SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH


SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH

I made this short video last year at BMMRO HQ, Sandy Point, Abaco. A sperm whale had stranded earlier in the year, and after the necropsy some of the bones were taken from the beach for research. In order to clean them, the bones were sunk and anchored to the seabed offshore in quite shallow water. Strandings are always sad, of course, but  it is good to know that even after death the creature makes an important contribution to scientific research. In a sense, it has life after death.

BMMRO / Rolling Harbour Abaco / Keith Salvesen

CORAL REEFS AND HURRICANE DAMAGE ON ABACO BAHAMAS


Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

CORAL REEFS AND HURRICANE DAMAGE ON ABACO BAHAMAS

The spectacular coral reef chains of the Bahamas include the 3rd largest barrier reef in the world. Abaco’s reef system stretches from Little Harbour to beyond the northern end of the mainland, as Sandy Estabrook’s map shows. Inside the reef: the Sea of Abaco. Beyond the reef and the next landfall east: Western Sahara, south of the Canary Islands.Abaco Map Sandy Estabrook
A rainbow effect of filtered sunlight on sea fansReef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)
Since the devastation of Abaco by Hurricane Dorian last September, a number of surveys have been carried out. Some of these relate to the impact of the storm on the natural world – the damaged forest and coppice, the bird-life including the Abaco specialities, and the marine life including marine mammals, fish, and reef structures and environments.
Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)
A recent assessment by the Perry Institute for Marine Sciences (PIMS) in Abaco and Grand Bahama waters has been carried out on the coral reefs to determine the extent to which the vulnerable structure, ecology and environment has been damaged. Some details have just been published in the Nassau Guardian in an article by Paige McCartney. The LINK is below.
Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)
DAMAGE FINDINGS IN BRIEF
  • 25 – 30% of the 29 reef sites surveyed are devastated
  • factors include damage from debris, silt burial, and bleaching
  • uprooted casuarina trees were caught in the storm surge, causing damage
  • in particular, corals have been smashed and reef structure destroyed
  • there is biomass loss – basically reduced populations of fish & other organisms

Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

RAYS OF LIGHT
Although the reef systems of both islands have been significantly damaged, in other areas little damage was found. Moreover, in some areas the storm had washed away some types of seaweed that are harmful to the reefs. The hope is that restoration of the damaged areas can be achieved with careful management.
Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)
WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?
Action towards restoration and future protection includes:
  • removal of debris and other deleterious matter (eg silt)
  • cutting back the non-native, invasive casuarinas from the shoreline
  • restoration programs (recent successes with ‘coral farming’ could be vital)
  • extending marine protected areas
  • developing a rapid response protocol to meet extreme situations

Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

The reports ends with some welcome news: Government departments have recently proposed putting $5 million towards a coral restoration project on Abaco, including the establishment of a and-based aquaculture facility to support coral growth in nurseries. Let’s hope that becomes a reality.

The publication of the PIMS report and its findings gives some hope of recovery for the fragile reef environment of the northern Bahamas. Other factors may reverse the optimism of course, not least the accelerating warming of the seas and the exponentially expanding pollution problem such as this, recently reported

This has been an opportunity to revisit the clear waters around Abaco where Melinda Rogers of Dive Abaco took these astonishing photos of coral on the local reefs. If the coral is destroyed or dies, this is what our children and their children will be be missing.

Click the brain coral to link to the Nassau Guardian Article

All photos, Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Map, Sandy Estabrook; Nassau Guardian / Paige McCartney; Perry Institute for Marine Sciences (PIMS)

Reef Corals, Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

BRAIN WAVES: UNDERSEA CORAL MAZES & LABYRINTHS


BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

BRAIN WAVES: UNDERSEA CORAL MAZES & LABYRINTHS

The name ‘brain coral’ is essentially a no-brainer. How could you not call the creatures on this page anything else. These corals come in wide varieties of colour, shape and – well, braininess – and are divided into two main families worldwide. 

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

Each ‘brain’ is in fact a complex colony consisting of genetically similar polyps. These secrete CALCIUM CARBONATE which forms a hard carapace. This chemical compound is found in minerals, the shells of sea creatures, eggs, and even pearls. In human terms it has many industrial applications and widespread medicinal use, most familiarly in the treatment of gastric problems. 

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

The hardness of this type of coral makes it a important component of reefs throughout warm water zones world-wide. The dense protection also guarantees (or did until our generation began systematically to dismantle the earth) –  extraordinary longevity. The largest brain corals develop to a height of almost 2 meters, and are believed to be several hundred years old.

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

HOW ON EARTH DO THEY LIVE?

If you look closely at the cropped image below and other images on this page, you will see hundreds of little tentacles nestled in the trenches on the surface. These corals feed at night, deploying their tentacles to catch food. This consists of tiny creatures and their algal contents. During the day, the tentacles are retracted into the sinuous grooves. Some brain corals have developed tentacles with defensive stings. 

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

THE TRACKS LOOKS LIKE MAZES OR DO I MEAN LABYRINTHS?

Mazes, I think. The difference between mazes and labyrinths is that labyrinths have a single continuous path which leads to the centre. As long as you keep going forward, you will get there eventually. You can’t get lost. Mazes have multiple paths which branch off and will not necessarily lead to the centre. There are dead ends. Therefore, you can get lost. Check out which type of puzzle occurs on brain coral. Answer below…**

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

CREDIT: all amazing underwater brain-work thanks to Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Lucca Labyrinth, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

** On the coral I got lost straight away in blind alleys. Therefore these are mazes. Here is a beautiful inscribed labyrinth dating from c12 or c13 from the porch of St Martin Cathedral in Lucca, Italy. Very beautiful but not such a challenge.

