Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Death of a colleague and a friend

It is with great sadness that we heard of the unexpected death of Brian Dalzell.  The GMWSRS helped Brian with several projects including bird banding through the Fundy Bird Observatory, the common tern restoration project on Sheep Island and publishing his Birds of Grand Manan, A checklist.

Brian initially approached me to sit on the board of the Grand Manan Bird Observatory.  When that dissolved, the GMWSRS was able to apply for funding from the New Brunswick Environmental Trust Fund and the New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund for the banding and nesting restoration projects.

Decoys, rain barrel and outhouse on Sheep Island where Brian coordinated a common tern nesting restoration project.  His concern for restoring bird habitat was paramount.
Brian began birding at an early age and attended his first Moncton Naturalist meeting at age 14.  Mary Majka encouraged him to learn as much as he could.  He was one of the pre-eminent birders in the Maritimes.  One of his greatest fears was loosing his hearing and he was always trying new gadgets to enhance the bird calls so important to identifying birds.

An insatiable birder, he was also very keen on details and kept copious notes of bird sightings, not just his own but any others he heard about, often contacting the observer for additional details.  His training as a journalist no doubt helped him record the details.  He was also a keen historian and had researched John Audubon's visit to the Grand Manan Archipelago in May of 1833.  He also helped the Grand Manan Historical Society and any other organization that could use his skills.  He maintained a swallow colony on the family property on Bancroft Point which remains one of the last colonies on the island. He participated and organized Christmas bird counts on Grand Manan for many years and often joined several counts each year.  His nature columns in local newspapers that he wrote for a number of years had many devoted followers.
Brian showing a school class on of the birds he had banded.
While he often found it difficult to finance living life as a birder, he persevered. He was disappointed when he didn't get chosen to coordinate the current breeding bird atlas for the Maritimes as he had done for the first atlas but he still volunteered to do breeding bird surveys.   The unexpected death of his brother, caused him to re-evaluate his life and he moved back to Moncton after living on Grand Manan Island for many years.  He was able to find work as an independent contractor conducting various bird/environmental surveys throughout the Maritimes and developed that into a successful business.  This allowed him to travel to such places as Labrador, Newfoundland and the Magdalene Islands for birding.  His trips to Labrador often occurred in the winter because he loved lots of snow and cold temperatures! 

Brian was an independent spirit and people didn't always know how to take him. He was known to ruffle some feathers now and then but he was also known to volunteer his time and energy to anyone who needed assistance.  He loved demonstrating bird banding to children who were always thrilled to be able to hold a wild bird.  His humour was one of his greatest assets and humour followed him through life.  The countless stories of his adventures will no doubt be what most will remember, along with his amazing birding skills.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Whale Pump Research

Discussions have been going on for a couple of years to begin a collaboration with Dr. Joe Roman.  Joe Roman is a researcher at the University of Vermont and the author of “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act” (Harvard) and “Whale” (Reaktion). This summer saw all of that work come to fruition.  Joe has provided the background information about the project:

A few years ago, I was writing an article about the work that Scott Baker and his colleagues were doing in Japan, uncovering the sale of illegal whale meat in the marketplace using DNA. At the time, Japan was arguing for whaling, largely for two reasons. One, whales eat “our” fish, so they should be culled. And, two, certain whales, such as minkes, are so numerous that they are inhibiting the ability of rare species, such as fins and blues, to recover.
Dr. Joe Roman, University of Vermont
This argument might have been in the back of my mind while I was taking marine ecology one spring at the University of Florida. I was learning about one of the basic process in the oceans, known as the biological pump, which causes the downward flow of carbon and nitrogen and can reduce marine productivity. Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton at the surface at night and then migrate deep in the water column by day, presumably to escape predators. This movement, and the downward flux of zooplankton fecal matter, takes nutrients away from the surface, where photosynthesis can occur, to the bottom of the ocean.

