A quick note to the malcontent (or maybe it’s a syndicate?) who has resumed trolling this blog after a lull. Yes, I’ve noticed your handiwork, and I couldn’t care less. Except about you. Bless! I’d have thought you’d have better things to do with your time. Clearly I’m an optimist.
If you don’t like this blog or what’s posted here, remember that you have chosen to visit it. If it’s not to your liking you very luckily have the choice never to visit again. More constructively, you could have some guts and attempt to leave a constructive comment such as: your facts are wrong; your photos are lousy; your jokes are unfunny; your are a foreigner sticking your nose into another country’s wildlife and history; sorry, I am sick in the head; all of the above.
Carry on if you want. Or bugger off. Entirely up to you. Cheers.
Credits: Tom Sheley, Alex Hughes. Discredits: Troll (there you are – your name in print!)
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon we are closely related toDarwin’s finches(so, we are “common”, huh?).Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…
How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.
6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS
Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
Both sexes build the nest together
Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)
Time to rectify an omission and to feature the striking orange and black male American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla. A while ago I posted about the equally distinctive yellow and black females HERE(the dissimilar colouring between the sexes of these little warblers is due to differing carotin levels in each). These unmistakeable winter residents are common on Abaco. They are an easy warbler for new birders look out for, being unlike any other small warblerish-looking bird. All the birds here were photographed on Abaco.
TEN REDSTARTLING FACTS (& a comment)
The Latin name means moth-eating red-tail (‘start’ is an archaic word for tail)
AMRE are among the most common New World warblers
Occasionally they are found as far afield as Europe
They are almost entirely insect-eaters, with occasional berries or seeds for variety
Males are late developers, tending to skew the sex ratio: too many of them
They are inclined to monogamy, but only to an extent. Two-or-more-timing goes on
The most aggressive males get the pick of the habitats
This all begins to sound like human behaviour(not strictly a fact, so it doesn’t count)
Their fanned tails are for display, and maybe to surprise insects into breaking cover
Redstarts suffer badly from predators, especially in the breeding season
They are popular with coffee farmers for keeping insect numbers down
The American Redstart (f & m) as depicted by JJ Audubon
The word ‘awesome’ – a word of Biblical origin and medieval usage connoting an experience of wonderment with an element of dread* – lost its power once it became the common verbal currency for describing the offer of a beer, a photograph of a sulky cat, or a so-so pub band. Where to turn for something truly momentous? Oh, actually that might do nicely. Breathtaking, astounding, astonishing, awe-inspiring, staggering, extraordinary, stupendous, and spectacular are examples of synonyms that have retained at least some of their power. And perhaps ‘mind-blowing’, though it’s a bit substance-tinged. ‘Amazing’ has pretty much gone the way of awesome. Amazeballs and badass? Let’s not!
Ok. Having got that linguistic grump out of the way (index under ‘English Language, debasement of, modern usage in), here’s the real deal: a truly phenomenal short video of a smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata safely giving live birth in the wild to her 5 babies (which are called pups) on Andros during a FSU research trip. The pups emerge as small replicas of their parent, complete with their hedgetrimmer-style rostrums, ready to swim away. Fishes that carry their young and give birth to one or more developed juveniles in this way are called ovoviviparous.
The commentary is clear and informative, the research potential for this vulnerable species is considerable, and if you have a soul and a spare 3 minutes, you really should watch this!
This unique recorded event took place last December. The joint research trip to Andros by the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab and NOAA was led by Dr. Dean Grubbs. The purpose of the research was to discover evidence of any exchange between the sawfish population in the U.S. and Bahamas. You can find out more about the research and scientists at the FSUCML website. And if you want to get involved and take part in an expedition, click GET INTO THE FIELD
RH SAWFISH PAGE – pics, facts and vids, including how the rostrum is used in feeding
* ‘Awful’ had the same meaning as awesome, historically – cf dreadful. It did not mean a bad film or a lousy restaurant.This recent photograph by Adam Rees of Scuba Works was taken in Florida waters. It is one of an astonishing school of 8 smalltooth sawfish, the largest group Adam has ever encountered.
Credits: Header, Grant Johnson @60poundbullet (Bimini), with many thanks; BNT / Buzz Cox (Grand Bahama); Adam Rees / Scuba Works
Sandy Point is the absolute end. Literally. Abaco’s only highway runs 120 miles from north to south. Towards the end, it hooks around to the west, then back north a short distance to the small community. You can drive on right through the settlement, with its criss-crossing side streets. Best stop driving when you see the ocean: you’ve run out of road.
Sandy Point is home to the renowned Nancy’s culinary establishment, maybe a half-hour drive from the previous place you could get a meal along the highway. It’s that remote. The menu is elementary, the Kaliks are cold, the view from the verandah is out to the wide sea and the pelicans smashing down into the water off the sand bars. And sooner or later you will find a dog’s head in your lap. This is not part of an unordered Abaconian special menu with a Godfather theme; it’s a potcake looking for chicken. Or fish. Or chips. Or anything edible really.
The origins of these ‘community dogs’ – no one’s and everyone’s – are many and various, just like their assorted shapes, sizes and colours. You can read about their history, the reason for their name, and about ‘Amigo’, the most famous potcake of all, HERE. There are many of these semi-feral dogs on the island, slinking around the settlements and even the main town. They have a tough life. They are generally ignored or shooed away. But in Sandy Point at least, they seem healthy and well-fed. Nancy’s may have something to do with it…
The potcakes of Sandy Point make the beach and the sea their playground. If you walk along the strand and round the point, they may tag along for a while. Then they get bored and rush off. When the tide is low, they will trot along the exposed sandbars right out into the sea. Or chase each other into the sea. Or maybe just relax and watch an endemic Bahama swallow flit past.
