Hi guys, that’s me, Pip, in the picture above. I live in North America in the summer. That’s where I was born. I fly down south to somewhere warm for the winter. Like many migratory humans, my chosen place is the Bahamas. It’s got some great empty, safe beaches and the weather is (mostly) lovely. Unless a Big Wind happens. The tide-line is cram-full of meat-strings (these would be worms. Ed). There are great patches of weed larder to work through. It suits me very well, just like lots of other shore birds. It’s why some of us return every year.
I’ve just got one point to raise, if you wouldn’t mind. There’s a mass of plastic (and other) crap out there on the beaches. It washes in on every tide. I know it isn’t Bahamian crap, but has come from many miles away. But Mr Harbour has done some work with my portrait to identify what’s in the seaweed I’m feeding on that might be harmful. He enhanced it and picked out just the things he’s certain shouldn’t be there. All the blue bits, for a start. And who knows what else is under the weed that I can’t even see to avoid. The shoreline and the wrack line is my dining area. I might easily eat some of the small bits by mistake. I think I must do that quite often. That would be bad – too much plastic crap and I’ll be ill. Or die. There are only about 8000 of us in the whole big wide world. If 80 of us die from plastic ingestion, that’s one per cent. The loss has to be made up next breeding season before we can even begin to increase our population.
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Photo: Chris Jordan, who studies birds killed by trash
Dolphins are regularly seen around the coast and in the fishing grounds of Abaco. Sometimes, they make it easy by nosing into harbours and being generally adorable for a while, to the delight of onlookers. Hope Town can be a good place for this. Those aboard the “Donnies” – the ferries that criss-cross the Sea of Abaco from the main island to the various Cays – may be in luck too. However, it is perhaps less well known that Abaco waters provide a home or a migratory passage for gigantic whales. Beside these mighty creatures, the several other whale species of the Bahamas seem relatively small. Yes it’s true: there are huge whales – humpbacks and sperm whales (cachalots) – to be found in Abaco waters, and not so very far from land either.
The humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae above, with its characteristic white pectoral fins, was seen about a week ago off Sandy Point (southwest Abaco). You’ll get an idea of its immense size from the photo. An adult of this BALEEN WHALEspeciescan reach 50 feet in length and weigh 35 tons or more. Imagine watching one slipping silently past your boat… and then consider that even larger sperm whales are seen in the same area.
For the link to report a Bahamas whale sighting, please see either link provided below
Humpback whale / adult male human in scuba gear comparison
Humpbacks are found in oceans throughout the world. They migrate huge distances each year, from polar regions to the tropical and sub-tropical waters where they breed. These are the whales beloved of wildlife film producers and whale-watching trips, with their spectacular arched breaching in which half their length or more may emerge from the water before smashing back into the waves.
A humpback breaches on the Stellwagen Bank (about 50 miles offshore of Boston)
Like other large whale species, humpbacks were unsurprisingly prime targets for the whaling industry in a melancholy era of marine history that took them to the edge of extinction until a moratorium was declared in 1966. Since then the population has recovered significantly. They remain vulnerable, however: in some locations, to killing; to entanglement in heavy-duty fishing gear; to ship collisions; and to noise pollution that affects their ability to communicate long-distances underwater, as they need to do.
Finally, the Sandy Point humpback makes a last dive and, with a wave of its fluke, disappears
Do you have a Bahamas whale or dolphin sighting to report? Please use this link, giving as many of the details as you can. Each report makes a valuable contribution to the BMMRO’s research.
As a footnote, my first whale encounter was on the Stellwagen Bank mentioned above, when I went on a whale-watching trip from Boston. We encountered a mother humpback with her calf and spent about 1/2 hour watching them interacting. I have the memories luckily – my photos were rubbish, using a very early digital camera that these days would be less effective and well-spec’d that a luminous pink plastic child’s camera now…
Credits: Brad & his crew, and the BMMRO; Whit Wells / Wiki for the breaching whale; moi for the rotten but quite interesting archive photos from the same place; the whale for being awesome in the true sense of the word
WONDERS OF THE DEEP: FROM SUBLIME TO… THE OTHER THING
It’s a statistically proven fact (and not, in any way, a ‘post-truth’ proposition) that no one has ever had a bad thing to say about seahorses. Indeed, some love them too much and consume them – see HEREfor threats to seahorse populations in some areas of the world.
