial, territorial and national parks.
  • Gray jays are year-round residents of Canada — remaining in the northern forest when the majority of loons and Canada geese have flown south and even snowy owls have descended from the Arctic — and they are astonishingly good at making the most of even the coldest, darkest winter months. These tough birds are unique for nesting as early as February, while the forests are still thick with snow, and have been recorded incubating eggs in snowstorms and at temperatures as cold as -30 C.
  • They are important to Indigenous Peoples. The common moniker “whiskey jack” has nothing to do with the grain-based alcohols, but is rather an anglicization of the Cree Wisakedjak and similar variations used by nations in the Algonquian language family, which makes the gray jay Canada’s only bird commonly referred to by a traditional Indigenous name.
  • In some traditional Ojibwa stories, the trickster Nanabozho takes the gray jay’s form and leaves it with a playful, generous spirit. But it’s to the Cree peoples especially that Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who frequently appears as the gray jay, a benevolent trickster, teacher and messenger of the forest. To many western First Nations, the appearance of a gray jay in the morning is a good omen, and its chattering and whistles an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are even Gwich’in guides in the Yukon who tell of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost and starving hunter home.

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article: Nick Walker
photo: Tony Joyce/Canadian Geographic Photo Club

War is hell – for the natural world too


In a paper in the current issue of the journal British Birds, under a title so anodyne it might seem of interest only to the most narrowly focused of specialists – “Changes in the number of Common Guillemots on Skomer since the 1930s” – Tim Birkhead, a professor at Sheffield University, makes the revolutionary suggestion that the battle of the Atlantic actually had a devastating effect on marine life. He does so by looking at the breeding population of guillemots, penguin-like seabirds which are actually auks, on Skomer island off the coast of west Wales, before and after the second world war.

A specialist in animal behaviour, Birkhead has carried out much research on Skomer’s guillemots over recent decades, and he is the British expert on the species. His originality is to reconstruct the prewar population on the island – never counted – by detailed analysis of old photographs which have recently come to light of the cliff ledges on which the birds breed. He concludes that there were “at least 100,000 individuals in 1934”. But in 1963, when the first proper count was done, the numbers had dropped by a staggering 95%, to 4,856 birds. (They have slowly climbed back up to the present level of 23,746). He adduces other evidence to show that the steepest decline was between 1940 and 1946, and that oil pollution from the ships sunk off the western coasts of Britain during the war was the principal cause.

He remarks: “The magnitude of the effect of second world war activities on guillemots (and presumably other marine wildlife) has not previously been appreciated.” It does not weigh in the balance for us, does it, with the 60 million people? It cannot do. And yet it happened, and it carries a lesson for us: that the natural world cannot take the punishment it receives at the hands of human society without consequences, and that even the ocean, which we have long presumed is able to absorb anything we throw in it, is far less resilient than in our arrogance we might care to think.

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photo: Dimitris Legakis

Celebrating the citizen in citizen science


A paper in the journal Conservation Biology explores whether participating in citizen science also leads to a more conventional citizenship. The authors test the theory that citizen science is a path to social and political action by taking a close look at the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that relies on volunteers to monitor beached seabirds from Mendocino, California to Kotzebue, Alaska.

In the study, researchers Benjamin HaywoodJulia Parrish, and Jane Doliver analyzed COASST surveys of 308 volunteers active for over a year, as well as 124 volunteers about to enter the program. They also interviewed 79 of the active participants.

They found that these citizen scientists quickly gained a solid understanding of bird biology, behavior, and ecology, including species abundance, distribution, and threats to coastal birds. Moreover, participating in COASST led to emotional feelings about the values and goals of the program. As the authors note, “For many participants, data collection became a way to protect a valued place and the associated ecosystem.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found that COASST volunteers typically start with vague but deep concerns about how human activity affects bird deaths. These fears became tempered, however, as they learned more about natural mortality such as winterkill and the stresses of breeding. A “deepened sense of place garnered through authentic scientific experience” allows these citizen scientists to “move from a nonspecific sense of fear about environmental degradation to a sense of which action or actions are practicable and efficacious.” In other words, the volunteers become more informed conservationists, infused with a greater sense of hope and empowerment because they know better what to do and why.

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article: Sharman Apt Russell
photo: COASST

Watch Sharks and Whales Swarm a Massive Fish Run


Once a year, South Africa is home to a stunning natural event that allows people to see thousands of marine and seabird species up close—pods of dolphins, flocks of gannets, and much more—as they descend upon millions of fish in a performance that only Mother Nature can provide.

It’s known as the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run, or the greatest shoal on Earth. (Read more about it.)

The run typically happens in May through June, when huge schools of sardines, or shoals, head north along South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, located on the country’s eastern seaboard. During the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months, the waters near the coast begin to cool off to temperatures that dip below 22 degrees Celsius, or 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit, expanding the areas of suitable habitats for sardines to swim.

As a result, these cooler waters lure the sardines in to swim close to the shore in large, dark masses. For large predators like sharks and whales that feed on sardines, this large migration is Thanksgiving dinner.

The run is a magnet for a variety of species, says Christina Hagen, a Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at Birdlife South Africa. Among the animals that come out to prey are albatross, Cape gannets, African penguins, humpback whales, Cape fur seals, dolphins, and sharks.

“It is remarkable because of the sheer numbers of fish and their predators that gather in one place,” she says. “In terms of biomass, it is larger than the wildebeest migrations of East Africa.”

