PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Ani, TCGC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOOand the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. Anis range from Florida and the Bahamas in the north, down through the Caribbean to South America, where they are widespread.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 2a

Unlike their shy and retiring cuckoo cousins, anis are extrovert shouty birds that like to hang out in noisy gangs and family groups. They can often be found in low scrub, bickering and squawking, and fluttering around. You’ll probably hear them from some way off, sounding like this:

Smooth-billed Anis_Abaco - Tony Hepburn

Anis have advanced social, parenting and chick-rearing skills. They build a communal nest for the group, and all share in egg incubation and chick-feeding duties They may raise up to three broods in a season, which keeps the numbers up. Rather touchingly, the young of earlier broods help to feed more recent chicks.

It follows from this that unlike many other cuckoo species, the ani is not a brood parasite. So the species does not lay its eggs in the nests of other, smaller birds which then unwittingly rear the interloper(s), who in turn push the legitimate hatchlings out of the nest and get all the food and attention.

Smooth-billed Anis Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer d

I have tried to discover why an ani’s beak is as it is, without much success. Very often beak shape relates directly to the feeding habits and preferences of a species, but it is hard to see how a diet consisting mainly of insects and small reptiles such as lizards would account for such a prominently protuberant proboscis. Here is a close-up of the item in question.
On Abaco (and indeed elsewhere) Anis are sometimes known as ‘Cemetery Birds’, no doubt because of their all-black appearance (though their raucous tendencies would be quite inappropriate for a graveyard). However although at a distance these birds may look completely black, catch one in the sun at the right angle, and you’ll find that the plumage is far more varied, and with some intricate patterning.

Smooth-billed Ani. Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley

Look for Anis in low scrubland and coppice, cultivated areas, perched in unsteady noisy rows on utility lines, or foraging on the ground.

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco. Gerlinde Taurer c

The appearance and flying abilities of Anis are wonders to behold. As I wrote in The Birds of Abaco, “Their curious heavy beaks, their clumsy flight and their untidy take-off and landing routines suggest a design fault”.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 1a

“One… is the loneliest number…” Oh, hang on a moment…Smooth-billed Ani Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer a

…”two of us…standing solo in the sun…”Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer) b

The Philatelic Bureau of the Bahamas Postal Service is commendably committed to featuring the natural history of the Bahamas. Although probably not in the top-ten of anyone’s bird list, the ani nevertheless got its own stamp in a 1991 bird issue.

As far as I know, there is not yet a collective noun for a group of anis. There should be. Any suggestions welcome. Meanwhile I put forward A Commotion of Anis”

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

Credits (all photos taken on Abaco): Becky Marvil, Nina Henry, Tony Hepburn, Gerlinde Taurer, Roselyn Pierce, Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Keith Salvesen; sound files from Xeno Canto and FMNH; range map from IUCN; hat tip to the always excellent Aimee Mann.

This post is a revised, corrected and expanded version of one I wrote nearly 4 years ago.

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

WILSON’S PLOVER CHICK, DELPHI BEACH, ABACO


Wilson's Plover chick, Delphi Club, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)This little chick ‘cracked out’ on the Delphi beach. As it grew, its plump little beak was already showing one of the features that distinguish the Wilson’s from other plover species. I’ll not go into further details here – I’m still in Ireland and iPhone-reliant. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking for whales and dolphins off the coast south of Kinsale. Target species: the Minke whale. Here’s hoping…

Normal service will be resumed next week.

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, ABACO, BAHAMAS


red-winged-blackbird-male-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley.jpg

I’m away for a few days on the Emerald Isle, leaving my trusty computer many miles away (on purpose, I mean). I’ve just got my iPhone, but writing posts and inserting images on such a small screen / keyboard is a fool’s errand. So I’ve pre-loaded a couple of beautiful bird images to post this week. Here is a wonderful red-winged blackbird male taken by photographer Tom Sheley while we were getting together some images for The Birds of Abaco deep in Abaco backcountry.

Photo credit: Tom Sheley

SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES TAILING: ABACO, BAHAMAS

There can be very few people in the world whose breath would not be taken away by the sight of a massive sperm whale tailing close by. And as it happens, this very phenomenon can be seen in the deeper waters around the coast of Abaco. Here is a small gallery of photos of sperm whales tailing, taken from the BMMRO research vessel. There’s no point in my writing a lot of commentary to the images – they speak for themselves of the awesome (in its correct sense) power and grace of these huge mammals.