Labyrinth (Maze), Porch Lucca Cathedral (Keith Salvesen)

BRAIN CORAL Abaco Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

‘DEEP DIVERS IN DIVERS DEEPS’: CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALES


Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

‘DEEP DIVERS IN DIVERS DEEPS’: CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALES

JOURNEY TO THE WORLD’S MIDNIGHT ZONE

Please join me in a dive down from the sparkling surface of the turquoise sea to the twilight zone at 200 meters. You’ll pass plenty of sea-life on the way: manatees grazing on seagrass just below the surface; reef fish, barracudas, reef sharks, mahi-mahi, maybe an orca at 100 meters. Other familiar creatures that are found even lower include a few reef fish, some shark species and green sea turtles. You are now running out of clear light.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

As you descend from 200 meters the waters become murky, then inky. The variety of inhabitants and their numbers are gradually decreasing. There are eels, some sharks, squid, stranger deep-water creatures. You may be surprised to see familiar bottlenose dolphins, recorded as diving nearly 300 meters. At 332 meters you will equal the deepest point any human being has ever scuba-dived (Ahmed Gabr 2014). There is little light, but you still have a long way to go to reach your goal.

Dolphin dive depth (Neal)

Descending still deeper, species and numbers continue to thin out. Around the world the limits of larger recognisable species is being reached – more shark species, tuna, chinook salmon, emperor penguins, swordfish, the few corals that can survive the depth. As the light fades to black, giant creatures and strange fish abound. Huge crabs. Sunfish. The (no-longer-extinct) Coelocanth. Massive octopuses. 

Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

Deeper down, nearing 1000 meters now, there are still some familiar species. Leatherback turtles; Baird’s beaked whales (nb not in the Atlantic); and at 920 meters, the deepest recorded sperm whale dive. It’s pitch dark: you have reached the level that sunlight never penetrates. You are in the Midnight Zone.

Sperm whale dive depth (Neal)

DEEP OCEAN DWELLERS

In black depths below 1000 meters, creatures have adpated to create their own light sources – so-called bioluminescence. This is the realm of the self-lit anglerfish, the blobfish and the goblin shark. It’s the Attenborough world of deep sea exploration. The geology is changing: there are hypervents, volcanic rocks, heavy metals. Below are the deep ocean-floor trenches. Yet there are still recognisable species down here, diving astonishingly deep to 1800 meters to feed – not least the narwhal which makes this trip several times a day to feed.

We need to quicken up the descent now – we have to get down nearly twice as far as this to reach our destination…

Cuvier's Beaked Whale leap (M.Rosso GIMA - IUCN)

We pass large squid and isopods, the deepest diving shark – the Greenland, the 10 meter-long 700 kilo colossal squid – yet amazingly there are marine mammals yet to be encountered: at 2400 meters we drift past a huge elephant seal. There are evil-looking creatures down here with names to match – devilfish, viperfish, black swallowers that can eat a larger fish whole, vampire squid and zombie worms. 

At 3000 feet, we finally end our quest. We have reached the depth to which the world’s deepest diving mammal has been recorded: the Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris


Cuvier's Beaked Whale (NOAA Fisheries)

Cuvier’s beaked whales, or “goose-beaked whales,” are not rare. For a start, unlike many beaked whale species, they inhabit most oceans and seas in the world and have the most extensive range. Unsurprisingly therefore, they are one of the most often sighted beaked whale species and one of the best studied. 

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

FIN FACT

You may be wondering about the pressure exerted on a creature at a depth of 3000 meters. The answer is, an astounding 300 atm (atmospheres), enough to crush all but the hardiest and best adapted of species. The question how these whales manage to survive at such a depth is one for the future…

The Cuvier’s is one of the 3 beaked whale species found in Bahamas waters. Like the rarer Blainville’s and Gervais’s beaked whales, the Cuvier’s is the subject of ongoing research by the BAHAMAS MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH ORGANISATION BMMRO

Cuvier's Beaked Whale leap (BW - Getty - Times)

The research into marine mammal populations in the Bahamas and far beyond is focussed on the massive increase in single and mass strandings, including recently in a remote area of Scotland (Hebrides) where more than 40 Cuvier’s were washed ashore.

One significant area of research examines the effect on marine mammals of man-made noise. There is plenty of it in the world’s oceans caused by noise pollution in and around shipping channels that traverse marine mammal migration, feeding and breeding grounds; naval surface and submarine exercises; seismic surveys, sonar waves and undersea resource investigations. The evidence of sound / acoustic damage as an additional hazard for marine mammals is starting to look very clear.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale Bahamas (BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn)

DEEP WATER INFOGRAPHIC

Do not miss this wonderful work by Neal Agarwal. This article is based around it and includes facts and images derived from his incredibly complex structure that has resulted in a remarkably simple resource for layman and ocean-lover alike (I realise these categories may overlap). To see the entire masterpiece, double click of the box below – “it will be worth it”.

CREDITS: Neal Agarwal; BMMRO / Charlotte Dunn; M.Rosso GIMA – IUCN; NOAA Fisheries; BW – Getty – Times; Pierangelo Pirak / BBC Earth (depth infographic), general sources – BMMRO, IUCN, NOAA, WDC

As ever, the Bahamas Philatelic Bureau has produced a wonderful stamp special issue

THE DITZY CHICKS & THE BEACH BYRDS: BANDS TO ADMIRE


Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘KEITH’

‘THE DITZY CHICKS’ & ‘THE BEACH BYRDS’: BANDS TO ADMIRE

Piping plovers are rare, tiny, unutterably cute, weigh about 2oz – and every Fall they fly south 1000 miles or more to warmer climes. Abaco is one such clime. The data collected during the 4 years of the ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH project shows annual counts of ±250 individual birds found either in flocks in specific hotspots, or more randomly in small groups, pairs or singles. Certain areas on the Cays are also popular. Of all these, around 10% are banded. All the birds are banded in their breeding grounds, usually as chicks (apart from a few ‘pink flags’ banded as adults on Long Beach, South Abaco). 

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘CHEROKEE’

SQUID’S KIDS

To set the scene (the story is developed below). The 3 tiny chicks with the ring bling in the large photos hatched at a Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey about 10 days ago. Their parents are Squid and Sophie. The scientists who captured, weighed, measured and banded them also named them, for reasons which will become apparent, Keith, Cherokee and Abaco. This post aims to explain the background story, and in particular the great significance of banding as a tool of research into rare species.

