Sunday, November 18, 2012

Naturalist Scientists

Many organizations such as large aquariums, zoos, wildlife foundations and government agencies rely upon citizen scientists to monitor and maintain wild areas. With modest kit such as binoculars, cameras, notebooks, trail cameras, GPS and maps, guide books and checklists, we can watch and note the things we see wherever we wander. Because transportation by boats and vehicles is so expensive, many professional researchers rely upon knowledgeable naturalists and tour guides, who are wandering around anyways, to pass on any sightings of certain critters that they see. Along the west coast of North America, for example, there are several interested agencies that rely upon whale watching companies and tour operators to monitor and identify the cetaceans they see daily.
Humpback Tail Markings are Unique to Each Individual
The Vancouver aquarium has been doing fantastic work with photo ids of orca and humpback whales as well as monitoring populations of dolphins and sea lions. Many of the whale watching companies know some of the orca populations as well as their own families and notice when a member is missing from the clan. Whale watchers get caught up in the excitement of the research as they become more aware of the challenges that the oceanic creatures live with daily. With awareness and education come empathy and a willingness to help by spreading their new found knowledge to their own friends and families which often leads to monetary donations and a change of attitudes and habits, then, assisting the threatened environment. The Center of Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Cetacean Research Program and B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network monitor all whales, dolphins and porpoise along the B.C. coast line through a network of guides, naturalists, tour companies, commercial and sports fishermen and commercial shipping companies. There are e-mail contacts and phone numbers to report to if you see something of interest or to just report where you are seeing which species of whales. One season, in a period of about one month, I reported four different dead creatures that my guests and I saw on our tours. These mortality's had already been spotted by scavenging eagles and gulls which lead to our discoveries.

Harbour Porpoise Mort
 I took photos, notes as to GPS locations, time, date, suspected species, suspected causes of death and any other details we noticed. These notes and photos were then E-mailed to the fisheries and oceans office for investigation. They can then monitor the area to see what may be causing the sudden spike in mortality's. Without our eyes in the field it could be months if ever before they knew there was a problem if there was and were able to respond.

As we were touring an isolated region of the coast one spring we stopped by a large, exposed, rocky islet near the mouth of Knight Inlet. It was covered with gulls who became very agitated as I slowly motored past. I noticed several gulls nesting so paused to take some photos as I had never seen gulls nests before. I took a few notes including GPS location of where we were at. I sent the information into the B.C. Breeding Bird Atlas headquarters.

Glaucous Winged Gulls with some possible Western Gull Cross breeding
 This created quite a stir as they had not heard of this breeding gull colony before. I ended up taking a doctor of bird on a tour through this region where we discovered a pigeon guillemot breeding cliff as well a confirming my observation and noticing some black oyster catchers also breeding here. I am an observer for the breeding bird atlas monitoring one 10 mile square in a remote section Knight Inlet for the past 4 years. Even though the gull colony was outside of my square, I was able to help provide very accurate information to this valuable project.

Incidentally, I created quite the stir when I reported a Eurasian Collared Dove, band tailed pigeon and an American Redstart in my square. Once again the Doctor of bird showed up to confirm my amateur sightings. While there he was also able to confirm a couple other unexpected birds for this region. These sightings were the beginning of a long relationship with the doctor as he ended up coming out annually to put on a bird watching course for all the guides at our lodge. He was also able to add several more species to my list which I could not hear or identify.
To find bird watching clubs in you area, “Google” that. After I moved to Alberta, I googled nature clubs and found scores of them located in every region of the province. Various nature clubs watch, educate new birders and count birds, monitor nests and nest boxes. Other clubs monitor the skies at night watching northern lights, stars, planets, shooting stars and satellites. A big part of what some clubs and naturalists do is rescue wounded or stuck animals. Hundreds of birds fly into man made obstacles or are hit by vehicles. Some of them can be saved if found in time and taken for appropriate care. Many baby mammals are found every year lost or abandoned by mothers and taken to shelters to be cared for. Mountainair Avian Rescue Society, Hope for Wildlife and Northern Lights Animal Rescue are just three valuable groups of overworked, under appreciated and under paid people who genuinely care for our hurt wildlife. All these groups rehabilitate and restore to health, if possible, and release back into the wild, healthy animals and birds. There is unimaginable joy that helps to compensate the hard workers and volunteers when they are able to release back to the freedom of the wilderness a creature that they have healed.

