For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Local, Regional, or Global Phenomenon?

This morning my dad forwarded me a discussion that has been going on via the e-mail listserv Oregon Birders Online regarding pelican distribution. It seems this year that American white pelicans are more widely distributed this time of year than usual, which has prompted the discussion. Someone else pointed out that maybe there is a more widespread phenomenon going on, as brown pelicans and magnificant frigatebirds (another member of the pelican family) are also being seen in more and different places this season.

That got me thinking about all the different marine mammal patterns we've been seeing this year in the San Juan Islands.

* The orcas, of course, were noticeably absent this spring, and didn't really fall into their "normal" summer traveling routes until maybe three weeks ago.

* The gray whales in Puget Sound are hanging around a lot later than usual this year.

* We had some humpback whale sightings in June - we usually don't see them until September/October.

* Dall's porpoise, formerly abundant, are almost non-existent this season, while harbor porpoise are far more abundant than in recent years.

* There have been more elephant seal sightings in the area, and even a sea otter sighting. (Sea otters and elephant seals were both hunted out of the area historically. Elephant seals have slowly been expanding their range north again and there is a reintroduced population of sea otters on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, and we had several sightings in the summer of 2006. But elephant seals are uncommon and sea otters rare.)

* It seems like there are more minke whales around, or at least they are gathering in numbers of 5-10 at some of the feeding areas, instead of just seeing 1-2 at a time.

When I've tried to do some research into some of this - for instance, are changes in bait fish numbers influencing baleen whale and porpoise patterns? - there is often very little information. Bait fish aren't of commercial interest, so nobody even really knows what bait fish populations are doing. On one hand, I'm amazed at how little we know about the ocean and some of the largest creatures in it. On the other hand, it's clearly an amazingly complex system. So, whatever is going on with our local marine life, I have a feeling its all somehow connected and not just a random coincidence that we're seeing all these different sightings this year.

As my dad said this morning when he forwarded me that e-mail, "It takes folks from different disciplines to think a bit wider than their discipline to understand some of these things." Some birders might notice some odd bird sightings, and some whale-watchers some odd whale sightings, but unless we get a discussion going about what we're seeing and how all this could be related we have no chance of even getting an inkling of what is going on.


Vera said...

What an interesting and challenging study that would be. I dare you to find a way to get people with different specialties to communicate and figure out what might be happening. Where would you even start!?

The K said...

You should read "The Prairie Keepers" by Marcy Houle, an account (as The Oregonian puts it) by an author whose "heart is not just with the wildlife, but also with the way of life -- a big-picture view". She relates how the relationship between ranchers' and biologists' narrow viewpoints misses the big picture and how each view is likely to ruin that what they both want to preserve. Your post reminds me that book. Great posting.

Rainsong said...

I have been thinking along these lines for some time but have not really put my thoughts together.

How many years has it been since DDT was outlawed in the USA? Has it affected bird populations? DDT affected habitat which affected insect population, which affected bird populations. It must work the same way with other species, don't you think?

I try to think about habitat. Even as a gardener I place a high priority on habitat. I am careful to feed the soil that supports my tomato. I want to attract the bees that fuss over my cherry tree. I could use chemicals but the price is too high, it kills the soul of the soil and the dramatic results of chemical gardening soon turns into the drama of dead zones.

I think you are on to something with the foundational feed-species that the more dramatic species feed on in my seldom humble opinion.

Yellowstone is a beautiful land-island but a land-island cannot support large populations for long before the life on the land-island is affected by the lack of habitat that surrounds the island. Note what happens to the wolf and the elk when they step off of the land-island. Ranchers have a strong financial motivation to keep their green-house like habitat for sheep and cattle. Elk introduce disease and compete for feed. Wolves kill the weak (and domestic animals ARE weak).

I have so much more I want to say and suspect I am not making sense.

Warren Baker said...

There are some clever people out there who have already pieced together whats happening. I'm afraid no-one listens to them, it's too frightening!

Monika said...

Vera - It's hard enough to get people to communicate within one field! It would be interesting to try and piece everything together.

The K - Thanks for the recommendation; I'll have to check that out.

Rainsong - You have a lot of good thoughts there. They make sense to me!

Warren - You're right that a lot of what has been figured out is scary news, but I still think there is a lot of things we're pretty clueless about.