It is a statistical fact that no one in the world – not even the meanest despot or cruellest tyrant – fails to love seahorses. It would be fair to add that in certain parts of the world, some people love them too much. In more than 65 countries. To the tune of an estimated 150 million a year that are used in the ‘traditional medicine’ trade. An attrition rate that is unsustainable in the long or even the medium term – with the bleak consequence that it won’t be long before people must look elsewhere for their source for Genital Tonic Pills.
Medicinal use – of empirically vague benefit to its enthusiasts – is joined by the aquarium trade in accounting for the removal of very large numbers of seahorses from their accustomed surroundings. At least these creatures live on (rather than being dried out alive), though research suggests that the survival rate of seahorses in captivity is low.
Do you sometimes hanker for a plastic brooch or paperweight with a tiny seahorse embalmed inside it? It would be good to resist the temptation to buy such things in seaside shops or online. Your little specimen will be one of a million or so souvenir seahorses sold each year, alongside seashells, starfish, sponges and (protected) corals.
As you contemplate your purchase, you may be reassured to find that the product is labelled ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘responsibly sourced’ or ‘from a sustainable source’. You can make up your own: ‘lovingly harvested from the bluest oceans’, maybe. In the words of the SEAHORSE TRUST:
“Nothing could be further from the truth; there is nothing sustainable about this exploitation of the seas. You can make change by not buying them. If there was no market there would be no trade.”
USES FOR SEAHORSES: MEDICINE OR (WITH SCORPIONS) STREET FOOD
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
LITTLE HARBOUR LIGHTHOUSE: A DERELICT MARITIME LANDMARK
The words ‘Abaco Lighthouse’ are near-synonymous with the splendid striped edifice on Elbow Cay. This beloved building is truly iconic, in the modern sense of the word.** But it would not do to forget the other principal lighthouse of Abaco at Hole-in-the-Wall, also with its original Fresnel lenses. The small light at Little Harbour is by contrast relatively unknown, unvisited and unloved. And derelict. Maybe that explains it. You can read in detail about this neglected relic of Abaco’s maritime history HERE.
Last Spring, friends and fellow Delphi Club members Bob & Annie Rusby and their children stayed for a while in Little Harbour. Among their adventures was a walk to the lighthouse, which is situated quite remotely on a promontory, and a decent stagger from Pete’s Pub. They took some up-to-date photos (the ones shown are in fact video stills) which supersede the ones I have previously posted.
This small lighthouse station – “The Old Lighthouse” – was established in 1889 at the entrance to Little Harbour. Originally, it was manned, with the lighthouse keeper and his wife being (according to Sandy Estabrook) the only inhabitants of that part of Little Harbour. The light presumably served more to locate the channel to the secluded and safe harbour than to warn of reef dangers.
In due course the living quarters fell into dereliction and the existing beacon (type unknown?) on a small tower was converted to a solar-powered light. This arrangement did not survive the devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The replacement was a modern steel framework tower that carried an active light until it was blown over by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The header image shows the tumbled structure, which has never been replaced. Even the steel tower seems now (4 years later) to have gone.
The views from the elevated position of the ruin are spectacular, both from inside the ruin (lucky keeper!) and from outside. In good weather, anyway… It remains to be seen whether light is now considered completely redundant, or whether another automatic light will in the end be positioned here when funds or willpower permit. I’m not aware of any groundswell of opinion suggesting that, in the absence of a beacon at Little Harbour, there is a potential safety issue. I’d be interested to hear any views.
STOP PRESS Chuck Rickey has left a wonderful comment in response to this post, full of personal and historical interest. Any other reminiscences would be most welcome.
“My grandmother’s first cousin, Curtis Lowe, was lighthouse keeper here for many years and along with his wife, Bessie, raised children Hartley, Maitland, Lois and Robert, obtaining staples buy walking a tract road or sailing to Cherokee Sound. Later on, they were able to motor to Snake Cay, to get provisions from Owens Illinois’ company store aboard the “Robert Fulton”, an old side-wheel steamer, permanently moored there. I was fortunate to spend much fun time there during school vacations growing up”.
