CUBAN PEWEE: ‘NATURE’S LEAST SCARY TYRANT’


Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

CUBAN PEWEE: ‘NATURE’S LEAST SCARY TYRANT’

The small bird featured here is a CUBAN PEWEE Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the Crescent-eyed Pewee – see image for why this is so). It is without a doubt a tyrant. At barely 6″ long, it is the smallest tyrant you are likely to encounter in the Bahamas or indeed anywhere else. However it does happen to be a member of the family Tyranidae. These are the flycatchers, and on Abaco they include the larger LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERthe still larger LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD and (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD (this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

The Cuban Pewee is permanently resident on Abaco, and can be found in both pine woods and coppice. When returning to its perch after a fly-catching sortie – ‘hawking’ on the wing – this wee bird gives a characteristic flick of the tail. The bird featured here was in the rough scrub behind the beach of the beautiful bay at Casuarina. It became a favourite of mine simply by being completely unafraid of me, and accepting my extremely slow approach (3 inches at a time) with apparent interest mixed in with an endearing willingness to pose, even when I could almost have reached out and touched it.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

Unlike many creatures, it did not seem concerned by eye-contact. It responded when I made a faint clicking sound by rather sweetly putting its head on one side. However, as I got as close to it as I dared, it began to fidget slightly (possibly feeling camera-shy). So I shuffled slowly back, so as not to disturb it in its own territory, where it was the resident and I was the intruder.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

These close-ups clearly show the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which (as in other tyrant species) relates to the business of catching flies. Also like other flycatchers, the Cuban Pewee has very distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. In fact, these are not whiskers as such – not hairs so much as feathers that have modified into bristles. These act as ‘tactile sensors’ to assist the detection and targeting of aerial insects as the bird darts from a perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel. 

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

The range of the Cuban Pewee is limited almost entirely to Cuba and the Bahamas, so it is very region specific. And how lucky we are to have these cute little specimens on Abaco. I note that the Audubon site calls them drab, which I think is a little unfair. Merely because a bird is not decked out like a PAINTED BUNTING or startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD does not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’.  I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

It is sometimes tempting to anthropomorphise such close encounters in terms of imputed human / creature empathy. It is probably best to try to resist that attitude (‘inter-species condescension’, as you might term it). But as I withdrew, leaving this little bird undisturbed on its branch, I did experience a strange feeling of mutual understanding and… [I must interrupt myself here. I’m a lawyer, so that’s quite enough of that sort of emotive nonsense]

All photos: Keith Salvesen; Range Map, Cornell

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH


Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH

It’s been a little time since I added to the WTF? series, in which some of the more outlandish reef denizens come under close scrutiny. Jawfishes (Opistognathidae) come into this category, not least because of their interesting ways with their eggs. Also, they tend to stick upright out of the substrate, which is not especially fishy behaviour.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

More than 50 species of jawfish are found around the world. In the Bahamas, you are most likely to encounter the Yellowhead (or Yellow-headed) variety. And if you think they look slightly… primitive, that’s because they are. In fact, their forebears (forefishes?) originated in prehistoric times, specifically the Miocene era (a lot of million years ago, I didn’t count exactly).

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

These rather extraordinary little fish superficially resemble certain types of BLENNY. Their modus operandi is to burrow down into sandy, gravelly or other loose substrate. They do so by cramming their mouths with sand and spitting it out to one side. By this means they form a tunnel of sorts in which they can live, and from which they can emerge, or half-emerge and take a look around them. As they do so, they hoover up passing food, mostly plankton and suchlike.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba)

If something looks threatening while they are feeding or having a look around, they can simply duck down into their burrow for safety. They guard their patch against rivals, and behave ‘territorially’ in the jawfish community. One method is to ingest and and then eject sand or gravel at a would-be intruder.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Michael Wolf Wiki))

YES, BUT WHERE IS THE REAL ‘WTF?’ FACTOR HERE?

Good question. With a good and original answer. These little creatures are so-called MOUTHBROODERS‘, meaning that they carry their eggs in their mouths. Depending on the species, females, males or even both parents (don’t try this at home) will do this at or after fertilisation. In effect the eggs are safely incubated until they hatch as fry. Then they are on their own.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

ARE THERE ANY DRAWBACKS TO THIS UNUSUAL GESTATION METHOD?

Apart from accidentally swallowing the occasional potential junior, the eggs need aeration from time to time. This is achieved by expelling the eggs from the mouth, and quickly sucking them back in again. Try this very short video to see this rather improbable behaviour in action. It’s only 8 seconds blink and you’ll miss the action. The eggs hatch into fry in 8 – 10 days, after which both parents can relax. Until the next time.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)
Photo Credits: all images from Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba except (4) Virginia Cooper / GBS; (5) Michael Wolf / Wikimedia; video, Alan Keller. Research: magpie picking, not excluding yet not limited to Wiki…
Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…


Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…

As I have mentioned before, the BAHAMAS POSTAL SERVICE has an exceptionally good record for producing wonderful, colourful stamps showcasing the abundant wealth of natural history in the archipelago. Birds, reef fish, turtles, marine mammals, butterflies, plants and flowers – all these and more have featured on the stamps of the Bahamas for many years. There’s quite a collection of them on a display page of their own HERE.

