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 FLYCATCHER, the still largerLOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDand (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD(this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).
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.
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.
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.
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 aPAINTED BUNTINGor startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDdoes not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’. I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.
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]
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
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 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.
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).
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…
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.
CAN YOU GIVE THE POISONOUS / VENOMOUS DISTINCTION AGAIN
I could, but ace natural history cartoonist Rosemary Mosco makes a better job than I can:
**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…
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…
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)
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
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