BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO


Black-legged Kittiwake (Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org / Wiki

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO

I recently posted about the sighting of an entirely new bird species for Abaco, the CINNAMON TEAL. Almost at once, another species was sighted – not a new one, but in the next category of rarity, the V5 and V4. ‘Vagrant’ birds that have been credibly recorded on Abaco / in Abaco waters fewer than 5 times – and maybe only once – are classified as V5 or ‘accidentals’.  Birds seen a few times more than that, but irregularly and unpredictably (‘casuals’) are V4s. One such is the fine black-legged kittiwake, also known as the seahawk and a close relative of gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Yathin S Krishnappa / Wiki)

During the Abaco Christmas Bird Count in December, avid birder Keith Kemp and a small group were checking the beach at Crossing Rocks. In due course he uploaded a list of birds seen, with selected images, to the excellent eBird site. This included a royal tern. Or make that “royal tern”.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)It wasn’t long before sharp-eyed Bruce Purdy from Cornell contacted Keith to say “You shot a picture of an adult non-breeding black-legged kittiwake!!!!!!!!”. This was confirmed by Bruce Hallett, author of the definitive field guide to the birds of the Bahamas.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

As Bruce Purdy commented:

“This is the first kittiwake reported that I know of in the last 20 years.  Tony [White] shows a few reports but I don’t know if they were documented.  Probably not since most people just started carrying cameras, so you may have the first documented kittiwake… It is a great find”

So you are looking at (almost certainly) the first photographs of a kittiwake ever taken on Abaco. Actually, make that the Bahamas – no others are shown on eBird for the whole region; the nearest being a handful of sightings on the Florida coast.

STOP PRESS Keith’s sighting was in December 2017. The very day I pressed ‘publish’ on this post, January 30, two people immediately contacted me to say they had seen this bird in the Crossing dock area in Marsh Harbour! Thanks to Philip Sawyer and Nancy Albury for their sharp eyes and immediate response. Neither managed to get a photo, but two independent witnesses on one day in the same location make for a compelling ID. I imagine this is the same bird (rare enough as a single – the first in over 20 years – so exceptionally unlikely as a pair). Maybe there are rich fish pickings to be had in the MH harbour area.

Any further reports would be most welcome; a photo would earn the theoretical Kalik reward…

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

These kittiwakes are a pelagic species, birds of the open sea. They spent most of their time over the ocean, where they live on fish. However, they return to land to breed – often on cliffs, and in large, noisy, nesting colonies. Here’s a very short idea of what that might look and sound like.

Keith’s Kittiwake was way out of its normal range. This map shows just how far.

I always like to include an image of a species under discussion, as it was depicted by one of the early pioneers such a Mark Catesby or (as here) Audubon.
Black-legged Kittiwake (Audubon)

I’ll round off the story with another great source for comparative images – especially as between sexes, ages and seasons – the Crossley guide. The image below comes from the guide to Britain & Ireland, where kittiwakes are not uncommon locally where there are cliffs. Keith’s bird was in winter (non-breeding) plumage, as seen below, top left.

Kittiwakes (Crossley ID Guide Britain / Ireland)

Credits: Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (1); Yathin S Krishnappa (2); Keith Kemp (3, 4, 5); RSPB Britain (video); Audubon (OS) (6); Crossley Guide (OS) (7); range map Wiki

SANDWICH TERNS: NO LINK TO BREAD SLICES, SAY SCIENTISTS


Sandwich Tern (Danny Sauvageau)

SANDWICH TERNS: NO LINK TO BREAD SLICES, SAY SCIENTISTS

Have you noticed how newspapers and periodicals increasingly seize every opportunity for a headline ending “…say Scientists”. It lends a spurious authority to any tenuous assertion, like “astronauts unlikely to find cheese on moon, say Scientists” (suggesting at least the faint possibility of some mature cheddar lodged in a crater). Or “Frooty-pops cereal may protect against ingrown toenails, say Scientists”.  To which the proper response is: “research reference please”. But it seems 37.9% of people are actually prepared to believe this tendencious stuff… say Scientists.

But I digress. To the business in hand. The Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) is a smart-looking medium-sized tern. Its clearest ID signifier among terns is a sharp black beak with a yellow tip. Also, its black legs helpfully distinguish it from other tern species that have orange legs.Sandwich Tern (Sandy Point), Abaco - Bruce Hallett

The origin of the name for this species is an unexpected one. The Thaleasseus (formerly Sterna) simply refers to the sea (Gk). The Sandwich part is more complicated. It’s certainly nothing to do with a tasty filling for a sliced bread snack **. Other bird species such as Branta sandvicensis, an endemic Hawaiian goose, have the name because Hawaii was historically known as the Sandwich Islands. But Sandwich terns are not found there. In fact, the name comes from the town name of Sandwich, Kent UK (sand wic OE – ‘trading post by the sea’). The ornithologist who first described the bird in 1787, John Latham, just happened to live there. (And how fortunate for ornithology that he did not come from Pratts Bottom, also in Kent).

