BAHAMA WOODSTARS: JEWELS IN ABACO’S CROWN


Bahama Woodstar Hummingbird, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

BAHAMA WOODSTARS: JEWELS IN ABACO’S CROWN

Abaco is spoilt for birds. What other island in the word has its very own population of ground-nesting parrots? (Clue: none). How many others provide a secluded winter home for the rare Kirtland’s Warbler? Or a safe habitat for piping plovers – more than 300 individual birds recorded last year, nearly 4% of the total population? Or host 32 warbler species in the winter to supplement the 5 resident species? Or record a visit from a black-browed albatross? Or enjoy 4 out of 5 of the Bahamian endemic species (no longer the Bahama Oriole sadly, now confined to specific areas of Andros). 

Bahama Woodstar Hummingbird, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

A while back I held a poll for Abaco’s favourite bird, with about 10 contenders. Some were quick to point out that their own personal favourite was not an option, but I had to take a fairly broad brush approach. On the podium, gold went to the Bahama Woodstar; silver to the parrot; and bronze to the western spindalis. I’m in a genial mood today, having caught a fair-sized wild brown trout on my third (part) day of stalking it (over 2 weeks), on the smallest fly in my box (size 18). I put it straight back of course. Respect! So in a spirit of cordiality, here are some epic shots of Abaco’s democratically elected favourite bird… at least according to the poll.

BIRD POLL FV2

The two images above were taken by the legendary Bruce Hallett, author of the go-to field guide for the Bahamas, which no birder should be without. Many of his wonderful photos  appear in THE BIRDS OF ABACO, and he was a steady guiding hand during the preparation of the book. 

This brilliant photo of a female woodstar was taken by Tara Lavallee of Bahama Palm Shores, and for composition, clarity, colour and sheer charm it was a must for inclusion in the book.

Bahama Woodstar, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

Another major photographic contributor was Tom Sheley. I had the pleasure of spending time on Abaco with Tom during expeditions deep into backcountry to find and photograph birds. He had two cameras, one with a long lens. The other had a very long lens. The results he obtained – showcased in the book – were outstanding. His woodstar graces the front cover.

Bahama Woodstar male, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)Bahama Woodstar male, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Tom also took a delicate little study of a female woodstar feeding, one of my favourite photosBahama Woodstar female, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Bruce Hallett, Tara Lavallee, Tom Sheley

 

JACKKNIFE FISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (30)


Jackknife Fish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

JACKKNIFE FISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH 30

The rather uncomfortably ‘double-k’  Jackknife fish is one of 3 types of similar drumfish subspecies of Equetus found in Bahamas waters. The others are the High Hat and the SPOTTED DRUMFISH – the first fish featured in this series. Each of these drumfish species has juveniles that are elegant and delicate, becoming more conventionally fishlike as they grow to adulthood, as the final image shows.

Jackknife fish (juv) ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

I always want to stick a hyphen in to separate each k: jack-knife fish. I think it’s an English thing. I have seen, at the other extreme, ‘jack-knifefish’, which looks most weird of all. Checking online, jackknife fish wins by a distance as the correct spelling. 

Jackknife Fish (juv) ©Melinda Riger @GB Scuba

These little fish, typically between 6 and 9 inches, inhabit the coral reefs of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Bahamas. Juveniles eat plankton and similar organism, graduating to small crabs and shrimps as adults.

Jackknife Fish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

A FULLY GROWN JACKKNIFE FISH (NOAA)Jackknife fish adult_NOAA_Photo_Library

Like other drumfishes, the jackknife can produce ‘croaking’ or ‘drumming sounds. This involves the fish beating its abdominal muscles against its swim bladder. There’s a lot more to it than my rather simplistic summary, but it’s probably as much as anyone needs or wants to know… The primary reason is believed to relate to mating. Other reasons include ‘low-level aggression’, and keeping in touch with each other in turbid waters.  I prefer the unscientific theory that sheer happiness makes them croak. Here’s a short video of a happy juvenile Jack knife fish (that’s yet another spelling variant…)

RELATED POSTS

Credits: Melinda Riger / GrandBahama Scuba; NOAA

THE BAHAMAS: A STAMPING GROUND FOR DOLPHINS


Dolphin leaping, Abaco (BMMRO)

THE BAHAMAS: A STAMPING GROUND FOR DOLPHINS

I have commented before on the excellent wildlife stamps produced by the Bahamas Philatelic Bureau, and there is a fairly comprehensive page featuring many of the special issues HERE. Recently, dolphins were treated to their own set of stamps, in conjunction with the BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation).  Four dolphin species are showcased, with a fifth species (Risso’s Dolphin) shown on the commemorative Official First Day Cover (replete with the BMMRO logo). The release date was 31 March 2016.