** ‘Iconic’ has undergone a modern modification of its original meaning that is almost universally accepted except by extreme pedants of the type you’d want to slap. Contrast, however Alanis Morissette’s bold attempt at broadening the meaning of ‘ironic’, which (though often followed) remains badly wrong… For example, “rain on your wedding day” is most unfortunate but not in any sense ironic. But it might be so if you had arranged at great expense to hold your nuptials in a notoriously dry place (a desert town?) during the height of the dry season… http://www.isitironic.com/alanis-morissette-lyrics.htm
Credits: Darlene Chisholm (header image); Bob Rusby (all main images); Patrick Shyu (last photo); Sandy Estabrook (special thanks for info re earlier post)
I start confidently enough by using plurals in the headline, but in truth I have only ever seen one Spanish Moth on Abaco. It was sunning itself on the wooden stairs leading up to the Delphi Club verandah. I might have trodden on it, except that I usually check out the treads for insects or curly tails (and the surrounding foliage for small birds). They like the warmth of the wood, and also moisture from overnight rain or from plant watering. I took 3 quick photos, but I was on a mission. Breakfast beckoned…
Spanish Moths (Xanthopastis timais) and their ‘Convict Caterpillars’, as they are known, are generally found in South and Central America, and in the Caribbean. There is a similar moth recorded for North America, but it is a different subspecies. However ‘our’ moth is apparently quite commonly found in Florida.
I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has seen these moths – or the caterpillars – on Abaco. Maybe they are everywhere, all the time, and I just haven’t noticed them. Or maybe it’s just that I am an occasional blow-in interloper, not a resident. Anyway, reports, observations and photos welcome (for the usual imaginary Kalik reward).
**I’m never quite sure about the status of Pinterest images. Are they reusable with (where possible) an attribution, on the basis that they have been ‘put out there’ in the public domain, as on Facebook? Or does one risk a getting stroppy comments for recycling images that pinners have themselves borrowed in the first place?
Credits: unknown Wiki benefactor (3); R. Siegel / Stanford.edu (4); moi (1, 2, 5)
FAIRY BASSLET (‘MIND YOUR GRAMMA’): BAHAMAS REEF FISH (33)
The Fairy Basslet is a tiny brightly-coloured fish with a pretentious alternative name. It is otherwise known as the Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto). These fish are found in the coral reefs of the (sub)tropical western Atlantic. They are also found in aquariums anywhere you like, being small, bright, placid and generally good-natured.
Conveniently, the basslet is unlikely to be confused with any other species. Its striking two-tone colour scheme of purple and yellow is hard to miss. The purple front half (which is presumably where the ‘royal’ comes from, being a regal or imperial colour) may also be violet or even blue in some fish and / or in some light conditions. Another identification pointer is a black spot on the dorsal fin.
You’ll notice that the basslet above appears to be upside down. Which is because it is – this isn’t an inadvertent photo-flip. These little fish tend to orientate themselves to be parallel with the closest surface. This leads to them happily swimming upside down, or aligning vertically. As one article I read says severely, “this behaviour is not to be mistaken for illness”.
Fairy basslets / royal grammas are also CLEANER FISH. They pick parasites and dead skin off larger fish that visit so-called cleaning stations to be attended to by tiny fish and cleaner shrimps, and in some instances to have their gills and even their teeth cleaned. The deal is that, in return, the large fish do not eat the cleaners. Even snack-sized ones rootling around inside their mouths.
WHAT ABOUT BREEDING?
I really can’t improve on this rather touching description from Wiki: “The male will build the nest among rocks using pieces of algae.The male will then lead the female to the nest, where she will deposit 20-100 eggs in the nest. During the breeding period, this behaviour is repeated almost every day for a month or longer (my italics). The eggs are equipped with small protuberances over the surface with tiny threads extending from them which hold onto the algae of the nest and keep the eggs in place. The eggs will hatch in five to seven days, normally in the evening…”
HOW COME THE NAME ‘GRAMMA LORETO’?
This official name became a brainworm with me after I started this post. I had to check it out. The ‘Gramma’ part is unrelated to the fond name for a grandmother; rather, it simple denotes a member of the genus of fishes in the family Grammatidae.
The Loreto part is more mysterious. It is an an ancient town in Italy; and the name of several British schools, including – almost too good to be true – a school called Loreto Grammar. In a nutshell, the link between the town and places of education is that the Sisters of Loreto, founded in the c17 and named for a shrine in the Italian village, are dedicated to education in their Ministry.
How that ties in with a tiny Caribbean reef fish, I have yet to find out. I probably never will… Here’s a short video to alleviate the disappointment.
I failed to be able to resist finding out whether any country of the world has a purple and yellow flag. The answer is, no. However I am delighted to be able to report that the flag of the Independent Party of Uruguay is basslet-coloured.
Credits: all fantastic photos by Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; magpie pickings of an unacademic sort for facts and speculation
I’d best make it clear at the outset that, in the very narrowest sense, the buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) is not strictly a new bird on Abaco. Tony White’s authoritative official checklist for Abaco, valid back to 1950 or so, does actually include the species. It is classified as a ‘V5’, which is to say a vagrant that is vanishingly rare – indeed may only have been sighted on Abaco once or perhaps twice before. Ever. The only category rarer than V5 is H for hypothetical, which essentially means that there is some unconfirmed report of a bird that it might not be outrageous to suppose might be blown onto Abaco. A penguin, therefore, would not qualify even for an H.
