THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO


Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO

There’s a strange affinity between humans and whales. Humans seem to think so, anyway – and whales seem to tolerate them amiably, perhaps now that the decimation of their populations by humans is (largely) a thing of the past. The Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular are in the mainstream of progressive cetacean research, led by the BMMRO at Sandy Point.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

One of the speciality research species is the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. These magnificent creatures are deep divers, and although they are found in many parts of the world, the Bahamas is one of only 3 locations with a significant population for study. Most of the whales here were photographed within sight of land (and a few with the Castaway Island Disney Cruise Ship visible on the horizon!).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

I’ve been lucky enough to be on the BMMRO research vessel on a beaked whale outing – and luckier still that we were able to spend plenty of time with a group of them, including some males. The header image is of a mature male with his huge teeth that protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and in time become encrusted with barnacles.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

The whales were quite undisturbed by our presence – indeed they behaved much like dolphins, circling the boat and swimming under it; moving away and returning. This was an opportunity to count the whales, to identify those that had already been recorded, and to document any new ones. Each whale has its own unique pattern of marks, striations and in some cases healed wounds. The pair below are a good example.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Also, the whales have individually distinctive dorsal fins, with nicks and tears that also act as a means of identification. These can often be made out from a distance with powerful binoculars or photographed with a long lens for later analysis (this ID method also works reliably for dolphins).

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Beaked whales often bear the healed scars from the gouging bites of COOKIE-CUTTER SHARKS, a vicious little species that I recently featured. The distinctive circular scars on the back of the whale below result from encounters with these unpleasant creatures.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Finally, the photo below. It has no merit, photographically speaking, but I love the way that sometimes a ‘risk’ shot – into the sun, perhaps – produces rather magical effects. The unexpected ‘sea stars’ were a bonus!

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / BMMRO

BONAPARTE’S GULLS ON ABACO


Bonaparte's Gull (Basar, wiki)

BONAPARTE’S GULLS ON ABACO

The Bonaparte’s gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia is one of the smallest gulls, and is found mainly in Canada and northern United States, though vagrants sometimes end up as far away as Europe. And Abaco. These birds are considered very uncommon winter residents on Abaco (categorised WR4). Yet within the last couple of months Elwood Bracey saw an amazing 4 in Treasure Cay harbour… Milton Harris reported seeing one at Hope Town harbour… Keith Kemp saw a couple on South Abaco (2 locations)… Eugene Hunn reported 1 on the Sandy Point dock… then suddenly there were 3 on the beach at Delphi. They have hung around there, too – let’s hope that all these birds find their way back to their breeding grounds safely. They have quite a journey ahead of them.

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The species is named for Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French ornithologist and nephew to the French emperor (see below for more about him).  The philadelphia part of its Latin designation oddly results from the location from which the original ‘type specimen’ was collected (see below for the reason). This is not unlike the Cape May warbler, so named for the location of the original specimen, yet not recorded there again for more than a century (and still quite rare)…

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The gulls shown here are in their winter plumage, with the characteristic dark blotch behind the eye. In the breeding season, they acquire smart slate-black hoods:

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (D Gordon Robertson wiki)

 10 BONAPARTE’S GULL FACTS TO TELL YOUR GRANDCHILDREN

  • Graceful in flight, resembling terns as much as gulls
  • Monotypic: the sole representative of its taxonomic subgroup
  • Males and females have very much the same colouring
  • Believed to be monogamous
  • Showy breeders, with much display, swooping, diving, yelling at each other etc
  • Typically (and ungull-like) they nest in trees, preferring conifers eg jack pine
  • Share nest-building and parenting duties
  • Capable of considerable aggression to protect their nests / chicks
  • Have been known to live 18 years
  • The only bird species with an Emperor’s name (prove me wrong!**)

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

We saw these birds on the beach most days, usually just 2 of the 3 at any one time. They were quite shy and hard to get close to, however subtly. And they kept on the move – except when they decided to have a rest.

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

TELL US MORE ABOUT PRINCE BONAPARTEBonaparte, Charles Lucien (1803-1857)Bonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino & Musignano 1803 – 1853

Bonaparte was a French biologist and ornithologist, and the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson. And presumably that’s where he found his specimen gull.

Bonaparte studied the ornithology of the United States, and updated Wilson’s work American Ornithology. His revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. He was a keen supporter of a (then unknown) ornithologist John James Audubon. Rather sweetly, he created the genus Zenaida, after his wife, applying it to the White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica,  Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. He himself was later honoured in the name ‘Bonaparte’s Gull’.