Sometimes they are easy to see. The header image shows an orange seahorse curling its tail round green weed on pink coral – hard to miss. Yet sometimes it may be quite difficult to see the little creatures against their chosen background.
These guys are, I think, for their size among the most sublime of all underwater creatures. I use the word in the strict historical sense “of very great excellence or beauty, exalted, awe-inspiring, majestic, magnificent, glorious.” Not just to mean “nice”.
In contrast, there are some undersea creatures that inspire… not awe exactly, but maybe an amused respect that so wonderful and bizarre a creature can exist in our oceans, in some cases only a few feet below the surface. Here are two examples of what I mean.
This is a BATFISH. It was an early shoo-in for my “WTF? (What’s that Fish?)” series, and you can read all about them and their ways HERE. Of all the creatures I have featured on this blog, this is by some distance the oddest…
…except for its companion in oddness, theFROGFISH. This was next in the WTF?series, and the creature is, if anything, even stranger. You can read all about these critters HERE, where you will learn inter alia about their superpowers – any one of which you might like to have yourself. There are plenty of photos, and videos too.
Irresistible (and, to their prey, Fatal) Attraction
I do not court controversy, recognising that people following this site, or maybe stumbling across it by mistake and lingering, reach their views on natural history from different directions. But these strange and fascinating species exist and thrive in their own particular and ingenious ways – it doesn’t really matter how or why they are as they are. The bats and the frogs are high in the list of the least conventional of undersea creatures, and if they are not exactly sublime in a seahorse sense, can we just agree that they are awesome?
Photo Credits: Adam Rees / Scuba Works; Melinda Riger; Alex Konahin (seahorse gif)
The Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata is a “TR3” on Abaco. Which is to say, the species is classified as an uncommon transient in its migration, and as such it is rarely seen on Abaco. Apart from anything else the window of opportunity of seeing one in the Fall or in Spring is limited by the length of time they pause on Abaco to catch their breath. Also, they are small birds that do not draw attention to themselves. They hang around in the coppice foliage rather than parading out in the open; and their call is a tiny ‘tsip‘ sound (as with so many other small birds…).
Fortunately, on Abaco’s warbler magnet Man-o-War Cay, alert birder Charmaine Albury was out and about with her camera to record a sighting. I should say that during the writing of THE BIRDS OF ABACO, I never managed to obtain a single image – however poor – of a Blackpoll Warbler actually taken on Abaco (a qualification for inclusion) from any of the many sources I used. So sadly, this pretty warbler does not feature in the book.
The summer breeding area for blackpolls covers northern North America from Alaska through most of Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England. In the fall, they fly South to the Greater Antilles and the northeastern coasts of South America. The summer and winter areas are very distinct, as the distribution map shows:
Despite their diminutive size**, blackpoll warblers generally undertake their long-distance migration – often over open water – non-stop or with a single stopover. Their migration has been the subject of many scientific studies. One of the longest distance non-stop overwater flights ever recorded for a migratory songbird was made by a BLWA. Which all goes to explain why the species is so rarely seen along the migration route: unlike many migrating birds, they make few, if any, stops along the way.
Of the many stats I have read through, I chose one to demonstrate the stamina of these little birds. In one study, an number were fitted with tiny geolocators. These revealed an average migration journey of around 1600 miles, with the non-stop trip being completed in 3 days by at least one bird.
“Transoceanic migration by a 12 g songbird”
The maps above show blackpoll warbler migrations recorded for 5 birds in a study that indicates that, while a direct overwater route is preferred in the fall migration, the return journey in spring is more leisurely, and overland (it looks as though only 3 birds made it home).
