HAWKSBILL TURTLES: A RARE FIND & SWIMMING WITH ANGELS
There is something unusual about this juvenile hawksbill turtle peacefully noodling round some impressive elkhorn coral with the grunts and sergeant majors. He’s a rarity. He was found at West End, Grand Bahama (just 67 miles swim from West Palm Beach Fl.), a place where hawksbills are very scarce. Loggerheads, they have. And there are plenty of hawksbills elsewhere in Grand Bahama waters. But not at the western tip. So finding this little guy and getting some good photos was a particular pleasure for Linda Cooper. And maybe the presence of a juvenile is a sign that hawksbills may begin to populate the reefs of West End, as perhaps they did historically.
Linda and her husband Keith run West End Ecology Tours.They have a comprehensive website HEREand a Facebook pageHERE. Check it out to see how much there is to explore at West End. The birds, the corals and reef life, the starfish – and a speciality, swimming with rays. To which can now be added the chance of seeing a hawksbill turtle…
A DOZEN HAWKSBILL FACTS TO CHEW OVER
All sea turtles are classed as reptiles (something that always surprises me, somehow)
The top shell (carapace) consists of scales that overlap like roof shingles
The yellowish bottom shell is called the plastron
Adult hawksbills weigh around 100 pounds
Sea turtles sleep at night, and can stay underwater for a hours without breathing
Hawksbills are omnivorous, eating algae and seagrass but also sponges, urchins and small fish
Females lay about 100 eggs like ping-pong balls, and then at once return to the sea for good
The sex of baby turtles is determined by relative nest warmth – females from the top eggs
Baby turtles hatch almost simultaneously: all must work to dig their way out.
They tend to hatch at night and head straight for the sea’s phosphorescence…
…except that artificial lights confuse them & lead them away from the sea to likely death
As I was writing this, another fact about hawksbills popped into my head. I checked through my archive – mainly Melinda Riger’s wonderful shots from elsewhere on GB – and yes, it is true. There seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the turtles and angelfish. They are often found feeding together. A bit of research confirms this general observation, without giving a clear cause for it. Maybe it is simply that they eat some of the same food; and that there is plenty of it on healthy reefs so there is no cause for aggression on either side. It’s fine for a hawksbill to share with an angel.
NOTE The Hawksbill is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN red list of Threatened species as its populations have declined dramatically throughout the world and especially in the Caribbean region. It is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on the InternatIonal Trade of Endangered SpecIes (CITES) meaning that Hawksbills are near extinction or very endangered. All marine turtles are now protected under Bahamian law, as is the taking of eggs.
Credits: West End Ecology Tours / Linda & Keith Cooper (photos 1, 2, 3); Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba, all other images;BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST for their very useful fact-sheet (one of many) which I have adopted and adapted; Aquoflite for the vid.
FEWER THAN 300 LEFT IN THE WORLD – AND ALL ON ANDROS
Having just posted about the endangered NASSAU GROUPER and its protection by the introduction of a 3-month closed season, it’s time to focus on a rare, beautiful and vulnerable bird, the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi). It is IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. ENDEMIC to the Bahamas, this bird lived only on Abaco and Andros. Not any more. Now you’ll only find them on Andros, the species having been lost to Abaco in very recent memory. The 1990s, in fact. And on Andros, this lovely bird is now struggling against the threat of extinction and is found only in limited areas in very small numbers. The most optimistic population estimate I have found puts the total as fewer than 300 individuals… the consensus puts the likely total in the region of 250.
In 2010, the Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis was separated by the AMERICAN ORNOTHOLOGISTS’ UNION into 4 species, one being the Bahama Oriole. As the BNT wryly put it, “New species are always a source of excitement… but in this case the intrigue is overshadowed by a sense of alarm and urgency”. For by then this new species ‘in its own right’ was limited to certain parts of Andros, in small and diminishing numbers. It had already vanished from some areas – especially in North Andros – were it had formerly been abundant. The best estimates suggested 250 individual birds.
WHEN & WHY DID THEY VANISH FROM ABACO?
This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a photo of one taken on Abaco, although to be fair the option of snapping everything with wings several times using a digital camera with a large chip didn’t exist then. In the next para a number of crucial factors in the more recent decline of the Andros population are given; but as far as I can determine, some at least did not apply in the 1990s, or certainly not to the same extent. Maybe it was a combination of a degree of habitat loss and the gradual decline of a small population that could not breed prolifically enough to sustain the future population **.
THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS
Lethal Yellowing Diseaseof the coconut palm, prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas on Andros (e.g. Staniard Creek), the palm has been all but wiped out.
The arrival and spread of the Shiny CowbirdMolothrus bonariensis, abrood parasitethat lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species such as the yellow warbler, the black-whiskered vireo… and the oriole. The cowbird reached Andros in the mid-1990s. The first Abaco report that I have found is from 1999 (so presumably, as the oriole was already gone from the island by then, they were not a factor). The cowbird is a summer resident on Abaco, though still relatively uncommon; and its range continues to expand northwards. Some might argue that the cowbird should be discouraged from spreading on Abaco right now for the sake of the indigenous warbler and vireo populations – before it is too late.
Habitat loss / island development (although Birdlife International notes “…the planting of coconut palms in residential areas has allowed the species to spread into human settlements”). Other factors put forward include forestry work, forest fires, diseases, rodents and feral cats – problems that affect many other birds such as the Abaco parrot.The photo below is a pleasure to include in this post. It was taken earlier this year on Andros by Christopher Johnson of Nassau. And here’s the thing. He is 13, and an avid birder. I’m sure he likes his X-Box time, but he certainly knows plenty about birds too. He’s quick off the mark with offering IDs – correct ones – for birds online, and when he saw this bird he knew the significance of it and managed to get some good shots too. This is my favourite, the oriole ‘vocalising’. See below for its song. Here is Christopher’s brief but enthusiastic field report: “Awesome trip to Andros this past weekend! Was amazed to see the Bahama Oriole and its nest — feeling great”.
Bahama Oriole taken during a BMMRO research trip on Andros
Paul Driver / Xeno Canto
A GLIMMER OF HOPE?
In the same way that urgent conservation measures were put in place to halt and then reverse the critical decline of the Abaco parrot population, similar projects are in place for the Bahama Oriole on Andros. One proposal is to establish a ‘captive breeding’ program leading to reintroduction and reinforcement of the wild population. According to the American Bird Conservancy, this could even include reintroduction on Abaco… So perhaps in a decade or two, this fine bird will once again become firmly established as one of the birds of Abaco.As I said in my Nassau Grouper post, a country’s attitude can to a degree be gauged by the pride with which it features its wildlife and natural resources in its stamps (I used North Korea for adverse comparison). In 2009 The Bahamas Postal Service even issued a ‘Rare Birds’ set featuring the Bahama Oriole.. I rest my case.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
WHO WAS THE EPONYMOUS MR NORTHROP?
The comprehensive answer is provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies:The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist).
“Rediscovering the Bahama Oriole” Erik Gauger, author of the excellent Notes from the Road and photographic contributor to the Birds of Abaco has a good tale of the pursuit of the apparent sighting of a Bahama Oriole on Abaco 2o years after its (supposed?) extirpation. You can read it HEREThe Auk Read more about this journal and the birding history of the BahamasHEREThere is a Care2Action ‘Save the Bahama Oriole Before It Is Too Late’ petition HERE. It seems to have stalled somewhat, so it would be good to generate some more signatories.** Mathematically inclined? Find out about the application of thestochastic processto the oriole’s situation. In a nutshell, this concerns the combined effect of several random adverse factors on sustainability, given that the oriole’s already very small population, very limited range and particular habitat requirements militate against breeding expansion, and therefore increase the likelihood of extinction. We can only hope this is not an inevitability…
Image, audio and research credits: American Bird Conservancy, Binkie van Es, BNT / Carlton Ward, Birdlife International, Christopher Johnson, Cornell Neotropical, Harold Brewer, MxMerce, birdtheme.org, Wiki, Xeno Canto / Paul Driver; Uni of Glasgow / Roger Herriott
NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED
The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is one of a number of Caribbean grouper species found generally in the Northern Bahamas and specifically in Abaco waters. Others include the Black, Tiger, and Yellowfin groupers, the Red Hind,and the Graysby. The Nassau grouper is special, however, not least because (unlike the others) it is on theIUCN Red Listas an Endangered Species and is also a USNational Marine Fisheries ServiceSpecies of Concern. It is considered the most important of the groupers for commercial fishing in the Caribbean, and the IUCN listing data suggests that a population decline of 60% occurred over the last three generations (27-30 years), a startling rate. The current population size is estimated at >10,000 mature individuals.
