My last post was about SAWMILL SINK – not the famous Blue Hole itself, but the detritus of past logging activity in that part of the Abaco pine forests revealed by last month’s forest fires. I mentioned that this destructive burning of the shrubby understorey is (allegedly) the work of hunters making it easier for their dogs to pursue the hog denizens of the forest. The evidence suggests that nature alone could not cause so many separate seats of fire to appear in a matter of days over such a wide area – and in springtime at that.
This year, the fires came uncomfortably close to several small communities and outlying residences – and to the Delphi Club itself. Many people spent nights hosing down undergrowth and building on the edge of settlements, with neighbours all joining in. Electricity poles are vulnerable, with obvious consequences for the supply should they burn through at the bottom, as often happens. One pole a short way south of Delphi on the highway has the burnt remains of 3 utility posts beside the current (ha!) one. At Delphi itself, the vegetation from around all the poles along the mile of drive had to be cleared.
This iPhone photo was taken from the Delphi balcony. The fire is in fact on the far side of the highway, with the pall of smoke – and therefore the fire’s direction – heading south. The question is, when and where will it jump the highway, and what will be the wind direction then…
This picture shows the extraordinary effect of the smoke-laden atmosphere on the sunset. The header picture is another example. The fire is now into the pine woods between the Club and the highway, and the theory that the damp coppice nearer the Club will act as a barrier to prevent its spread is about to be put to the test overnight…
It soon became clear that the fires were not going to be discouraged by the coppice. Sandy is always eager to find volunteers to go out in a truck to feel the heat, so to speak. He is apt to dismiss concerns that one is sitting on top of a large tank of inflammable liquid by pointing out that diesel is less combustible than petrol. This is invariably comforting to all occupants of the vehicle. So with the fire burning bright, and with tree-tops suddenly bursting into flame like torches, off we go…
In the morning, a smokey mist lies over the trees and the bay to the north
An uncomfortably short distance along the guest drive, it is clear that the coppice has burnt quite easily, though not devastatingly. In fact there are still flames to be seen…
Later, out on the Marls, a plume of smoke is visible, with several more in either direction
Despite the widespread damage caused by the fires, the capacity for regeneration is amazing. New growth is visible very quickly, and within the year the burnt-out areas are mostly back to normal. I’ll end on that optimistic note, and with another dramatic sunset above the haze of smoke over the tree canopy.
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 theNATIONAL 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 SINK
AERIAL VIEW OF SAWMILL SINK DEEP IN THE PINE FOREST
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, ABACO
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.
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.
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 WELCOME
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.
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 toFOSSIL 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!”
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…
MARCH 2011 Fires swept through large areas of South Abaco, spreading rapidly and jumping the firebreak of the Highway in several places. At any one time, there were several ‘non-natural’ seats of fire. For 3 days the flames were uncomfortably close to the Delphi Club, halted only by the natural boundary between the flammable pine forest and the damper less combustible coppice. The smoke caused some amazing visual effects, especially at sunset. The first image was taken looking east from the Club verandah one evening as the fire got nearer
The vegetation alongside and between the drives was dense and lushly green before the fires. Here is a photo as fire began to take hold near the top of the drives towards the road, having jumped the Highway in the night…
As the fire rapidly spreads, this tall dead tree is actually flaming from the top
During the next couple of days, we took photographs along the drives of the apocalyptic scenes where there had so recently been impenetrable vegetation. Nearly a year later, indispensable beachcomber and photographer Kasia has taken some pictures of the drives as they are now. First, two ‘then and now’ views of the same scenes to illustrate the extent of forest regeneration
2011The burnt-out forest between the drives
2012A wander round the drive circuit
In some places the undergrowth has returned but trees have not recovered
Elsewhere, blackened stumps are visible in amongst the vigorous regrowth
In August 2011 the Bahamas National Trust published a documentary about the resident Abaco and Inagua populations of this Cuban Parrot subspecies. It features research scientist Caroline Stahala, and contains plenty of information about these birds, their nesting and breeding habits, and the problems they face from predation. In places, some of the devastation caused by the extensive forest fires in March 2011 is still evident (see images in earlier POST). If you want to know more about these attractive (but noisy) birds, the documentary video below covers a great deal in 8 minutes…
This very pleasant walk somehow seems more satisfactory taken clockwise, turning left at the front gateway and wandering along the guest drive. The straight service drive is less interesting and feels less ‘in the coppice’. The distance is about 2 miles. You can walk the circuit briskly in about half an hour. The birds will see you, but you won’t see them… So preferably take it easy. Here is a fantastic aerial view of the drives (courtesy of DCB)
The start of the route – trees as far as the eye can see
From a birding point of view, as you walk down to the gateway, keep an eye out on both sides. There are plenty of birds in the bushes and trees, though they are not always easy to see. You might see a western spindalis, bananaquits, black-faced grassquits, warblers, northern parulas, loggerhead kingbirds, vireos, cuban emerald hummingbirds or a bahama woodstar if you are lucky, amongst many others. When you get to the main drives, have a look straight ahead into the coppice – in fact anywhere along the guest drive is worth pausing to investigate.
