Over the years I have posted a number of times about the extraordinary and beautiful underground caves of Abaco that lie beneath the thousands of acres of pine forest that cover much of South Abaco.
I have previously featured sets of wonderful photos taken Abaco’s renowned cave-diving expert Brian Kakuk; and also some by his diving colleague Hitoshi Miho (in conjunction with the Bahamas Caves Research Foundation). Here are a few more from Brian and Hitoshi to wonder at.
The existence of the caves is not exactly secret but for obvious reasons they are not freely accessible except with permission, with expert guidance and with extreme care. Exploration of the complex systems is definitely not to be approached like a snorkelling dip.
The dives are challenging, and require specialist skills and equipment to avoid risking damage to the delicate centuries-old structures. And there’s undoubtedly a personal safety aspect to be considered as well.
The main caving area on Abaco is about 1/2 hour’s drove south of Marsh Harbour. Within a now-protected area lie the 2 main cave systems (Ralph’s and Dan’s); Nancy’s; and the well-known SAWMILL SINK, where it is possible to swim.
There are other cave systems on Abaco, not least at Hole-in-the-Wall where the descriptively-named ‘8-Mile Cave’ presents further challenges that include the drive down 15 miles of rough track (and of course back again). For an old account of this epic journey, see HERE.
Next time your are driving along the Ernest A. Dean Highway with the pine forest stretching out on either side of the road, give a thought to the caves that lie just off your route – or even (for all you know) deep down right under your wheels.
Credits: Hitoshi Miho, Brian Kakuk, Bahamas Caves Research Foundation, with many thanks as ever for use permission; A. Walker (8-Mile Cave map_
ROCKET MAN: MORE MUSKY GIFTS TO ABACO’S PRISTINE BEACHES
THE STORY SO FAR
In early December a SpaceX (prop. E. Musk) Falcon 9 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral. As it sped off purposefully into Space, the usual associated bits and pieces were jettisoned to fall with great precision into (a) open ocean and (b) a part where shipping was fortuitously absent. In due course (very quickly in fact), chunks of rocket debris turned up on the peaceful shores of Abaco. This is not unheard of: for example in 2012 we had a 12-foot fairing from the Curiosity Mars launch on the beach at Delphi (HERE); and in 2015 other space debris was found on Elbow Cay:
A CHUNK OF SPACE HISTORY, ELBOW CAY, ABACO, BAHAMAS (2015)
The latest space-debris festival on Abaco’s shorelines in December was first discovered at Bahama Palm Shores. ID was established from the partial red SpaceX / Musk logo visible in the below. The new arrival added to the ongoing excitement there of a huge 50′ and (sadly) dead sperm washing back onto the beach in a state of unattractive and ‘stay-upwind-at-all-costs’ decomposition…
Falcon 9 Rocket Fragment on the beach at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco (2018)
This was quickly followed by a report from Tahiti Beach, Elbow Cay. You can read the details of these 2 events as follows: BPS HERE and Elbow Cay HERE.
Falcon 9 Rocket Fragment on Tahiti Beach, Elbow Cay Abaco Bahamas
As I mentioned in the Tahiti Beach post, a report from the west side of Abaco had just reached me from Charlotte Dunn, Director of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) at Sandy Point, Abaco. This was a surprising location because – with space-junk washing up on both sides of Abaco – an inference might be that the ‘drop’ area for nose-cones, fairings and the like might be somewhat wider than expected. Possibly wide enough to include a direct hit on land? Anyway, as promised, Charlotte has now had time to take some photos of Sandy Point’s involvement in the saga.
The top photo shows a long strip of space rocket, curving at one end. It’s obviously part of a larger part that was ejected after launch. In the Falcon 9 image below (note the logo matching the BPS part), the eye is drawn to the booster rocket fairings. Maybe it’s part of one of those. It’s not my area, so correction is invited, and probably welcomed if polite…
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad
WHERE ARE THE LOCATIONS IN RELATION TO EACH OTHER?
WILL THERE BE ANYMORE SPACE TREASURE WASHED UP ON ABACO?