Bahamas Dolphin Stamps 2016

l_bmmro 25th ann_20160304134635-1

The stamps are available as sets of 4 or of course individually. In a newsletter earlier this year, the BMMRO included some fascinating information about their valuable work – in particular with whales – and about the individual dolphin species featured in this very special philatelic issue. This was also published by the stamp producers, Pobjoy Mint Stamp Division.

BMMRO is a Bahamian non-profit organisation whose mission is to promote the conservation of marine mammals in The Bahamas through scientific research and educational outreach. Since 1991, BMMRO has been conducting small vessel surveys primarily around Abaco Island to document the occurrence, distribution and abundance of marine mammals in The Bahamas.

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BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS Tursiops truncatus

These are the most common marine mammals seen on the Bahama banks. It should be noted, however, that there are at least two distinct “breeding populations” or “ecotypes” of this species: coastal bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the shallow waters of the banks; and oceanic bottlenose dolphins found in pelagic waters. These populations diverged genetically several hundred thousand years ago and have since developed different physiological adaptations to their respective marine environments. The coastal ecotype is smaller in length reaching just over 8 feet and has a relatively larger dorsal fin and pectoral fins which helps them to maneuver more readily around rocks and reefs to catch fish, and to regulate their internal body temperature (the temperature of the shallow Bank waters fluctuates much more than the deeper Atlantic Ocean). The coastal dolphins do not travel much beyond the bank edge and live in small resident communities. The deeper diving oceanic ecotype can reach 10 feet or more in length, are usually seen in larger groups and appear to have a more extensive range with movements documented between Abaco, Bimini and Exuma Sound.

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ATLANTIC SPOTTED DOLPHINS Stenella frontalis

These dolphins are not born with spots, but actually accumulate them as they mature, becoming quite mottled-looking as adults. Hence, young spotted dolphins are often confused with bottlenose dolphins, and sometimes the two species will interact, which adds to the confusion. Although they can reach almost the same length as bottlenose dolphins, they have a smaller girth and thus body weight. Atlantic spotted dolphins are a year-round resident species in The Bahamas. Individuals photo-identified 20 years ago in Abaco can still be seen in the same areas today. They are commonly seen in groups of 20-50 dolphins in the oceanic waters where they feed on flying fish and squid, and rarely venture on to the bank. However, along the western edges of Little and Great Bahama Banks this species can regularly be found on the bank during the daytime where they come to rest and socialise.

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PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS Stenella attenuata

This species is more slender in body shape than Atlantic spotted dolphins, and also have a distinctive dark dorsal cape, which sweeps from their rostrum to behind their dorsal fin. Like Atlantic spotted dolphins, they accumulate their spots with age, which allows researchers to readily document age-classes within groups. This species is strictly oceanic in its distribution. Pantropical spotted dolphins are not as frequently sighted as Atlantic spotted dolphins in The Bahamas. They occur in groups of 50-100 dolphins and are often seen engaging in acrobatics, such as making high leaps out of the water, and bow-riding.

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ROUGH-TOOTHED DOLPHINS Steno bredanensis

These dolphins are dark grey in colour with a long beak and prominent white lips. Their lower jaw and belly can sometimes be a pinkish colour. They reach just over 8 feet in length. They are an oceanic species and although appear to be rare in some parts of The Bahamas, can be regularly seen in the Tongue of the Ocean where they occur year round. Some individuals have been re-sighted in this area over the past ten years. They are typically found in groups of about 20 animals, but are sometimes in larger mixed-species aggregations of several hundred dolphins.

Risso's Dolphin - BMMRONot on a stamp but shown on the First Day Cover

RISSO’S DOLPHIN Grampus griseus

These are large light grey dolphins that can reach over 13 feet in length, and have a relatively tall, dark dorsal fin. Adults are typically covered with overlapping white scars caused by the teeth of their con-specifics making them look quite battered. They have a rounded head, lacking a beak, but have a deep vertical crease down the center of the forehead. As they mature, their forehead becomes prominently white, and as such they are one of the easiest species to recognize at sea. Risso’s dolphins are commonly seen in oceanic waters in the northern Bahamas each winter and spring, primarily on the Atlantic side of the islands. It is unknown where these groups range the rest of the year, but some individuals have been seen off Abaco repeatedly over the years.