Quite by chance I recently came across a significant philatelic tribute to one of the rarest Bahamas winter visitors, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii): a complete commemorative sheet of stamps. Reader I bought it (= ‘won’ it on eBay – $2.75!). Produced in conjunction with the WWF, it is a model of conservationist sensitivity.

The sheet of 16 stamps depicts 4 x 4 KIWA variations: a female at the nest; a singing male; a female feeding young; and a juvenile feeding in the Jack pines of its summer habitat, prior to its long Fall migration to Abaco and the Bahamas.

Kirtland’s Warbler in the Abaco National Park: you need to know where to look to find oneKirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

I am not a stamp collector, but I do appreciate it when countries take the trouble to showcase their flora and fauna among the notable people, sporting heroes, modes of transport and Harry Potter characters. As I say, the Bahamas is very good in this respect.

A Kirtland’s Warbler on Green Turtle Cay: the first recorded sighting on one of the CaysKirtland's Warbler, Elbow Cay Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

You can find out more about these rare and vulnerable little warblers, including the first ever recorded on a Cay in Abaco, using these links:

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

KIWA ON GREEN TURTLE CAY: A FIRST FOR ABACO

In the breeding grounds in very limited areas of Michigan and Ohio, the KIWAs are carefully monitored. Vince Cavalieri is a bird expert in those parts, and his bird below was photographed in the heartland of their preferred summer habitat. Vince wrote the following caption:

In 1987 the Kirtland’s Warbler was a hair’s breadth from extinction. A century of fire suppression and encroachment into their habitat by the brown-headed cowbird had reduced its already small population to a tiny number of birds in just a few Michigan counties. A prescribed fire that got out of control may have saved them, creating enough habitat that it gave conservationists enough time to figure out how to save them (highly prescriptive habitat creation and cowbird control). Today their comeback has been so successful that they have been proposed for removal from the endangered species list. They still remain the stuff of birding legend. A tiny range mostly restricted to north central Michigan, a big beautiful warbler with a loud and cheerful song, easy to see and confiding once found. A bird worthy of long travel to check off your list.

Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)

Here are a couple more ‘summer birds’ to admire

Kirtland's Warbler (kiwa-jeol-trick-fwsh-snowmanradio-wiki) Kirtland's Warbler (Andrew C, Ohio wiki)

Credits: Woody Bracey (1, 2); Sally Chisholm (3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Joel Trick FWSH (5); Andrew C (Wiki) (6);  Birdorable (cartoon); BPS and eBay (KIWA stamps)  

SANDHILL CRANE: ABACO’S NOVELTY BIRD (2)


Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Christopher Johnson) SANDHILL CRANE: ABACO’S NOVELTY BIRD (2)

In mid-December, Kaderin Mills of the Bahamas National Trust saw Abaco’s first-ever reported Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) in the Fox Town area of North Abaco. Woody Bracey was quickly onto the news and in the afternoon he took photos of the bird. I posted about this exciting (because a new species is always exciting) event, with details about its significance plus facts, maps etc HERE

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright)

Six weeks later, the crane is still in residence. In the meantime a number of birders have been to see the new novelty bird for Abaco in what has become a small but significant birding hotspot right at the top end of the island, in area round the Church, the Primary School, and the Clinic. The crane is now firmly on the eBird map for the Bahamas.

    

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

This elegant visitor seems to be quite tame and unfazed by its new fame. People watch while it forages for invertebrates in the grass, pausing to check on bystanders before resuming its feeding. It tolerates the presence of humans without showing fear, let alone flying away.

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright)

The call of the Sandhill Crane sounds like this:

To test its reaction, a recording was played and immediately the crane responded and called out to the (apparent) co-crane. The bird has also (rather sadly?) been seen by locals by the door of the Church, looking at its reflection and even making pecking motions at it. A lonely crane, maybe.

.Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

This bird is likely to remain disappointed by any expectation or hope of company. With any luck in the Spring, the instinctive call to the north (Canada and nearby US) will persuade it to migrate back to sandhill habitat to join a flock in the summer breeding grounds.

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

It is always a somewhat melancholy occurrence when a fine bird like this – or like last season’s lone BALD EAGLE – takes a wrong turn on their migration or perhaps get blown off course and finds itself on its own, species-wise. This bird seems to be taking it in its (longish) stride, however, and it has become something of a celebrity avian for the local folk. It will be interesting to find out when the migration urge finally encourages its flight away from its unusual overwintering habitat.

Credits: Chris Johnson (1); Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright (2, 4); Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (3, 5, 6); Audubon (7); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon); and a tip of the hat to the School Principal, to Kadie Mills, and to Uli Nowlan who uploaded her sighting to eBird.

