BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

CARIBBEAN REEF SQUID REVISITED: SUPERPOWERS & SQUID SEX


Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

CARIBBEAN REEF SQUID REVISITED: SUPERPOWERS & SQUID SEX  

The Caribbean reef squid Sepioteuthis sepioidea is a small squid species of (mainly) the Caribbean Sea and the Floridian coast, and the most common in its range. These squid tend to form small shoals in and around reefs. Right now, in June, is a good time to find these creatures swimming in groups – all these photos were taken during the last fortnight. I wrote about squid a while back (3 years, maybe)? This post includes some parts of the earlier one, with all-new images. Squidmages, even.

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Squid are voracious eaters, dragging their prey to their mouths with some or all of their 10 limbs and using their beak to cut it up. The target species are small fish, molluscs and crustaceans. The squid have a ‘raspy tongue’ known as a radula which further breaks up the food for easy consumption.

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

REEF SQUID SUPERPOWERS (SUPERCOOL)

  • Squid are capable of brief flight out of the water (a fairly recent discovery)
  • They can also hide from / confuse predators by ejecting a cloud of black ink
  • Squid can change colour, texture and shape, and can even match their surroundings
  • This enviable power is used defensively as camouflage or to appear larger if threatened
  • It is also used in courtship rituals (something that humans might find most disconcerting)
  • Colour patterns are also used for routine squid-to-squid communication AND GET THIS:
  • A squid can send a message to another on one side, and a different one to a squid on the other side

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

SQUID SEX (1) “ROMANCING THE SQUID”

  • A male will gently stroke a female with his tentacles
  • The female will (most likely) flash an ‘alarm’ pattern. She’s hard to get.
  • The male soothes her (don’t try this at home, guys) by blowing and jetting water at her
  • If this doesn’t go well, he’ll move off, then repeat the routine until she sees his good points
  • However this on / off courtship can last for hours until at last he succeeds and then…
  • … he attaches a sticky packet of sperm onto the female’s body (romance is not dead on the reef)
  • She then reaches for it and moves it to her seminal receptacle
  • Meanwhile he stays close, emitting a pulsing pattern, as well he might after all that palaver
  • She then finds a safe place to lay her eggs. Job done.

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

SQUID SEX (2) IT ALL ENDS BADLY. VERY BADLY.

  • As soon the female squid has laid her eggs, she dies at once
  • The male squid lives a bit longer and… may have other packets to stick on other lady squid
  • But then in the end he dies too
  • It’s all horribly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The lovers die. But no the balcony scene

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

THE CORRECT PLURAL OF SQUID

I had an unwise look online, always a hotbed of conflicting opinions. Inserting an algorithm into the interstices of the internet proves conclusively that the plural of squid is… squid. One squid, ten squid, a group of squid, a plate of squid. Unless, that is, you are talking about more than one of the many squid species, when you could also have ‘I collect both reef and giant squids’. “Squidses” sounds fun but is sadly not permitted.

Caribbean Reef Squid, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

RELATED POSTS

THE PLURAL OF OCTOPUS

Credits: As ever (for fabulous underwater pics) Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; research sources include MarineBio; Animal Diversity Web (Michigan Uni)

GREEN TURTLES & TURTLE AWARENESS ON ABACO


Green Turtle, Bahamas (Adam Rees)

GREEN TURTLES & TURTLE AWARENESS ON ABACO

There’s something slightly unsettling about the perspective of the header image, with foreshortening suggesting that the turtle is actually a gigantic creature with a tiny diver swimming close to it…

I don’t seem to have given green turtles much space in the past, the most frequently photographed (and therefore featured) species being the hawksbill. This post is both to right the wrong, and to provide some information about the species.

Green Turtle, Bahamas (Adam Rees)

Friends of the Environment has produced an interesting short guide to the sea turtles of the Bahamas. One of the many facts included is that 5 of the 7 sea turtle species in the world can be found in Bahamian waters. The turtle protection law is also given – also the way to report turtle nests so they can be watched and protected.