The Nassau Grouper is a creature of the coral reefs in the Caribbean and adjacent seas, though it can also be found in deep water. It feeds in the daytime on small fish and small crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs and lobsters. It lurks in caves and recesses in the reef, sucking in the prey that passes unsuspecting by. The coloration of an individual fish may vary considerably with conditions, and it can adapt its colour to its surroundings as camouflage.
Tiger grouper meets Nassau grouper
Spawning takes place in December and January as the seawater cools, always at full moon, and always in the same place. In the moonlight, huge numbers of the grouper gather together to mate in a mass spawning aggregation. This may continue for several days. However, the species is slow breeder, which is why overfishing is particularly damaging to the population as the depleted stock cannot readily be replaced.
There are other besides factors commercial overfishing that make the Nassau grouper so vulnerable, including fishing during the breeding season; taking undersized fish; pollution and reef decline; habitat loss; and invasive species. The spawning areas are especially vulnerable to exploitation. In the Bahamas, as elsewhere, the government has now instituted a closed fishing season for the Nassau grouper. Here is the BREEF flyer, just circulated – and in fact the reason for this post, which reminded me that I had planned to write about this fish!
Nassau grouper is eaten by barracudas, lizard fish, dolphins, sharks and other large predators of the reef community. But the predators that have the biggest impact on the grouper population are humans. People are fishing groupers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce. Sex change may also cause a problem. In undisturbed areas there are usually equal numbers of male and females. In heavily fished areas there are often three or more times more females than males. This means many eggs will not be fertilized during spawning. Other threats include, habitat destruction, coral breakage from divers, siltation from construction, runoff from logging and agriculture, dredging, sewage, oil spills and other contaminants that harm coral reefs where Nassau Groupers live.
There’s an extent to which a country can be judged on its attitude to wildlife from the stamps it chooses to issue. It’s something to do with appreciation and promotion of the country’s natural resources. For example, North Korea rates nil in this respect, with stamps involving scary weaponry, flags, marching and eerily glowing leaders – not a single sparrow to be seen. By fortunate contrast the Bahamas and itsPostal Service score very highly in celebrating the diversity of the wildlife of the islands.The Nassau Grouper was first featured on Bahamas stamps as long ago as 1971, some 25 years before the IUCN Red Listing, and probably before the sharp decline in population numbers had even begun.
In 2012 the Bahamas Postal Service released ‘a new definitive 16 stamp series’ depicting the marine life of The Bahamas. The Nassau has been promoted from 5c in 1971 to 70c in 2012. That’s inflation for you.
Finally in 2013 BREEF’s 20 years of marine conservation was commemorated with a distinguished and colourful set of 8 stamps, noting in their release:‘Two of the new stamps feature the Nassau Grouper, a now endangered species that has experienced severe population decline throughout the region… BREEF is well known as an advocate for an annual closed season for the iconic Nassau Grouper during its winter breeding period. The push for the closed season was based on scientific evidence of population collapses throughout the region due to overfishing. BREEF is calling on the government to implement a fixed closed season for the Nassau Grouper in order to protect the species and the fishing industry. The closed season traditionally runs during the spawning season from December 1st until February 28th, to allow the fish to reproduce. BREEF is calling urgently for the announcement of this year’s Nassau Grouper closed season….’ And so it came to pass… Not only is the Nassau grouper now worth 2 x 65c; it is strictly protected for 3 months during its breeding season. Maybe philately even had a hand in getting somewhere…
Credits: Melinda Riger, Rick Smit, Open Source, BNT, BREEF, Wikimedia, Bahamas Postal Service
Published 2014 ~ 128pp ~ $20, available from the BNT
A fine new book on the birds of the Bahamas has recently been published by theBAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUSTandBIRDSCARIBBEAN. Compiled and edited by well-known Bahamas bird guideCAROLYN WARDLE with the BNT’s Lynn Gape and Predensa Moore, this slim book is packed with valuable information. It doesn’t set out to be an exhaustive field guide, a task already fully covered by Bruce Hallett’s indispensable Birds of the Bahamas and the TCI. Nor is it anything like my own photographic tome ‘Birds of Abaco’, differing in scope and intention, and weighing a mere 225 gms as opposed to 2 kilos! Beautiful Bahama Birds is eminently a book for the pocket, day bag or backback, to be carried along with your Hallett.
