The trouble with reddish egrets is simple: they come in two colourways. There’s the conventional one which is indeed reddish, as one might hope and expect. Then there’s the snow white type (or ‘morph’). That’s the one featured here (with the other dark variety below, for comparison).

Both types are common breeding residents on Abaco. There are theories about which kind outnumbers the other; on balance I’m not sure the difference is very significant. Maybe reddish are a rather more frequently encountered than white, but there doesn’t seem to be much in it.

Looking back at photographs I took last spring, I found a sequence of a hunting white egret. Now these are not exhibition-quality photos. They were taken quite far out on the Marls, and a fair distance from the skiff I was standing on the front (prow?) of.

I had a smallish camera, and a fishing rod tucked under my arm rather hoping not to hear the usually welcome call “Hey RH**, bones at 10 o’clock moving left – 4 of them – give it 30 feet…” So this sequence is designed to give an idea of how the bird hunts the shallows. Rather than standing stock still and suddenly stabbing down to catch a fish, sometimes the egrets will stride purposefully though the shallow water, taking their chances as they move.

A small success at the start of the hunt (look carefully at the tip of the beak) A pause (and a slightly bad hair moment)

I always enjoy watching the actions of these birds make as they go about their work. But now the hunt is over; the egret has worked his way along the shoreline and he’s thinking out his next move… 

…which is to fly off and try his luck elsewhere

Your compensation for some mediocre – but hopefully illustrative – shots is a header image from the camera of the highly experienced birdman and photographer Danny Sauvageau. 

Finally, the way to tell that you are looking at a reddish egret, whichever version, rather than one of the other available egret / heron candidates is to look at the bill – pinkish, with a black tip. No other egreto-heronish species has this. 

A ‘proper’ reddish reddish egret taken in one of the brackish ponds at Crossing Rocks – always a good place to pull in and check for herons and egrets. This one, photographed in March, is in his handsome breeding plumage. Compare the bill with the white morph above – just the same.

** This not in fact how I am customarily addressed. I have a real name. Probably.

Credits: header image, Danny Sauvageau with thanks as always; all mediocre white morphs RH – also the rather better effort comparative photo of a ‘proper’ reddish one; cartoon by the inimitable Birdorable.


Thanks to the excellent ‘Myr’s Bytes’, say goodbye to ‘what’s the difference between primary & secondary feathers’ misery… This could be the clearest illustration and explanation of a bird’s wing you or I will ever see.

Myr's Bytes

It has been a while since I participated in Draw a Bird Day. I was happy to see some bird drawings in my blog reader this morning and decided to get inspired. I’ve been mostly sketching lately and none of the results have looked quite showable. But I did have a partially coloured drawing of some bird wings. And now, it’s fully coloured!

When I look at open and folded wings in bird photos, I often wonder – how do they fold and which feathers go where? John Muir Laws came to the rescue! The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds explains all this with beautiful illustrations. My two wing drawings are based on his illustrations of a passerine wing (dark grey with two white wing bars… I don’t know the species… some kind of flycatcher???). I did a good job of illustrating the layout of the different feather groups, but…

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The cubera snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus) is the largest snapper species. Adults may grow to 5′ long but they average around 3′ long and weigh 40 lbs or so (the record apparently stands at a massive 126 lbs). These are game fish, and they are a commercially important species. They are also IUCN listed as vulnerable, perhaps for that very reason. 


  • The largest of a large number of snapper species in the western Atlantic
  • Feed on fish, shrimps & crabs, with large strong teeth (see pics) and jaws
  • Among their (few) predators are sharks, barracuda, and moray eels
  • Edible, but beware of the danger of CIGUATERA poisoning
  • In summer months, spawning is governed by lunar cycles
  • Cuberas form huge spawning masses (to 10k) in offshore shallows
  • Sadly the resulting eggs and larvae are rich pickings for predators…
  • Youngsters live in sea grass or mangroves for protection
  • Cuberas are game fish with commercial importance
  • IUCN listed as vulnerable – largely courtesy of mankind (see »)


Cubera Snapper Range Map (wiki)


Overfishing is one of the greatest threats to the species. Those young fish that are not predated naturally and grow to adulthood are targets for fishermen. There’s no prissy ‘catch & release’, as with bonefish. At spawning time, as the fish instinctively (and predictably) mass as the moon dictates, so do the human predators. The spawning sites are where the best protection can be given, to ensure the annual reproductive cycle is uninterrupted. If not, ‘vulnerable’ will soon give way to ‘endangered’…

I’d been going to pull apart a long recipe for the “wonderfully sweet white meat ” of this fish for the tastiest morsels of info, then (not being a cook) I quickly tired of the idea. Sorry to disappoint. 