RELATED POSTS

BAHAMAS WILDLIFE STAMPS PAGE

PHILATELY WILL GET YOU…

ABACO BIRD STAMPS

Bottlenose Dolphins, Rocky Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen : BMMRO) 7

Credits: BMMRO for relevant text & images except last (RH), Pobjoy Mint, Bahamas Philatelic Bureau

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (10): FLYING GURNARD


Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) 10: FLYING GURNARD

Imagine that you are swimming along resplendent in your snorkelling gear (me) – or in scuba gear for the advanced swimmer (you). There, below you, camouflaged against the sea bottom is a fish. A strange-shaped brown sort of creature with odd side fins. As it progresses over the gravelly sand, your immediate reaction is ‘what the…?’ Its fins seem to be turning into… wings. Like this:

Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

Yes, it’s a flying gurnard. Unlike flying fish, it can’t actually fly through the air. But once its wings are fully spread, it certainly looks as though it could.

Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)Flying Gurnard (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE WINGS IF THE THING CAN’T FLY?

This gurnard species usually gets around using its ventral fins as ‘legs’, with the pectoral fins (‘wings’) close to the body. There seem to be several possible reasons for possessing the ‘sudden-deployment-of-flashy-wings’ superpower. 

  • It surprises and deters predators by movement, turning prospective prey into an apparently different creature
  • Bright or lurid colouring may be a deterrent warning of a foul-tasting or poisonous species  (APOSEMATISM)
  • A creature may actually be harmless and even tasty (as here) but may appear to be unpalateable or poisonous (BATESIAN MIMICRY)
  • In any event, the wings enable the fish to take off from the sea bottom and travel faster by ‘flying’ thought the water to escape a predator

Dactylopterus_volitans Flying Gurnard (cralize wiki)

I had a quick look to see how  scientists in history had depicted this extraordinary fish. The earliest illustration I could find was taken from “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische (General natural history of fishes),” a 12-volume encyclopedia by author/illustrator Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), which described all fish species then known to science (and 267 previously unknown) (© AMNH\D. Finnin) sourced from ‘Hyperallergic’
Flying Gurnard

Here’s a short video of a flying gurnard on the move, from ‘Sia Big Fish’

Credits: All main images Adam Rees / Scuba Works with many thanks, except final one ‘cralize wiki’; Hyperallergic for the historic image; Sia Big Fish for the video

INDEPENDENCE DAY… FOR TINY FUZZY FLUFF BALLS


Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

INDEPENDENCE DAY… FOR TINY PIPING FLUFF BALLS

piping-ploverHappy July 4th to all those for whom the date has special significance (aside from it being plenty of people’s birthday). I’m celebrating the occasion by exercising my personal independence with a post that wrote itself. Mary Lenahan has done all the hard graft. Her photos and captions of a day in the field with her student Alex, in the company of CONSERVE WILDLIFE FOUNDATION NJ savants Todd Pover and Michelle Stantial merely needed to be arranged in traditional Rolling Harbour format, with a few additional comments.

    BIRDS IN THE HAND

piping-plover“My student Alex and I were invited by Todd Pover (Conserve Wildlife of NJ Beach Nesting Bird Project Manager) to help out with some piping plover work in Avalon the other morning. We were lucky to observe the plover family from afar and close up as Michelle Stantial (Wildlife Biologist from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) and her technicians collected data on the week old plover chicks. What a thrill when we were able to release the fluffy chicks back to their parents in the Avalon dunes! Alex even took the time to help Todd take down a plover predator exclosure and to retrieve a balloon from the beach. What a fantastic and life changing experience for a budding scientist and her bird-nerd teacher. It is my hope that these endangered plovers overcome the many threats and obstacles they face and survive to migrate to their wintering grounds in the Bahamas”.

RH NOTE: 5 of the identified banded piping plovers that overwintered on Abaco were from NJ preserves. 2 of them (including the famous ‘Tuna’) were actually banded by Michelle herself last summer, with Emily Heiser.

Alex and Michelle Stantial discuss the bands on a piping plover chickPiping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

Alex cradles a 1 week old chick before releasing him/her back to its parentsAlex and Michelle Stantial discuss the bands on the piping plover chick

Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

Michelle Stantial places two fuzzy fluff balls into Mary’s hands for release!Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

Fuzzy babiez!Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ) Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

Go find your parents! Piping Plover chick in the hand for banding (CWFNJ)

piping-ploverThese tiny birds, weighing a couple of grams maybe, were one week old. Already, they were nearing their own independence: still learning the arts of life from their parents, but fast becoming mini autonomous units too. To give you an idea how fast they develop, the first “fall” PIPL found on Abaco last year were spotted by Woody Bracey on July 31 on Green Turtle Cay mudflats – 6 birds in a group. Tuna, born in June, was first seen on Abaco in August, having undertaken a journey of well over 1000 miles.

ANSWERS the answers to the questions are as follows: ‘no’; ‘no’; and ‘not in the slightest’.

QUESTIONS the questions are: ‘don’t the parents reject a chick that has been handled during weighing, measuring and banding’?; ‘aren’t the chicks terrified and traumatised by the whole process’?; and ‘don’t the bands hamper their foraging / flying abilities or otherwise cause lifelong alarm and despondency’? 