With 3 sites now involved, and on both sides of the island, it seems very likely that more has washed up. However, there is so much unfrequented or inaccessible shoreline on Abaco that there may be no further reports from this launch. High tides will most likely take debris back out to sea and relocate it elsewhere.. We’ll have to see…
CAN I ‘BORROW’ A BIT OF ROCKET TO JOIN MY SEA GLASS COLLECTION?
That’s a very interesting question, thank you for raising it. We are in a grey area here, somewhere between things that (seem to) have been thrown away / discarded / abandoned by their owner (res nullius), which may be fair game; and items where it is safest to assume that – despite the careless and indeed haphazard nature of their ‘loss’ – they might still be of value, use or significance to the owner. Each case has to be looked at on its merits; overall, I suspect Mr Musk would like his parts back; alternatively that he may not want anyone else to take possession of them… He is litigious. Your call! In the UK people are bidden to take lost property to a Police Station. You could try that.
WHAT OTHER SPACE-X FLIGHTS OVER / NEAR ABACO ARE PLANNED?
Thanks to Jack Bowers who sent me the link to the SpaceX schedule. Here are some recent completed missions. Note the top one, a launch on 11th January. Now check your local beach…
DO YOU HAVE ONE OF YOUR MUSICAL DIGRESSIONS?
CREDITS: Jack Bowers & others at BPS; Mary McHenry (Elbow Cay); Sandy Walker (Delphi); SpaceX / Space News + Spaceflight Now (unclassified) online material; random debris from OS material
Mars Curiosity Launch: fairing on Delphi beach, Abaco 2012 (Sandy Walker)
The Abaco Field Office of the AMMC is located at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour. Primarily geared toward the study and research of the natural history and prehistory of The Bahamas, the expanding collection makes a huge contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the environment from both before and after the arrival of people to the archipelago.
The cases shown below hold carefully labelled exhibits, against a background showing the structure of the cave systems and blue holes of the island. Prehistoric fossils and turtle shells, early lucayan human skulls, a HUTIA(extirpated from Abaco in times past), a deceased parrot, bats, butterflies, and a whole lot more are on display.
There is even a small reminder of Abaco’s once-thriving logging industry, in the shape of two circular blades from the area around the Sawmill Sink blue hole. For more of the ‘industrial archeology’ at the site (with photos,) check out what was revealed by a still-smouldering forest fireHERE. The activities conducted through the office include site surveys, excavation and documentation, collection, the conservation and curation of artifacts and fossil material, and public outreach. .
Specialised scientific activities include researching the blue holes and cave systems of Abaco. The explorations have discovered the prehistoric remains of now-extinct vertebrate species; geologic anomalies; evidence of prehistoric storm and fluctuating sea levels; and valuable data about the biodiversity of cave-adapted fauna and vegetation.
Dry caves and blue holes also provide evidence the arrival of the first humans that migrated to the Bahamas, beginning with the early Lucayan Amerindians, as well as the plant and animal communities during their initial occupation more than 1000 years ago. One skull (r) demonstrates graphically the effect of the Lucayan practice of (deliberate) cranial deformation.
The Field Office’s collaborative research involves a number of scientific organisations; and the educative outreach includes schools, universities, scientific conferences and public forums. As importantly, the valuable community resource of a first-rate small museum that contains many fascinating exhibits it right there in Marsh Harbour. And it is free to all.
Some of the cave bats of Abaco. In Ralph’s Cave, to this day there’s a fossilised bat entombed forever on the floor of the cave.
The museum is located at the Abaco offices of the AMMC and Friends of the Environment. It is open for viewing during 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. There is no admission fee, but donations for exhibit development are gratefully accepted. School groups should call in advance to arrange a tour. LOCATION: just drive up the hill past Maxwell’s, to the junction at the top and turn left. If you want to know about Abaco’s past in the broadest sense, this should be your first stop. You can even ‘get the t-shirt’ to complete the experience and support the institution…
This strange, ill-clad male is either (a) trying to give an authentic traditional Lucayan greeting or (b) trying to high-five Nancy Albury (who is ignoring it) or (c) just behaving bizarrely. I go for (c).
