The threespot damselfish Stegastes planifrons is one of several damselfish types found in the Bahamas and more generally in the western Atlantic. As with so many reef species, there is a marked difference in coloration between juveniles (bright yellow) and darker-hued adults (above).
These are bony little creatures, equipped with both spines and ‘soft rays’ on some of their fins. This perhaps make them unappealing to potential predators; and maybe the very brightness and ‘hi-viz’ of the juveniles is aposematic, a coloration thats acts as a warning or repellent to potential predators.
On the reef it seems threespots favour staghorn coral as a daytime base. Their diet is mainly seaweed, with small molluscs, gastropods and worms for variety. At night they retire to crevices and caves.
Adults are, for such small fish, vigorously protective of their territories. They will chase and nip intruders into their domains, even far larger creatures (up to and including humans).
A breeding pair will both be involved in egg care. Once the female has laid her eggs, they adhere to the lower reef and seabed. The male guards them and rather sweetly fans them with his fins to keep them oxygenated. And then another generation hatches and the threespot life cycle repeats.
Credits: All fantastic photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba
I don’t usually hold back from using (my) bad photos if there’s a reasonable excuse to do so. There’s a reason here. So here are a few bad photos. This sequence of mating kestrels was taken at a considerable distance, after I’d seen a bird fly into a pine tree out of the corner of my eye**. I couldn’t make out what species it was with the naked eye or through the viewfinder, so I took an ‘ID shot’ to enlarge later on. The image below is it – and a clear enough blur to say AMKE. Then I carried on taking pictures.
The header image came next as I realised there was another bird flying in from the right. Then the sequence below: the male mating with the female at once, dispensing with preliminaries; the male moving off along the branch; the female following a short way up the branch; then the male eventually flying away.
And that was that: all over in no time at all; all captured on camera; all finding its way onto the internet before you can say K@rd@shi@n tape. Let hope some good comes of it. Some baby kestrels would be good…
These photos were taken at Bahama Palm Shores, one of the go-to hotspots on Abaco for great birding including the gorgeous parrots. A new local initiative has seen the building of a tall platform overlooking a secluded lake that offers birders a great view of the birdlife there. But that’s a topic for another day.
All photos: Keith Salvesen
**This is badly written, I do realise – no, it didn’t literally fly out of the corner of my eye, that’s just how I happened to see it.
THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY
A couple of months back I wrote about the fate of the false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens (in fact a species of dolphin) that was stranded on Duck Cay. After its discovery, it was cut up, buried for many months before being disinterred, cleaned… and made ready to be reconstructed for display at Friends of the Environment, Marsh Harbour for research and educational purposes. The poor dead creature was destined to have a future ‘life’ (in a sense) as an exhibit. You can read the details and see the various stages of the preparatory processes (including some gory images) HERE.
The FKW joint project (see below for participants) has taken more than a year. The final stage has been similar to doing a jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication that it isn’t entirely clear where or even whether all the pieces fit – there may even be one or two leftover small bones when the reconstruction is finished.
Since I last wrote about the ‘rearticulation’ project, I have spent some time on Abaco. A highlight was our visit to FotE to meet the jocundly-named ‘Ducky’ of Duck Cay [I’d have gone for ‘Killer’ as a name – there’s no such thing as bad publicity]. Incidentally the strange item on the whale’s skull is in fact nothing to do with the creature’s real structure – it’s a natural historian’s unicorn-related jest…
RIBCAGE & SPINE
Besides identifying all the bones and numbering them, those working on this project have had to devise ingenious methods for display to make the reconstruction as accurate as possible – not an easy task with a creature nearly 20 feet long.
FLIPPER 1 – COMPLETE
FLIPPER 2 – WORK IN PROGRESS
JAW & A TRAY OF SUNDRIES…
It would be against the principles of this blog to miss out on an obvious open goal of an opportunity for an apposite final caption…
A WHALE TALE THAT ENDS WITH THE WHALE TAIL
This ambitious year-long project has involvedBMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. A number of children from local schools have already been to visit Ducky and been completely fascinated. A dead stranded whale now has a new incarnation, and a new story to tell.
ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?
Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.
And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.
STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
Credits: all photos by Keith Salvesen / BMMRO. Special thanks to Olivia Patterson and all at Friends of the Environment for a fascinating time visiting Ducky Killer; and to Nancy Albury for showing us around the excellent Museum. If you haven’t been, go!
This is a challenging topic that I have been (shamefully) putting off. My task is a full-scale facing-up to an extremely rare, very small, and rather adorable adversary, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). There are probably more dedicated KIWA experts out there than there are birds of this scarce species. Estimates of bird numbers vary wildly, but if I take a consensus of the mean of an approximate average of the median as ± 5000 individuals, I’d probably be in the ballpark named “Current Thinking“.
THAT SOUNDS QUITE RARE, RIGHT?
