WHITE SOUND, ABACO: MANGROVES, MUD & (REALLY) GREAT EGRETS


Great Egret Abaco 7

WHITE SOUND, ABACO: MANGROVES, MUD & (REALLY) GREAT EGRETS

The piratically named Treasure Cay (aaarrrrrr…) is north of Marsh Harbour, and home to one of the larger communities on Abaco. It has a wonderfully long white sand beach, a golf course, condos and villas, a marina and a cheerful atmosphere. It is also one of the best areas in North Abaco for birding. There are the shorebirds, of course, and all the usual ‘settlement’ species. In addition, the golf course has freshwater ponds where you will find a wide variety of duck and other water species. NB Check in at the Club House and get permission first – amiably given if politely requested (see map below).

Treasure Cay also has a large area of bays, brackish inlets and lagoons, including – to continue the pirate theme – Galleon Bay, Brigantine Bay, Cannon Bay and Gun Powder Creek. And also White Sound. This can be reached by luck (which may run out) or good management (ask for directions; wait for me to get back the map I have lent to someone and post a grab from it). Drive (with care) along the uneven track beside the lagoon and there is a good chance you will see Great Egrets in the mangrove islands dotted around the middle of the water. This is what to look out for…Great Egret, White Sound, Abaco

Zoom in a bit, and you’ll see two more egrets on the far side of the clump of mangroves. It’s a colony… in the end we were able to count 9 birds on this one mangrove island.Great Egret Abaco 1

One of the loveliest features of these fine birds in breeding season is the way that even a slight breeze will blow their long plumes away from their bodies like streamersGreat Egret Abaco 2Great Egret Abaco 3

We were some way from the birds, as these rather indifferent photos suggest, so we decided to try and get closer. The water was fairly low, leaving expanses of firm-looking marly mud around the edge. There was an apparent causeway to an overgrown rocky outcrop that would enable us to get closer to a vantage point without being spotted. As it turned out, the mud was only… ankle deep. It could have been messier. And we had a chance to see at close quarters the remarkable way in which mangrove entanglements develop.

Great Egret Abaco 4 Great Egret Abaco 5

We reached the outcrop muddier and slightly wiser, and clambered up through the scrubby and scratchy bushes to the top, nothing if not intrepid. My wading stick came in handy for beating a rough path. And by adopting strange stances in the manner of someone trying to pick up a faint cellphone signal, we could peer through the foliage to establish whether we were indeed a bit closer to the egrets.Great Egret Abaco 6

The answer was yes. But there was another obstacle, familiar to all fellow ‘focus fail’ offenders. Shooting a bird through a hole in a bush straight in front of you is complicated. You get a vivid detailed  frame of greenery, with a blurry centre of unintentional and unwanted BOKEH instead of the intended subject. A lens entension (the poor man’s zoom that I use) tends to make it worse. So you’ll have to make do with these pictures for now, until you can visit White Sound and get your own with your natty Nikon. Great Egret Abaco 11Great Egret Abaco 9Great Egret Abaco 8

My favourite ‘stance’ shotGreat Egret Abaco 10

That wasn’t the end of the adventure. After we had squidged our way back through the slightly smelly mud, we moved further along the sound, to find a further egret colony on the far shore just in time to watch them from afar as they took flight.Great Egret Abaco 12 Great Egret Abaco 13 Great Egret Abaco 14

TREASURE CAY, LOCATIONS OF WHITE SOUND & THE GOLF CLUB, &  SOME PIRATICAL NAMESTreasure Cay Map

TREASURE CAY IN RELATION TO OTHER ABACO PLACESAbaco Egret Map 1 jpg

When leaving Treasure Cay, visitors receive a friendly reminder to return, in terms reminiscent of, yet far nicer than, a Scottish Tourist Board brochure. Maybe this reflects the historic significance of the Scots in the history of the Bahamas, to the extent that there is even a Bahamas tartan. 

Bahamas TartanHaste Ye Back...