At the outset – and because a few people express concern –  I’d better add that no deleterious effects arise from banding. The bands are not constricting, and the birds are unaware of them. Individual banded birds are often seen year after year at either end of their migration or at both; and sometimes during stopovers along the way:  they have all survived being banded, Also, if the scientists and conservationists were to take risks with the chicks in their care by using inappropriate methods, they would in fact be damaging or destroying the very creatures they have dedicated their skills to preserving.

Piping Plover Chick

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SPECIES?

PIPL are not just rare, they are IUCN Red-listed as ‘near-threatened’. Last Autumn the IUCN estimate for adult birds was 8000. The summer breeding grounds are located in quite specific areas of North America and Canada.

These vulnerable little shorebirds nest in scrapes on the beaches and forage on the shoreline. They face many dangers including predation (eg gulls, cats, foxes), human activities and disturbance (eg the inalienable right to use beaches for off-road fun), and habitat degradation (eg. development, encroachment, and pollution). This last is the greatest problem of the three, and it is of course the responsibility – or fault – of humans. Fortunately, the establishment of extensive coastal / shoreline wildlife refuges has provided managed habitat and careful protection in some areas.

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘ABACO’

WHERE DOES BANDING COME INTO ALL THIS?

For the purposes of the ongoing scientific investigation and conservation research, the wildlife organisations in each area carry out programs to examine, measure, weigh and band birds on their ‘home’ beach. This process builds a database year on year against which the health of the birds and also the habitat can be measured. 

       

Banding enables individuals to be identified and observed in the breeding grounds; and crucially, where the birds overwinter (see below). Birds are given flags or bands or both in unique combinations. These may be put on one or both legs; mostly they will be on the upper leg(s), but sometimes the lower legs are also used; unique alphanumerics or coloured dots provide further means of ID. Some locations have a tradition of naming the chicks during banding. Thus ‘Green Flag AH3’ became ‘Atari’ . Felicia Fancybottom is the most exotic name so far (she had a random posterior-feather sticking out when banded).

On Abaco, we sometimes give unnamed overwintering banded birds an ID to avoid confusion, for easy reference, or actually just for fun. For example Green Flag 70E became (obviously) ‘Joe’.

Piping Plover Banding Box (Steph Egger)

Bander’s Box: H22 is now on ‘Harry Potter’

Piping Plover Chick NJ (Kim / CWFNJ)

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS IN PRACTICE

MANY HAPPY RETURNS FOR ‘SQUID’

January 2, 2018 the female bird called ‘SQUID’ was resighted on Abaco at Casuarina. Her bands were: upper left, blue on black; upper right, green on red (photo below). Checks of the band combination produced the following information:

  • originated from the Holgate unit of Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in NJ, banded there as a female
  • monitored and researched by Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ
  • recorded at the same location the previous summer so had already completed Fall and Sping migrartion, returning to the same beach where she hatched and fledged.
  • named for the bander’s mom’s cat
Piping Plover, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

‘SQUID’

July 29 2018 SQUID was resighted for the second year at the same location on Casuarina flats, Abaco, the first banded bird of the season. She was also the last to leave, in mid-March – a stay of of around 8 months. During that time, APPW beach monitor Keith Kemp saw Squid on several occasions, all in the immediate area of Cherokee Sound (of which Casuarina is a part).

LATE MAY / EARLY JUNE 2019 Resighted for the third season at EBF, and nested with male (as it has turned out) called Sophia! Sexing tiny newly hatched chicks is not an exact science. Originally there were 4 eggs, but on June 2 only 3 chicks hatched – ‘nature’ had intervened with the 4th. They were named ABACO, CHEROKEE… and KEITH (a kindly nod both to me and to monitor Keith Kemp). The chicks were captured by Michelle Stantial of SUNY, in conjunction with CWFNJ, to be banded, weighed, and measured so they can be monitored and assessed for growth, beach activity, and protection purposes. In a couple of months these chicks will themselves feel the urge to fly south, and will continue the annual PIPL migration cycle.

Piping Plover Chick Banding, Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial / Todd Pover)

Squid being banded by Michelle Stantial in July 2017

 WHAT HAS THE RESEARCH REVEALED SO FAR – AND IS IT USEFUL?

SQUID is an excellent example of conservation, research, and science (both pro and citizen) in action. From his story we can conclude the following:

  • Squid has been on the same summer beach in NJ for 3 years running
  • She has also overwintered for 2 years running in the same location on Abaco
  • So she has flown 4 migrations of c1000 miles with extraordinary location accuracy
  • This is a prime example of ‘beach loyalty’, a vital ingredient for species conservation
  • At 2 oz, she is a doughty and determined survivor of all the dangers arising from such long journeys
  • The habitats at both ends of the migration are good and safe, without notable degradation 
  • The nesting success with A, C and K adds 3 more birds to the population, if they all fledge and survive
  • There is every chance that Squid will be seen on Abaco this Fall
  • There is some chance that at least one of the chicks will turn up on Abaco too; or in the Bahamas anyway

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

This story is one example of many similar ones that occur every season. One plover, Bahama Mama from Michigan, has spent the last 5 winters on the same Abaco shoreline. Overall, there is optimism that the conservation measures in place will prevent the decline and encourage the increase of the species. There’s a lot of dedication that goes into all this. I think it can be fairly said that the story of Squid and Sophia’s little family is a both reward for that dedication, and a sign of hope for the future.

NOT THE DITZY CHICKS!

