Most of us, from time to time, might like to be under the sea, warm below the storm, swimming about the coral that lies beneath the ocean waves. An undeniably idyllic experience that is perfected by the presence of an octopus and the notional garden he lives in. Enough to make any person shout and swim about – and quite excessively at that.
The extra ingredient here is that these photographs were taken on the reef off the southern coast of Grand Bahama last week, less than 2 months after the island (along with Abaco) was smashed up by Hurricane Dorian. Thankfully, Grand Bahama Scuba has been able to return to relative normality and run diving trips again. Moreover, fears for the reefs have proved relatively unfounded. These images suggest little damage from the massive storm. The Abaco reefs have not yet been able to be assessed in any detail.
The feature creature here was observed and photographed as it took it a octopodic wander round the reef. The vivid small fishes are out and about. The reef and its static (technically ‘sessile’) life forms – corals, anemones and sponges – look in good order. The octopus takes a pause to assess its surroundings before moving on to another part of the reef.
THE PLURAL(S) OF OCTOPUS REVISITED
A long time ago I wrote a quasi-learned disquisition on the correct plural for the octopus. There were at least 3 possibilities derived from Greek and Latin, all arguable but none so sensible or normal-sounding as ‘octopuses‘. The other 2 are octopi and octopodes. If you want the bother with the details check out THE PLURAL OF OCTOPUS.
There’s an aspect I missed then, through rank ignorance I’d say: I didn’t check the details of the Scientific Classification. Now that I am more ‘Linnaeus-woke’, I have two further plural candidates with impeccable credentials. Octopuses are cephalpods (‘headfeet’) of the Order Octopoda and the Family Octopodidae. These names have existed since naturalist GEORGES CUVIER (he of the beaked whale found in Bahamas waters) classified them thus in 1797.
RH ADVICE stick with ‘octopuses’ and (a) you won’t be wrong (b) you won’t get into an un-winnable argument with a pedant and (3) you won’t sound pretentious
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
Whether you are 9 or 90, you can never have too much of this one. If you are somewhere in the middle – or having Ringo Starr free-styling vocals doesn’t appeal – you can. Step back from the vid.
All fabulous photos by Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba, Nov 2019
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
The massive destruction and dislocation caused on both Abaco and Grand Bahama by Hurricane Dorian is well-documented. The regeneration of both islands is making unsteady progress towards a stability that still seems many months away. In many locations it is still ‘two steps forward, one step back’. It remains a moot point whether ‘normality’, as it was just over 2 months ago, will ever be quite the same again.
We know how things are on land. As far as Abaco is concerned, few people can say how the coral reefs have been affected by the massive storms. Boats that were not flung ashore were sunk instead. Marinas and their infrastructure all but disappeared.
Dive Shops, like so many thriving businesses in MH, have been reduced to rubble by this cruellest of extreme tropical storms. For the time being at least, they are damaged beyond use. I have seen no reports about the conditions in – for example – Fowl Cays National Park, a coral and reef-life rich marine preserve that was directly in the hurricane’s path. It may be weeks before an assessment can be made.
Happily, Melinda and Fred Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba have very recently been able to reopen their business. Melinda is, as regular readers will know, a wonderful underwater photographer. She kindly gives me the freedom of her extensive photo archive, accumulated over many years. The focus today is on French angelfish on the reefs of Grand Bahama.
Many of the photos here have been taken during the last 3 weeks or so, as diving becomes more of a daily exercise and customers are able to return to explore the underwater world of the reefs. Adult French angelfish have handsomely decorated flanks and golden eye-rings. The small striped ones with blue flashes on their fins are juveniles.
There are three angelfish species in the northern Bahamas – Queen, Gray and French. I have chosen to feature French angelfish because as it happens the juveniles of the species found since Dorian by Melinda and Fred may provide some insight into the subsurface effects of this huge storm.
As is evident from Melinda’s recent photos, the reefs off the south coast of Grand Bahama are relatively unscathed. Corals that she and Fred planted after the last hurricane have ‘taken’ and remain in place. However the juvenile fish now being seen nosing around the reefs in quantity may tell a story of disruption elsewhere.
The juvenile angelfish – as with the young of many other species – tend to live in the relative safety of the mangroves as they grow towards adulthood and are ready to move to the reefs. However, the unusual numbers of juveniles seen in the open during recent weeks suggest that the storm-damage to mangrove swamps in shallower water has unexpectedly displaced the juveniles to the reefs.
This theory seems to apply to juveniles of other species recently encountered. What can be said is that, if even if displaced, there are plenty of healthy juvenile as well as adult fish around. And the justifiable fears of serious damage to the corals have not been borne out. It remains to be seen whether a similar situation exists in Abaco waters.