TC Map credit: Abaco Estate Services. They send me emails, so I guess they won’t mind publicity here

IT’S ALL WHITE – IT’S A REDDISH EGRET ON ABACO


Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 5

IT’S ALL WHITE – IT’S A REDDISH EGRET ON ABACO

Contrary to appearances from the header image and the one below, Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens) do not yet use cellphones to communicate. Nevertheless, the trick of having a good ear-scratch while standing in water on one leg is a good posey accomplishment.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 4

All these photos were taken while we were bonefishing from a skiff far out on the Marls in the mangroves. Ishi poled us closer so that boat-partner Tom – a real photographer – could get some shots. Meanwhile, I did my best with my little camera that I take out on the boat – the one that won’t matter too much when it slips from my hand or pocket into the drink. These things happen: I lost a good pair of Costas that a gust of wind unkindly whisked away when I took them off to change a fly.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 3Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 2

This egret comes in two very different ‘colourways’. The classic version has a slatey-blue body and a reddish head and plumes. The white morph is pure white. The only similarities between the two are the two-tone bills with the black tip; and the blue-grey legs and feet.

True Reddish Egret, as you might expect it to lookReddish_Egret Wiki

The white morphReddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 9

I’m not certain of the proportions of each type on Abaco, but I have certainly seen twice as many white ones as true reddish ones. There seem to be quite a few around – there are plenty of fish for them and dozens of square miles of human-free space in which to stalk them. However as with many (most?) of the bird species, there is a declining population for all the usual man-related reasons, and these fine birds have now had to be put on the IUCN ‘near-threatened’ list.220px-Status_iucn3.1_NT.svg

The bird kept an eye on us as we drifted closer, but was unperturbed. It continued to poke around in the mud, and occasionally it moved delicately but quite quickly to a different patch.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 8 Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 7 Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 6

We watched the bird for about 10 minutes. Then we returned to what we were really there for – Tom to catch bones with practised skill, and me to wave the rod incompetently around until some passing fish took pity on me and grabbed my fly, knowing it would soon be released once all the fuss was over…Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 1

‘FAMILIAR FECES': CETACEAN POOP-SCOOPING BY SPECIES


1238860_644550912230805_1918179367_n

‘FAMILIAR FECES': CETACEAN POOP-SCOOPING BY SPECIES

UPDATE I name-checked BMMRO intern Oscar Ward’s blog below. Now he’s been out on the ocean on ‘poop patrol’. You can read Oscar’s account of his experiences HERE

Among the many pleasures for cetacean research scientists must be the joy of whale poop collection. Followed by close inspection and analysis. The Bahamas  Marine Mammal Research Organisation BMMRO conducts research expeditions, in conjunction with such organisations as the New England Aquarium NEAQ and Friends of the Environment FOTE, in Abaco waters and further afield in the Bahamas. The attention this year has been on beaked whale feces, though available sperm whale feces are not to be sniffed at. Images and info below are courtesy of the organisations mentioned above, with thanks for use permission

TopHead_070815o_01_Md_DEC_035

A researcher working with BMMRO demonstrates feces collection using coffee grounds. She collects the coffee granules in her net and places the entire sample into a ziplock bag, ready to hand to the boat for processing 269

The purpose of feces collection is to look at the stress and reproductive hormones of the whales and to gather a baseline for these animals with which to compare other populations that are under threat3

An alternative method of collectionpoop15

Blainville’s Beaked Whales (suppliers of raw research material)Blainville's Beaked Whale AbacoBeaked whale - supplier of poop BMMRO

There are some conditions – dare I say windy ones – when Blainville’s beaked whales may be hard to locate. At such times, collection of pieces of other species feces rarely ceases… Here is a sperm whale in the act of producing laboratory samplesTail_18Jun10_01_Pm_CAD_123

Weather of the sort that makes the day’s collection more complicated. Indeed, it looks and uphill task…GOPR0109

That’s enough on the topic for now. Later in the month there will be some great dolphin pictures to enjoy. Below is the BMMRO sightings chart for July, which I forgot to publish sooner.