Credits: first and foremost, curator Nancy Albury and her team; Friends of the Environment; AMMC. All photos are mine (with plenty of excuses for poor indoor colour, display glass reflections etc), except the tragically entombed cave-bat in the bat-cave from well-known diving and cave-system exploration expert Brian Kakuk / Bahamas Cave Research Foundation; and the wonderful photo below of a Barn Owl flying out of a dry cave on Abaco, by kind permission of Nan Woodbury.
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are causing some comment on FB at the moment, in particular about why they like to stand on utility posts with their wings spread out wide. So, bending my flexible rule against reposts, I am updating a very old TUVU post with lots of new images and facts about this fascinating bird, which manages to be simultaneously majestic, hideous, revolting and socially vital, all packed into a single species…
The TUVU is a familiar sight flying over Abaco, wheeling effortlessly overhead on thermals or gliding with the wind in singles, pairs or flocks. Statistically, 83% of all photographs of turkey vultures are taken from below and look like this:
Of those, 57% are taken in unhelpful light, and look like the one below. On the positive side, this picture show the extreme delicacy of the wing-tip feathering that enables these birds to adjust their direction and speed (this is not the bird above; it was taken by someone else at a different time. But 100% of TUVU in-flight photos are indistinguishable).
TUVUs have a wide range in the Americas and the Caribbean, and can prosper in almost any type of habitat. This is probably because these large birds are almost exclusively carrion feeders, and carrion is everywhere. They spend their days scavenging, or thinking about scavenging. They do not generally kill live creatures.
The word ‘vulture’ derives from the latin word ‘vulturus‘ meaning ‘ripper’, ‘shredder’, or in more recent times, ‘very loud Metallica song*‘. TUVUs have very good eyesight, and an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect the scent of decay (and consequent release of the chemical ethyl mercaptan) from some distance. A breeding pair will raise two chicks, which revoltingly are fed by the regurgitation of all the rank… excuse me a moment while I… I feel a little bit… ~~~~~~~~~~~ …alright, OK again now.
When they are not flying, feeding, breeding or feeding young, TUVUs like best to perch on a vantage point – a utility post is ideal. But unusually for a bird, you won’t ever hear them sing or call. They lack aSYRINX(the avian equivalent of a larynx), and their vocalisation is confined to grunting or hissing sounds. Here’s a hiss (at 10 / 15 secs).
These vultures are often seen in a spread-winged stance, which is believed to serve multiple functions that include drying the wings, warming the body, and baking bacteria. Possibly it also reduces the miasma of rotting meat that may surround them after a good meal.
Equally happy to spread their wings on the ground – a debris-strewn shoreline being ideal
10 SCAVENGED TURKEY VULTURE FACTS FOR YOU TO PICK OVER
One local name for TVs is ‘John Crow’
An adult has a wingspan of up to 6 feet
Sexes are identical in appearance, although the female is slightly larger
The eye has a single row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two on the lower lid
TVs live about 20 years. One named Nero had a confirmed age of 37
LEUCISTIC (pale, often mistakenly called “albino”) variants are sometimes seen
The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups
The Turkey Vulture has few natural predators
Though elegant in flight, they are ungainly on the ground and in take-off
The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but are perforated; from the side one can see through the beak [some humans also suffer from MSS (missing septum syndrome). They tend to ‘sniff’ a lot]
REVOLTING CORNER / DEPT OF ‘WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION’
SQUEAMISH? THEN LOOK AWAY NOW
UNATTRACTIVE HABITS The Turkey Vulture“often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known asUROHIDROSIS.This cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs”. The droppings produced by Turkey Vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Maybe don’t park your nice car under one of their perching posts…
HORRIBLE DEFENCES The main form of defence is“regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator”
DIETARY NOTES TUVUs tend to prefer recently dead creatures, avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. They will occasionally resort to vegetable matter – plants and fruit (you could view this as their side-salad). They rarely, if ever, kill prey – vehicles do this for them, and you’ll often see them on roadsides feeding on roadkill. They also hang around water, feeding on dead fish or fish stranded in shallow water.
ECO-USES If you did not have birds like this, your world would be a great deal smellier and less pleasant place, with higher chance of diseases from polluted water and bacterial spread. TUVUs kept the highways clear and work their way round the town dumps recycling noisome items.