Credits: Michelle Stantial / SUNY; Todd Pover / CWFNJ; Holgate Unit EBF NWR; Stephanie Egger (now with NOAA); photos from Keith Kemp, Kim / CWFNJ, ‘Northside’ Jim Verhagen LBI

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

Goodbye, and well done for sticking it out to the end

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS


Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS Cyphoma gibbous are small marine gastropod molluscs related to cowries. The living animal is brightly coloured and strikingly patterned, but that colour only exists in the ‘live’ parts – the so-called ‘mantle’. The shell itself is usually pale, and characterised by a thick ridge round the middle. These snails live in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and the wider western Atlantic. Whether alive or dead, they are gratifyingly easy to identify.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THE IMPORTANCE OF CORAL

Flamingo tongue snails feed by browsing on soft corals. Often, they will leave tracks behind them on the coral stems as they forage (see image below). But corals are not only food – they provide the ideal sites for the creature’s breeding cycle.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Dive Abaco, Bahamas)Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

Adult females attach eggs to coral which they have recently fed upon. About 10 days later, the larvae hatch. They eventually settle onto other gorgonian corals such as Sea Fans. Juveniles tend to live on the underside of coral branches, while adults are far more visible and mobile. Where the snail leaves a feeding scar, the corals can regrow the polyps, and therefore the snail’s feeding preference is generally not harmful to the coral.

The principal purpose of the patterned mantle of tissue over the shell is to act as the creature’s breathing apparatus. The tissue absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. As it has been (unkindly?) described, the mantle is “basically their lungs, stretched out over their rather boring-looking shell”

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THREATS AND DEFENCE

The species, once common, is becoming rarer. The natural predators include hogfish, pufferfish and spiny lobsters, though the spotted mantle provides some defence by being rather unpalatable. Gorgonian corals contain natural toxins, and instead of secreting these after feeding, the snail stores them. This supplements the defence provided by its APOSEMATIC COLORATION, the vivid colour and /or pattern warning sign to predators found in many animal species.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

MANKIND’S CONTRIBUTION

It comes as little surprise to learn that man is now considered to be the greatest menace to these little creatures, and the reason for their significant decline in numbers. The threat comes from snorkelers and divers who mistakenly / ignorantly think that the colour of the mantle is the actual shell of the animal, collect up a whole bunch from the reef, and in due course are left with… dead snails and “boring-looking shells” (see photos below). Don’t be a collector; be a protector…

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

The photos below are of nude flamingo tongue shells from the Delphi Club Collection. Until I read the ‘boring-looking shell’ comment, I believed everyone thought they were rather lovely… I did, anyway. You decide!

Flamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen AbacoFlamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen Abaco

Image Credits:  Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

BAHAMA ORIOLE: HABITAT FIND FOR A RARE GEM


Bahama Oriole, Andros (Dan Stonko / abcbirds.org)

BAHAMA ORIOLE: HABITAT FIND FOR A RARE GEM

RARE, PRECIOUS – AND FOUND ONLY ON ANDROS, BAHAMAS

The future of the gorgeous endemic Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) hangs in the balance. IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, the Oriole once lived on both Abaco and Andros. As recently as the 1990s, the species became extirpated on Abaco, leaving a small and fragile population in  fairly specific areas of Andros. These are places where the habitat is conducive to the orioles’ well-being, and in particular where they can safely breed and (with luck) replenish their depleted population.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Michael Baltz / Bahama Oriole Project)

We hear a lot about habitat loss as a grave worldwide problem for an increasing number of species. Narrow that down to one species, one island, a few defined areas, then add mankind and his needs to the mix. The wrong mix of habitat degradation, clearances, predation or disease could cause the Andros population to disappear as well.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Mary Kay Beach Dec 2018)

Which is where conservation and science come into play. The Bahamas archipelago benefits from an astonishing number of (broadly-speaking) environmental organisations that are involved in species and habitat protection, both terrestrial and marine. They range from international to Bahamas-wide and Governmental, to NFP organisations on the main islands, and on through local communities via citizen scientists to dedicated individuals. All are fighting a specific battle with a single aim; all face an increasing array of metaphorical weapons being deployed against them.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Bahama Oriole Project FB header)

SO, ANY GOOD NEWS THEN?

Returning to the orioles – in many ways a perfect indicator bird species – recent research has led to an encouraging discovery.  A new study in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology published by researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Bahamas National Trust collaborating on the Bahama Oriole Project (@BahamaOrioleProject) reveals new evidence about the nesting habits and habitats of the orioles that will have “…major implications for future conservation” (this work was funded in part by the American Bird Conservancy and Birds Caribbean).

The study is the outcome of the work of a dozen conservation specialists. In a coconut-shell, the orioles were thought to nest only in the coconut palms found near the coast. However the recent intensive research program reveals that ‘multiple pairs’ breed in the pines and the thatch palms of the forests, away from the coast. Indeed, these may prove to be the primary nesting locations. The implications of these new findings are significant, not least for a possible uplift in numbers and the way in which conservation measures can be adapted to the new discovery. For those wanting something more authoritative, the short Abstract of the study is given at the end. And if you’d like to read the whole article, click on the link below.

472-Article Text-1543-1-10-20180828

Bahama Oriole Andros (C Ward BNT)

THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS

  • Lethal Yellowing Disease of the coastal coconut palms, until very recently (see above) believed to be the prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas the palms have been all but wiped out. The recent findings in the forests have clearly reduced the impact of this specific problem
  • The arrival in the 1990s and spread of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species*
  • Habitat loss / development
  • Forestry work / forest fires
  • Feral cats and rodents
  • Disease within the population is also cited as a contributory cause 

*The date of this arrival seems to correspond to when the orioles were extirpated from Abaco. However, see next para.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Thomas Nierle / Bahama Oriole Project)

WHEN & WHY DID THE ORIOLES VANISH FROM ABACO?

This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. However, Abaco birding expert Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey comments (see below) that Bahama Orioles were last formally recorded on Abaco in 1973 by researcher Duncan Everette and his partner who were banding warblers in Southern Abaco in what is now the Abaco National Park. At that time, the Shiny Cowbird was only rarely found on Abaco, if at all.

