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.