FORAGING TUVUs forage by smell, which is uncommon in birds. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals. Their olfactory lobe in the brain is particularly large compared to that of other animals.
SEX TIPS Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In humans, similar occasions are called ‘Dances’. A pair will fly, with the female closely following the male while they flap & dive… then they land somewhere private and we draw the veil…
My favourite graphic of all time
Credits: Nina Henry (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 5, 11); Clare Latimer (4, 6); amy-at-poweredbybirds (7); Wiki, small pics 8, 9); Charlie Skinner (10); Craig Nash (12); Xeno-Canto / Alvaric (sound file); Info, magpie pickings; Birdorable (cartoon); RH (Keep Calm…); depressingnature.com (puking TUVU)
*As Metallica so appropriately wrote and sweatily sang (luckily there’s no verse referencing urination, defecation and puking). ALERT don’t actually play the video – the song hasn’t aged well! In fact… it’s terrible. Woe woe indeed…
The vultures come
See the vultures come for me
Fly around the sun
But now too late for me
Just sit and stare
Wait ’til I hit the ground
Little vultures tear
Little vultures tear at flesh
Warts and all… the gorgeous, hygienic, roadkill-ridding vulture, with a few dirty habits
Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79) was one of the earliest naturalists, besides being a philosopher, author and military commander. He wroteNaturalis Historia(Natural History), a wide-ranging work that became a model for later scholarly works, including forms of Encyclopedia. And, as he so nearly wrote, ‘si non amas testudines, vacua anima tua est’ (he that loves not sea turtles, has an empty mind)*.
Hawksbill turtle grazing while a French angelfish looks on
There can be few better ways to start the New Year than with some gorgeous Hawksbill Turtles Eretmochelys imbricata, plus a sprinkling of turtle facts to give 2019 a good push into orbit. Fortunately still available in Bahamas waters, the continued existence of Hawksbills is under serious threat. Make the most of your opportunities.
Guesstimates of the world Hawksbill Turtle population suggest that there are 5 main groups in the oceans, with few enough individuals – especially breeding females – to warrant an IUCN listing of the species as critically endangered
I doubt that many will forget that the next IUCN category is… extinct (≠ ‘fun fact’)
The largest Hawksbill colony in the world nests on an island in Queensland Australia
Turtles leave the sea to lay eggs in a hole dug on the beach, before returning to the sea.
The eggs hatch after c60 days… the turtlings emerge and are then on their own
Hawksbills are omnivorous, mainly eating sponges (& immune from sponge toxins)
They also eat sea anemones, mollusks, and jellyfish
Their grazing lifestyle is an important component of a healthy coral reef ecosystem
Though their shells are hard, Hawksbills are prey for sharks, crocodiles, octopuses and “the biggest predator of all, humans“.
Despite international Hawkbill protection and conservation measures, they continue to be illegally hunted – including, in some places, for food.
Their lovely shells – tortoiseshell – are illegally traded for use for ornaments and jewellery
Japan makes its own rules (as with whales) for traditional & no doubt research purposes
‘Tortoiseshell’ is the illegal item most frequently confiscated by custom officials
Reef and beach degradation, development, light pollution (confuses the baby turtles trying to paddle to the sea), ocean pollution / marine debris, and illegal practices are among the greatest dangers to the survival of the species. All are caused, directly or indirectly, by you and indeed me
Credits: wonderful photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 5) & Adam Rees / Scuba Works (3, 4, 6); Widecast; Nature Conservancy; OneKind Planet
*Do not believe this – I invented it. The quote that props up the pretentious stuff, that is – all the rest is true…
YELLOWLEGS (LESSER) ON ABACO: OUT STANDING IN THE WATER
It’s always helpful when a bird ends up with a descriptive name (after translation from the Latin binomial) that actually matches the creature. Burrowing owl, Roseate Spoonbill, White-crowned pigeon, Red-legged Thrush, Black-and-white Warbler – you know where you are at once. So it is with the Yellowlegs, the only question being whether the one you are looking at is ‘greater’ (Tringa melanoleuca) or ‘lesser’ (Tringa flavipes). Both are found on Abaco, and a single bird on its own – with no size comparison – can be a potential source of confusion.
