Category: Nature

Great white surprise: the well-travelled shark

In March, 2013, the non-profit, open-source research organization, OCEARCH, caught a four-metre, 900 kg, female great white shark off the Atlantic coast of Florida near Jacksonville, then released it after attaching monitoring and tracking devices. In the year since, the shark has travelled 31,000 kilometres, visiting Cape Hatteras, Bermuda, George’s Bank, Placentia Bay, and the Grand Banks, before crossing the mid-Atlantic ridge to a point 1200 kilometres off the coast of Ireland.

Shark's year of travel

In late October, Lydia, as the researchers nicknamed her. spent three days exploring Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay and Merasheen Island:

Shark in Placentia

You can follow Lydia’s travels on OCEARCH’s interactive, live-tracking map. You can follow OCEARCH on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Here’s a video of Lydia’s capture and tagging.

The UK Telegraph has more on the story. H/T: Alexis Madrigal.

Bird of the Month — American Tree Sparrow

American Sparrow-600

Chris Peters of Halifax took this photo of an American Tree Sparrow at Grand Pre, King’s County, December 28. I am re-posting it here with his permission.  Clicking the image will bring up a larger copy.

The seed-eating American Tree Sparrow nests on the tundra from Alaska to Labrador, and winters throughout the continental US, the southern fringes of the prairie provinces and Quebec, and in the southern Maritimes. It’s considered common in Nova Scotia in winter.

Chris’s photo illustrates the species’ habit of fluffing out its feathers in cold weather, keeping it warmer and making its plump body look even chubbier. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Birds:

American Tree Sparrows need to take in about 30 percent of their body weight in food and a similar percentage in water each day. A full day’s fasting is usually a death sentence. Their body temperature drops and they lose nearly a fifth of their weight in that short time.

In winter snows, they accomplish this feat by beating their wings to dislodge seeds from grass heads, or by visiting your feeder.

The Nova Scotia Bird Society’s Facebook page serves up a continual stream of gorgeous photographs of birds native to or passing through Nova Scotia. The province is home to many wonderful birds, and many outstanding photographers; the two make a happy combination. I have re-posted a few images from the site before, and with the permission of selected photographers, I hope to do so more frequently.

I like Chris’s images because he doesn’t focus solely on charismatic or rare birds, but often posts striking photos of birds we might see, but perhaps overlook, any day.

On guard for venison

Saturday in Purcell’s Cove: RubySeesVenison

Ruby had much to say about this intrusion in her own backyard. The deer, perhaps spying the leash, feigned indifference. Photo: Marla Cranston

2013 Sable Update: a peaceable kingdom

SableUpdate The three Parks Canada bureaucrats who tag-teamed an illustrated talk at tonight’s ninth annual Sable Island Update faced a skeptical, though not overtly hostile, audience.

The first time Canadians heard about plans to turn Sable Island into a National Park, Jim Prentice, environment minister at the time, launched into an addle-pated discourse on how great a park would be for private businesses that could could ferry boatloads of tourists out to Sable and put them up for the night in hotels.

You want to hope this was a spontaneous outburst by a know-nothing minister, but with Harper’s crew, who can be sure? Parks Canada bureaucrats have struggled ever since to convince Sable’s large, passionate constituency that they are not the advance guard for a mob of gun-toting Reform Party vandals bent on paving Sable and putting up Ferris wheels.

In the process, they appear to have persuaded the naturalist and longtime Sable champion Zoe Lucas. (Disclosure: Zoe and I have been friends for years.)

zoe_lucas copyIn her talk last night, Zoe, who is principal organizer of the meeting, gave her usual fascinating and witty précis of events on Sable over the last 18 months—a spell-binding catalog of weather highlights, scientific discoveries, critter strandings, beach debris, and whatnot. She followed this with a useful history of tourism to the island, gently driving home the point that people have always visited Sable (albeit in small numbers) and properly managed, such visits cause little damage while helping build the passionate constituency for conservation that is Sable’s best protection from Cretins like Prentice.

Zoe and I have not spoken about this, but it appeared to me that she and the Parks Canada officials charged with setting up the new park have established a productive and mutually respectful relationship. This has not always been the case. Zoe is a woman of strong views and a willingness to express them. She has not always enjoyed a blissful rapport with Sable’s federal overseers.

In their presentation, the Parks Canada officials made the obligatory gestures you would expect toward Zoe’s revered role as unofficial steward of the island, including the invaluable scientific work she has carried out over nearly four decades. Beyond that, they peppered their inventory of preparations for park status with signals they have been listening, and thinking about imaginative ways to fulfill Parks Canada’s mandate to provide visitor opportunities without wrecking the place.