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis (Audubon Birds)

 

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (51): BLACK MARGATE


Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (51): BLACK MARGATE

The black margate (Anisotremus surinamensis) is a type of GRUNT (see also PORKFISH) found among the reefs and rocks of (mostly) the western Atlantic seaboard, from Florida as far south as Brazil. They are relatively ‘shallow’ fish and they prefer to be close to place where they can live safely and avoid the predators that lurk in open or deep water.

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Margates are not usually very large, mostly growing to between 18″ and 30″, although they can grow larger. Thanks to the awesomeness of Wiki and other reliable sources I can confidently report that “…the maximum recorded weight for this species is 5.8 kg (13 lb)“.

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

MAY WE HAVE THE TRADITIONAL 10 FUN FACTS PLEASE?

  • Local names include burriquete (Sp) and zapatero or burros (Mex)
  • There are 10 margate species world wide, including 2 Pacific versions
  • Their heads slope down to a notably thick lipped mouth in which they have strong teeth
  • Margates have erectile spines, presumably for defence (I’ve not tested that)
  • They like to shelter in caves and crevices, on ledges, and in wrecks (see pics)
  • Margates are ‘solitary fish’ or hang out in small groups
  • They are night-feeders on a diet of crustaceans, mollusks, smaller fish & urchins
  • Sadly for them, they are valued by commercial fisheries using baited drift fishing…
  • …and also targeted by anglers during the spawning season when they shoal (?unfair)
  • … and also caught as aquarium fish, adding to stock depletion

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

RELATED SPECIES

PORKFISH

Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; research from magpie pickings and in particular the interesting mexicanfish.com

Black Margate (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

FILLYMINGOS: ELEGANT NATIONAL BIRD OF THE BAHAMAS


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

FILLYMINGOS: ELEGANT NATIONAL BIRD OF THE BAHAMAS

FEAT. FINE-FEATHERED FABULOUSNESS FOR FRIDAY

A flock of adult flamingos on InaguaFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A flock with some grey juveniles in the mixFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Flamingos in Flight

Flamingos sticking their necks out…

Preparing for take-off

Flamingo chick, InaguaFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Abstract Flamingos

It is an ill-concealed secret that I don’t have an artistic bone in my body – I get acute angst if asked to draw a stickman. As I was looking through photos of large pink flamingo groups, I suddenly realised that I was getting some sort of abstract vision of them. Whoooh! Art-talk. Anyway, I wondered how a legion of flamingos might look in B&W. Add a bit of highlight and… does it work at all? Whether yes or no, this may be the only B&W photo of flamingos since the invention of colour film. Why would you? [Impatient reader: ‘Why did you?]

All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura (1, 2, 3, 9, 10); Mary Kay Beach (4, 5, 6, 7, 8); Michael Vaughn (11), with many thanks for use permission; Cartoon, Birdorable

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

 

FORAYS WITH MORAYS (6): WELL SPOTTED…


Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

FORAYS WITH MORAYS (6): WELL SPOTTED…

I was always taught ‘keep your mind open and your mouth closed’. Bad advice. Such bad advice. The worst. So many reasons to be exactly the opposite in these troubled times…

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Spotted Moray eels Gymnothorax moringa, however, seem to have their own rules to live by. They appear to be open-minded and fairly sensible creatures around the reef. They tend to keep themselves to themselves, hanging out unassumingly in holes and crevices in the coral.

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

They do tend to stick their necks out a bit, but unless provoked (see below) they seem to be reasonably amiable (except maybe to the small fish and crustaceans that make up their diet).

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

They do keep their mouths open a lot, though. And as you can see, they have sharp-looking teeth that you mightn’t want too near to you. I say that because their bite can be dangerous and should be avoided. To start with, the teeth are slightly backward-facing, so that when they bite there is a ‘pull-back’ effect when you react (not unlike a barb on a fish hook). They are not aggressive as such, but they know how to deal with unwanted interference in their lives…

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Apart from the unpleasant bite and associated pain that moray eels can inflict in defence, they are also poisonous (as opposed to venomous). Specifically they can release toxins into the wound; and in some species their skin contains toxins as well**. Serious infection may result.

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

CAN YOU GIVE THE POISONOUS / VENOMOUS DISTINCTION AGAIN

I could, but ace natural history cartoonist Rosemary Mosco makes a better job than I can:Toxic: poison v venom cartoon (Rosemary Mosco)

**Before I leave the topic, maybe I ought to mention one bit of research I have just come across at Dove Med, from which I take away the message that you definitely don’t want to annoy a moray eel or get bitten by one. Ever. They are fine and interesting denizens of the reef, to be admired from a respectful distance…

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Photo credits: all amazing photos courtesy of Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba; cute yet educative cartoon by Rosemary Mosco. Check out her website HERE – and birders, she v good on your specialist subject…

Spotted Moray Eel (©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)