As I sat in the back of the class, I drew a diagram based on what I had seen the previous summer in the Bay of Fundy. In contrast to the biological pump, right whales were diving deep to feed--they are sometimes observed with mud on their heads--and quite often defecating at the surface.

A few years later, Jim McCarthy, at Harvard, and I put together a model that showed that whales could have an impact on primary productivity in coastal waters. They increase nutrients at the surface and enhance the growth of algae. This summer, I finally got back to the Bay of Fundy to study the right whale, which forms feeding aggregations just to the east of Grand Manan in an area called the Basin. Of all the ways to collect poop--we typically used a plankton net, patiently following whales until they defecated--perhaps the most dramatic is skirting the edge of a right whale courtship group: one female and several males actively swimming and roiling in the waters. It seemed almost inevitable, the female while swimming on her back would release a thick brown or red fecal plume. We’d wait for the group to swim off--the whales were much larger than our boat--and move in with our net.
Patch of reddish-brown defaecation from a fin whale. 
The colour indicates the whale was probably eating krill. 
Greenish defaecation is most likely from fish consumption.
Two colleagues from Harvard helped analyze the data. John Nevins, a researcher at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, examined the nitrogen levels, and Annabel Beichman, an undergrad, prepped samples to later uncover the microbes that live in whale gastrointestinal tracts. Heather Koopman, of University of North Carolina, lead the search for whales at the wheel of the research vessel Phocoena.
Annabel Beichman, Harvard University
What we have found is that whales, along with seals and seabirds, play an important role in recycling nitrogen in the Gulf of Maine. They release more of this nutrient into the gulf than all rivers combined and even more than point source pollution from sewage effluent. By excreting nitrogen at the surface of their traditional feeding grounds, whales play an important role in maintaining prey aggregations, such as copepods, krill, or herring, which, in a positive feedback loop, supports their tendency to aggregate in feeding areas. They are not eating our fish, as whaling nations claim, but helping increase productivity in areas where they are found. We can have more whales, and more fish, copepods, and krill.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mola mola (Ocean Sunfish)

Ocean sunfish or mola mola lying on its side, just under the
surface.  The head it toward the top right corner. 

Ocean Sunfish or mola mola are the largest bony fish reaching up to 3.3m (11 feet) and the heaviest over 2300 kg (5000 lbs).  They are disc shaped with two large fins, the dorsal and anal fins which they use to propel themselves through the water.  They are flattened vertically.  Their tail is a long, wavy structure.  They feed on jellies, comb jellies and other plankton.  They come to the surface and often lay on their sides giving them their name, ocean sunfish.  The French name is actually moon fish, poisson lune.  The surface behaviour has been suggested as a method to warm their bodies after spending time as deep as 600m.  Frequently those observed in the Bay of Fundy have their mouths open so perhaps they are also feeding close to the surface.  Most years we see only the occasional ocean sunfish but in the last two summers, multiple sunfish have been seen some days.  The ocean sunfish this year also seem much larger than the ones seen in other years.  Why have the numbers increased in recent years?  It is unknown but some years warm-core eddies break off from the Gulf Stream and get swept into the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy carrying with it species that are usually seen in warmer waters.  This could be the case or other forces were in play bringing these huge fish into the Bay.

Ocean sunfish or mola mola lying on its side at the surface.
Its mouth is open.  These fish feed on jellies.
They are slow moving but can manoeuvre out of the way of oncoming vessels if the vessels aren't travelling quickly but are at risk when they are at or just below the surface since they are difficult to spot until nearly on top of them. They can also breach or leap out of the water. Inshore, however, their ability to navigate leaves much to be desired. 

On the evening of September 10, two friends of the GMWSRS out for a drive had stopped at the fishermen's wharf and found a stranded ocean sunfish.  It was up against the wharf and was bumping into boats, piers and the shoreline.  They tracked us down and we rallied a few people to help, some of whom had never seen an ocean sunfish.  We tried to herd it out from between the floating wharf and the fishermen's wharf using a small inflatable and oars but to no avail.  The sunfish would not go back under or between boats or piers.  It was difficult to judge how heavy this sunfish was but it was at least 2 m across, not including the fins, the same size as the inflatable. We were quite concerned because the tide was beginning to recede and we didn't want the fish to completely strand. 