This cuban emerald was just opposite the drive gateway (credit Xeno-canto.org)
The gumbo limbo trees are very popular with many birds, including the Abaco Parrots, so it’s good to check them out as you pass by (and if you have unfortunately touched a poison-wood tree, they provide the antidote – conveniently the two trees tend to grow next to each other). Here are a couple of Thick-billed Vireos proving the point. And their song, which you will hear a lot around the Club itself.(credit Xeno-canto.org)
Hairy Woodpeckers seem to favour dead trees for drilling practice – and perhaps for feeding on the sort of bugs attracted to dead wood. Here’s what they sound like (a call and response with 2 birds) (credit Xeno-canto.org)
There are plenty of small birds all along the way, some more vivid than others…Black-faced grassquit (not a warbler, as earlier suggested. Thanks CN)
Antillean Bullfinch(not, as previously alleged, an American Redstart. Thanks CN)
If you look at the base of the trees in certain places, especially on the the left hand side of the guest drive (facing the highway), there are some small but deep holes in the limestone. If you drop a stone in, you can hear it splash in water – and the ferns growing inside them suggest a continuously moist environment.
As you progress, you move from the hardwood coppice to the pine forest.This photograph was taken just as the forest fires in March were petering out. The theory was that the fires that raged through the pine forest would stop where the coppice began, and not sweep on to engulf Delphi… and so this photo shows. The thick pine forest with its flammable vegetation and undergrowth gives way here to damper and less combustible coppice-wood which has halted the progress of the flames. The pines you can see are the last few outliers of the pine forest.
Here is an example of the drive having acted as a partial firebreak.
The pines, even burnt ones, are a good place to see West Indian Woodpeckers
When you reach the top of the guest drive it is worth carrying on to the highway. For a start you can admire Sandy’s gardening effort on the south side of the ‘white rock’, and maybe do some weeding. You are quite likely to see Turkey Vultures on the telegraph posts and wires, as here. You may also see Bahama Swallows on the wires, and perhaps an American Kestrel on a post.
I have seen a raucous flock of Smooth-billed Anis in this area, but it is hard to get close to them. Listen out for this unmistakable noise (credit Xeno-canto.org)
Returning from the road to the fork, to your right is the way you have come – seen here as the fires burnt out. There had been thick, indeed impenetrable, bright green undergrowth all along only 3 or 4 days earlier.
To the left is the service drive and your route home
Because this route is more open, there seem to be fewer birds. Again, you may see kestrels on the posts. Halfway along we heard the loud and very melodious singing of a Northern Mockingbird some distance away. CLICK on image (as you can with all, or most, of these photos) and you can see it singing!CLICK BUTTON to hear song of a Northern Mockingbird (credit http://www.bird-friends.com)
On either drive you will see butterflies. They seem to like the vegetation around the piles of stone and rubble. GULF FRITILLARYAgraulis vanillae
It is also worth looking out on either drive for epiphytes, or air-plants, growing on their host trees. They are so-called because unlike say, mistletoe, they are non-parasitic and do not feed off their hosts.
And so back to Delphi, a well-earned swim… and an ice-cold Kalik in the hammock…
For another angle on the circuit walk, have a look at a proper professional-looking blog by Craig Nash, already trailed in the BLOGROLL. This link will take you specifically to his fourth Delphi post, featuring this stroll. At the risk of stitching myself up here, I should say that you’ll get plenty of seriously good photos… PEREGRINE’S BLOG 4
SANDY & BILL VERNON have provided a number of wonderful photos from their stay at Delphi earlier this year. The images convenientlycoincide with various categories already posted, to which the headings below link (supposedly – I will sort out any problems in due course, the general rh policy being to upload pictures first then worry about details later…)
DELPHI. ROLLING HARBOUR. Gorgeous sunrises. Sumptuous sunsets. Impossible to take a really bad photo. None of the images below has been photoshopped or iPhoto’d in any way. The only modifications are natural, i.e. from forest fire smoke on a couple of them.
Mid-March saw the outbreak of an unnaturally large number of fires in the pine forests on (mainly) the west side of Abaco. Suspicion mostly fell on hog hunters wanting to clear the thick undergrowth. Many fires spread rapidly in the wind and some jumped the highway. For a couple of days there was increasing anxiety at Delphi, not wholly allayed by Sandy’s robust enthusiasm for driving guests intothe heart of the fires: “Look, I promise you, it’s perfectly safe ”. The big question: would the coppice stop the fire in its tracks as expected, or would the fire sweep through to the Club grounds and buildings? And (a members’ concern, this) were they adequately insured?
In the event, the Club was spared. However, much of the area between the road and the coppice in front of the Club was badly burned. The effect on the bird liferemains to be seen, though even after a few days there was evidence of greening up of foliage – an encouraging sign. Any hogs presumably managed to escape…
Here are some images, all of them taken from the Club or along the drives. Most (all but 2 now – I’ve fixed the rest) will enlarge with a click.
Setting sun from the Club verandah. At least 3 fire seats are visible
This tree along the guest drive kept smouldering for 3 or 4 days
A somewhat apocalyptic sky
This area along the drives was dense bright green undergrowth two days earlier
A milky morning sun filters through onto snowy ash
Click to enlarge this image: you’ll see a flame at the top of the tall dead tree, like an oil refinery flare stack
Fire spreading in the wind and taking hold of a new area between the drives
Another area that had been thickly wooded, with dense green undergrowth