Finally, a young UK friend of ours, Oscar Ward, has recently won his place to study marine biology at university next Autumn. He has just arrived on Abaco to start an internship with the BMMRO at Sandy Point. He will then be moving to Friends of the Environment in MH. He has set up an excellent blog to record his experiences, with his first Abaco post going up today, I notice. You can follow Oscar at SEVENTYPERCENT.COM And if you see him around, do say hi! to him.

BMMRO SIGHTINGS JULY 2013

CATCHING FLIES: CRESCENT-EYED (CUBAN) PEWEE ON ABACO


Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 6

One of the prettiest small birds to photograph on Abaco is the Crescent-eyed, or Cuban, Pewee Contopus caribaeus. These small flycatchers are as interested in your struggles with your camera settings and your ‘stealthy’ (yet clumsy) approach, as you are in their cute poses. It’s a symbiotic relationship – you may get nice pictures, they have a benign laugh at your efforts.Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 2

This bird was one of a pair we found at a magical corner of scrubland at a crossroad of tracks between the edge of the pine forest and a backcountry of derelict and overgrown sugar cane fields – the perfect habitat for a wide variety of species. The pewees had a nest hidden deep in the undergrowth, but were tame enough to be untroubled by our presence. They kept calm and carried on as usual.Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 1Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 5

These little birds are resident in Cuba and the Northern Bahamas. I have previously posted photos of them, taken by the beach at Casuarina, HERE. They are the smallest flycatchers – tyrannidae – on Abaco, a family that includes LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, and the larger Loggerhead & Gray Kingbirds. Here’s a recording of cuban pewees made on Abaco (credit: Jesse Fagan / Xeno-Canto)

Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 3Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 4

They often have a charmingly quizzical or watchful expressionCrescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 8Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee on Abaco 7

“Magical Corner”, Abaco – birding hotspot. Location on application. $$ only please (©Tom Sheley)Birdwatching Hotspot, Abaco Backcountry ©Tom Sheley

“STRIKE THE POSE”: RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO


Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 5

“STRIKE THE POSE”: RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO

The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) has previously hopped around these pages in the context of a (my!) simple way to RECORD BIRDS using a smart-phone, trim the result and convert it into an mp3 (or even a ring-tone – I have a great Abaco parrot one to startle friends, family and indeed complete strangers). Now we move on to a more important topic, namely courtship and so forth. And boy, don’t male RWBs fancy themselves when trying to impress the laydeez…Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 1We had taken a truck into backcountry between the pine forest and the Marls, with Tom and his impressive camo-camera with its 10 foot lens.Tom & Nighthawks

We found formerly cultivated fields – evidence of the defunct sugar cane industry – and then we came unexpectedly to a large expanse of open scrubland, with the track straggling through the middle.Truck

And there, on carefully chosen vantage points, was an array of RWBs. Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 2

This bird was within range of my comparatively puny camera, and I watched as it arranged itself into various elegant poses in the late afternoon sun. All around were their ‘rusty door hinge’ calls, of which this is an example (in fact a female, recorded at Casaurina, hence the background sound of lapping waves).

Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 4

These acres of open land were not far inland, and there was a slight breeze to ease the heat. This caused the occasional ruffling of feathers, and the need to spruce up…Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 3

The purpose of all this was of course to impress the opposite sex (behaviour not confined to bird species). There were plenty of females around, also similarly perching on vantage points for similar display-with-view-to-dating-maybe-more reasons.Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 6Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas 7

I didn’t see the phase in which the males may get quite worked-up, but luckily Y**T*b* has perfect example of a male RWB in full song. Credits as shown on the video.