Finally we decided to grab the sunfish by its dorsal fin when it was up against the shore and try to tow it out.  A friend, who is also a whale watch captain, and the fellow who spotted the sunfish got into a much larger, motorized inflatable and were able to get the sunfish away from between the wharf and the floating wharf but lost their grip before they could get it around the end of the wharf. The fish blundered into a row of boats tied to the wharf before they could grab it again.  It was amazing to watch the sunfish try to swim away from them, jetting water out through its gills as a type of jet propulsion to increase its speed.

Pectoral fin of an ocean sunfish as it lays at the surface.
The second time they got the fish to the end of the wharf but they again lost their grip and the fish got away, this time heading off through the boat moorings but away from the wharf.  It was not seen again and, hopefully, headed out to deeper water with fewer obstacles.  The rescuers did not go unscathed because sunfish skin is like sandpaper, cover by a mucus layer, and they had several scrapes on their hands and arms.  Gloves would definitely be in order next time.

Here are some other articles about stranded sunfish this summer, the outcomes deadly for the sunfish, despite valiant efforts:



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sable Island Gulls

Rob Ronconi is a researcher at Acadia University working with Dr. Phil Taylor on a new project studying the movements and migrations of gulls from Sable Island, Nova Scotia. In June 2011 Herring Gulls were banded with pink alpha-numeric bands as well as pink wing-tags which are quite obvious in flight or on land. Great Black-backed Gull chicks were banded with green alpha-numeric bands.

Reports of these birds throughout the year will greatly enhance the success of this project to document the movements and migrations of gulls from this far offshore colony.

Herring gull juvenile begging from an adult
at the North Head wharf on Grand Manan
 Please visit Rob's blog where you can learn more about the project and find links on how to report marked birds that you've spotted. He will be posting photos and stories of re-sighted birds on this blog, so sign up for e-mail updates.


Please contact Rob if you see these or other marked gulls over the fall and winter.

Rob Ronconi, rronconi yahoo.com
Postdoctoral Researcher
Dept. of Biology, Acadia University

Monday, August 8, 2011

New England Aquarium Surveys Bay

The new England Aquarium right whale research team were able to survey the Grand Manan Basin on Thursday, August 4.  With two boats they were able to cover a good portion of the Basin and surrounding waters and found seven right whales including two mothers with their calves.

Sperm whale tail

Humpback whale tail (Sunburst)

Right whale tails.  (White marked tail is the injured tail of Slash)
They also had a hydrophone in the water at one point and heard sperm whales, although the whales were not seen.  This would be the second year in a row that sperm whales are in the Bay of Fundy.  We are not sure what this means but last year when the sperm whales were present from late July to the middle of October, few right whales were seen.  Continued surveys will reveal what this summer will bring us.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Visiting Graduate Student

Humpback whale, Flame, July 17, 2011,
off Grand Manan Island
Ashley Heinze contacted me in January to see if there was any chance of staying at the GMWSRS during the summer and collaborating with one of the whale watch companies to conduct surveys and collect whale behaviour data. Our research field season wasn't beginning until August this year so the accommodations were available in July.  Ashley planned her time accordingly, arriving the end of June and has been coming with Whales-n-Sails Adventures on most trips.  It has been a pleasure to be of assistance, both by providing accommodations and also helping with the data collection on board.  We are always happy to collaborate with others when possible.
I asked Ashley to provide a profile of her academic background and interest in marine biology:

The first time I saw or even placed my feet in the ocean I was twelve years old and ever since then the big deep blue has fascinated me. I was never solely focused on marine mammals, although, they did interest me.