The study quoted is by William V.DeLuca, Bradley K.Woodworth, Christopher C.Rimmer, Peter P.Marra, Philip D.Taylor, Kent P.McFarland, Stuart A.Mackenzie, D. RyanNorris (Published 1 April 2015. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.1045)
** I came across the statement that “The blackpoll warbler… attains the weight of a ball point pen”. I find this an unhelpful comparison. I know what is meant, but I find it hard to think of a ball of feathers in terms of a writing instrument. Maybe it’s just me? [Astute Reader: I’m afraid so…]
YOU MENTIONED THAT THEY GO ‘TSIP’. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN SOUND LIKE?
Credits: header image of a summer bird, Cephas; all other photos by Charmaine Albury, taken on Man-o-War Cay Abaco; birdsong Xeno-Canto / wikimedia commons
I last took a look at nurse sharks nearly 3 years ago HERE. Time to revisit these creatures. Indeed, time for a close-up look. If you want to know more about this fascinating species, just click the link above.
The two strange items hanging down from the upper lip are sensory barbels
This side-view shows the shark’s relatively small mouth (for a shark anyway)
Admire the extraordinary texture of the the skin; and the tiny evil eye. Click or – better – double click on the image and you will see that the skin is in fact tessellated, made up of a mosaic of tiny squares and near-squares**
This one is a baby nurse shark
A juvenile nurse shark with a couple of grunts. Note the youngster’s paddle-like fin
Head, mouth, jaws and teeth
SO, THEY ARE SHARKS – ARE THESE GUYS DANGEROUS?
Not really, no. They aren’t looking to pick a fight; and they are not as territorially aggressive as the ‘bitey’ sharks are (or can be). These slow-moving bottom-dwellers are generally harmless to humans. However, they can be huge—up to 4 metres —and have very strong jaws filled with thousands of tiny, serrated teeth. They will bite defensively if stepped on or bothered by divers who assume they’re docile.[As I said previously, “there are recorded instances of injuries caused to divers who have tried to pull nurse sharks by the tail. And serve them right, I say. Treat them with patience and respect!”]
M.C. ESCHER (the inspiration for Mr Hammer) was the master of tessellation in art. Click the link to explore the dedicated website. Maybe, sensationally, one day a shark will be found with skin like this… (Alert reader: “Actually, I think it most unlikely…”)
Credits: field photos by Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba; Wiki for the 4 mouth images & the Escher
And one with a happy ending! There’s something very satisfying about an expert birder / photographer’s capture of a perfect sequence, as these fantastic photos show. It not something I’ve ever achieved, not having the skill, the equipment or (probably) the patience required to get a sequence of perfect shots. Instead – and as a guest post while we are having some downtime somewhere nice – it’s a pleasure to feature this reddish egret stalking its prey, photographed by Danny Sauvageau. #4 has it all – drama, movement, clarity and triumph captured in a fraction of a second.
All photos by ace Floridian birding photographer Danny Sauvageau (with thanks)
BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…
The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) is one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas and – like the similarly rareBAHAMA ORIOLEon Andros – it is confined to one island only, Grand Bahama. At best about 1000 – 1200 mature birds may inhabit the pine forests though current estimates vary, and that number may be optimistic. What is clear is that, for all the usual reasons (see below) the population is likely to be decreasing rather than growing.
Despite its scarcity and size – this little bird is one of the smallest in the nuthatch family – the BANU is subject to much scientific debate in bird circles. Until a dozen years ago, it was simply considered to be a brown-headed nuthatch, a familiar enough bird in south-eastern USA. Then a research paper was published, which led to the bird being awarded subspecies status as the Bahama nuthatch S. p. insularis. Some argue further, that it should be considered a fully separate species and split from its cousin (as, recently, with the Bahama and Inagua woodstars in 2015). Others write as though this has already happened but as far as I can make out, it has not – though it might possibly happen once further researches have been completed and submitted (polite correction on this point welcome…).
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TO JUSTIFY SEPARATE STATUS?