Norman Carr Safaris, whom I visited in Zambia, rescued a baby elephant from a mud hole right below their headquarters last summer. They noticed a concerned mother elephant pacing back and forth on the mudflat nearby and upon investigation saw the baby mired so it could not get free. Several of the guides and staff gathered ropes and shovels, then braved mother’s wrath to finally dig and pull the baby elephant free of the mud to rejoin its worried mom. These same guides are on constant watch for poaching in the South Luangwa National Park. They have spotted and helped to rescue hundreds of animals that had been hurt or trapped in cruel snares. If found in time these animals are tranquillized, the snare removed and wounds are treated.

Remember the U-tube sensation last year of the tour group who rescued a humpback whale that was entangled in a fisherman’s net. After the whale was freed from the clutches of certain death, it put on an exuberant show of breeches, tail and flipper splashes of thanks. Think of the feelings and emotions of the rescuers when they went to bed that evening knowing the freedom granted to that magnificent whale.

It is sometimes suggested that we may be interfering with Mother Nature’s grand design by rescuing wounded or trapped animals. That baby elephant was rescued before the hyena or other predators could get to it, thereby depriving them of their meal. Sometimes we humans do show some compassion and cannot stand by while a helpless little creature wails and cries for help as its helpless mother looks on in horror. Other times we are the indirect perpetrators of the horror, e.g. the net.

Common Merganser and her chicks
 I was once quietly watching a mother merganser leading her trail of chicks searching for food. I had a small skiff of guests and we all marveled at this sight so close when I noticed a bald eagle sitting in a tree top nearby watching the food parade in front of it. We were all creatures of the earth; the watchers, the prey and the predator, when the predator, did what predators are supposed to do, suddenly glided down toward its next meal. Deadly armament lowered, wings flared, intense concentration and sudden panic from mother merganser. I had my camera up and focused upon the line of chicks ready to finally get the big money shot. Perfect, until a compassionate human mother in the front of my skiff leaped up, and waving her arms and legs, yelling at the predatory eagle at the top of her lungs in a foreign language in no uncertain terms to leave those chicks alone. You could see the shocked look on the eagles face as it suddenly braked in mid swoop about six feet above the scampering ducks, hovered for a couple of seconds then flew back to its roost. I think I was as shocked as the eagle was for the same reasons. That concerned woman calmly sat back down muttering, “Not the babies, you go catch a fishy!”

As interested people who love the wilderness of our back yards, bird feeders, city parks, national parks or vast wilderness, we can all be citizen scientists. We do not have to have formal education to be Dr. Bird or Dr. Bear to be very helpful. We can report a poacher, put a camera up on a game trail,

Grizzly Adjusting the Trail Camera to his Liking

and do Christmas bird counts, feeder counts throughout the seasons, monitor bird nests when we find them either informally on our own for our own interest or join clubs and organizations to help provide detailed and reliable records for groups such as Breeding Bird Atlases.

Curious Saw Whet Owl in a nest box

We can join in May Bird counts, Raptor Nest surveys, Nocturnal Owl surveys, eagle watches, bear den watches, night sky watchers or whatever you may feel comfortable doing and with the time you have available. This is also a great way to get kids involved so they may also become naturalist scientists. Become involved by volunteering at rescue shelters or by assisting Junior Forest Wardens, Scouting or Brownie clubs, or just take your kids or grand children for a walk in the park.

Breaching Humpback Whale

At the end of the day you will feel as if you had just rescued a whale.

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