I have illustrated this review with photos of sample pages of the book, invariably the best way to give a clear impression of this kind of publication. Apologies that some of my images are a bit wonky, my copy being new and individual pages being hard to keep flat…
The photographs throughout the book are mainly the work of Linda Huber and the late Tony Hepburn. I was fortunate enough to be able to use some of Tony’s photographs for my own book, given with unreserved generosity; it is a fitting tribute to him that his images have now been published in Beautiful Bahama Birds, and that it is dedicated to him.
An idea of the broad scope and of the book and its usefulness to the birder can be gained from the contents pages, which I reproduce here. Click to enlarge them. The book is arranged in 3 parts: Let’s Go Birding; Field Guide to 60 Common Birds; and Conservation Now.
PART 1 offers plenty of useful information and practical advice about birding in general (I wish I could have read this before I started my own book!). Anyone who loves birds will benefit from this whole section, even if they would not call themselves a birder – especially Chapter 3 ‘Getting Closer to Bird Life’.
PART 2 All 5 Bahama endemics are featured in the main section, which is handily divided very broadly into ‘waterbirds’ and ‘land birds’. Some birds are commonly found on most islands; some have more limited range: for example the Bahama Oriole is now found only on Andros; and breeding populations of the Cuban Parrot are found only on Abaco and Inagua (the increasing number of sightings on New Providence give some hope for a breeding population there too). I’ve chosen the parrot because the underground-nesting subspecies on Abaco is so special; and the Flamingo and Bahama Oriole, both very sadly extirpated from Abaco in recent memory.
The illustrations by Tracy Pederson and Kristin Willams are clear and highlight well the identifiers for each species. Where necessary, species variations are shown, for example between sexes, breeding / non-breeding plumage and adult / immature. This can be a confusing and even fraught area (as I constantly find), which this book usefully addresses. Some birds in flight are also shown to aid ID.
PART 3 covers the National Parks, important birding areas of the Bahamas, conservation matters, and a charming section on birds in Bahamian culture. Appendices include lists of Bahamas native plants and their importance for wildlife; National Parks and Protected Areas; important birding areas of the Bahamas; a Checklist; a Bibliography; and a user-friendly Index (not all are…).
A good Checklist is a vital ingredient for any birder, whether visitor or local. Here, all the species occurring on the islands are shown on the left and their residential status and range throughout the islands across the top. Thus at a glance you can tell whether a given species is found on a particular island and when it may be found there. You would know not to look for Turkey Vultures on Eleuthera at any time; and that the black-bellied plover is a winter resident throughout the region and not to be seen during your trip in June… I also like the tick-boxes on the left for species collectors.
Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this small book and unreservedly recommend it. It does not replace Hallett, but it complements it. Furthermore, I’m sure the straightforward style and presentation will appeal to bird-loving non-birders and also to younger birders – it may even encourage some out into the field! On p.20 the recommended reading list includes books that would appeal to young readers and links to appropriate websites, a thoughtful touch. I have learnt, or been reminded of, much from reading this book a couple of times. It is a welcome addition to the relatively sparse avian literature for the Bahamas, a prime birding region that is home to an astonishingly wide variety of birds including rare, threatened and vulnerable species like the Parrots, the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Piping Plover.
“50 WAYS TO PLEASE YOUR PLOVER”: PIPING PLOVERS ON ABACO (2)
There must be 50 ways at least, most of them amounting to leaving Piping Plovers alone and respecting their habitat. So, in many cases simply NOT doing things . Refraining from driving your SUV around on the beaches exactly where they are resting (with other shorebirds) during migration (yes, this very scenario is captured on film). Discouraging your canine friends from investigating their scrapes, eggs and chicks. Not building a concrete block on their favourite beach. Avoiding dumping quantities of oil in their vicinity. That kind of thing. Make a new plan, Stan! Watch where you drive, Clive! Find a new place, Grace! Safeguard your oil, Doyle! And leave the birds free…
MIGRATION & CONSERVATION I’m returning to Piping Plovers at a time when concerns for their diminished population has led to intensive research and protection programs at both ends of their migration routes. For a long time, their winter destination was a mystery. Recent investigations have helped to pinpoint the wintering grounds, which include Abaco. Ringing programs in the summer breeding areas mean that birds can be identified in winter and traced back to their origin. So if you are out and about and see one of these little guys – let’s say, on the beach at Casuarina – and you happen to have a camera with you, can I repeat the request to please take a photo, if possible showing the leg bling, and let one of the island birders (or me) know…
You can see how the PIPLs live through the seasons and their migrations in an excellent Audubon interactive presentation I have featured previously entitled “Beating the Odds: A Year in the Life of a Piping Plover”.CLICKBEATING THE ODDS
PIPL ON ABACO I shared this wonderful video from the reliably excellent CONCH SALAD TV on my FB page, but it’s such a great 15 minutes worth of Piping Plover information that I am including it in this post, not least because many of the the subscribers are different. The Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular are favoured by these delightful but rare and vulnerable birds for their winter habitat (sensible creatures). If you can spare 15 minutes and are interested in the importance of Abaco as a vital component in the conservation of migratory birds, do watch the video. Presenters include Todd Pover and Stephanie Egger of CONSERVE WILDLIFE NEW JERSEY, David Knowles of the BNT and Olivia Patterson of FOTE(Friends of the Environment, Abaco). One of the most heartening features is to see the responses of the young children who were encouraged to participate in the project, and who take to it with huge enthusiasm.