Credits: Melinda Riger for the wonderful photos; range map from wiki; magpie research pickings, including (but not limited to ) Nat Geo


Cookiecutter Shark mouth, jaws & teeth (BMMRO Bahamas)



The Cookiecutter shark Isistius brasiliensis (aka the less scary, more genial sounding ‘cigar shark’), might be an ideal candidate for a Room 101 nemesis.** These little beasts – a species of dogfish shark – are found in several mainly island-based areas dotted around the globe, including in Abaco waters.


These sharky little b@st@rds (*technical term*) attack marine mammals and fishes, gouging out perfect round plugs of skin and flesh, leaving what are sometimes called ‘crater wounds’. Then they eat them. Imagine getting hold of a really sharp domestic cookie cutter with circular rows of razor-sharp teeth, and grinding it hard into your thigh. There! That! 
The size of an adult shark:16″ max
The term ‘cookiecutter’ is also a pejorative slang term, meaning mass-produced, lacking in originality, or boringly samey, as in cookiecutter cars or TV genres etc. The little critters under consideration here are anything but…


  • Live in the depths, rise vertically in the day & dive back down at dusk
  • Undersides have light-emitting ‘photophores’ which emphasise…
  • …the dark collar which acts as a lure, resembling a small innocent fish
  • Bioluminescence lures prey & confuses predators (more on this below)
  • The glow is so strong it may last for some time after removal from water

  • Their lips are ‘suctorial’ = they attach tightly to their target
  • The jaws then gouge out the victim’s flesh in a remarkably neat circle
  • Omni-vicious: any medium to large ocean creature is vulnerable to attack
  • There are even occasional reports of humans being targeted

Here are two Blainville’s beaked whales that I photographed from the BMMRO research vessel. The top whale has a number of circular healed attack marks and a recent one. You can see how deep the gouged hole is. The other has well-healed scars.

Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)

  • Multi-toothed: top rows of small teeth, rows of larger teeth on the bottom
  • The lower teeth are the cutters, acting like a saw when locked on
  • See header image and below for full details


I can explain it no better than the renowned authority Prof. W. K. P. Dear:  “the suctorial lips ensure a tight seal. It then bites, using its narrow upper teeth as anchors while its razor sharp lower teeth slices into the prey. Finally, the shark twists and rotates its body to complete a circular cut, quite possibly aided by the initial forward momentum and subsequent struggles of its prey. The action of the lower teeth may also be assisted by back-and-forth vibrations of the jaw, a mechanism akin to that of an electric carving knife”.


The behaviour of these sharks is an example of a symbiotic relationship between two species that is parasitic. This means essentially that one gains and the other suffers (e.g. no-see-ums!). This is distinct from commensalistic symbiosis, where one species gains and the other is unaffected (e.g. cattle egrets with cattle); and mutualistic symbiosis, where both gain (e.g. cleaner fish & groupers). So, in a word, yes.

  • An ‘ambush predator’: they ‘hover’ in the water column waiting…
  • They are capable of rapid movement to catch up & latch onto prey
  • They will eat a passing small fish, crustacean or even squid as a snack
  • Sometimes they operate in schools; there is safety in numbers
  • The schools are thought to increase the ‘lure’ effect of the dark collar

A beached whale that’s been heavily targeted


In the late c20, more than 30 U.S. Navy submarines were forced back to base to repair damage caused by cookiecutter shark bites, either to the neoprene footings of sonar domes or to rubber-sheathed cables. The problems were solved by using fibreglass. Oceanographic equipment and telecommunications cables are also recorded as being damaged by these sharks.