HOPE TOWN, ABACO: DOLPHINS & A LIGHTHOUSE IN THE SUN


Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 13

HOPE TOWN, ABACO: DOLPHINS & A LIGHTHOUSE IN THE SUN

A trip to Hope Town and Elbow Cay is a always a treat. Especially if it includes lunch with friends. Most of my previous visits have been in cloud or rain, so the glory of the historic and indeed iconic candy-striped lighthouse has been rather marred. I left Delphi in hot sunshine, but it began to cloud over ominously during the half-hour drive north to Marsh Harbour and Albury’s Ferry Terminal. I was still optimistic when I arrived, though…Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 2…until I looked the other way. The 20-minute crossing of the Sea of Abaco to Elbow Cay was characterised by a sudden pelting rain storm and a churning sea. A passenger lay down greenly, and I began to count the minutes.Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 1However, as we approached Hope Town we emerged from the gloom into bright sun, and a fine view of the lighthouse. This edifice has one of the last remaining kerosene-lit lights in the world, attended to every 2 hours throughout the night by volunteers. The mechanism sits on a bed of mercury, and the light shines through the original fresnel lenses. Much of the original british-made machinery is still in place. For a tour round the interior, with excellent photos taken by Mrs RH, and views from the top platform, click HOPE TOWN LIGHTHOUSE Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 3 Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 4Lunch at the pleasant Harbour’s Edge Restaurant was enhanced by two – or was it three? – bottlenose dolphins that swam around the harbour. I was torn between eating, chatting  and photographing them. I didn’t catch the wonderful lazy arcs they made as the broke the surface and slowly arched back into the water. It was near impossible to predict where they would surface next. Here are a couple of less dramatic shots… Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 11Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 5After lunch there was time for a quick wander round the attractive little town, with its pastel-coloured houses. Hope Town 1a

There was a YELLOW ELDER tree in bloom, the national flower of the Bahamas. [Later: as it turns out, I was caught in the act... of photography]Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 7Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 6996860_10200325236513792_581389694_n

Hummingbird Cottage Art Centre and Gallery

I was taken to see the new HUMMINGBIRD COTTAGE ART CENTRE & GALLERY  a fine work of building restoration in the centre of town that provides a surprisingly large exhibition space and an idyllic place for art classes and related activities.

DSC_0076-150x150Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 10Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 8Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 9Later, I took the ferry back to Marsh Harbour, taking a final good look at the lighthouse, still thankfully in full sunlight against a vivid blue sky.Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 12Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 15  Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 14Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Abaco 16

LINKS

HOPE TOWN LIGHTHOUSE: THE WORKS

YELLOW ELDER: BAHAMAS NATIONAL FLOWER

Screen-Shot-2013-01-30-at-8.33.11-PM

ALBURY’S FERRY SERVICE

and for a comprehensive overview of Hope Town and Elbow Cay

hopetown

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hummingbird Cottage ©Brigitte Bowyer

SAWMILL SINK, ABACO: INDUSTRIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC LANDSCAPE


Sawmill Sink (adventureactivist youtube)

SAWMILL SINK, ABACO: INDUSTRIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC LANDSCAPE

1. BLUE HOLES

The Blue Holes of Abaco are geological wonders about which much has been written – much of it in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE. Sawmill Sink is one of the best-known inland ones; and there are other holes in the shallow seas on both sides of the island. They are deep chasms in the limestone rock, many leading to extensive and complex cave systems under the island. Divers exploring Sawmill Sink have found many prehistoric fossils, including those of an extinct giant tortoise, and land crocodiles. Most conveniently, this fascinating blue hole is close to Delphi, hidden deep in the pine forest and accessible only by historic logging tracks.

LOGGING TRACK TO SAWMILL SINKSawmill Sink Abaco 19

AERIAL VIEW OF SAWMILL SINK DEEP IN THE PINE FORESTSawmill Sink Map copy

This article is not about Blues Holes in general, nor Sawmill Sink  specifically. I have such a post planned, but for the moment I’ll put some relevant links at the end of this one. Feel free to scroll straight there if the cumbersome heading has already put you off… but in an effort to hold your interest, here’s an image of the Sink to give you an idea of what it looks like. There are wooden steps down and a platform to enable you to swim in it (there are no crocodiles these days. So they say…).