Around 50 years ago, the species was all but extinct – perhaps fewer than 500 birds in total, a barely sustainable population. In 1975, Brudenell-Bruce estimated 1000. I’ll mention some of the reasons later. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan was instituted with the twin objectives of protecting the vulnerable breeding habitat – basically large areas of jack pine; and of monitoring and management aimed at encouraging an increase in numbers. Around that time, they became IUCN listed as vulnerable, but more recently, population growth has resulted in a recategorisation to the more optimistic near-threatened category.
AND THEY LIVE WHERE, EXACTLY?
In spring and summer almost the entire KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. There are signs that the range has expanded slightly in Michigan and more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio as the numbers have increased.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)
In the fall and winter the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio
SO THEY ARE REALLY FOUND ON ABACO?
Yes – but they are notoriously hard to find. To give you an idea, I checked the eBird stats for Abaco sightings over the last 10 years: 9 successful trips reported, with 18 birds seen in all**. There were 3 groups comprising 6, 4, and 2 birds; and the rest were single birds. Abaco ornithologist and guide Woody Bracey is the go-to man for finding these little birds. Two years ago we were in his party that saw 4 in the space of a couple of hours. I was supposedly the photographer, but unaccountably found myself in completely the wrong place for the first 3. The 4th flew off a branch and straight at my head as I raised the camera… I felt the wind as it passed on its way deep into the coppice. I’m not proud of my effort; the fuzzy lemon item beyond the twigs and leaves is a KIWA (you’ll have to take my word for it…).
HAVE ANY BEEN SEEN ON ABACO THIS YEAR?
Last week, Woody took another party to the main hotspot in the Abaco National Park, a protected area at the southern end of the island. The park is huge, covering more than 20,000 acres of (mostly) pine forest. These birds are tiny, about 14 cms long and weighing 14 gms. Despite which they found a female and then a male KIWA in their favoured habitat beyond the pine forest. Those are the only 2 I’ve heard about this winter season.
Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas, 12 April 2018
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
Females are paler and more streaked
Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
Frequent tail pumping and bobbing (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond)
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
Some would say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found they produce ‘a loud tchip, song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). You be the judge!
Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?
Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species.
Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species.
There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable.
In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least.
Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again.
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)
Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician and amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler; and also in a couple of snake species.
The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps
**I realise eBird is not the be-all and end-all for sighting reports. It hasn’t been in existence for as long as 10 years, and not everyone uses it anyway. And awareness of the Bahamas as the winter home for KIWAs is a surprisingly recent development (as with piping plovers). As awareness increases, so do birder interest, habitat knowledge, and consequently reports of sightings.
Another example of the ‘twigs in the way’ problem for photographers
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Tom Sheley (5); Unattributable (me, in fact) 6; Woody Bracey (7, 9); Tony Hepburn (8); Lionel Levene (10); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.
The porcupinefish Diodon hystrix falls into the general category ‘pufferfish’, though the particular species named PUFFERFISH are distinct in their own right. There are other similar species – e.g. balloonfish, blowfish and burrfish – with which there is scope for confusion. The relationship is something like this: all porcupinefish are pufferfish (in a broad sense); but not all pufferfish (in its species sense) are porcupinefish.
Porcupinefish are slow-moving reef dwellers and like their puffer cousins, they can inflate themselves by ingesting water, turning them into spiny balloons. This defence mechanism is a response to threat and works in two way: only predators with large mouths would consider them a meal; and even then they have to deal with the spines that become prominent when the fish is bloated.
I’VE HEARD PUFFERFISH ARE POISONOUS? WHAT ABOUT THIS GUY?
Good question. Checking it out, I’ve found some contrary statements about this. The truth seems to be that unlike pufferfish, they do not produce toxic secretions from their skins, so are not poisonous to touch (if you must**).
However porcupinefish do contain powerful (neuro)toxins in their internal organs and are best not eaten – though in some parts of the world they are considered a minor delicacy. They may also suffer the ignominy of being dried in their inflated state and sold to tourists as novelties – with lightbulbs inside for added amusement value.
ARE PORCUPINEFISH FAMOUS IN ANY RESPECT?
Indeed they are. They had the honour of being recorded by Charles Darwin. He gives a surprisingly long account of this creature, encountered during his renowned voyage on the Beagle. It clearly fascinated him. I’ve ‘ripped’ the relevant passage (open source – it’s ok) and turned it into an eezi-reed pdf if you want to check out Darwin’s careful observations in more detail:
Yes! In ‘Finding Nemo’, Bloat the Porcupinefish was part of the ‘Tank Gang’ in a dentist’s office. He had an encore in the closing credits of ‘Finding Dory’. Enough of fame already. Here’s a 50 second video demonstrating the puffer / porcupine distinction.
My favourite bird book, in a fairly large collection, is my treasured 1947 ‘first printing’ edition of James Bond’s Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies. It is not especially rare, and one can still be had for under $200. The price is rising – about 5 years ago mine cost $80, in excellent condition, with intact dust jacket and protective cover.
This renowned reference book has since had many subsequent incarnations – if you are interested, you can find the whole story including how Ian Fleming chose to name his Double-O hero after an ornithologist HERE. I have several later versions, including 1960 and 1985, where the source material forms the basis. However the latest book of the same name, by Norman Arlott published in 2010, is a completely new offering with a wealth of useful detail. It is good – but it isn’t Bond!