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

In these images, you will notice that the whales have distinctive patterns of notches and tears in their flukes (ie tail fins). As with a dolphin’s dorsal fin, these areas of damage are like fingerprints – unique to each individual, and a sure means to identification. The researchers log each sighting and assign a cypher – a whale will become known as ‘B42’ and not usually by a less scientific name like ‘Derek’ or ‘Susie’).

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO) Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Q. What happened next?  A. You would see the tail emerge as the whale dives deep… Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

One of my favourite whale views is of the tail as it rises above the surface with water streaming off the flukes, before it flicks over and disappears beneath the waves. 

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

A juvenile takes a dive alongside an adult. One day that tail will be massive…Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

Credits: all photos © BMMRO, with thanks as ever to Diane and Charlotte

Sperm Whale Tailing, Abaco, Bahamas (©BMMRO)

SHARPNOSE PUFFER FISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (47)


Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

SHARPNOSE PUFFER FISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (47)

It’s more than 4 years since I last wrote about these intriguing creatures and their endearing ways. It’s time for another look, with a new batch of great photos too. This is a species that lends itself to the ‘Fun Fact’ treatment, a method that tells you at least as much as you probably need – or want – to know about puffers. The message to take away is, best not to handle one – let alone eat one – unless you know exactly what you are doing…

Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

10 PUFFER FISH FACTS TO ASTONISH YOUR FAMILY & FRIENDS

1. Puffers can inflate their bodies in an instant by ingesting huge amounts of water and becoming water-filled balloons. Then their tiny spines stick out. 

2. They need a startling form of defence (or ‘piscatorial superpower’ Linnaeus 1763*) like this because they can’t swim very well to escape from predators: it’s surprising and intimidating – and it also makes them hard to eat.

3. However, a persistent predator undeterred by the trick will find that the puffer contains a toxin (tetrodotoxin TTX) that is said to be ‘1,200 times stronger than cyanide’. One puffer fish has enough toxin to kill up to 30 humans (National Geographic).

Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

4. Notwithstanding the risks, selected parts of a puffer fish are a delicacy in some cultures (known as ‘fugu’ in Japan). Specially trained chefs are used to avoid mass deaths among diners. The insurance premiums must be huge.

5. Sharks are thought to be the only species immune to the puffer fish, and are not much bothered by a small fish that can blow itself up.

6. Puffers have skin, not scales; most have toxic fins or spines of some sort, besides toxic innards. Bright coloured kinds are likely to be more toxic than their duller cousins. This warning colouration in creatures is known as aposematism.

Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

7. It’s worth finding out what an uninflated puffer looks like before you try to pet a random passing fish and have a toxic encounter. There is as yet no known antidote.

8. In all, there are more than a hundred puffer species in the world, all found where there are warm shallow waters. At least 3 main species – sharpnose, band-tail and chequered – are found in the Bahamas.

Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

9. Some puffer species are not toxic at all; and some – especially in Pacific waters – are far more toxic than others. That’s the region where they are treated as a delicacy.

10. I’ve checked several research papers but I can’t find an evaluation of the relative toxicity as between the Bahamas puffer species. However it’s clear that the sharpnose is certainly not one play with. Take care!

Q. SO WHAT DOES AN INFLATED PUFFER LOOK LIKE? A. THIS!

Brian Lockwood took his life in his hands to get this fantastic shot…Sharpnose Puffer Fish (Brian Lockwood)

* Not really

RELATED POST: PORCUPINE FISH

Photo Credits: All puffer fish taken by Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba except for the photo of an inflated one from recent Abaco permanent resident Brian Lockwood

A HISTORIC MONUMENT TO MARITIME HISTORY: CHEROKEE, ABACO


Tribute Monument to the Sailing Smacks of Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

A HISTORIC MONUMENT TO MARITIME HISTORY: CHEROKEE, ABACO

The small and – until quite recently – remote settlement of Cherokee is said to have been founded by one Colonel Thomas Brown with his cohort of Loyalists from the Carolinas. The origin of the name has given rise to various theories, one of which stems from Col. Brown’s supposed link to Cherokee Indians.

The early settlers established themselves at this natural harbour, and life there was largely dependent on the sea. Fishing provided food, wrecking provided goods and presumably the wherewithal for trade or barter. In due course, boat building became an important part of the community, as with other places on Abaco (e.g. Man-o-War Cay). Later still, smack fishing with the locally made boats brought stability and no doubt a degree of prosperity to the community.