Green Turtle, Bahamas (Adam Rees)

The 4 main species are the hawksbill, green, loggerhead and leatherback. The 5th and lesser known one is the Olive Ridley turtle. The differences between most of these is considerable, as can be seen from this IUCN-produced Identification Chart (credits as shown).

Another useful source of information for green turtles is this extremely well produced poster illustrated by the excellent Dawn Witherington, who has somewhat (and deservedly) cornered the market with this kind of large-scale infographic. The sea turtle series is so helpful that I have dedicated a whole page to them HERE. Dawn also created the LOXAHATCHEE poster series covering such topics as Lionfish, Sea Grasses, Land Crabs, Bonefish, Coral Reefs and more

Green Turtle, Bahamas (Adam Rees)

All photos: Adam Rees Photography, with thanks for use permission here and elsewhere

‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)


Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)

There’s something wrong in the picture above (no, I don’t mean about the photograph itself). Count up how many pink legs you can see. No, not including the reflections. Give up? It’s three. Between two birds. I assumed of course that  ‘Oner’ had a perfectly good serviceable leg tucked up into its undercarriage. I admired the balancing skills involved in resting one leg while nonchalantly standing on the other.

We were watching this pair of black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus at the pond at Gilpin Point, which at certain times can be ‘Stilt Central’. These birds are permanent breeders on Abaco and are without a doubt the most beautiful of all the waders (avocets, being extremely uncommon winter visitors, are disqualified from consideration for lack of presence). 

Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
It gradually dawned on me that Oner really did only have one stilt to stand on. After 10 minutes observing them and the other birds around them, there was no question about it – the right leg was completely and utterly missing. This unipedal deficit had no obvious ill-effects on the bird – nor on its ability to throw a good pose (above). Or to preen (below).
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
I’m in danger of losing sight of Twoer here, a bipedal bird that deserves its own place in the story, not just a wade-on part in Oner’s story.
Twoer as Ringmaster…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
BNSs are territorial and in particular can become ‘proactive’ (ie aggressive) in protecting the area near a nest. I once mistakenly got close to a nest, not even knowing it was there. I soon learnt – a parent BNS came wading towards me, zigzagging in the water, shouting and carrying on in a way that immediately said ‘my nest is nearby’. And when I meanly stood my ground it suddenly took off and flew straight at my head…
A shouty stiltBlack-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
On reflection…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (and, if anyone noticed, sorry about some formatting issues which I can’t get rid of…); Audio file Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING


Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING

The narrowest point on Abaco is just north of Crossing Rocks. The 120-mile long highway that splits the Island down the middle passes over a narrow strip of land. On the west side, there are mangrove swamps, an inlet of sea, and a small jetty used by bonefishers to reach the productive waters further out. On the east side? Well, there’s more mangrove swamp, giving way to thick jungly coppice before reching the top end of Crossing Rocks beach – and not much else. Except for a long thin brackish pond by the road, that is. 

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you are interested in birds – maybe on your way to the pond at Gilpin Point for Bahama Duck and waders, or returning from a Bahama mockingbird hunt in the National Park – it’s worth pulling over at the pond. Or preferably on the other side of the road so you can approach it stealthily. There’s plenty of roadside cover for birder discretion. Chances are, you’ll encounter one or more of the several heron or egret species found on Abaco – and that they’ll be fishing.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

You can see how clear the water can be. It’s no wonder that this reddish egret has ‘hunched up’ to get that cruel beak closer to the surface to stab down on a small silver snack. In the short time we watched, he had no success (hence ‘Where’s the Catch?’ – there was none). But I’ve seen reddish egrets including the white morph successfully snacking at the pond; and a tricolored heron. A couple of years ago we had a great scoop in late March – a male reddish egret fishing in his wonderful breeding colours. Compare the ‘routine’ plumage of the bird above with this gorgeous creature.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

And to show I am not making up the fishing part, a shot of this bird actually making a catch…Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE


Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE  

The Bahama hutia (Geocapromys ingrahami) has the distinction of being the only indigenous land mammal in the Bahamas. Historically found on a number of islands, the species is now confined to very limited locations. Abaco is, sadly, no longer one of them; they are officially shown as extirpated here from about 1600. Hutias had been recorded on Great Abaco by early explorers from Europe, but their survival was already threatened by hunting and land clearance as the human population expanded.

Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

Further evidence of their long-term existence on Abaco – prehistoric, even – comes from research carried out by divers in the land-based Blues Holes. SAWMILL SINK has been a particularly rich source of the remnants of early creatures, including well-preserved skeletons, carapaces or other remains of crocodiles, turtles, birds, bats – and hutias. These date from the Pleistocene epoch of the Quartenary period, spanning roughly 2.5m years and ending some 12,000 years ago. You can see some of these treasures in the wonderful Natural History Museum at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour.

A c20 hutia from the Exumas on display in the museumBahama Hutia Museum Exhibit (FOTE, Abaco)

Exhibits in the museum – there’s even a dead parrot for Monty Python fansMuseum of Natural History, Abaco Bahamas

The population of the extant Bahama hutia species Geocapromys ingrahami became so depleted that by the 1960s they were considered to be extinct. Then in 1966 a colony was discovered on East Plana Cay. Some have since been relocated (see below) and the overall population is now confined to a handful of locations, for which reason the Bahama hutia is IUCN listed as vulnerable. All the usual man-caused threats to their survival apply, as well as predation by dogs and feral cats. One place to find them is in the Exumas, but because they are mainly nocturnal creatures and there are few of them, a sighting is a rare event, let alone getting a decent photo op. 

A ‘Demarest’s Hutia’ – not the Bahamian species, but very similarDemarest's Hutia (Yomangani, wiki)

The terrific header image and the second image were taken by teenager Cole Fiechter while on a sailing trip with his parents and brother in the excellently named ‘Truansea’. On the beach of the Exumas Land and Sea Park at Warderick Wells, they encountered “a guinea pig with a rat’s tail”: a hutia. Cole’s photograph will hopefully grace the forthcoming Field Guide to the Natural History of the Bahamas, now in the late stages of production, and with which I am peripherally involved.

MARK CATESBY‘s take on the hutia in the c18, where he describes it as a rabbitHutia by Mark Catesby (c18)

The BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST notes that “Bahama hutias occur naturally only on East Plana Cay (located between Acklins and Mayaguana). Historically however, they were found on ten Bahamian islands. In a move to protect the species, a small Bahama hutia population was transplanted to two locations – Little Wax Cay and Warderick Wells (Exumas). These three locations now host the only known populations of this particular species in the whole world”

It looks as though Warderick Wells might be your best bet to see a Bahama hutia if you are visiting the Bahamas. Don’t be too confident of coming across one – but if you do see one, you will have had the pleasure of seeing a very rare creature.

Bahamian Hutia Drawing (Princeton UP)

 

Credits: Cole Fiechter (1, 2); Keith Salvesen / FOTE (3, 4); ‘Yomangani’ wiki (5); OS (6); Princeton UP (7). Research credits PNAS, BNT, FOTE

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES


Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES

Goodness, is it the end of the month already? So much going on, 3 half-written posts but running short of time. So here’s something (even) more interesting than the stuff I write – actual photos of actual birds with no words. Great photos (not mine) of Abaco’s 3 cuckoo species to compare and contrast. Until next month… when there’ll be stilts, hutias and a whole lot more.

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (and header image)

Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

MANGROVE CUCKOO

Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SMOOTH-BILLED ANI

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley, Tony Hepburn, Alex Hughes, Gerlinde Taurer, Nina Henry