The 1947 Bond is commonly described as the First Edition, and sold as such. But as some will know, it is in truth the second edition of Bond’s famous book, which was originally published in 1936. This was made clear in the copyright info to the 1947 edition; but seems to be rather less prominent in later editions.
A true first edition – very rarely on the market – now comes in well north of $2000, unless in poor condition and without the all-important dust jacket (with rare books, the “DJ” seems to be almost as important as the book itself, especially if in “VGC”).
My edition of Bond’s book has a strange quirk in the title. It’s not exactly a misprint, more of a variation that was probably unintentional. The jacket proclaims it to be a field guide of birds of the West Indies, as does the book’s front cover and frontispiece. However the book’s spine and the page preceding the Introduction state that it is a field guide to birds of the West Indies.
One of the great charms of ‘Bond’, besides the elegance of his writing, is that he includes the Caribbean-wide local names for the birds he features. Thus the mangrove cuckoo is variously known as a rain bird, rain crow, four o’clock bird, and coffin bird. The black-faced grassquit might be a blue-black, a see-see, or a johnny-jump-up. And a flamingo could be a flamenco, a flamant – or a fillymingo.
These reflections on one of the great bird books of the 20th century were prompted by a request I received from someone wanting a good image of a Bahamas flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber (the National Bird)to illustrate what is effectively a research paper about Bahamas natural history. Often with such inquiries – I get quite a few – I can supply images from my own archive. Other times I am able to source images from generous people who give use permission (non-commercial) in return for a credit.
For the flamingos, I only had images of a single vagrant bird that turned up at Gilpin Pond, Abaco a few years ago (Birds of Abaco p25). It looks rather sad and lonesome in the photos; within a matter of weeks it was gone.
None has been reported on Abaco since, though once they were plentiful. Before this lone specimen, there was an attempt to reintroduce the species on the brackish ponds at the fishing lodge ‘Different of Abaco’, Casuarina. The lodge is long-since defunct, as are the flamingos (thePEACOCKSare flourishing however).
Luckily I knew who to turn to for flamingo pictures: Nassau resident Melissa Maura, a person deeply involved with the wildlife of the Bahamas and far beyond. Melissa has spent time with the flamingos of Inagua which has one of the world’s largest breeding colonies – well over 50,000 – of these gorgeous birds in its National Park, overseen by the Bahamas National Trust.
The flamingos of Inagua now thankfully receive the protection that was sadly lacking in c19 Bahamas, when their vast numbers were radically reduced by mankind, leading to extirpation on many islands where they had been plentiful. Hunted for meat and for ornamental feathers; taken for trading, for collections, for zoos: there were no limits. CHARLES CORYnoted at the end of c19 that masses of chicks were being killed before they even fledged; and that large numbers were sold to passing ships, on which they were simply left to die.
Melissa has been fortunate enough to be on Inagua during the breeding season when banding takes place. So besides the adult birds in their orange-pink finery, she has been able to photograph the strange ‘mini-volcano’ nests (above) and the sweet, awkward-looking grey chicks. And with her kind permission, Melissa’s superb ‘fillymingo’ photos adorn this article. I believe the real James Bond would have been delighted to admire them; I hope that goes for you too.
All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura, with many thanks
THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO
There’s a strange affinity between humans and whales. Humans seem to think so, anyway – and whales seem to tolerate them amiably, perhaps now that the decimation of their populations by humans is (largely) a thing of the past. The Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular are in the mainstream of progressive cetacean research, led by the BMMRO at Sandy Point.
One of the speciality research species is the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. These magnificent creatures are deep divers, and although they are found in many parts of the world, the Bahamas is one of only 3 locations with a significant population for study. Most of the whales here were photographed within sight of land (and a few with the Castaway Island Disney Cruise Ship visible on the horizon!).
I’ve been lucky enough to be on the BMMRO research vessel on a beaked whale outing – and luckier still that we were able to spend plenty of time with a group of them, including some males. The header image is of a mature male with his huge teeth that protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and in time become encrusted with barnacles.
The whales were quite undisturbed by our presence – indeed they behaved much like dolphins, circling the boat and swimming under it; moving away and returning. This was an opportunity to count the whales, to identify those that had already been recorded, and to document any new ones. Each whale has its own unique pattern of marks, striations and in some cases healed wounds. The pair below are a good example.
Also, the whales have individually distinctive dorsal fins, with nicks and tears that also act as a means of identification. These can often be made out from a distance with powerful binoculars or photographed with a long lens for later analysis (this ID method also works reliably for dolphins).
Beaked whales often bear the healed scars from the gouging bites of COOKIE-CUTTER SHARKS, a vicious little species that I recently featured. The distinctive circular scars on the back of the whale below result from encounters with these unpleasant creatures.
Finally, the photo below. It has no merit, photographically speaking, but I love the way that sometimes a ‘risk’ shot – into the sun, perhaps – produces rather magical effects. The unexpected ‘sea stars’ were a bonus!