Two small examples: They hope to get Google to carry out Street View mapping of the island, so Sable buffs can treat themselves to virtual tours from the comfort of their living rooms. When challenged about regulations that ban petroleum drilling on the island, but permit seismic testing, they agreed with a marine geologist in the audience that sufficient seismic testing has already been carried out, and it’s unlikely future tests would be permitted.

I don’t want to go overboard here. The trio of officials did sometimes lapse into practiced talking points whose purpose was to mollify, rather than inform. They professed not to remember what the park’s annual budget was, but when pressed (by me) they agreed to give Zoe this information for publication on her Green Horse Society website (specifically, the park’s 2013-2014 annual budget, and the annual operating budget they expect once startup costs are behind them).

I’m no @Tim_Bousquet, but I did my best to live-tweet the event. With occasional help from seat-mate Alan Ruffman, I think I did capture the gist of most, if not all, the questions. You can find these tweets by searching for my Twitter handle (@kempthead) or the hashtag #Sable. Those outside the Twitter realm can view the live-tweets in bullet form after the jump. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, reading from the bottom up will give you my account in chronological order. Errors and omissions are mine.

Read more »

Tuesday in Halifax: a Sable Island update

SableHorses

If you are near Halifax Tuesday night, you can get the latest information about Sable Island’s transformation into a National Park at what promises to be a fascinating meeting.

The 9th annual Sable Island Update, latest in a series of meetings oganized by naturalist and longtime Sable resident Zoe Lucas, will see illustrated talks about scientific and organizational developments on the island. This year’s session will also feature an an extended opportunity to question Parks Canada officials about their new role as federal stewards of the island.

Lucas began the updates a decade ago, when Environment Canada announced plans to abandon the island as a cost-cutting measure, putting its fragile environment, and the valuable but little known scientific work that takes place there, at risk. The annual updates usually take place in the spring, but since April 1 marked the island’s handoff to Parks Canada, Lucas and Mark Butler, Policy Director for the Ecology Action Centre, decided to delay this year’s session in hopes of getting “solid and detailed info from Parks Canada—nuts & bolts, management policy, programs, staffing, etc.”

The Parks takeover got off to a bad start before it began when Environment Minister Jim Prentice speculated about opening the island to private boat tours and hotel accommodations, sparking an angry public backlash from supporters of Sable, including Contrarian. Lucas supports the Parks Canada takeover, and believes a zero-tourism policy is unrealistic. Her talk will include a review of the history of tourism on the island.

No one has done more than Lucas to preserve Sable’s ecological integrity, and no one is better qualified to make recommendations about it’s future. Still, I continue to worry that any significant increase in tourist visitors to the Island will de detrimental to the qualities that make it unique. Tourism floodgates are easy to open, and will be all but impossible to close, so this policy demands extreme caution.

Lucas has four decades’ experience monitoring and studying Sable Island horses, birds, invertebrates, grasses, lichens, mosses, fungi, and fresh water ponds. She conducts regular surveys of beach litter and  cetacean strandings. Her talk will include a brief update on recent goings-on on the island. 

Saint Mary’s biology professor Tim Frasier, a specialist in marine mammals, has a research interest in the use of genetics to better understand, and assist the conservation of, small wild animal populations. His talk will focus on the application of this work to Sable Island horses.

The 9th Annual Sable Island Update takes place 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University, 923 Robie St., Halifax. There is much more information at Lucas’s Green Horse Society website.

Sponsors of the meeting include the Friends of the Green Horse Society, the Ecology Action Centre, Saint Mary’s University, the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. The photo above was copied from the poster for the event, and I presume it was taken by Zoe Lucas.

 

Six things the NDP did right – part 2

Here is the final instalment of my four posts on the NDP government’s mistakes and successes. Mistakes here and here. Successes, part one, here, part two below. Between now and election day, I’ll post a selection of reader responses, more of which are always welcome.

4. Wilderness protection

protected-lands

Two hundred years from now, few Nova Scotians will know whether the provincial government balanced its books in 2013, or how much power rates increased between 2009 and 2013, or even who Darrell Dexter was. But they will know that a significant amount of Nova Scotia’s spectacular wilderness areas was permanently protected for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Building on a foundation laid by Mark Parent, environment minister in the Rodney MacDonald government, the NDP has taken Nova Scotia from a mediocre record of wilderness conservation to a position of national leadership.