A while back, well-known and much missed Abaco naturalist Ricky Johnson made his own Piping Plover film incorporating his own trademark style and sense of humour. My original post about it can be seenHERE, but far better to go straight to Ricky’s video. It’s good to recall his infectious enthusiasm for the wildlife of Abaco. Impossible to watch without smiling…
The PIPL in this post all have two things in common. The wonderful photos are all taken by Danny Sauvageau; and all of the birds are differently ringed, reflecting their various summer habitats. So this brings me to Danny’s Kickstarter project “Saving Endangered Piping Plovers through Photography”. He has put together a superb presentation explaining his project, and how his photography in prime PIPL resting areas during their migrations back and forth can help to map and complete the picture of this vulnerable species to enable their protection.
You can reach Danny’s film by clicking the link DANNY’S FILM(there’s no obligation to go further and contribute) and you will see some fabulous footage of these little birds scuttling around on the beach, looking enchanting; and the commentary will explain the importance of the the birds and the research into their conservation.
The Bahamas National TrustBNTis one of several organisations in the Bahamas responsible for conservation across the widely scattered islands of the Bahamas. One of its tasks is to look after the birds and their habitat, and from time to time the Trust publishes articles about their work. The Abaco-related material below is taken from a much longer article by Predensa Moore and Lynn Gape that covers the whole area, and concerns the importance of Abaco as a prime Bird Area. This applies in particular to Little Abaco and the Northern Cays; and to the large area of South Abaco that incorporates the National Park. The bird images used show some Abaco speciality birds mentioned by the BNT in their material.
The Bahamas ‘does’ extremely nice stamps, in particular ones featuring the rich and varied wildlife of the islands. The islands spread from the subtropical climates of the north, on a level with Florida, to the near-tropical islands of the south. This ensures plenty of scope for designing pretty sticky bits of paper to stick onto other bits of paper. One of the small pleasures in life, near-lost to the tyranny of the email…
The sets of wildlife stamps are issued by the Bahamas Post Office. I’ll add to this collection piecemeal (including some from my own modest collection). The very latest commemorative issue heads the display.
Best seen on Inagua, the island where they breed. Less often found elsewhere, and sadly now only as occasional ‘vagrants’ on Abaco. Flamingo post with wonderful pictures of adults, babies and nests HERE
Found mainly on Abaco (the resident underground nesting variety) and Inagua (conventional nesters), where they breed. Small groups are now found elsewhere, e.g. Nassau, where there is a local monitoring programme, but I’m not sure that there is evidence of breeding there. Any info welcome… One (of several) lavishly illustrated parrot postsHERE
The KIRTLAND’S WARBLER is one of the rarest birds of the Bahamas, a winter resident that breeds only in a small area of Michigan. The entire population is numbers only a few thousand birds. The number of sightings annually on Abaco is very small – fewer than a dozen, and in some years none at all. Increasing knowledge about their favourite haunts is now improving the recording rate. I know of two seen this year, on the same day… a birder’s lifetime achievement.
This swallow is endemic to the Bahamas
Found on Abaco only as an occasional visitor.
WATERFOWLCredit as shown
4 BUTTERFLIES & INSECTS
Credits: A compendious credit to sundry online sources including Bahamas PO, Bahamas Weekly, eBay and other sales / promotional sources, ads and the like, and unknown sources. I rarely find myself having to use this broad sweep approach: if your pic is here and you are upset, apologies, contact me to express your displeasure &co and I’ll take it down of course. But these are only non-rare small bits of paper; and this is a humble non-profit making info site of limited appeal in a Big Wide World. OK with that?