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

RELATED POSTS

GULL SPECIES ON ABACO

THE PIONEER NATURALISTS

Credits: excellent header image from ‘Basar’; breeding plumage gull by D Gordon Robertson; all the rest, Keith Salvesen

**Emperor Penguins don’t count!

STOP PRESS some of the other BOGUs mentioned in Para 1, by Elwood Bracey, and 2 from Keith Kemp

SHARKS! APEX PREDATORS IN THE BAHAMAS


Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

SHARKS! APEX PREDATORS IN THE BAHAMAS

Immersion in current affairs these days brings inevitable acquaintance with sharks of various kinds, and all best avoided. Let’s have a look the real thing, the apex marine predators that in the Bahamas are all around you once you leave the safety of the shore. I haven’t featured them for ages, and it’s always a pleasure – a slight thrill, even.

Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

I don’t do scuba, indeed my swimming would easily be outclassed by a competent four-year old. But I see these creatures when I’m out fishing; or as they hang in the breaking waves off the Delphi beach, watching intently for a meal.

Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

We watch them (and stingrays) from the balcony as they lazily make their way round the margins of the wide bay, from little ‘uns to (recently) a huge bull shark. We watch as, when someone is in the water, they change course slightly to pass by them. So far, anyway…

Feeding sharksSharks feeding in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

The one that got away… (a sad sight)Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

I once took a rather primitive underwater camera with me while snorkelling in Fowl Cays National Park. This was several years ago, when I believed a cheap 2mb camera might turn me into one of the Blue Planet team. I was wrong. The shark I saw, apparently some 20 miles away (when I examined the image) – well, that’s its tail, top left…

Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Just to look at these images is to understand that when you are in the sea, you are in the sharks’ environment. They are the masters of it. They have their rules, and they are not much interested in you… unless you break them. Or so the theory goes.

Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

This fine shark below exemplifies the power and the menace of the shark. A creature to be admired, but also to be respected.

Sharks in the Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

All fantastic photos: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

SCALY TALES: CURLY-TAILED LIZARDS ON ABACO


Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

SCALY TALES: CURLY-TAILED LIZARDS ON ABACO

The northern curly-tailed lizard Leiocephalus carinatus, to give it its full name, resembles a tiny dragon with a twist in its tail. These little critters bask in the sun, or scuttle away into holes and crevices as you approach them. I suspect that even a confirmed herpophobic would find some charm in them. They are, of course, completely harmless to humans. 

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Charles Skinner)

Surprisingly, the Bahamas is home not just to one but five different curly-tail species, and nine sub-species. Broadly-speaking, the variants are found on different and specific islands and have discrete local markings. Mostly they are brownish, but they may also be grey or with a greenish tinge like this one I recently photographed.

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen) Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Curly-tail males, being very territorial, turn somewhat aggressive around breeding time, which is basically most the the year, from February to October. Behaviours indicative of their territorial claims include tail curling / uncurling (of course), head-bobbing, strutting about in an agitated way and inflating the sides of their necks in a threatening kind of way. The tiny-tails, 2″ long when born, are known as ‘hatchlings’.

An impressive ‘double curly’ by the pool at DelphiCurly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

THREATS TO CURLY TAILS

According to the Bahamas National Trust BNT, the main dangers to the curly-tails of the Bahamas are:

  • Dogs, cats, rats and introduced predators such as raccoons
  • Collection for the pet trade – curly tails are unprotected by CITES listing (also cute)
  • Collection of the rarer endemics by reptile enthusiasts seeking ‘exotics’
  • Development and habitat destruction (though it is noted that curly tails seem to adjust well in developed areas)

A curly tails sloughs its skin as it grows, as with snakes and other reptilesCurly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Charles Skinner)

WHY THE CURLY TAIL?

  • As mentioned above, for use in territorial posturing
  • In courtship displays by males to attract females (luckily a method not available to humans)
  • As a response to predators, confusing an attacker with movement at both ends
  • As a last resort, to detach to aid escape (the tail re-grows)
  • For fun and just because they can grow one and you cannot

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: all photos, Keith Salvesen except #2 & #6, Charles Skinner; BNT

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD: RARE LEUCISTIC VARIANT ON ABACO


Leucistic Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD

RARE LEUCISTIC VARIANT ON ABACO

The header image is of a Bahama mockingbird recently photographed by keen-eyed Abaco birder Keith Kemp. It is a thing of wonder and beauty, exceptionally rare and possibly unique. I can find no other example of a leucistic bird of this species online.