Cookiecutter Shark – the real deal



These great cards from the weirdly spelled WIERD ‘N’ WILD CREATURES provide excellent factual info. Their CCS card is no exception. You’ll find more details here about the effect of the bioluminescence and so on, written as clearly as I might hope to. 

Cookiecutter Shark Facts (Monsters of the Deep)Cookiecutter Shark Facts (Monsters of the Deep)

** “The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.” (George Orwell, 1984)

Alright now…Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: BMMRO – header image; beaked whale photos – Keith Salvesen / BMMRO; Te Ara NZ for the main jaw image; all small images with thanks to Wiki and respective photographers who took the time to upload them for all to enjoy & learn from; ‘wierdnwonderful creatures’ for the monster card; range map from Wiki

PS Apologies to anyone who bothered to wade through this, and stayed awake long enough to notice that formatting gremlins struck halfway through


Graysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba


The Graysby Cephalopholis cruentata is a small, spotty grouper, which grows to a maximum of around 16 inches. These rather unassuming and solitary fish have a preference for coral reefs, where they can blend in with their surroundings on ledges and in caves and crevices during the day. At night, they become active – that’s when they feed on feed on small fish, crabs and shrimps. 

Graysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama ScubaGraysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

The graysby has variable colouring in a range from light brown to pale gray, with all-over spots that may be red, orange or brownish. Often, they have 3 to 5 contrasting spots on their backs, along the base of the dorsal fin, as below:

Graysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama ScubaGraysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

The long erectile dorsal fin comprises both spines and ‘rays’ – spines at the front, rays at the back. Like this:

The spots of a graysby can change in colour (at least to a limited extent), becoming either paler or darker. I imagine this is a protective feature to enable the fish to blend in more easily with its reef surroundings. 

Graysby (grouper) - Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

Signalling to turn right…

I wondered if they are edible. I believe so – but then I also read that the larger adults carry the risk of ciguatera and raised mercury levels. So I’ll give it a miss thanks.

Photo & other credits: all photographs by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba;; SAMFC (drawing)


Black-legged Kittiwake (Dick Daniels / / Wiki


I recently posted about the sighting of an entirely new bird species for Abaco, the CINNAMON TEAL. Almost at once, another species was sighted – not a new one, but in the next category of rarity, the V5 and V4. ‘Vagrant’ birds that have been credibly recorded on Abaco / in Abaco waters fewer than 5 times – and maybe only once – are classified as V5 or ‘accidentals’.  Birds seen a few times more than that, but irregularly and unpredictably (‘casuals’) are V4s. One such is the fine black-legged kittiwake, also known as the seahawk and a close relative of gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Yathin S Krishnappa / Wiki)

During the Abaco Christmas Bird Count in December, avid birder Keith Kemp and a small group were checking the beach at Crossing Rocks. In due course he uploaded a list of birds seen, with selected images, to the excellent eBird site. This included a royal tern. Or make that “royal tern”.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)It wasn’t long before sharp-eyed Bruce Purdy from Cornell contacted Keith to say “You shot a picture of an adult non-breeding black-legged kittiwake!!!!!!!!”. This was confirmed by Bruce Hallett, author of the definitive field guide to the birds of the Bahamas.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

As Bruce Purdy commented:

“This is the first kittiwake reported that I know of in the last 20 years.  Tony [White] shows a few reports but I don’t know if they were documented.  Probably not since most people just started carrying cameras, so you may have the first documented kittiwake… It is a great find”

So you are looking at (almost certainly) the first photographs of a kittiwake ever taken on Abaco. Actually, make that the Bahamas – no others are shown on eBird for the whole region; the nearest being a handful of sightings on the Florida coast.

STOP PRESS Keith’s sighting was in December 2017. The very day I pressed ‘publish’ on this post, January 30, two people immediately contacted me to say they had seen this bird in the Crossing dock area in Marsh Harbour! Thanks to Philip Sawyer and Nancy Albury for their sharp eyes and immediate response. Neither managed to get a photo, but two independent witnesses on one day in the same location make for a compelling ID. I imagine this is the same bird (rare enough as a single – the first in over 20 years – so exceptionally unlikely as a pair). Maybe there are rich fish pickings to be had in the MH harbour area.