Sandwich Tern, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Sandwich terns have a wide range around the world. As the range map below show, the most significant breeding area is Great Britain and northern Europe. On Abaco, the birds are uncommon summer residents. Both images above were taken on the main island, the top one at Sandy Point on the jetty (an excellent place for birdwatching, incidentally).Thalasseus_acuflavidus_and_Thalasseus_sandvicensis_map-location-2.svgSarnie Tern range

Like all the Thalasseus terns, the Sandwich tern plunge-dives for fish. I love the sight of diving terns. They hang high in the air as they scope out the water for fish, only to break free from the sky and smash down into the sea, often emerging with a silver prize. Here’s a wonderful photo of one that missed its meal – and one that succeeded.

Sandwich Tern (Danny Sauvageau)Sandwich Tern (Danny Sauvageau) An endearing characteristic of these terns can be seen during their courtship display. The male will catch a fish, then offer it to the female. Her acceptance of the gift signals her readiness to approve the male as a suitable mate. 

Of the  12 tern species recorded for Abaco most are summer residents, some of which breed on Abaco. The royals are the only permanent residents; and the Forster’s are the only winter residents. The other 4 species are transient in migration, or vagrant (arctic tern).

Tern Species on Abaco

As I have mentioned before, a very good source for easy ID to distinguish between different birds of the same family is to head off to BIRDORABLE. The drawings (cartoons!) may not be scientific, but they do highlight the most notable distinctions. Invaluable as a last resort. Or first resort, even! For similar-looking birds, compare the beaks and the legs. The composite below shows how simple it is.

91b5e2a19a20fb1eeace596efbac5a57

Noisy neighbours? Put this short recording of a sandwich tern colony in the breeding season on a continous loop, and you have the makings of a powerful retaliatory weapon. They’ll be out within a fortnight…

Alex Lees / Xeno-Canto

** The food we call a sandwich was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He found eating while playing cards inconvenient, so asked his valet for two slices of bread, requesting “and squash a tern between them, if you’d be so very kind…” The Sandwich Islands were also named after his Lordship by Captain James Cook, as a compliment for financially supporting an expedition there, say Historians…

Sandwich_Tern_(Sterna_sandvicensis)_(Ken Billington)

Credits: Danny Sauvageau (1, 4, 5); Bruce Hallet (2); Woody Bracey (3); Ken Billington (6); Alex Lees @ Xeno-Canto, Birdorable, wiki for range map & info, other magpie pickings of glistening facts

“ALIEN FROM THE DEEP”: ABACO’S SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH


Scaleless Black Dragonfish - Header - BMMRO Abaco

“ALIEN FROM THE DEEP”: ABACO’S SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH

Prepared to be terrified. Beneath the placid turquoise waters of Abaco lurks a ruthless and implacable killer of hideous mien, armed with vicious teeth  … Yes, as the music from Jaws begins to throb round your temples I bring you… THE SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH, aka the Deep Sea Dragonfish or Viperfish (of which it is one type). Oh, and it’s about 8 inches/ 20 cms long.

The specimen shown here was found off Rocky Point, Abaco during a whale and dolphin research trip by the BMMRO. This is an area where typical low waters give way to the far deeper waters of an arm of the Great Bahama Canyon. It is an excellent place for whale watching, since one effect of the canyon is to provide plentiful food of the sort that cetaceans thrive on. The chances of you ever meeting a dragonfish are very slim indeed, since they live at depths up to 1500 metres. 

MAP to be added after posting, to avoid FB’s deranged random ‘feature photo’ selection The black star at the south end of Abaco  (in the yellowish box) is where Rocky Point and Sandy Point are to be found.

BAHAMAS SEA DEPTH MAP (NEAQ)

Here is an account by BMMRO intern Luanettee Colebrooke who was lucky enough to be on the research vessel when this strange, vicious-looking creature was found. I have edited the material for present purposes, but I recommend reading the whole article which can be found on the BMMRO website HERE. You will get an excellent overview of a day’s research under the hot sun, and plenty about the collection of whale poop (a topic I have previously dwelt on HERE (“Familiar Feces“).

Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
CREATURE by Luanettee’ Colebrooke, BMMRO intern, summer 2014
The crossing of this organism was by complete accident. It was something that none of us would have imagined finding floating along the surface of the water. For Dr Claridge, Jurique (another BMMRO summer intern from Cat Island) and I as Bahamians, who knew this creature even existed in our majestic waters? Who knew our waters were even that deep to hide this specimen? (I think Dr Claridge knew)
Our morning began as per the usual routine for a boat day. There are several research sites that we venture to regularly: Rocky Point for the coastal Bottlenose Dolphins, and an area about 2 miles south of Rocky Point for our very elusive and wary Blainville’s beaked whales, and the deep blue (a massive drop into waters that are 1500 metres deep) to listen for Sperm Whales.It is not that I do not believe that we have deep waters. The Tongue of the Ocean runs through the northern part of our country. My thought comes more from, ‘our waters are that deep’? To a point where light does not hit the bottom and organisms have to rely mainly on bioluminescence? It is a similar thought process I had when I saw a sperm whale for the first time. They are not small creatures of the sea. It is both an awe and scary thought that there are creatures out there we, as Bahamians, do not know exist in our waters.
Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO AbacoScaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
“Our final activity of the day was tracking a sperm whale acoustically using a hydrophone…” There follows a graphic account of the technicalities of sperm whale poop collection and co-intern Jack’s “Faecal Dispersion Technique”. Then this: Jack stood up, Pringle in mouth and pointed to a black leather looking strap off of the port bow. “What is it?” Moving closer to the port, Jurique and I had our own thoughts. “It looks like a boxing glove strap,” he suggested. “More like an expensive underwater watch,” I mentioned. Dr. Claridge said, “It looks like a squid tentacle.” Jack added in, “More like the strap from a fin to me.” Our heads were turning with no closer answer. Taking it upon himself as the official sample collector, Jack popped back into the water to collect it. There were no sample pots large enough for it, so he had to use a large Ziplock bag to pick it up.
Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO AbacoLetting out a surprised chorus when he got back on the boat, we wondered what the heck it was. It had a mouth and a weird white patch that at first, I thought was its eye. The ventral abdominal section seemed swollen as if it had expanded from the decreasing pressure rising from the sea. As we looked at it and took photos, we determined several characteristics of the deceased specimen without having to autopsy it. The first was that it had three rows of needle like teeth that turned inward. There was what we assumed to be an angler under its ‘chin’ that had a murky transparent color. Another deduction we came to was the white dots that ran along the body all the way to its tail could be bioluminescent in nature like an angler. The pectoral fins were small and thin like a tooth pick. The final detail we took note of was the silver patch underneath its eyes.It was a type of angler fish we hypothesized. And it somehow ended up on the surface. There were several questions we voiced to each other: if it is a deep angler fish, how did it end up here? Where did it come from? Was it stunned by the sperm whale’s echolocation and pulled upwards as it surfaced? Later that night as we went through our faecal samples, photo IDs and data entry, the search began for what exactly this organism was. Jack did some image trickery and overlapped the photos with an alien from Alien. Scaleless Black Dragonfish c/w Alien - BMMRO AbacoI personally thought it looked more like Venom from Spiderman. As he did that, I took it upon myself to begin the search by looking up the most prominent feature: the angler on the anterior ventral side of the fish. By using this characteristic, I was able to narrow the organism down to a Scaleless Black Dragonfish by using several online scientific key identification guides and forums. The species we are still unsure about. The mystery continues…Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
This creature is one of a number of dragonfish species found worldwide. This one might to be one of the genus Melanostomias (says he, hesitantly…). Like many deep sea creatures, its customary depths are pitch black, or nearly so; and so it is equipped with its own light source (bioluminescence), including the item dangling down from its lower jaw, called a barbel. The fish’s glow and no doubt the gleam of the barbel swaying around in the water act as a lure to attract prey that swim up to investigate and then.. snap! Those teeth start to do their work.
Scaleless black dragonfish (Melanostomias biseriatus) (imagesource.com)
I’ll end with an amazing short (2:28) video posted in early 2014 by ‘Indoona’. The accompanying description is the most authoritative account of the species and its little ways that I have  come across, complete with useful links. I include it before the video, noting only that the creature featured is a Pacific one from off the coast of California, and therefore not identical to the Abaco one.
                                                                       scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg          scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg          scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg

THE DEEP SEA DRAGONFISH OR VIPER FISH is an awesome looking creature from the middle depths of the ocean (this one comes from 600 metres or about 1000 feet deep). Also called the scaleless dragonfish, they are ferocious predators, with extremely large teeth compared to their body size. And they have one of nature’s most amazing tricks to give them the edge over their prey (more below).

There are several different species of dragonfish (one estimate is 67 species – all from the fish family known as Family Stomidae) and they are quite difficult to tell apart but this one is from the pacific depths of California and is likely Tactostoma macropus, the longfin dragonfish. Idiacanthus antrostomus is an Atlantic species that looks very similar – at least I think that’s the case correct me if I’m wrong.