There are active potcake rescue schemes aimed at rehoming strays. Spay and neuter clinics are regularly held. The aim seems to be to keep the numbers down with benign control rather than anything more radical. And rehomed animals make excellent pets, being “intelligent, loyal, calm, and resilient”. I’m guessing the potcakes of Sandy Point reckon they have a pretty good life as it is.
AND FINALLY… here is a video with a difference: Salty Dog the potcake goes mad on a beach – wearing a GoPro! Great idea…
To be honest, I haven’t done these fine birds justice. Barely a mention of them for 3 years. Too much else on the land and in the water to choose from. I posted some of my photos from an outing to Sandy Point HERE. And the kestrel kinsman MERLIN got some attention a while later. Time to make amends with some more AMKE.
As many or most of the images show, utility wires (also posts) are a favourite perch for kestrels. They get an unimpeded view of the only thing that really matters in their lives – outside the breeding season, of course – PREY.
In my experience it’s quite rare to see AMKEs on the ground – unless they are in the act of ripping up some hapless rodent pinned to the earth. I was with photographer Tom Sheley when he captured this fine bird in the grass.
Tom also took this outstanding photo, on an overcast day, of a kestrel feeding its fledgeling a large insect.
Treasure Cay and its surrounding area makes for a good day’s birding. Although South Abaco, below Marsh Harbour, is the go-to location, TC has plenty of scope for a great variety of species from shore birds to songbirds – including the occasional Kirtland’s warbler. The golf course pond at hole #11 is well worth checking out (with permission at the club house, rarely declined unless there’s an event of some sort). So is the large brackish lake system where you may well find herons and egrets. There’s been a rare (for Abaco) pearly-eyed thrasher there recently. And you may find yourself being watched by a kestrel from a vantage point.
A richly-coloured specimen
A kestrel in streamlined flight, with its feet tucked tightly under its body
Bird on the Wire
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
One of Leonard Cohen’s standards, and a song covered by almost everyone from Johnny Cash to Heathen Gonads*, Bird on the Wire was on the album Songs from a Room (1969). It was a favourite of Cohen’s, who once said “I always begin my concert with this song”. Covers range from the excellent via good, interesting, and strange to outright bizarre. Joe Bonamassa’s take on it (as Bird on a Wire) on Black Rock, is certainly… unusual**.
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 10); Charles Skinner (2); Peter Mantle (3, 9); Tom Sheley 4, 5, 6); Nina Henry (7); Tom Reed (8)
The bluehead wrasse (or blue-headed wrasse) Thalassoma bifasciatum is a denizen of the coral reefs of the tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. This bright little 4-inch fish is… a wrasse with a blue head. No more and no less. Unless it’s a juvenile. Then it is mainly bright yellow. It’s similar to BLUE TANG (aka ‘the Disney Dory’), which starts life bright yellow and grows up to be blue.
The species may be found singly, in pairs or small groups, or in schools. They have an important role to play in the life of the reef. They are CLEANER FISH, vital to the health and wellbeing of the larger species they attend to, and thus of the reef itself. This is ‘cleaning symbiosis’, a relationship of mutual benefit. The big fish get cleaned; the little fish have a useful function and – importantly for them – therefore don’t get eaten.
Having said that, blueheads are of course fair game as a snack for species that aren’t in the market for their cleaning services. And, unfairly, some species that are content to let cleaner gobies runtle around their gills and mouths are not so considerate of the wrasse. Some types of grouper and moray eel, for example.
TELL US EXACTLY SEVEN BLUEHEAD WRASSE FACTS
Juveniles can alter the intensity of their colour, stripes & bars
The bluehead wrasse is a ‘protogynous sequential hermaphrodite’
All are born female**. Some change sex to male during maturation (see below)
Food includes zooplankton, small molluscs and small crustaceans…
…and parasites / other juicy bits (fungal growths, anyone?) from bigger fish
The main threat to the species is coral reef degradation or destruction
The bright colours invite aquarium use, but the trade is not a significant one
** Some sources suggest some are born male and remain male. I’m not sure which is right
A juvenile bluehead (with feather-duster worms) – mostly yellow, with a pale underside
THE REMARKABLE SEX LIFE OF THE BLUEHEAD WRASSE
This is an unavoidable topic, I’m afraid. The bluehead’s sex life is the most interesting thing about them, and this is no time to be prudish. It is the subject of extensive scientific research, not all of which I have read since I decided to write about the species last night. Like many human relationships, “it’s complicated”, but in a conch shell it boils down to this:
To recap, BWs are born female and as they mature, some become male.
Males reach an ‘initial phase’ when they can breed in groups with females
Some males grow even larger & reach full colouration. This is the ‘terminal phase’
These large males aggressively chase away smaller ones & seek females to pair with
Their state of readiness (as it were) is signalled by colour changes
This behaviour is similar to that seen in many city centres in a Saturday night
The smaller fish have one bonus – their sperm count is higher than a dominant male
Prozac tests have shown that the drug reduces a dominant male’s aggression
As the excellent organisation OCEANA puts it: Bluehead Wrasses may reproduce in four different ways throughout their lifetime: 1) as a female in a group spawning event; 2) as a female in a pair spawning event within the territory of a large male; 3) as a small male in a group spawning event; and 4) as a dominant, terminal male in a pair spawning event within its own territory.
A cropped still from a video I took at Fowl Cay marine reserve. I’ve looked at dozens of images online and not found one that was all blue with a yellow end to its tail fin. Maybe it’s not a BW at all. Or it’s a different type of fish completely. Or perhaps it is just an all-blue alpha male.
Credits & Sources: Melinda Riger; Adam Rees; James St John; Oregon State edu / Pinterest; Wiki images; self; Oceana; IUCN; magpie pickings
A bluehead wrasse passes the time of day with a grunt