Looking back at 2019, one of the most enjoyable posts to put together featured an adult sperm whale with a neonate calf. The wonderful photos were obtained last summer during 2 research trips in the deeper water off the south coast of Abaco by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO)It seems fitting to greet the new decade with a revised version of my original post. There’s optimism in these images, and more generally in the recovery in some areas of the savagely depleted whale populations of past decades. I’d like to think that a smiling baby whale holds out hope for the 2020s.
These are just some of the BMMRO research team’s images and footage of the baby sperm whale investigating the underwater world it has just been born into. Hopefully it will flourish and live for decades. If it does not, the overwhelmingly likely cause will be mankind, either directly or indirectly.
CREDITS: Brilliant close-up footage plus the clips I have taken from it – Charlotte Dunn / Diane Claridge / BMMRO.
DONATE: If you are touched by the magic of this little Bahamas sperm whale, may I invite you to consider making a donation to BMMRO for its research and conservation work – a scientific commitment that reaches far beyond the waters of the Bahamas. The system is set up to process donations from just $10 upwards, and every cent is used to further the work of BMMRO. Please click the logo below to reach the right page directly.
The name ‘brain coral’ is essentially a no-brainer. How could you not call the creatures on this page anything else. These corals come in wide varieties of colour, shape and – well, braininess – and are divided into two main families worldwide.
Each ‘brain’ is in fact a complex colony consisting of genetically similar polyps. These secrete CALCIUM CARBONATE which forms a hard carapace. This chemical compound is found in minerals, the shells of sea creatures, eggs, and even pearls. In human terms it has many industrial applications and widespread medicinal use, most familiarly in the treatment of gastric problems.
The hardness of this type of coral makes it a important component of reefs throughout warm water zones world-wide. The dense protection also guarantees (or did until our generation began systematically to dismantle the earth) – extraordinary longevity. The largest brain corals develop to a height of almost 2 meters, and are believed to be several hundred years old.
HOW ON EARTH DO THEY LIVE?
If you look closely at the cropped image below and other images on this page, you will see hundreds of little tentacles nestled in the trenches on the surface. These corals feed at night, deploying their tentacles to catch food. This consists of tiny creatures and their algal contents. During the day, the tentacles are retracted into the sinuous grooves. Some brain corals have developed tentacles with defensive stings.
THE TRACKS LOOKS LIKE MAZES OR DO I MEAN LABYRINTHS?
Mazes, I think. The difference between mazes and labyrinths is that labyrinths have a single continuous path which leads to the centre. As long as you keep going forward, you will get there eventually. You can’t get lost. Mazes have multiple paths which branch off and will not necessarily lead to the centre. There are dead ends. Therefore, you can get lost. Check out which type of puzzle occurs on brain coral. Answer below…**
CREDIT: all amazing underwater brain-work thanks to Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Lucca Labyrinth, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
** On the coral I got lost straight away in blind alleys. Therefore these are mazes. Here is a beautiful inscribed labyrinth dating from c12 or c13 from the porch of St Martin Cathedral in Lucca, Italy. Very beautiful but not such a challenge.
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
ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS
As the intensive Hurricane Dorian relief operation continues on a devastated Abaco, the extent of the destructive power of the huge storm is all too evident. Gradually restored communications and the availability of social media have circulated far and wide the awful photos and aerial views of the smashed island, and the tragic stories of loss and desolation. Accounts of astonishing courage, determination and generosity are for all to see. And, nearly 4 weeks later, we have early signs of recovery and grounds for hope in a stricken land.
For the last 10 days or so, inquiries about Abaco’s birds and other wildlife have begun and are increasing daily. I take this as a sign that people are at last able to look slightly beyond the immediate horrors of the storm to the brighter horizon of the future. The iconic parrots are the principle concern, and finally – finally – I have some good news to bring. Here it is, in all its glory.