This last post for 2018 features the lesser yellowlegs, a winter resident, a rather off-beat choice you may think. The reason is that in clearing out some archive folders, I found some LEYE images in the wrong album. They reminded me what lovely birds they are when photographed well (so, not by me), with the subtle sheen of their plumage contrasting with their Malvolio-yellow legs.
Taking flight… we have lift-off
Apart from size, the greater and lesser yellowlegs have some not-necessarily-very-noticeable differences in bill length (in comparison with head-size), plumage and vocalisation. Here is an excellent example of the yellowlegs cousins together, to give you a comparison.
Little and Large
DO THESE SHOREBIRDS EVER GO ON LAND?
*ALERT* AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY CORNER *ALERT*
DO YOU HAPPEN TO HAVE A PHOTO OF THE LEYE WING UNDERSIDES?
Yup. This bird was at Gilpin Pond. There aren’t many ‘underside’ photos out there. Will this do?
Q: DO THEY EVER DO PHOTOBOMBS?
A: INDEED! (BOMBING A BAHAMA DUCK)Weird blue tint due to radical colour correction for bad red algal bloom on the pond
Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 9); Phil Lanoue (3); Matt Scott (4); Tony Hepburn (6); ID concealed to protect the guilty (7, 8)
ROCKET SCIENCE ON ABACO (2) / ELON-GATE: MORE SPACE DEBRIS
Having seasonally gifted Bahamas Palm Shores the benefit of the debris from his recent Falcon 9 rocket launch (see last post from BPS HERE) it turns out that Mr EM has spread his munificence rather wider on Abaco. And there may be still more to come.
I pressed the ‘publish’ button re BPS a couple of days ago. Within hours, a further report was posted on the resulting FB thread. From Elbow Cay came the news that more space-related debris had washed up on beautiful Tahiti Beach. Mary McHenry posted 2 photos of a strange chunk of junk. I think we can reasonably assume that is from a rocket; and the timing is consistent with it being related to EM and his recent SpaceX program activities.
Mary’s photos show both sides of the gently curved item. I’ve no idea what part this is or what it does, but I hope that we can find out. It looks like a bit of fuselage, and presumably it is one of the parts that detach in the aftermath of a launch and falls back to earth to make an attractive and thought-provoking addition to the ocean and to whichever beach it turns up on.
In this case, it was Tahiti Beach (above), one of the most beautiful locations on Abaco. It is a beach in which I have a particular interest, because each year rare piping plovers hang out there in singles and pairs. It doesn’t seem to be their home, more like a little short-break destination for some quality foraging away from their usual stamping grounds. And to check out any space-based embellishments, of course.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad
ANY MORE ASTONISHING ABACO SPACE HQ REVELATIONS IN THE PIPELINE?
Yes indeed. Within a few more hours I was contacted by Charlotte Dunn, Director of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) at Sandy Point, Abaco. They too had found some space stuff on their beach. This is interesting because, whereas Bahama Palm Shores and Tahiti Beach are on the east side of mainland Abaco, Sandy Point is on the west side. Somehow the debris seems to have spread surprisingly far and wide to both sides of Abaco
I’m waiting for some photos from Charlotte, then I’ll post Part 3 of what may be quite a long sequence. I say that in particular, because yesterday day there was news that another SpaceX Falcon 9 had been launched from Cape Canaveral carrying military hardware into space. I think we can guess where some of the components of this enterprise may wash up – those large pieces that detach over the ocean as the rocket ascends through the earth’s atmosphere into space. Keep your beach-combing shoes** handy… and a camera, maybe.
Tahiti Beach (drone’s-eye view)
CREDITS: Mary McHenry (1, 2); Samantha Regan; Bruce Hallett (bird); SpaceX + Spaceflight Now (unclassified) online material; David Rees (drone view); cartoon, OS; festive Christmas Tree Worms, the wonderful Melinda Riger (without whom… etc etc)
** Mmm. I don’t think these are a ‘thing’ at all; in this context I probably just mean ‘feet’
FINALLY, A VERYHAPPYXMASTO ALLTHOSETHATTOLERATETHISBLOGANDKINDLYCOMEBACK FORMORE