Credits: all fantastic photos, Melinda Riger / Dive Abaco. It’s great that you have been able to reopen the business and restart having been forced to suspend operations completely.
I haven’t featured flower species for a long time. There are a number of reasons why this webular location is low on flower power. Under duress, I’d probably say that, though gorgeous and a joy to all, flowers and plants are essentially one trick ponies. Or maybe peonies?
Essentially the drawback with flowers is that they don’t fly and they can’t swim. There’s no motion to them that isn’t caused by an outside agency such as a breeze (unless you spend time actually watching them grow, I suppose). I feel more comfortable with more mobility around me.
The hibiscus is surely one of the prettiest flowers on Abaco or indeed anywhere else. Mostly they are pentamerous, which is to say 5-petalled; and they have an unmistakeable central adornment that I’ve had to check the name of. Then I discovered that someone on Pinterest had done the heavy lifting for me with all the other parts of a hibiscus.
One exception to the usual pentamerous arrangement is the white hibiscus shown below.
I have also remembered to check the correct plural of ‘Hibiscus’. Some while back, I examined the candidates for the correct plural form for more than one OCTOPUS. I thought I might now be back in that strange Greco-Roman arena where -uses or -usses compete with -i or -odi for primacy. Thankfully, it is simply ‘octopuses’ and ‘hibiscuses’. And even if, technically, a different form could be insisted on to be correct, it will still sound wrong.
Another striking hibiscoid variant is the beautiful coral hibiscus, with its elegant construction and extravagantly fringed petals.
These flowers are powerful insect attractants, especially for the butterflies. One of the only partly successful photos I have ever taken of the annoyingly perpetual motion Polydamus (Gold Rim) Swallowtail is below. There’s nearly half a wing at rest. And even that isn’t sharp.
Readers who have stuck with this blog for a while (thank you both) may recall my enthusiasm for the excellent way in which the Bahamian Government honours the wildlife of the Bahamas with frequent special issues of stamps and coins. You can find out more with these links: BAHAMAS STAMPS and BAHAMAS CURRENCY. Even the hibiscus has been featured on the coinage, not once but twice. And on stamps several times over the years.
Personal resolution: to try not to leave it for more than 2 years before the next floral feature
All photos Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour; thanks to anon Pinterester for the flower part pic; and to 123RF for the stock stamp photo
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS
In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.
BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.
Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.
THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACO
The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.
A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?
The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.
Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas.
BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?
The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.
Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.
I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird
Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.
Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’
Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong
CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.
Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library
Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto
I’m never quite sure how far it’s permissible to go beyond ‘really pissed off’ about a tech problem. Anything much stronger seems a bit indulgent both in itself and especially when measured against the far-reaching despair experienced by many in far more important areas of life.
I am just having a huge “Grrrrrrrrr” moment because my complex blog menu, with 3 rows of headings and carefully curated nests of drop-downs under each, has been scrubbed by persons or AI unknown. It’s several years of cumulative and (mostly) pleasurable organisational work up the spout.
As a Brit, may I be permitted to say ‘bother’. Or maybe ‘Dash it all?’ Or declare that I’m a mite cheesed orf? To which a fair response would be “it’s just a trivial inconvenience, get over it…”
For the moment, here are some nice pics to enjoy, all taken on Abaco. I’m happy to say that right now, 7 weeks since Dorian, there are promising signs that in some areas of Abaco, the birds are starting to show themselves – including a few winter warblers. See you the other side of rethinking my Menu…
Credits: Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Mary Kay Beach, Craig Nash, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO (western spindalis badge, moi)
The Astoundingly 5* Strange Frogfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)
WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?)
A COMPENDIUM OF SUBSURFACE WEIRDNESS
A SERIES OF 15 OF THE STRANGEST SEA CREATURES IN BAHAMAS WATERS
WTF? stands for ‘What’s That Fish’? But it might also be your exclamation when you come across one of these creatures. The WTF? series highlights some of the unusual, curious, weird and downright extraordinary fishes that inhabit the waters of the northern Bahamas. Some represent local forms of a species found elsewhere in the world; others are in their own evolutionary cul-de-sac. Just as I think I have seen it all, so another oddity crops up somewhere that demands inclusion.
The WTF? series, put together over several years, is intended to be the most direct route to an underwater menagerie of piscine strangeness, with some great photos to whet your appetite to learn more about these fascinating denizens of the ocean.
* CLICK ON THIS TITLE TO BE TRANSPORTED TO THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE FROGFISH *
Credits are given in the individual articles. Thanks to all those that have provide the photos, without which this type of illustrated, unscientifically scientific poke around in the ocean depths would not be possible.