I have been waiting anxiously to pick up the first reports of parrot sightings – or even of their raucous squawks. This iPhone photo was taken yesterday at Bahama Palm Shores by Tara Lavallee. You are looking at the first photograph of the parrots since the end of last month. This pair were apparently wary and jumpy – quite unlike the unselfconscious rowdy birds with which we are so familiar. There was a sighting near Casuarina, too. It looks as though the parrots are returning.
WHERE HAVE THE PARROTS BEEN IN THE MEANTIME?
The parrots live and breed in the Abaco National Park right down in the south of the island. This is a vast area of pine forest that gives way to scrubland as it nears the coast. The assumption is that the approaching storm will have driven the parrots deep into the forest where, happily, they will have been some distance away from the destructive path of the hurricane. Many creatures can sense the approach of bad weather from changes in the air around them. This may trigger an instinct to head for home some time before the threat arrives.
ONCE THEY GET THERE, WHAT DO THEY DO?
They lie low. The parrots have an additional and most unusual way to stay safe. They can avoid the dangers of adverse weather and even forest fires because they live and nest underground in limestone caves deep in the National Park.
HOW RARE IS THAT?
The Abaco parrot (as opposed to its tree-nesting cousins in Inagua and in small numbers in Nassau) is unique in this respect, certainly in the northern hemisphere. There are half-a-dozen mostly inter-related species in the Antipodes that nest underground, but that is all. Even if the caves get flooded, limestone is a permeable rock and water will dissipate. And as for fires, the holes are deep enough for the flames to pass over them. Tree-dwellers are far more vulnerable.
DOES THIS MEAN THE PARROTS ARE ALL SAFE?
It’s much too early to judge, because there is another vital component in their survival: the availability and sufficiency of suitable food. This is the factor that most worries those concerned with the parrots’ welfare – the BNT, the scientists and naturalists who helped to bring the species back from the edge of extinction, and organisations further afield such as Birds Caribbean. So it’s a question now of where they will find to feed; and beyond that, how they respond if they find their usual feeding haunts trashed.
Feeding on Gumbo Limbo berries, a favourite snack
The signs are that the parrots are now emerging and looking for food. With luck their presence will become more noticeable. This is an important moment for collecting stats. They will help research into the effect of Dorian on the population including the wellbeing of the birds, their flocking behaviour, and the locations they now find to their liking. The fact that parrots have been seen at BPS, the parrot hotspot, is encouraging.
If anyone sees or even hears parrots over the next couple of weeks I’d welcome a report either directly or indirectly. The most helpful details are date, time, location and approx numbers (1, pair, a few, lots). Beyond that, behaviour notes are of interest – feeding, chattering, hanging round, being unsettled and so on. A photo is always a bonus, even a phone one.
Do not doubt the resilience of these beautiful birds. Now that the threat of extinction has been removed through skilled conservation, management and predator control, they will win through. If you doubt it, just look at this image below. It shows a nest in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Irene, with its occupant safe and sound as the parents forage for food and parrot scientist Caroline nips in with her camera.
Nearly 4 weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian, the island and its cays are beginning to emerge gradually from the wreckage and the desolation. The extent of the disaster on the ground is clear, not least from the aerial photos – first drone, then plane, and now Google – of ‘before’ and ‘after’.
At the stage, it isn’t possible to determine the extent to which the underwater world has been affected. The storm surge was huge and the waves were savage. The progress of the storm was slow (and it went on to stall over equally damaged Grand Bahama). Who knows the effect on the corals and other reef life for which Abaco is renowned.
This pictorial post is a reminder of how things were below the surface of Abaco waters before Dorian struck. If it lifts spirits to any degree, I shall be glad.
All these photos are by Melinda Rodgers who, with Capt Keith, are DIVE ABACO. Many will know how badly they have fared, being in the heart of Marsh Harbour. We wish them a speedy return to the wonderful enterprise they have run for many years. I’m pleased to be able to show the beauty of the reefs in happier times from their archive.
ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.
For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.
Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.
‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed.
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK. Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through theirDORIAN RELIEF FUND .
A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book. Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.
The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays.
The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.