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article: Alexandra E. Petri

Spotted! A Coyote and Badger Hunting Together


Recent sightings of a coyote and badger on the prairie surrounding the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center brought attention to a fascinating example of partnership.

Coyotes and badgers are known to hunt together and can even be more successful hunting prairie dogs and ground-squirrels when they work in tandem.

Studies have shown that this unusual relationship is beneficial for both species. The coyote can chase down prey if it runs and the badger can dig after prey if it heads underground into its burrow systems.

Each partner in this unlikely duo brings a skill the other one lacks. Together they are both faster and better diggers than the burrowing rodents they hunt.

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photo: Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

Hawaii: The islands where evolution ran riot


Hawaii gives a new meaning to the word “remote”. Marooned in the central Pacific, this chain of eight main islands is the only significantly-sized land for thousands of miles. If you sailed due west of Honolulu, the next thing you’d hit would be Taiwan: almost 6000 miles away.

Despite its isolation, Hawaii is anything but lonely. The archipelago boasts thousands of species of animals and plants. Most are found nowhere else on Earth, and many are startlingly different to their more familiar relatives. What was it about these islands that allowed evolution to become so creative?

The first birds to reach the islands probably arrived around 8 million years ago from east Asia.

We’ll never know exactly how these colonists made the epic journey. But once they had done so, they took to their new home like, well, like birds to empty islands.

Over the eons these founders evolved into at least 140 species of bird.

Hawaii’s equivalent of Darwin’s Galapagos finches is the Hawaiian honeycreepers, which branched into at least 56 species from just one or two. They outstrip the finches in both number and variety.

They range spectacularly in colour, from bright shades of red to muted golds and greens.

Their beaks, too, have changed shape, reflecting the different lifestyles each bird has adapted to. The beaks of the honeycreepers range from short to long; from stubby and delicate; and from straight to curved, and ingenious combinations of the two.

The insects have been even more prolific. Hawaii has more than 5000 endemic species, many of which have evolved spectacular adaptations to island life.

Although Hawaii is teeming with bird and insect life, it has very few large predators. So over millions of years, natural selection whittled away their defences.

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article: Robin Wylie
photo: Katrina Brown

Reducing Overfishing With Ocean Wise


Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre developed the Ocean Wise® program 11 years ago to raise much-needed awareness about overfishing and the need to consume more sustainable seafood as a way to let vulnerable seafood stocks recover. It started small, as many movements do. Sixteen Vancouver chefs worked together with Vancouver Aquarium to fight for something they truly believed in: the need to conserve our oceans and the precious, yet diminishing, life they hold. We asked ourselves: How could we raise awareness and shift consumers from choosing the popular seafood items that largely come from overexploited stocks to sustainable, equally delicious seafood choices they had not yet tried? And more importantly, how do we make it easy for them to do it?

So began a long-term effort to revolutionize the way Canadians think about their seafood. Across Canada, leading chefs, restaurant owners, markets and suppliers have joined Ocean Wise with the commitment to source sustainable seafood and also clearly label ocean-friendly choices with the Ocean Wise symbol. This symbol indicates to consumers that the seafood choice on menus or in markets is caught in an ecologically sustainable way.

When making Ocean Wise seafood assessments on wild fisheries, Ocean Wise scores fisheries on four criteria: impact on the stock, impact on other species, effectiveness of management measures and impact on surrounding habitats. All of these assessments undergo, at minimum, three rounds of peer review followed by an external oversight process to ensure the content is accurate. Ocean Wise partners receive ongoing scientific updates on seafood assessments to guide their purchasing decisions. As well, the team regularly connects with partners to discuss sustainable options and ongoing changes in assessments.

Because of the ebb and flow of Canada’s fisheries this relationship takes constant dialogue – Ocean Wise partners are the first to dive in with innovations like experimental recipes that encourage consumers to eat further down the food chain, such as gooseneck barnacles, to competing in ocean-friendly collaborative events, like Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown, to help raise awareness and engage consumers in a positive way.

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article: Ann-Marie Copping

Investigating the Mystery of One of America’s Most Endangered Bees


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that one of those species—the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), named for the small, red-brown crescent on its back—receive federal protection as an endangered species.

There are 47 varieties of native bumble bee in the United States and Canada, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that more than a quarter of those species face the threat of extinction. But unlike honeybees—an imported species from Europe whose recent mass deaths have been well publicized and extensively researched—bumble bees receive scant attention. If the federal listing of the rusty patched bumble bee proceeds, however, that may change: It would be the first native bee in the continental United States to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The rusty patched bumble bee was once ubiquitous across a large, bat-shaped expanse that stretched from New England south through the Appalachians and into the Midwest, and southeastern Canada. Today, however, only a handful of genetically isolated populations survive in Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in its listing proposal that populations have declined by as much as 95 percent since the late 1990s. “There are a few little spots where we know they are,” says USDA research entomologist Dr. James Strange, “but only a really few spots.”

What caused the rusty patched bumble bee to disappear? As with many ecological mysteries, there’s not one easy answer. Urban sprawl and agriculture’s continuing shift from small, diverse farms to vast swaths of single-plant monocrops have fragmented habitat and left fewer hedgerows and native plant blossoms to feed pollinators. Agricultural and garden pesticides can kill or weaken bees. And in the specific case of the rusty patched bumble bee, some scientists point to pathogenic intruders, particularly a fungal parasite that may have grown more virulent thanks to our love of year-round greenhouse tomatoes.


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article: Hannah Nordhaus
photo: Clay Bolt