The Protected Areas Plan for Nova Scotia, released in August, capped several rounds of public and stakeholder consultations to identify lands worthy of protection. It increased the total percentage of protected lands in the province from 9.4 percent (second lowest among Canadian provinces) to 13 percent now (second only to British Columbia, at 14 percent). The total will grow to about 14 percent as new sites are protected over the next few years. The newly protected lands include 700 kilometres of coastline and about 2600 lakes and watercourses.

The plan won praise from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Nature Trust, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Ecology Action Centre, whose wilderness co-ordinator, Raymond Plourde, lauded the government for “hard work and steadfast support for conservation.”

Extending the percentage of protected areas to 14 percent of the province assumes the government to be sworn in next month will continue the plan. The Liberal Party platform [PDF] says the party “support(s) the protection of land,” but at least one Liberal candidate, Lloyd Hines, running in Guysborough, has called for a halt to further land protection.

The Mining Association of Nova Scotia accused the government of putting future economic growth at risk by permanently protecting land from economic use. It will lobby the incoming government to allow land swaps, so mining and quarrying companies can access the protected land.

5.  A five-year highway plan

For decades, Nova Scotia governments have tried to control budget deficits, some more successfully than others. Nova Scotia has another kind of deficit we rarely hear about: a highway infrastructure deficit. The province has about 23,000 km. of roads, and for years, we’ve been wearing them out faster than we fix them.

Paving and politics are deeply entwined, which means road construction and maintenance decisions haven’t always reflected objective criteria. The Dexter Government took several useful steps to arrest and begin reversing the decline of our highways:

  • It produced and published a five-year plan for highway and bridge maintenance and construction. The plan’s annual updates are readily available on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal website. Four instalments have been produced so far. They are not perfect. They are vague about the timeframes for multi-year, 100-series highway expansion projects, but they represent a big improvement over plans drawn up on a napkin in the minister’s back pocket.
  • The province improved its criteria for maintaining paved roads. In the past, when paving decisions weren’t based on pure politics, they were prioritized on a worst-first basis. Roads in the worst condition got paved first. This sounds logical, but it ignores a key fact about highway engineering. At a certain point in their lifespan, paved roads begin to show signs of deterioration. If early steps are taken to repair the damage—by sealing cracks, applying a mixture of stone chips and asphalt, micro sealing with a thin layer of asphalt, or applying a single layer of asphalt—major reconstruction can be delayed for several years.
  • The Dexter Government took two bold steps to rectify the costly consequences of non-competitive bidding on major highway jobs. It purchased a paving plant and deployed it in rural counties where a lack of competitive bidding led to construction costs that were much higher than in neighbouring New Brunswick. The government established a provincial chip-seal crew for the same reason. Predictably, the paving cartel went ballistic and hired a PR outfit to plant horror stories with business-compliant reporters bemoaning delays and cost overruns in the civil service paving crews. But paving bids plummeted by amounts that dwarfed the provincial overruns.

[View Larger Map]

The interactive map above, cribbed from the department’s website, shows that highway projects are still over-concentrated in government ridings. To some extent, this is inevitable given the NDP sweep of rural ridings in 2009. But the steps outlined above represent a serious effort to address highway deterioration that a new government would be imprudent to abandon for short term political gain.

6.  The Maritime Link

The natural gas industry, the wind power industry, the province’s two opposition parties, and a bogus citizens’ group that is really a front for the gas industry have had a field day parlaying voter resentment over recent power rate increases into skepticism about the wisdom of developing the Maritime Link to receive electricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador. The quality of their arguments has ranged from shallow and self-serving to intellectually dishonest.

hi-muskrat-falls-river-2012-8col

Simply put, the government that takes office next month would be nuts to pass up the chance to open a power corridor to Labrador, site of the largest untapped hydro resource on earth. [Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I carried out writing projects for Emera involving the Maritime Link.]

Historically, the big problem with Nova Scotia’s electrical system is a lack of diversity. When oil was cheap in the ’50s and ’60s, we over-committed to oil-fired power plants, only to see the price of oil increase almost tenfold in the 1970s. We repeated the mistake in the 1980s, replacing all those oil-fired plans with coal plants. This made sense at a time when coal was cheap, mining it created local jobs, and no one had heard of climate change. But the last big mine closed in 2000 2001, and since then we’ve sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to coal brokers in faraway lands, with no local local economic benefit. Once again, we found ourselves at the mercy of  wild swings in the price of imported fossil fuels.