They hunt with a bioluminescent barbel or lure. It is not glowing here but under the different lighting regimes I used – some of the darker images – you can see how much the lure stands out.

Sadly fish like this do not survive long on the surface, mainly because of temperature differences and mechanical damage in the net rather than pressure problems I think. It was caught in a cod-end trawl and filmed in a special tank (a kreisal aquarium). But is great to be able to share another wonder of the oceans on YouTube.

And their amazing trick? Unlike most other deep sea creatures which are sensitive to blue light – the dragonfish also produces a red light beam (see the organ to the rear of the eye) – it is also very sensitive to red light. Although red light does not travel very far underwater it allows them to see when other animals cannot and to sneak up on their prey – especially shrimps that glow in the red light. For more detail see: http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf10… and the work of Ron Douglas and Julian Partridge,http://blog.wellcomecollection.org/ta… (these images were filmed with the help of Julian and Ron). Oh and this dragon is not big – about 20 cm or just under a foot!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6cIoj7c2FI]

Credits: Luanettee Colebrooke, ‘Jack’ & BMMRO (to whom thanks as ever), imagesource.com, Indoona , and 2 sites I came across during my investigations – seasky.org & strangesounds.org

If you can’t get enough of dragonfish, check out this Tumblr site for dozens of images including photos, drawings, cartoons, and enough strange dragonfish-based characters to weird you out utterly… HERE

ABACO’S RAREST VISITOR: MEET ALBERT ROSS… THE ALBATROSS


ABACO’S RAREST VISITOR: MEET ALBERT ROSS… THE ALBATROSS

I can find no record for the sighting of an albatross in the waters around Abaco. Nor for anywhere else in the Bahamas for that matter. It must have come as some surprise to the BMMRO team out at sea on their research vessel off Sandy Point to see a large and unusual seabird bobbing tranquilly on the water. A black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys. Diane Claridge managed to get a great shot of it and I’m really pleased to be able to use it here.

Black-browed Albatross, Abaco © DC BMMROBlack-browed albatross off Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas. Photographed by Diane Claridge.

© Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation 2013

This bird was way out of the normal range for the species. They are birds of the southern oceans, breeding in colonies on such islands as the Falklands, South Georgia and Macquarie Island. As far as I can make out, they have no business to be north of the equator at all.

Black-browed Albatross Range Map BirdLife Int

SIGHTING A BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS: A REPORT

During a three-hour survey for whales off Sandy Point, Abaco on Sunday, July 21st scientists from the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation had an exceptional sighting. Dr Diane Claridge, the group’s Executive Director recalls details of the sighting:

“We were drifting waiting for a beaked whale to resurface when our intern Tristan Albury pointed towards a white object floating in the distance and asked what it was. We decided that it was a piece of trash, unfortunately a common sighting, and continued to focus our search for the whale. A half hour later, we still had not re-sighted the whale and believed that it may have gone down on one of its one-hour long feeding dives. So with time to kill and the “trash” still in sight, we had another look with binoculars. We realised immediately that it was a very large bird and slowly motored towards it for a closer look. I began taking photographs of it because we already knew it was unusual and we wanted to be sure to identify the species. As we got closer, Roxy Corbett, a visiting scientist and avid birder exclaimed that it was an albatross! I couldn’t believe it. We were able to approach within 100 feet at which point it swam towards us providing an opportunity for us to document its body condition; it appeared healthy with no obvious signs of distress.

Later when back ashore, we compared our photographs with those available online and learned that it was a juvenile Black-browed albatross, an endangered bird with a 7-foot wing span known from subtropical to polar regions of the southern hemisphere! As far as I know this species has never been recorded previously in the tropical North Atlantic. I have seen albatross during whale surveys in Alaska but never dreamed that I’d ever see one in The Bahamas. Although we are thrilled by the rarity of this sighting, the outcome for a bird so far out of its normal range is not usually good. However, there are two Black-browed albatross that strayed into the North Atlantic previously that have taken up long-term residence in Scotland and the Faroe Islands so who knows where this one may end up. Sunday afternoon was indeed exceptional: in addition to this remarkable sighting, we also saw 4 different species of whales and dolphins, all within 5 miles of Sandy Point.”

These are huge strong birds, with a massive wingspan. I wondered what they might sound like – it’s like this… (Credit: Xeno-Canto & recordist Sofia Wasylyk)

For more information on the normal range and status of the Black-browed albatross, the BMMRO recommended links are:

Link to Birdlife International’s site:
http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3959

Link to IUCN’s species red list:
http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/106003959/0

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