The monument, and in the background right, the comms tower & the new SHELL MUSEUMTribute Monument to the Sailing Smacks of Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

The fishing smacks of Cherokee were designed to carry 5 sails rather than the usual 7 sails. Not being a sailor, I can’t tell if this was just a local stylistic choice, or for simplicity, or perhaps for a specific sea-going reason in that particular area. As a tribute to this honourable industry, in October 1988 the community of Cherokee Sound erected a fine monument near the famous LONG DOCK dedicated to the Cherokee fishermen and their smacks, and naming many of the vessels involved over many decades.

Tribute Monument to the Sailing Smacks of Cherokee Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

The monument also sets out the long history of smack fishing dating from the early c19 until the 1960s, by which time the advent of the diesel engine had begun to make setting the sails for fishing redundant. The moving tribute speaks to the great pride of the community in its history and its forbears.

The short poem, with the authorship shown as Anon, is in fact based on a sea-song written by a non-seafaring Scotsman called Allan Cunningham (1784- 1842), A Wet sheet and a flowing sea – said to be his best known song. The full version is given at the end, and you’ll see that the second verse (with some minor changes) is the part chosen to form the shorter tribute.

Tribute Monument to the Sailing Smacks of Cherokee Abaco

The monument also includes a panel dedicated to the fishermen of the community who lost their lives in plying their trade from 1890 onwards. It is notable that every one of them bears a family name familiar to this day on Abaco in the succeeding generations.

Tribute Monument to the Sailing Smacks of Cherokee Abaco

A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea by Alan Cunningham (1784- 1842)

A Wet sheet and a flowing sea, 
    A wind that follows fast 
And fills the white and rustling sail 
    And bends the gallant mast; 
And bends the gallant mast, my boys, 
    While like the eagle free – 
Away the good ship flies, and leaves 
    Old England on the lee.

“O for a soft and gentle wind!” 
    I heard a fair one cry: 
But give to me the snoring breeze 
    And white waves heaving high; 
And white waves heaving high, my lads, 
    The good ship tight and free – 
The world of waters is our home, 
    And merry men are we.

There’s tempest in yon hornèd moon, 
    And lightning in yon cloud: 
But hark the music, mariners! 
    The wind is piping loud; 
The wind is piping loud, my boys, 
    The lightning flashes free – 
While the hollow oak our palace is, 
    Our heritage the sea.

Credits & research: Keith Salvesen, Kaderin Mills / BNT, Bahamas.com, National Geographic, Bahamas Ministry of Tourism

LITTLE HARBOUR ABACO (1): JOHNSTON FOUNDRY & GALLERY


Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

LITTLE HARBOUR ABACO (1): JOHNSTON FOUNDRY & GALLERY

Pete’s Pub in Little Harbour needs no introduction. The place is an integral part of Abaco life, in much the same way as the Elbow Reef Lighthouse. Everyone knows that one runs effortlessly on beer and rum; the other on kerosene and a bed of mercury (just don’t mix up which is which, and best not to drink the mercury). Some visitors may happily while away an hour or three at Pete’s, not knowing of the amazing sculpture gallery almost next door, where works from the historic Johnston Foundry are displayed. Here is a taste of what you will find there.

Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

In the 1950s Randolph Johnston built a bronze casting foundry at Little Harbour that is still very much in use today. Much of the wonderful work produced by members of the Johnston family over 3 generations can be found on display in the Gallery. Here you will find genuinely locally produced sculptural works of art ranging from the simple to the incredibly complex. Some large outdoor pieces can also be found dotted around the settlement – here, a huge ray; over there, a pair of leaping dolphins.

Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Unsurprisingly, the sculptures on display mostly relate to the sea, which laps the shoreline only a few yards in front of the gallery. These are works of art, and of skill refined over decades. They do not come cheap. There are however smaller and less expensive items to tempt the visitor who may have a baggage allowance to live down to. Here is a snapshot of some of these.

Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen) Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Pete's Pub & Gallery / The Johnston Foundry Little Harbour Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

You might be entertained by this short video, which will give you an idea of Pete’s set-up at this unique off-grid settlement. And if you do visit, coincide with a mealtime – the freshly caught fish is outstanding.

All photos: Keith Salvesen, with thanks for permission to photograph some of the artworks on display. Video by Pete’s! [PS I have not been paid for my writing, not even a beer…]