The field work on the beach involves more than measuring and banding the chicks. Exclosures erected to exclude predators from the nest areas need to be regularly checked, and removed when the time is right (below)

Piping Plover nest exclosure, New Jersey (CWFNJ)

Alex finds a stray balloon very close to plover nest. BALLOONS BLOW and should never be released into the environment! This balloon could have been mistaken as food by a turtle or a whale, becoming trapped in the animal’s stomach, causing it to become very ill and die. The strings of balloons have been found tangled around the necks, bodies and legs of birds, causing pain, injury and death. Don’t release balloons or better yet, don’t buy them! Alex finds a deflated balloon on a plover beach

RELATED LINKS

ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH

CONSERVE WILDLIFE FOUNDATION NJ

BALLOONS BLOW

Many thanks to Mary Lenahan, Michelle Stantial, Todd Pover and of course Alex for being happy to share their experiences! And Birdorable for the little guys…

BIRDS: BIG MOUTHFULS, VARIED DIETS & PLAYING WITH FOOD…


Anhinga eating fish (Phil Lanoue)

BIRDS: BIG MOUTHFULS, VARIED DIETS & PLAYING WITH FOOD…

Anhingas are so-called ‘darters’. You won’t have seen one on Abaco. Or else, if you have, you’ve had a rare avian treat. These cormorant-like birds are far from unusual in Florida, all round the Gulf of Mexico, on Cuba and generally in the West Indies, and throughout the northern parts of South America. But somehow they have only very rarely bothered to wing their way across the relatively short expanse of water that separates their usual stamping ground in Florida and the northern Bahamas. I very rarely post about non-Abaco birds, unless for comparison. However, on the slender basis that one or two anhinga sightings have been made on Abaco since 1950 (they are classified as V5, i.e. vanishingly rare vagrants) , I am including PHIL LANOUE’S wonderful photo of one trying to get a gob-stoppingly large spiny fish down its throat. And making that an excuse to show more of his wonderful bird photos, including one of his renowned sequences.

BIG MOUTHFULS

By way of contrast to the anhinga above, this brown pelican has opened wide, but has disappointingly little to show for his huge gulp. Just a tiddler, and it really doesn’t look like it will manage to jump out of that capacious gullet…

Brown Pelican fishing (Phil Lanoue)

Here’s a better meal: a great egret has got hold of a massive shrimp. It won’t have any trouble getting it down…Great Egret eating fish (Phil Lanoue)

VARIED DIETS

As the great egret above demonstrates, fish are not the only prey species for the ‘fish-eating’ birds. These cormorants are happily mixing up their diet.Cormorant - varied diet 1 (Phil Lanoue)Cormorant - varied diet 3 (Phil Lanoue)

I’ll take a side-order of salad with that…Cormorant feeding (Phil Lanoue)Cormorant - varied diet 5 (Phil Lanoue)

PLAYING WITH FOOD

Regrettably, the cormorant with the eel, above, decided to play with its food before eventually swallowing it. Here are three more images from Phil’s sequence of the Eel Meal.

Chucking my dinner around a bitCormorant - varied diet 4 (Phil Lanoue)

Wearing my food as a hatCormorant eating eel (Phil Lanoue)

My whole meal seems to have gone to my head…Cormorant - varied diet 6 (Phil Lanoue)

All phantastic photos by Phil. Check out his website https://phillanoue.com

CONCH QUEST: ABACO’S MOST VERSATILE GASTROPOD


Conch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco

CONCH QUEST: ABACO’S MOST VERSATILE GASTROPOD

The conch. Such a fascinating gastropod, and with so many uses both culinary and decorative. In certain cultures, religiously significant. A rudimentary musical instrument for a shell.  And did I mention delicious? 

Live conchs enjoy motoring around uninhibitedly on the sea floor, keeping an eye out…Conch on the move ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy Conch Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury) copy Conch in shell ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Conchs also enjoy racing each other…Conch race ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

“Eat my dust…”Conch Trail ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Conch Pearl – one of the rarest natural pearls in the worldConch Pearl (Ambergris Caye Beize)

A conch spiral close-up

Conch close-up, Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

Conch shells just lie around the place at Sandy PointConch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2Conch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3

Conchs are widely used for serving cocktails or as ashtrays in the best beach bars*Conch Shells, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

*This is a lie. Sorry about that. I meant to say “make prefect table decorations”

Image credits: Keith Salvesen / RH (1, 9, 10 ,11); Melinda Riger / GB Scuba (2, 4, 5, 6); Charmaine Albury (3); AmbergrisCaye.com (7); Rhonda Pearce (8)