Close investigation of the Grand Bahama population showed a number of significant differences between the island and the US populations. Having read and digested all the relevant research (NOT! Abstracts, maybe…), I discovered that the main distinctions are:
A longer, heavier bill (compare the header image of a brown-headed nuthatch in South Carolina with the second one of a Bahama nuthatch).
Distinctively different vocalisations
IUCN RED LIST STATUS
Whether the BANU is a sub-species of brown-headed nuthatch or a fully separate species, the bird is incredibly rare. The population may be unsustainable without intervention (as implemented to save the Abaco parrots) – and the threat of extinction looms even as the bird begins to attract international interest. In 2016 the IUCN listed the BANU as ENDANGERED, meaning essentially that it faces extinction. ‘Critically endangered’ is the only higher category. The main reasons given for the listing were the small population, found on only one island, and likely to continue declining as a result of habitat loss & invasive species
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES, I MEAN SUBSPECIES?
Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
Competition from other bird species in a limited area
HOW DO THESE BIRDS BEHAVE?
A few years back, Erika Gates, well-known Grand Bahama birder and guide, wrote an excellent article in her ‘Bird Talk’ column published in the Bahamas Weekly. It includes this description:
The Bahama Nuthatch exhibits several highly unusual and endearing behaviors. It is one of the very few bird species that conducts co-operative breeding, in which young males assist with nest construction, nest sanitation as well as feeding of the female sitting on the eggs, nestlings and fledglings. It is also one of the few birds known to utilize a tool. On occasion, it uses a bark chip, held in its bill, to pry off bark portions during foraging for insects and grub.
SO IF I’M IN THE PINE FOREST ON G B, WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Sadly, there are no available recordings of a BANU. As their vocalisation is one of the factors that differentiates them from the brown-headed nuthatch, it’s clearly not very helpful to illustrate what the latter sound like. But I am going to anyway, because they can’t be that different. It’s probably just a Bahamian accent. I have read somewhere that it sounds a bit like a squeezed rubber duck toy.
Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
WHY MIGHT THESE BIRDS TURN UP ON ABACO?
Well, I’m being a bit romantic and optimistic here. But let’s look at the official distribution map from Birdlife International. Not so very far for even a small bird to travel. There are even some small cays as stepping stones. And just think of the thousands of acres of pine forest on Abaco, much of it remote and completely undisturbed. Maybe… if a breeding pair could just… you catch my drift?
Here is another instructive map, this time from eBird. These are the only BANU sightings ever recorded, and all since 2010. These birds are tiny. There are very few of them, spread over a wide area. They live in pine trees, and are to an extent camouflaged against them. You’d be very very fortunate to find one at all, let alone get a decent photo of it… Let’s hope you can spot one while they are still around.
ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?
I have written elsewhere (in fact, HERE) about the ornithologist James Bond and his connection with Ian Fleming’s hero. The very rare first edition** of Bond’s seminal Birds of the West Indies was published in 1936. In it, he described the BANU and suggested it was a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch. A man way ahead of his time.
PLEASE STOP NOW. ANY LAST WORDS?
“The species may become extinct unless Bahamians are willing to take action to save it. As the rarest bird in the Bahamas, and one of the rarest birds in the world, the nuthatch will become a high-profile symbol of conservation efforts (or their failure) in the Bahamas”.RESEARCHGATE
Photo credits: David Hill (BHNU) 1; Birdlife.org (BANU) 2; Bruce Purdy (BANU) 3; Robert Norton (BANU) 4; Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (BANU) 5; Matt Tillett (BHNU) 6, 8; Dick Daniels (BHNU) 7
Sound: Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
Research credits: Birdlife International /Birdlife.org; Birding Community E-Bulletin, Nov 2008; Research Gate; IUCN; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)
**The edition of James Bond usually described as the first edition (indeed in the book itself) was published in 1947. You might pick one up for $100 or so (try Abe.com). Don’t get one without a dust-jacket. It’s a treasure, and an affordable slice of avian history. A 1936 edition will probably be well north of $2000…