The obvious solution is to diversify our electricity supply, and increase our access to market priced electricity, so we will never again find ourselves shackled to world prices for fossil fuels. In short, the solution is a little coal, a little natural gas, a little wind, a little hydro, eventually a little tidal, and occasional purchases from the North American grid—something we can’t do today, because our slender electrical connection to New Brunswick is too frail to support significant imports.

The Maritime Link serves this strategy in several ways:

  • It assures Nova Scotia a 35-year supply of clean, renewable energy sufficient to meet eight to 10 percent of our current electricity demand (and much more than that in the first five years, owing to a quirk in the arrangement with Nalcor, the Newfoundland energy utility).
  • Because Muskrat Falls is the small first step in a series of massive hydro developments planned in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Link will give us preferred access to that additional clean renewable energy when it comes on line.
  • When Newfoundland’s lamented contract with Quebec for power from the massive Churchill Falls generating station expires in 2041—not that far off in utility planning terms—the Maritime Link will also give us preferred access to that clean renewable energy.
  • Because Newfoundland has its eye on the massive electricity demand in New England and New York, construction of the Maritime Link will lead to construction of a robust transmission corridor between Cape Breton and Boston. This, too, can only increase our options for power purchases and sales at market prices.
  • At the moment, we have maxed out the capacity of our electricity grid to absorb intermittent power sources like wind. Hydro power makes an ideal backup for wind power because, unlike coal-fired plants, it can be ramped up quickly when wind turbines tapers off due to diminishing winds. The Maritime Link will enable further expansion of clean, renewable wind power in Nova Scotia.

These advantages are so solid and so varied as to make Nova Scotia’s embrace of the project the obvious choice. Against them, the project’s critics, all of whom have some vested interest in a competing fuel source or in defeating the current government, draw comparisons to the spot price of whatever fuel source is cheapest at the moment. They pretend we can base 35-year power planning decisions on the assumption that prices will stay that low for three decades.

This is rank nonsense. Every serious energy planner knows the only reliable thing about fossil fuel prices is that they are sure to gyrate wildly, while trending relentlessly upward. Last year, the prospect of tapping massive shale gas deposits made natural gas the darling of the day, but now gas prices have gone up again, and some energy experts contend the shale gas bubble is poised to burst.

By contrast, hydro projects look expensive at the start, but like the sweetest of bargains five or 10 years into their decades-long lifespans. The notoriously low price Hydro Quebec pays for power from Churchill Falls—currently one-quarter of a cent per kilowatt-hour—was actually above the market price when the contract was signed in late 1960s. All the costs of building a hydro development are payable up front, but because they use no fuel, hydro plants go on producing for decades at stable prices that look better with each passing year. Can any of the Maritime Link’s naysayers claim coal and gas prices will not increase over the next 35 years?

When analysts pick over the bones of the NDP’s almost certain defeat in next week’s election, they will focus on the issue of electricity rates. The NDP government has been honest about the short-term costs of converting Nova Scotia’s electricity system from its decades-old over-reliance on imported fossil fuels to a diverse mix of renewable sources, and it made the right decision committing to the Maritime Link. Opposition parties have pandered to public resentment over recent power rate increases, while offering magical promises to freeze rates and lower renewable targets (in the case of the Tories), or to abandon energy efficiency and adopt deregulation strategies that have proven disastrous in other jurisdictions (in the case of the Liberals).

That this contrast—honesty and sound decisions vs. pandering and magic solutions—will see the NDP driven from office is surely the most dispiriting aspect of recent public discourse in Nova Scotia.

Igneous Ichthys

Igneous Ichthys-550

By Alison Halina Uhma

A wiener dog at Fuzzy’s

Hold the ketchup, if you please.

Wiener Dog At Fuzzies 550

Too good.

Bach and a wooden Japanese cell phone

What really goes on in the woods?

See the making-of video here.

H/T: Dave Harris

Long way from home – again

Following the late March appearance of the first Crested Caracara ever sighted in Nova Scotia, another rare avian visitor has turned up in Metro:

Little Egret 550

The Little Egret is an Old World bird similar to North America’s Snowy Egret (which itself rarely ventures farther up the Atlantic coastline than Massachusetts). Its European counterpart is a “very rare” visitor to North America, with occasional scattered reports from Newfoundland to Virginia.

First sighted on April 21 in a pond along the Shore Road Eastern Passage, the Little Egret was feeding actively but to some observers appeared not “all that healthy.” JBD took the photo above on Saturday, but the Nova Scotia Bird Society has reported no sightings since. Perhaps it moved on, or accepted some other critter’s invitation to dinner.

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