I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last evidences sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a single photo of one taken on Abaco at any time in history. To be fair the option of snapping everything with wings multiple times using a digital camera with a huge chip didn’t exist then. As to past history, Kevin Omland of @BahamaOrioleProject says that there are at least 9 specimens in museums around the world collected from Abaco in the 1800s and early 1900s.

eBird map showing Bahama Oriole sightings distribution in c21

ABSTRACT

The Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) is a Critically Endangered species endemic to The Bahamas and currently found only on the Andros island complex. With the elevation of the Bahama Oriole to full species status in 2011, research suggested that there were fewer than 300 individuals remaining in the global population. The Bahama Oriole was also termed a “synanthropic species” based on data suggesting that the species nested almost exclusively within anthropogenic residential and agricultural habitats in introduced coconut palms (Cocos nucifera). These conclusions were based on population surveys primarily confined to settled areas near the coasts. However, we documented multiple pairs of orioles with breeding territories deep in pine forests, and we present the first records of Bahama Orioles nesting in pine forests—in both a Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) and native understory Key thatch palms (Leucothrinax morrisii). Given the predominance of the pine forests on Andros, this newly documented breeding habitat has important implications for developing population estimates and future conservation plans for the Bahama Oriole.

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole Stamp birdtheme.orgCredits: Dan Stonko / American Bird Conservancy, Michael Baltz / Bahama Oriole Project / Kevin Omland; Mary Kay Beach; Bahama Oriole Project FB header; C Ward / BNT; Thomas Nierle / Bahama Oriole Project; Bahamas Postal Service; BNT; D Belasco / American Bird Conservancy; Handbook of World Birds (drawing)

          ↑ Mr Northrop with his Bird

Bahama Oriole, Andros (D Belasco / abcbirds.org)

FILLYMINGOS: ELEGANT NATIONAL BIRD OF THE BAHAMAS


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

FILLYMINGOS: ELEGANT NATIONAL BIRD OF THE BAHAMAS

FEAT. FINE-FEATHERED FABULOUSNESS FOR FRIDAY

A flock of adult flamingos on InaguaFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A flock with some grey juveniles in the mixFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Flamingos in Flight

Flamingos sticking their necks out…

Preparing for take-off

Flamingo chick, InaguaFlamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Abstract Flamingos

It is an ill-concealed secret that I don’t have an artistic bone in my body – I get acute angst if asked to draw a stickman. As I was looking through photos of large pink flamingo groups, I suddenly realised that I was getting some sort of abstract vision of them. Whoooh! Art-talk. Anyway, I wondered how a legion of flamingos might look in B&W. Add a bit of highlight and… does it work at all? Whether yes or no, this may be the only B&W photo of flamingos since the invention of colour film. Why would you? [Impatient reader: ‘Why did you?]

All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura (1, 2, 3, 9, 10); Mary Kay Beach (4, 5, 6, 7, 8); Michael Vaughn (11), with many thanks for use permission; Cartoon, Birdorable

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

 

BAHAMAS SEA TURTLES: IN THEIR ELEMENT


Green Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Green Turtle

BAHAMAS SEA TURTLES: IN THEIR ELEMENT

Of all the sea creatures in the limpid waters of the Bahamas, turtles are rightly among the most loved. These days, what with habitat degradation below the waves and the destruction of nesting sites on land, turtles have a hard time simply fighting for survival. And that’s before they have ingested the plastic garbage that mankind pours into their living quarters, by now probably beyond effective remedial action forever. So here are some gorgeous turtles to admire, while stocks last…

Hawksbill Turtles enjoying life around a still-healthy reefHawksbill Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba) Hawksbill Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

A hawksbill snacking on a spongeHawksbill Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Interaction with other underwater species: gray angelfish and a rock beautyHawksbill Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba) Hawksbill Turtle, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

If you are concerned about the plight of turtles and indeed other denizens of the thickening plastic soup we still call ‘ocean’, you could investigate the work some of the organisations that tackle the problem in the Bahamas and beyond. To name but a few, our own FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT; the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST; the Bahamas Reef Environmental, Educational Foundation BREEF; the CAPE ELEUTHERA FOUNDATION; and the SEA TURTLE CONSERVANCY

Photo credits: all great photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

REAL THREATS, ALARMING PHOTOS: OSPREYS IN PERIL


THE THREATS ARE REAL AND THESE PHOTOS SHOULD ALARM YOU!

I rarely – in fact almost never – lift an entire article from elsewhere and plant it wholesale here. I make an exception today. Ben’s article is so relevant, so well put together, so compelling and so scary in its implications that it can’t be ignored. No individual is to blame. We all are. Mankind generally – and pretty much all of it in my lifetime. Walk any beach in Abaco, however secluded. There it all is, under your feet. Find a dead seabird? Chances are it will have significant amounts of plastic inside it. Seen those wretched images of turtles with plastic bags hanging out of their mouths? It’s going to get worse…

Now see how things are with our bird partners in New Jersey and their beautiful ospreys.

DOCUMENTING THE PRESENCE OF PLASTICS IN OSPREY NESTS

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager http://www.conservewildlifenj.org

U.S. Coast Guard assists NJ Fish & Wildlife with recovering an entangled osprey on a channel marker in Cape May Harbor, Summer 2018. photo by Kathy Clark/ENSP

BEN WURST WRITES As I work to finalise data from this summer’s osprey surveys, I wanted to look back and highlight an important observation: more plastic is being found and recovered from active osprey nests. I guess it’s no surprise when you hear that “18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions.

The alarming trend is also becoming more deadly for ospreys, and other marine life who ingest it. While it might not seem like a lot, this year a total of four young ospreys were found dead from being entangled in plastic. In my books, one dead osprey is too many! This is not a natural cause of death! Luckily, there were several other entanglements that were prevented, but this trend is likely to get worse. We hope that these photos will help you to do all that you can to help prevent it from becoming a growing threat to ospreys and other marine wildlife, who might ingest plastics.

Ospreys are an indicator species. We can’t stress that enough. The health of their population can be directly linked to their surrounding environment. When we poisoned the land with persistent pesticides, the ospreys told us. When we overfished menhaden, the primary prey item of ospreys during the nestling period, the ospreys told us. When we use and discard plastics with no care, the ospreys will tell us…

From the land, where they collect nesting material, to the water, where they forage for prey. The growing presence of plastics on land and in water, highlights need to restrict single use plastics, balloon releases, and for any single use plastic fee to directly fund cleanups of plastic waste. It’s no surprise that ospreys use plastic items in their nests. It’s now become a common resource for them which looks similar to natural nesting material and collects in the same areas where they gather nest material. The more plastics in the world means more plastics in osprey nests!