During my undergraduate career I tried to explore many aspects of the marine biology field. I was always looking to be involved in hands on or field research to gain as much experience as possible. I first began entering data for the Census of Marine Life at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and at the same time I began volunteering at Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration. While at the aquarium I had the opportunity to be an exhibit interpreter for two years and then a husbandry assistant for another two years. To gain a greater amount of field experience I worked under two graduate students at the University of Rhode Island, one from the Wilga Lab and one from the Thornber Lab. While working for the Wilga Lab I was able to help with the Kinematics of Spiny Dogfish, Squalus acanthias, the function of the dorsal fin in bamboo sharks and the functional morphology of the dorsal fins in sharks during steady swimming and maneuvering. The Thornber Lab allowed me to expand my knowledge of the distribution of algal communities in Rhode Island.

Ashley Heinze, Masters student,
 College of the Atlantic
When studying abroad in Australia I gave my future education and career a great amount of thought. After traveling around the country I started to begin questioning different tourism activities. How much does the activity change the behavior of the animal involved and how much does the activity affect the people involved? I began to ask myself what tourism activity is growing in North America then I thought whale watching. College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME has allowed me to create a project in which I am able to look at both of these questions. In collaboration with the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company and Whales-n-Sails Adventures I am able to compare the two whale watching areas. I am comparing the knowledge and attitudes of whale watching passengers before and after the whale watch trips. I am also looking at the differences and similarities between the whale watches in Grand Manan and Bar Harbor and comparing whale behaviors during these trips. Whales-n-Sails Adventures and Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company have donated trips to me when space allows. I currently have two field assistants this summer, Kathryn Scurci and Jessica McCordic, both are in Bar Harbor collecting data while I am here on Grand Manan. Since my assistants were not able to be here on Grand Manan, Laurie has graciously offered to provide me with photos taken from each trip that will be used for photo identification.

I am having an amazing time here on Grand Manan and eagerly look forward to my remaining time here on the island and collaborating with Whales-n-Sails Adventures (http://www.whales-n-sails.com/). This was my first visit Grand Manan and I know it will not be my last!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Visiting Writer from England

Amanda Banks, a freelance writer from England, is volunteering with and writing about Laurie Murison and Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) throughout July. Below is Amanda's account of how and why she is here:

I guess you could say I am not your usual suspect to be staying at the GMWSRS. I am not a researcher, am not studying to be one and cannot claim to be an expert on anything with a dorsal fin.

Instead, I am an ex-dancer and ex-teacher who has always dabbled in writing and conservation. In July 2010, I decided to branch out into a new career in writing. With my factual work, I am interested in exploring conservation and psychology related themes, plus the inevitable links between them.
I worked for nine months with www.planetwhale.com, compiling a global report on whale and dolphin conservation organisations worldwide. Part of my job entailed encouraging over 100 organisations to participate. You could say that I was thorough and tenacious in this role, Laurie preferred the term 'cybernag', which certainly made her stick in my memory!

While working with Planet Whale I dreamed up a bold venture to embark on a three and a half month writing trip, volunteering my time for three cetacean conservationists and while doing so write about their lives, work and passions. I believe that conservationists are truly inspiring people and I wanted to share to their stories as encouragement to others to follow their dreams. I contacted three individuals whom I had established a connection with through Planet Whale, and guess what, Laurie was one.
Amanda Banks
I have been involved in this project since mid-April, writing stories about conservationists on my blog: http://amandabanks.com/blog/ I began in California writing about Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies. From there I travelled to Peru and wrote about Stefan Austermühle and Nina Pardo of Mundo Azul. I have also been fortunate enough to interview other whale conservationists along the way, such as Bob Talbot, Pieter Folkens and Bob Bowman. And now I am on Grand Manan Island, on the last leg of my trip, writing about Laurie Murison. When I return to England in August I will be fashioning some of the blog posts into magazine articles.

I have to say I am thoroughly enjoying myself writing about Laurie. Laurie's life, work and knowledge are truly fascinating and she is a wonderfully clear and descriptive interviewee, all of which makes my task of turning her words into an engaging read an easy one! To read the first post on Laurie, visit:

From there you can scroll forwards to read the following posts on her, and backwards to read about the other conservationists I have been writing about.