SAWMILL SINK, ABACOSawmill Sink Abaco 8

2. A LOGGING HISTORY

South Abaco – defined loosely as the area south of Marsh Harbour – is dominated by pine forest. There are a few settlements and individual residences, all by the coast. The forested swathes are criss-crossed by an extensive system of logging tracks, many now all but impassable. They are reminders of Abaco’s historic importance as a source of wood deriving from the ubiquitous tall, slim pines. One use to which they were put was as mine pit props in the collieries of Wales.

 1996.2039.db

Last June when we went to Sawmill Sink, we saw a rusty rail sticking up from the undergrowth. We were with Ricky Johnson, the man who could invariably answer any question about Abaco; he explained that there had at one time been a light railway through the forest to carry the felled timber to the highway, where it was transported to the coast for loading onto ships.Sawmill Sink Abaco 17

Last month we returned to Sawmill Sink. The south part of the island was enduring the annual outbreak of forest fires, most (if not all) believed to be set by hunters wanting to clear to undergrowth to make hog-hunting easier. While the occasional natural fire is actually good for the forest (cf burning moorland), the set fires do great damage over a vast area. On some days there were 6 or more separate seats of fire appearing in one day – highly unlikely to be the work of nature. Thick palls of smoke drifted across the island, and out to sea. Even far out on the Marls, the fires were visible, with the smell of burning carried on the wind. This year, the fires came uncomfortably close to some of the settlements. Night-long community action was needed in some places to protect property. At Delphi, the fires came within 300 feet or so before finally fizzling out in the coppice… Two years ago, they  came nearly as close. For a post-fire wander round the Delphi drive circuit click FOREST FIRES (it was one of the first, tentative posts on this blog – and boy, does it show… it needs a rethink)

DELPHI GUEST DRIVE: A WARM WELCOMEForest Fire, Delphi, Abaco

The photos that follow show the track to Sawmill Sink immediately after a fire had swept through the area. Trees were still smouldering and in places the ground was still hot to the touch. Along the way the evidence of the former usage had been laid bare. Some images show the paved path that leads from the logging track to the Sink. I have no idea if these are the first images of so many visible remains of the logging trade, revealed by the burnt-off undergrowth. I haven’t tracked down any others at all so far. I write as a non-resident of the island, so if anyone can add any information, please do so via the COMMENT box. Sawmill Sink Abaco 1 Sawmill Sink Abaco 2 Sawmill Sink Abaco 3 Sawmill Sink Abaco 5 Sawmill Sink Abaco 6 Sawmill Sink Abaco 7 Sawmill Sink Abaco 9 Sawmill Sink Abaco 10 Sawmill Sink Abaco 11 Sawmill Sink Abaco 12 Sawmill Sink Abaco 13 Sawmill Sink Abaco 14

Finally, we found this rock close to the Sink. Are those plant fossils? Bearing in mind that sea probably covered this area entirely (the highest point on Abaco is a mere 134 feet ASL), might these be anemones or sponge fossils of some sort? Comments from fossilologists welcome.

STOP PRESS thanks to FOSSIL LADY (aka Kathi) for the following: “Those don’t look like plant fossils to me, they remind me of stromatolites, a sponge like creature that first dominated the earth billions of years ago. Some varieties still survive today. It would be worth it to have a geologist have a look see. ps the sinkhole is awesome!”Sawmill Sink Abaco 15

SOME BLUE HOLE LINKS TO EXPLORE 

BAHAMAS CAVES RESEARCH FOUNDATION

FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT, ABACO

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

ADVANCED DIVER MAGAZINE ARTICLE

As a reward for having waded through the smoke and ash above, here’s a short video of what you can see if you dive in a blue hole. It’s worth saying (1) that you need to check you are allowed dive – some holes are subject to ongoing research and (2) blue hole diving and caving is an inherently unsafe activity unless you have the right equipment and know exactly (by which I don’t mean “hey, I can wing it”) what you are doing… 

Photo credits: all RH except header (adventureactivist, youTube); pit props (Scottish Mining Museum); aerial view (Gmaps)