When out on the marsh or on the beach, if you look around you’ll find plastic. According to the Clean Ocean Action 2017 Beach Sweep report (for the first time since the sweeps began in 1985) 84.45% of items collected on the beach were plastic (including foam). Another alarming trend is the growth in balloons found on the beach. In 2017, a total of 4,137 were found. Next time your down the shore, try to determine the difference between a white single use plastic bag and bleached sea lettuce, or white balloon ribbon and bleached eelgrass… Please don’t ever release balloons!

The most deadly piece of plastic litter for ospreys this year was monofilament or fishing line. The four ospreys that were found dead died from being entangled in monofilament. Fishing line is typically brought into a nest while attached to a stick or branch. It then becomes part of the nest and can easily get wrapped around a nestlings leg, foot or wing. This is not an isolated event. It happens throughout the range of ospreys (here are just a few that made the news). Please dispose of your fishing line appropriately! Single strand monofilament can even be collected and mailed to Berkley (a manufacturer of fishing line) for recycling/reuse!

Sadly, this is only the beginning. Plastics don’t biodegrade and this is becoming a chronic issue. Almost all osprey nests in New Jersey contain some type of plastic (next year we are planning to add data fields to our nest survey datasheets to keep better track of how many nests contain plastic). It’s still too early to see the effects of plastics as as they bioaccumulate in the food chain of predatory animals, like the osprey, but we hope that we can prevent this. We can all help by reducing our use of single use plastics. Here are some simple ways that you can help:

  1. Never release balloons! Talk to your friends/family about where balloons actually wind up.
  2. Reduce your dependence/consumption of single use plastics: bring your own reusable bag, water bottle, and coffee cups. Buy beverages in glass or aluminum containers. When eating out or getting take out, ask for no single use plastic items and/or bring your own container for leftovers. Support a Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Restaurant!
  3. Reuse or repurpose things that can’t be recycled. Opt into free recycling programs for hard to recycle items through Terracycle, a NJ based waste reduction company.
  4. Pick up plastic litter. Participate in coastal cleanups (the next COA Beach Sweep is on 10/20!). Dispose of trash responsibly.

Thank you to all of our volunteers, especially our Osprey Project Banders, and those who’ve helped to reduce plastic debris in our environment!

CREDIT: Ben Wurst and his team at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org for the article. Photos as credited in the text. We are Bahamas partners of this organisation in Piping Plover research on the shores of Abaco and our annual Abaco Piping Watch

https://www.facebook.com/Abaco.Piping.Plovers

THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION


Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION

It’s quite a while since I posted about the Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) and the separation of its status from its cousin the Brown-headed Nuthatch HERE. I started by saying that it was one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas (or indeed anywhere), with a tiny population living only on Grand Bahama. It’s extraordinary to think that until the 1960s, these birds were common on the island. Then, for all the usual reasons, the  population began to decline “precipitously” (Tony White). By the 2000s, the most optimistic estimates suggested that about 1000 – 1200 mature birds might inhabit the pine forests. Other surveys showed far lower numbers. By now, the species had become highly vulnerable. Reports dwindled annually, and in some years only a handful sightings were recorded.

Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International, from Loma Linda Uni / Gary Slater)

Then in October 2016, Grand Bahama received a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew. It was as destructive as you might expect a violent Cat 5 storm could be. Without in any way seeking to diminish the far-reaching and devastating impact of the hurricane on the island (and elsewhere), I have to stick to the matter in hand here. The fact is that for nearly 2 years after Matthew and its trashing of the habitat, not a single BANU was sighted – this, despite many efforts to track one down in the known hotspot areas. It began to seem likely that  the little bird had simply been wiped out of existence. Since it is known nowhere else – not even on nearby Abaco – the Bahama Nuthatch had very probably become extinct.

Bahama Nuthatch (Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly Article)

Fast forward nearly two years and suddenly there is the first hint of a glimmer on the horizon for these little birds. Finding one is already a needle-in-a-haystack quest. The target is shy and tiny – about 4 ins long and 10 grams; and the search area is vast – more than 30,000 hectares. Yet this summer, amazingly, some Bahama Nuthatches have been found and photographed, a most happy – and perhaps optimistic – outcome, and a deserved return for some serious survey work. Excited publicity has spread well beyond the usual online birding resources and into the mainstream press.

Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International)

THE KEY SIGHTINGS

JUNE 2016

The last recorded sighting of the Bahama Nuthatch (2 birds) before Hurricane Matthew was made in June 2016 by well-known Grand Bahama bird expert and guide, Erika Gates.

Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates) Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

MAY 2018

The May sightings involved a team of ornithologists from the University of East Anglia, together with experts from Birdlife International and the Bahamas National Trust. They planned a 3-month expedition to locate this species, among others. Meanwhile another team of local scientists and students also carried out a search, led by Dr. Zeko McKenzie of the University of The Bahamas (North) with the American Bird Conservancy.

The first team eventually made a sighting in May 2018, and the elusive bird was captured by Matthew Garner of UEA on camera. They also obtained brief and tantalising video footage (below). In all, the UEA team made six nuthatch sightings, and Bahamian team independently made five sightings (including seeing what appeared to be two together). 

Bahama Nuthatch (Matthew Gardner UEA)

JULY 2018

Erika Gates, with Martha Cartwright  and Zeko McKenzie, again managed to locate a single nuthatch to add to the earlier 2018 sightings. She too managed to get some photos of the bird.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

Among the May birds – however many there were in total – one was a juvenile. Combined with 2 adults seen at one time, that makes 3 birds. The extent of the period of study and search area of the May sightings (11 in all) make it likely that more than 3 birds were seen overall. Erika’s July bird, in a slightly different location, suggests another. Perhaps no more can be said than that there may be half-a-dozen Bahama Nuthatches extant in the world. It’s some comfort.

 Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International)However, as the May operation noted, ‘We also don’t know the sex of the birds. In many cases when birds dwindle to such small numbers, any remaining birds are usually male.’ The consensus of the articles I have read is that the handful of birds seen this summer, while a thrilling discovery, should not be seen as any guarantee against extinction. Further habitat degradation, more development, another hurricane, any one of these could be fatal to the species. The recent sightings are cause for some optimism but these little, highly vulnerable birds remain on the very brink of extinction. Those few people who have seen one in the wild have had a precious experience.

Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

  • Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
  • Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
  • Competition from other more prolific species in a limited habitat

The Bahamas National Trust has produced an excellent video account of the whole story from Shelley Cant-Woodside HERE 

SOME LINKS TO THE STORY 

Photo credits: Bruce Purdy (1, 11); Gary Slater / Birdlife.org (2); Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (3); Erika Gates (4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10); Matthew Gardner (6); Birdlife International (drawing); UEA & team (video)

Research credits include: Birdlife International / Birdlife.org; Lisa Sorenson; Tony White; Research Gate; IUCN; Bahamas National Trust; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; Loma Linda U; Science News; Sundry online publications; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)

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)

‘WELL SPOTTED’ (2): ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO


Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

‘WELL SPOTTED’ (2): ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS IN ABACO

No sooner have I posted about PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS sighted during the current BMMRO whale research program, than the other Bahamas spotted dolphin species shows up as well. These are the more numerous Atlantic Spotteds Stenella frontalis, more confined in range (as the names suggest) than the Pantropicals. 

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

The BMMRO caption reads “Atlantic spotted dolphins today! Small social group playing with sargassum – they swam past what looked like a plastic mattress cover – one dolphin whacked it with its tail as it swam by…”

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

Just because it can…Atlantic Spotted Dolphin leaping in Abaco Waters (BMMRO)

RUBBISHING RUBBISH: A RANT

Behold a large plastic bag, made by humans and dumped by humans into a place that is not theirs to use as a trash repository. It will take some 500 years to break down completely. But when people say that they don’t really mean it will have harmlessly disappeared over that period and become salt water. Far rom it. It will just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, to bite-sized bits for turtle, fish and seabirds who will idiotically mistake them for food (duh!), then to micro-plastic that will become part of the evolving plastic soup that will be ingested by tiny sea creatures and coat the reefs in polyethylene gunk. [End of rant. Ed.]

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters - marine trash (BMMRO)

Behold an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin giving the bag a passing whack with its tail. It won’t do anything to help with marine pollution, but is shows a robust disdain for a piece of man-made rubbish that has made it into the creature’s home environment.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in Abaco Waters - marine trash (BMMRO)

Below is a short GoPro shoot of a pair of ASDs, that I took from the BMMRO research boat last year. Marvel at the grace and elegance of these beautiful animals as they swim just below the surface (wonder, too, at the incompetence of the cameraperson who, to be fair, was leaning over the side of the RHIB with the camera on a stick…)

All photos BMMRO; video from the Rolling Harbour achives, intemperate rant all my own

MARINE POSTER COMPETITION FOR ABACO KIDS


BMMRO children's poster competition winners

MARINE POSTER COMPETITION FOR ABACO KIDS

BMMRO recently collaborated with Dolphin Encounters Marine Education Poster Contest in a competition for schoolchildren on Abaco. There were 3 age groups, 3 -5, 6 – 8, and 9 – 12. The young participants received the excellent BMMRO marine educational poster as a prize, though I suspect they were motivated not so much by a prize but by the fun possibilities of the challenges set for them. 

BMMRO children's poster competition winners

And how well they met them. I am featuring a selection of the prizewinners as posted by BMMRO on FB and Insta. Bearing in mind the ages of the artists, the results are astounding. As someone for whom the task of drawing a stickman presents insurmountable difficulties of perspective, proportion, form and accuracy, I am in awe of the inventiveness of these young minds and their artistic skills. They’ve done a fantastic job in highlighting the critical conservation issues facing all marine creatures large and small, with an awareness that I hope will help stay with them into adulthood.

BMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winners

Do I have a favourite, I asked myself. Actually, no – I’d just be proud to have any of these on my wall. And I bet the teachers and the families involved all feel the same.

HUGE CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE WORTHY WINNERS

BMMRO children's poster competition winnersBMMRO children's poster competition winners

 

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND

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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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!

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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”).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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.

Flamingo nests, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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. 

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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 (the PEACOCKS are flourishing however).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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 CORY noted 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.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

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

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

SPERM WHALES – BMMRO FIELD TRIP, BAHAMAS


Sperm Whales, Bahamas (BMMRO)

SPERM WHALES – BMMRO FIELD TRIP, BAHAMAS

I can never quite get my head around the fact that the waters around Abaco are home to the twin leviathans, sperm whales and humpback whales. And before anyone points it out, I realise they can’t actually be twins: sperms whales (cachelots) are TOOTHED WHALES whereas humpback whales are BALEEN WHALES

Sperm Whales, Bahamas (BMMRO)

During November, the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) undertook a rather special field trip. Using sophisticated devices, the scientists first located a group of sperm whales, and then tracked them through the night using the communications between the creatures – ‘vocalisations’ – to follow them. Later analysis of the recordings will have made it possible to identify the individuals through their unique vocal patterns – and so to recognise them again. 

Sperm Whale, Bahamas (BMMRO)

The hydrophonic equipment used is extremely sensitive, and can pick up the sounds made by whales and dolphins over a great distance. The box of tricks looks deceptively modest – I took these photos on a previous trip when we were looking for beaked whales and dolphins. Charlotte Dunn holds the microphone submerged on a cable and underwater sounds are amplified so that the slightest chirrup of a dolphin can be heard by everyone on the vessel. The sounds are recorded and locations carefully logged.