I hope you enjoy reading about this incredible woman, and do feel free to leave a comment about her when you visit!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Visiting Master's Student

Ashley Heinze is staying at the GMWSRS for the month of July as part of her Master's research.  She attends the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME.  Her supervisor, Sean Todd, is a long time colleague and it is a pleasure to offer the opportunity for this collaboration.

Passengers watching fin whales off the "Elsie Menota", the whale watch vessel
for Whales-n-Sails Adventures.
Her thesis is comparing attitudes and knowledge of whale watchers before and after a whale watch, similarities and differences between whale watches in Bar Harbor and Grand Manan, and whale behaviour during whale watches.

Her first three whale watches have been very different, with many more to come.  Whales-n-Sails Adventures has graciously offered free trips where room allows, as a whale watch company in Bar Harbor.  Any photos that she needs will be provided from my selection taken daily and to be used for photo-identification.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Whale watching trip July 2

I first started working on whale watch boats during my masters and used the  chance to collect behavioural data on right whales.  Each year since, I have worked on a whale watch as a naturalist, and used that opportunity to collect data of whale, seabird and other large pelagic sightings, such as sharks and blue fin tuna.  The trips are all a bit different and some more memorable than others. 

July 2 we had an amazing day south east of White Head Island, part of the Grand Manan Archipelago and a tidal upwelled area that concentrates prey and attracts predators such as whales and seabirds.  There have been some fin whales in the area which we found easily but then groups of Atlantic white-sided dolphins arrived and the fin whales immediately changed their behaviour from 4 to 6 minute dives to 2 minute dives. The fin whales kept in a small area and the groups of dolphins associated with the fin whales, bow riding. The number of fin whales increased over the time we were with them with the whales keeping in a tight area with the dolphins.

Before we spotted the dolphins I was intrigued but the activity of some of the fin whales who were arching highly but not going for long dives. Some also seemed to be charging (swimming quickly to the surface throwing a large bow wave) and then the dolphins showed up. The dolphin vocalizations can be heard underwater for several kilometres. Perhaps the fin whales were anticipating their arrival or the dolphins were attracted to the activity of the fin whales.

There was great excitement on board but it seemed like there was great excitement with the fin whales, some of whom were vocalizing at the surface (low rumbling calls) which we could hear. Fin whales have deep voices and usually their calls need to be speeded up for us to hear them. For fin whales this was like us talking several octaves above our normal range in a high shrill. I heard more fin whale calls during this whale watch than I have ever heard at one time.

The dolphins were mostly juveniles and adults with no calves and stayed in three groups of about 10-12 individuals each, associating only with the fin whales who were in groups from two to six or seven. Normally dolphins will come over to a boat and check it out but they completely ignored us and stayed with the whales.

The fog moved in on us but not before we counted 23 fin whales and about 35 dolphins. As we left the area but could still hear the activity through the fog.

A humpback whale, named Tornado, on the northern edge of the whale distribution rounded out the trip.  I also recorded eleven species of seabirds (great and sooty shearwaters, Wilson's storm petrels, northern gannet, northern fulmar, common eider, herring gulls, greater black-backed gulls,  razorbill, common murre, black guillemot) and a bald eagle and an osprey.  There were also a couple of blue fin tuna that we could see pushing at the surface - this is swimming just below the surface and leaving a visible wake.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Great Shearwaters turning up off Australia?

Two great shearwaters in the foreground and two sooty shearwaters in the background
Simon Mustoe who lives in Australia has been seeing Great shearwaters off the southern coast of Australia.  This is extremely rare.  Great shearwaters should be off the coast of South America or South Africa at this time of year and would migrate to the North Atlantic as summer approaches.  Read his article on Bird-O  http://bird-o.com/2011/04/03/the-great-shearwater-invasion/