A few days ago, beyond a shadow of a doubt this small shorebird was seen on Abaco by Keith Kemp, and photographed by him too. He is having an excellent year with his birding: this may well be the jewel in the crown for him. So even if one of these little guys was once spotted on an Abaco twig in 1961, Keith is definitely the first person to get a photo!
UPDATE(next day!) Abaco birder-in-Chief Woody Bracey has solved the mystery of the previous sighting – it was he himself who saw a BBSP “years ago” at the less-than-glamorous yet excellent-for-birding Marsh Harbour ‘Dump’.
As it happens, some weeks ago a BBSP was also spotted at West End, Grand Bahama by Linda Barry-Cooper. I featured a guest post from her about the fall birds in that region HERE. Woody Bracey also says that he and Bruce Hallett saw 2 BBSPs at West End early this season. Erika Gates and Martha Cartwright saw one on the GB Reef golf course at the end of August. So these birds are around in the northern Bahamas, and perhaps it’s not such a surprise after all that one should have gone on a little expedition to Abaco to check out the undeniable joys of Winding Bay.
The buff-breasted sandpiper is a long-distance migrant, breeding mainly in the open arctic tundra of North America, and overwintering mostly in South America, especially Argentina. Its route takes it overland – the central flyway – rather than over coasts, but as it happens, as a species it is a bit of a wanderer. These birds a regularly found in Europe – including the UK – and although I am sure a sighting there must generate a great deal of excitement, they are not considered extremely rare. They have even been found, very occasionally, in South Asia and Australasia.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the odd one turns up on Abaco. Maybe they do so every year, but only the keenest eye will spot one. And after all, there are many remote beaches on Abaco that are only very occasionally – if ever – visited by humans. Perhaps that’s where the BBSPs congregate…
In the breeding season, males collect on display grounds, or “leks,” to attract females. This helpful description comes from Audubon: “The leks are spread out, each male defending an area of up to several acres. The male displays by raising one wing, showing off the white underside. If females approach, the male spreads both wings wide, points its bill up, and shakes its body. One male may mate with several females; the male takes no part in caring for the eggs or young.” Typical, huh?
The BBSP is another bird that has been hit badly by the passage of time. By which I mean, of course, by mankind. At one time they were deemed ‘abundant’. Around 100 years ago a serious decline set in, not least because people were shooting them during their migration. Nonetheless, in 1988 the IUCN assessment was ‘lower Risk/least concern’. Then another slide began. By 2000 it was ‘lower Risk/near threatened’. Since 2004 it has been ‘near threatened’. Why? Largely because the habitat for migrating and wintering birds has been destroyed or degraded.
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Xeno-Canto / Bernabe Lopez-Lanus
The BBSP page from the excellent Crossley ID guides (available via WikiMedia Commons)
Credits: Tim Lenz, Keith Kemp, Magnus Manski, Linda Barry-Cooper, Cornell Lab (range map), Mario Porras, Crossley Guides, Bernabe Lopez-Lanus @ Xeno-Canto, Audubon, Wiki.
Early reports and post-hurricane news for Abaco is fortunately encouraging, though I appreciate that the Island’s good fortune at the eleventh hour swerve by Matthew only meant that others came into the direct firing line. Plenty of environmental damage, of course, but in human terms the harm seems mercifully light.
It’s too early to determine the impact on the wildlife of Abaco. The migratory winter birds must be wondering why they bothered this year. Land birds are obviously put at risk by the trashing of their habitat in the violent winds. Shore birds, too, are vulnerable: some beaches on Abaco are open to big tidal surges in high winds. Massive waves have smashed their way up the beach at Delphi. Long Beach, where the largest concentrations of piping plovers congregate at certain times, is also very exposed to surges.
Time will tell how the birds have fared. Meanwhile, here are some cheerful pictures – some of my favourite species – to relieve the gloom.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
‘BRYTER LAYTER’ was the second album by a ‘troubled genius’, the supremely talented but sadly doomed Nick Drake. Released in 1971, it failed to convert the ripples caused by his debut ‘Five Leaves Left’ (1969) into a deserved wave of popularity, not least because Drake was already starting his gradual retreat from live performance, from social contact, and indeed from life. Here’s the title track, a pastoral instrumental with orchestral embellishments, and (unusually) without Drake’s distinctive, wistful voice.
Credits: NASA / ISS, News open sources, Peter Mantle, Keith Salvesen, Bruce Hallett, Tom Shelley