Besides the sperm whales, the BMMRO team also had sightings of spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and beaked whales during the field trip. These bonus sightings will also have been logged for future reference. It all adds to the detailed research data that assists the conservation of the prolific marine mammal life in Bahamian waters.

Atlantic Spotted DolphinsAtlantic Spotted Dolphins, Bahamas (BMMRO)

By the time one of the whales decided to breach, it was some distance away, so I’m afraid I can’t bring you a dramatic close-up from the trip. But just to see this view at all is breathtaking.

All photos BMMRO except the 2 hydrophone ones on the research boat (Keith Salvesen)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)


Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)

Four years ago a young English friend of ours, Oscar Ward, was lucky enough to be offered an internship with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). At the time, he was post-school, and waiting to start a degree course in marine biology at university. He had no practical experience at all, so he had to progress from the menial tasks (scraping barnacles off the bottom of the research boat) to the more adventurous (whale poop-scooping) to the scholarly (collection and analysis of samples and data, including audio file matching of whale calls for identification). The need for hard work, concentration and accuracy were made clear from the outset… and as you will see, Oscar’s short internship has stood him in very good stead during his university course.

Oscar weekending at Gilpin Point – self-sufficientBMMRO Internship - weekend off (Oscar Ward)

From a promising start on Abaco, and with 2 year’s study behind him, Oscar is currently spending the 3rd year of his 4-year course in Australia, working with The Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has been involved in a number of complex projects focussed on corals and reef life – as we all know, a matter of huge concern – and the projections for the future of the reef systems in a time of warming seas and raised acid levels. Oscar also assists PhD students, for example examining the damaging effects of parasitic worms on coral; and the effect of changing light conditions on corals.

Nurse Sharks, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Much of Oscar’s time has been spent doing fieldwork. Often he is at sea, monitoring and collecting samples in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, diving two or three times a day. This work is often carried out in restricted or preservation zones, and with ever-present manta rays, sharks and sea turtles around him.

Manta Ray, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Right now Oscar is involved with the investigations into the recent bleaching events, work that is at the forefront of serious concern for the GBR and far beyond. I have recently corresponded with him – he has definitely not forgotten that his grounding for the fieldwork and studies that he is engaged in – and very likely his career – came from his time on Abaco and the lessons he learned during his time with the BMMRO at Sandy Point.  (In part 2: another good intern, currently at Sandy Point)

Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR


Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR

Last summer, the big motion picture sensation for the bird world was, of course, Pixar’s ineffably adorable creation, Piper – the ultimate ‘Chick Flick’. This little ball of cartoon fluff was not, as some thought, based on a piping plover but on a sanderling – a type of sandpiper (clue in name). This 6 minute ‘short’ preceded the main event, the hugely popular Finding Dory. You can read all about the film Piper and the birding aspects of the film HERE

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Finding Dory is not about a fish of the dory species, of course. Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, Dory is in fact a species of surgeonfish Paracanthurus, the familiar blue tang found on the reefs of the Bahamas. To see these fish in Abaco waters, Fowl Cays National Park is always a good bet.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Dory can be identified as a maturing juvenile: blue, with a yellow tail. In due course – in time for the sequel film – she will become blue all over, with perhaps the odd flash of yellow (see photos above).

In real life, a baby blue tang is in fact entirely yellow, except for blue rings around the eyes. In Pixarland, however, Dory is just an adorbs miniature version of her youthful self.

Blue Tang juvenile, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Blue Tang are lovely to watch as they cruise round the reefs, sometimes in large groups. Their colouring ranges from pale to dark blue. However, these are fish that are best looked at and not touched – their caudal spines are very sharp. When the fish feels in threatened, the spine is raised and can cause deep cuts, with a risk of infection.  

Still from a crummy video taken at Fowl Cays some years back to illustrate a group of blue tangBlue Tangs, Fowl Cays Nature Park, Abaco Bahamas (KS)

Blue tangs are inedible, they apparently smell unpleasant, and they can cause ciguatera. However they are popular in the aquarium trade. This is a distinct downside of highly successful films such as Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. In defiance of the well-meant and broadly ecological message of both films, the trade in clown fish and to a lesser extent blue tang was boosted by their on-screen portrayal as adorbs creatures desirable for the entertainment of mankind… ‘Nuff said.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Credits: All excellent photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; one pathetically bad still from a low res video, me; cartoons purloined from an online aquarium somewhere or other

FLAMINGO BREEDING SEASON ON INAGUA, BAHAMAS


Flamingo feeding chick, Inagua National Park (Casper Burrows / BNT)

FLAMINGO BREEDING SEASON ON INAGUA, BAHAMAS

The national bird of the Bahamas, featured in the nation’s Coat of Arms, was once a familiar sight in the Bahamas, but sadly no more. On Abaco they are no longer seen, apart from occasional vagrant birds that stay for a few weeks and then disappear. 

Flamingo chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / Lynn Gape / BNT)

An attempt in the 1990s to reintroduce flamingos on Abaco and to establish a breeding population failed. You can read more about the history of the ‘fillymingo’ on Abaco HERE.

Flamingos & chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / BNT)

Nowadays, the flamingos breed only on Inagua, and to see these gorgeous birds you will have to go to the INAGUA NATIONAL PARK , where you will find the world’s largest West Indian flamingo colony.  

Flamingo chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / Lynn Gape / BNT)

The breeding season is now under way, with large numbers of fluffy gray chicks finding their legs in the lagoons. A team from the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST is working with them at the moment.

Flamingo chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / Lynn Gape / BNT)

The team have with them the distinguished wildlife photographer MELISSA GROO, whose wonderful award-winning work will be known to anyone with a keen interest in wildlife. If you want to see wild birds and wild animals as you may never have seen them portrayed before, do visit Melissa’s superb website by clicking her name link above.

Flamingo chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / BNT)

Credits: Melissa Groo, with thanks as ever for use permission [please note that her images are subject to her professional copyright]; BNT, especeially Lynn Gape & Casper Burrows (header image)

Flamingo chicks, Inagua National Park (Melissa Groo / BNT)