Any further reports would be most welcome; a photo would earn the theoretical Kalik reward…

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

These kittiwakes are a pelagic species, birds of the open sea. They spent most of their time over the ocean, where they live on fish. However, they return to land to breed – often on cliffs, and in large, noisy, nesting colonies. Here’s a very short idea of what that might look and sound like.

Keith’s Kittiwake was way out of its normal range. This map shows just how far.

I always like to include an image of a species under discussion, as it was depicted by one of the early pioneers such a Mark Catesby or (as here) Audubon.
Black-legged Kittiwake (Audubon)

I’ll round off the story with another great source for comparative images – especially as between sexes, ages and seasons – the Crossley guide. The image below comes from the guide to Britain & Ireland, where kittiwakes are not uncommon locally where there are cliffs. Keith’s bird was in winter (non-breeding) plumage, as seen below, top left.

Kittiwakes (Crossley ID Guide Britain / Ireland)

Credits: Dick Daniels / (1); Yathin S Krishnappa (2); Keith Kemp (3, 4, 5); RSPB Britain (video); Audubon (OS) (6); Crossley Guide (OS) (7); range map Wiki


Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)


‘Awesome’ in its original (and biblical) sense of ‘inspiring awe and fear’, I mean – as with hurricanes; not as in ‘awesome cupcakes’. And Magnificent because that’s what frigatebirds effortlessly are.

This post is about the resilience of birds after extreme weather events, and their powers of recovery. As we all recall, last autumn large areas of the Caribbean region were devastated by those twin furies, Irma and Maria. Islands that received direct hits from these destructive hurricanes were trashed with unimaginable ferocity, at a massive human, infrastructure and ecological cost from which slow recovery is still in progress. Barbuda was one of those islands.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

This is the heartening story of a colony of frigatebirds on Barbuda, where in the aftermath of the storms BirdsCaribbean members offered to survey the effects of the storms in terms of the natural history of the region. These included Frantz Delcroix and Eric Delcroix, who spent time on Barbuda in mid-October, 6 weeks after Hurricane Irma.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

Their assignment was to visit Codrington Lagoon, Barbuda, to carry out a survey of the Magnificent Frigatebirds to check how – or if – the sanctuary and its population was recovering six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. The boat trip to the colony must have been tense; there might have been little or no colony left to survey.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

As they neared the location, and to their delight, they saw hundreds of frigatebirds in flight, with bushes adorned with the bright red gular pouches the males. In all they estimated 1,710 frigatebirds were in the colony. In a count of seven bushes alone, 279 birds (83 females and 196 males) were counted. Amazingly, 90% of the females were on nests and some of the birds were observed courting and mating, with males even carrying nest materials.

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

Before the hurricane, the 4,000–5,000-strong frigatebird colony had chicks in the nest. Surveys just after the hurricane found no surviving chicks and only around 300 birds. Now, one and a half months later, there were more than 1,700 frigatebirds starting a new breeding period with almost all of the females nesting!

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

The team were of course deeply affected by the damage and desolation on Barbuda, and the suffering of its people. In a purely environmental context, the frigatebirds were a small sign of hope. As was noted at the time, “witnessing the power of nature—its ability to inflict such damage, but also how it can quickly rebound—was an extraordinary experience. So, we did not leave without hope. Nature is resilient!

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Barbuda (Frantz Delcroix & Eric Delcroix)

BirdsCaribbean is an excellent and wide-ranging organisation that deserves support. You can ‘like’ it or follow it on FB HERE, sign up for regular emails, volunteer to get involved or donate on the website HERE, and maybe even consider a contribution to its ongoing hurricane recovery efforts HERE

Special thanks to Frantz Delcroix and Eric Delcroix for permission to use some of their wonderful photos taken during the survey; and to use parts of their review (with some adjustment to apply to the specifics of this post). Many thanks also to Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean, for her kind support whenever the occasion has arisen!