This is not Keith’s first leucistic bird discovery on Abaco either – a while back he found a leucistic Western spindalis. You can read more about leucism and its distinction from albinism, and see a number of other examples of leucism including a white turkey vulture HERE

Leucistic & Normal Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

Even more astonishingly, Keith managed to get a photo of the ‘white’ bird and a ‘normal’ bird together (above). The difference is startling. Below is a fine photo by Peter Mantle of a Bahama mockingbird, as you would expect to see one – basically brown with a pale, flecked front / underside.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)

LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?

I’ll recap what I wrote in the earlier post linked above. First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. For example:

Albino Rabbit (pinterest)

Albino Fwuffy Bwunny Wabbit

WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?

Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused by pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally pale or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected – so, not pink. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.

KK’s leucistic Western spindalis, an example of partial or ‘pied’ leucism

Leucistic Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp) Leucistic Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

So there you have it: another extreme rarity for Abaco, and a further example of how rewarding – and surprising – birding on Abaco can be. To repeat the link to the more detailed article on leucism in birds, you can find with (*distraction alert*) some music and inappositely comedic material thrown in HERE

All photos Keith Kemp except the ‘normal’ bird, Peter Mantle

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS REVISITED ON ABACO


LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS REVISITED ON ABACO

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER Myiarchus sagrae is one of 3 permanent resident ‘tyrant’ flycatchers found on Abaco, the others being the CUBAN PEWEE and the LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD. In the summer, they are joined by another commonly-found species, the GRAY KINGBIRD. There are other flycatchers, but they are seasonal, transient or vagrant, and far less common. 

Two classic LSF poses: ‘head-on-one-side’ & ‘watching-for-insects’

I have just been watching one of these frankly rather very cute little birds as it patiently watched me watching it. I wasn’t very close, and I kept my distance because it seemed a little wary and I didn’t want to blow the chance of a couple of photos – the familiar ‘bird-flies-off-just-as-shutter-pressed’ syndrome.

Sized between the little cuban pewee, with its diagnostic crescent eyes, and the larger loggerhead kingbird (see below), the LSF shares with them the ability to raise its crest. I was luckily able to catch this on camera – and also some singing.

As the name suggests, the species is primarily insectivore, fly-catching in the undergrowth and low scrub or ‘hawking’ from branches. However these birds also eat berries and seeds. Their call is a high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’. Here’s a Bahamian example.

Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto

The LSF’s natural habitat is coppice and rough scrubland. It builds its nest in a tree cavity or similar natural hole, and usually lays a clutch of two to four eggs. And this morning by coincidence, Abaco birder Rhonda Pearce posted a photo of a LSF nest with its eggs.

ID CONFUSION

Here are the two flycatcher species, mentioned above, that might cause confusion:

CUBAN PEWEE

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris (1798–1871)

For those who may be wondering who – or what – a ‘La Sagra’ is, the answer is: a multi-talented Spanish botanist. He was also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). At one time he lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be an oxymoron…)

[I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, or a small comet – all of which meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…]

To continue with the occasional PHILATELIC theme of this blog, here are stamps from the Cayman Islands and Cuba featuring the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. The Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the man who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the LSF. The colouring is… somewhat unrealistic!

Credits: All photos Keith Salvesen except nest (Rhonda Pearce) and loggerhead kingbird (Mrs RH); recording by Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto; stamps O/S

AGGRO ON ABACO: ‘PARROTS OF THE CARIBBEAN’


Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

AGGRO ON ABACO: GOTCHA!

‘PARROTS OF THE CARIBBEAN’

Mmmmm… gumbo limbo berries at Bahama Palm Shores. My favourite evening snack as we parrots head south to the National Park in the evening. 

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

There’s a flock of about 60 of us tonight. I hope I’m left alone to get stuck in – there are plenty of trees to choose from here…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Uh oh! That was never going to happen. We are a noisy rowdy gang, and no one gets to eat alone for long…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

This is really bad news… this guy’s hungry, and he’s swooped in higher up the branch, so he’s got an advantage.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Time to take a stand. I’m getting on a level with him. I was here first – these are MY berries… But he’s getting shouty. And there’s aggro in the air…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Right, I’m backing off here. I never did much like gumbo limbo berries, now I come to think of it… And he looks mean as hell. But wait – I’m not just going to back down. Let’s give him a little surprise to remember me by.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

GOTCHA!

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Photo sequence taken at BPS (North) around 17.00, when often the parrots flock to the gardens and surrounding coppice on their way home in the south of the island; raucous recording also made at BPS on an earlier visit. All ©Keith Salvesen