ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)

May 15th is – was – Endangered Species Day worldwide. I missed it, of course I did. Typical. So, belatedly, here’s the first of a short series highlighting the Endangered Species of Abaco, Bahamas. It will include a couple of species formerly found on Abaco but now extirpated and hanging on in tiny numbers in specific habitats in the wider Bahamas archipelago. Regrettably, much of the endangerment has been caused, or substantially contributed to, by a dominant species that tends to prize self-interest over broader considerations.

ABACO PARROT

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

These gorgeous and beloved parrots nest uniquely in limestone ground burrows in the island’s protected National Park in the south of the island, a vast area of pine forest. They are the big success story of Abaco conservation. I was fortunate enough to become tangentially involved with the parrots just as years of patient research and intensive fieldwork were beginning to impact positively on a dwindling and barely sustainable population (fewer than 1000 birds). Adults and particularly the chicks in breeding season were very vulnerable to the attentions of feral cats, non-native racoons and rats. Nests were protected, cameras were deployed, and predators eradicated.  

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Nest & Chick, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala)

The work of scientists such as Caroline Stahala was (and still is) supported by local organisations such as Bahamas National Trust and Friends of the Environment Abaco. Local communities lent valuable encouragement and enthusiasm to the project. No one can fail to be uplifted by the sight of a flock of these parrots flying overhead, flaunting their bright green, red and blue feathers that flash in the sunlight. Even the sound of a flock squabbling in the trees like noisy children just let out of school is a joy. Here’s a sample, recorded at Bahama Palm Shores: see if you agree…

Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

10 years on, these gorgeous, raucous and intriguing birds have made a comeback, and the pleasure of their continuing visual and audible presence is hopefully secure. 

Credits: Nina Henry (1, 2); Caroline Stahala (3); Keith Salvesen (4) and audio clip

 

SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH


SPERM WHALE BONES & RESEARCH: LIFE AFTER DEATH

I made this short video last year at BMMRO HQ, Sandy Point, Abaco. A sperm whale had stranded earlier in the year, and after the necropsy some of the bones were taken from the beach for research. In order to clean them, the bones were sunk and anchored to the seabed offshore in quite shallow water. Strandings are always sad, of course, but  it is good to know that even after death the creature makes an important contribution to scientific research. In a sense, it has life after death.

BMMRO / Rolling Harbour Abaco / Keith Salvesen

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD


Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD

This post has little to do with Abaco, and only a tenuous connection with the Bahamas. It is about birds, though, so I’ll justify it that way. This is today’s news and these are photos I took this morning in a park that is less than 10 minutes walk from our house. The reason? I’d heard that goslings had been seen at the small lake there, remarkably early in the year for any bird.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Gosling (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

I had expected that this rumour related to the Canada geese that lord it over the smaller waterfowl (moorhens, coots, mallards, tufted ducks and so on). What I saw, as I got close to the lake, was a pair of Egyptian geese Alopochen aegyptiaca. And, true to the report, they had goslings with them. There were 10 in all and they were jointly and severally (as we lawyers say) totally adorbs and charmsy.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

These are birds of Africa, but – like Canada geese – have spread far and wide mainly as the result of introduction by man. The Egyptians considered them sacred and featured them in hieroglyphs. Modern man has deemed them ornamental (cf peafowl) and removed them from their home to pastures new. Geese are robust, so they adapted in their new environment with relative ease. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

As with many other transferred species, birds inevitably escaped from their ‘owners’ and feral populations soon became established. In Abaco terms, this is exactly what happened with the peafowl that were brought to the ‘Different of Abaco’ fishing lodge. The birds survived its demise, lived and bred in the increasingly wild grounds, and are now many generations on.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

At some stage, the Egyptian goose was introduced in Florida, where it thrived. Nowadays it is not a particularly unusual bird there.  It remains one of the birds of south-east US that has never made the relatively short journey to Abaco. There are however a handful of reports from Grand Bahama, New Providence and Eleuthera, so northern Bahamas is in range.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

It’s probably only a matter of time before these geese turn up on Abaco. Five years ago, the first BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS were found, a flock of 6 seen several times as they progressed from Crossing Rocks north to the airport. There are still the occasional sightings of these ducks, the last about 2 weeks ago north of Marsh Harbour. The Egyptian goose is a fine bird and part of me (the part that doesn’t disapprove of avian introductions) hopes that they do occasionally undertake the journey from the flocks in Florida. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

That’s all, folksEgyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

“THE BIRDS OF ABACO”: BOOKMAKERS (& GAMBLERS?)


Delphi Club Guide to the Birds of Abaco (Jacket)

“THE BIRDS OF ABACO”: BOOKMAKERS (& GAMBLERS?)

THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO

163 SPECIES, 350+ PHOTOS, 30 PHOTOGRAPHERS, 272 PAGES

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Black-necked Stilt – Alex Hughes

THE POST DORIAN PLANS

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, until 1 September 2019 when Dorian struck, Abaco was a prime birding location in the Bahamas archipelago, an island chain that stretches from the lower reaches of the temperate zone to the more exotic sub-tropical region. The judgement for ‘best birding location’ is both objective and subjective, and the criteria are flexible. However on any view Abaco scores highly in all avian categories: resident species, endemics, migratory birds, speciality species, vulnerable species, and extreme rarities.

We’ll have to wait some time before it is possible to tell what effects the devastating storm has had on the wildlife of the island and on its birding credentials…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher vocalizing. Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Tom Sheley

BOOKMAKING

The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACO was published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project (now in new & expert hands) – was Peter Mantle. The book showcases the work of 30 photographers, including some outstanding contributions by islanders. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager (= Mrs RH, then of YUP) and from the top Bahamas bird experts – Woody Bracey, Tony White, Bruce Hallett, and Tony Hepburn, to name but 4. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.

Cuban Emerald (f) Gilpin, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Cuban Emerald (f) – Keith Salvesen

GAMBLERS?

The book project was something of a gamble. When planning began, social media – and the facility to reach a wide audience – was significantly less active than it was soon to become. The book was launched at Delphi to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, but the extent of the interest (and sales) that might be generated more widely was unknown. We predicted it might be a slow-grower, so we were astonished by the immediate positive response to the guide. Perhaps it helped that there was a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco’s rich birdlife – we donated copies to all Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations for educational purposes. A significant percentage of the profits was set aside for local wildlife causes and duly distributed. 

Moving on just 5 years to this summer, the limited edition of 500 had all but sold out; and around 100 free copies had been donated – or deposited (as required by UK Law) in specified institutions: British Library; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; and Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Brown Pelican, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Brown Pelican – Tom Sheley

PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE?

Six weeks after Dorian, a semblance of normality is returning to the stricken island. Daily snippets of optimism are of great significance: a lost pet found after many days; a trashed plant defiantly putting out a flower; a pair of parrots screeching past; a boat recovered; a building slightly less damaged than feared. Recovered possessions from flooded houses have brought mixed emotions – heart-rending losses of precious items, yet also the unexpected recovery of possessions believed lost or destroyed. And in that context but far less emotionally, I have now had quite a few requests for replacement copies of “Birds of Abaco”.

Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Short-billed dowitchers – Bruce Hallett

SO, ARE THERE ANY REPLACEMENT BIRD BOOKS LEFT?

The position in a conch-shell is this:

  • There are now no copies still available on Abaco. Former HQ (and book storage / fulfilment facility) The Delphi Cub changed hands a year ago, and no longer carries a stock of the books. 
  • In the UK, Peter Mantle and I have about a dozen between us that are, in one way or another, ring-fenced.
  • That’s it, I’m afraid.
Bridled Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Bridled Tern – Bruce Hallett

ARE YOU PLANNING TO REPRINT?

For several reasons, no – it’s not a viable proposition. Specifically:

  • the size & print-costs of such a large heavy (2 kgs) book
  • the specialist printing (eg in Italy) needed to retain the quality; and the associated shipping costs
  • the lack of any viable storage and / or fulfilment facilities on Abaco, or anywhere else suitable
  • the lack of a prominent ornithologically-minded literary-leaning benefactor with a kind smile & deep pockets
Black-throated blue warbler (Gerlinde Taurer)

Black-throated blue warbler – Gerlinde Taurer

CAN I STILL GET THE BOOK IN SOME OTHER FORM?

Yes! I hope. We are kicking around the following ideas in a general and inchoate way:

  • first, avoiding any system requiring storage or fulfilment (so, not a physical reprint)
  • using existing production material to create a Print-on-Demand book
  • turning the guide into an eBook (may be difficult / impossible with non-standard format)
  • most likely producing a full PDF (or similar) version for download and possibly printing
  • selecting sections – eg the definitive checklist – as individual downloads
  • considering other suggestions!

At the moment this is in the basket marked ‘non-urgent’, but the alternatives will be under active consideration.

Clapper Rail Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley

Clapper Rail – Tom Sheley

The original flyer for the book"Birds of Abaco" flyer

Painted Bunting male.Abaco Bahamas.Tom SheleyPainted Bunting Tom Sheley

Photos: Alex Hughes (1); Tom Sheley (2, 4, 9, 10); Keith Salvesen (3, 11); Bruce Hallett (5, 7); Gerlinde Taurer (8);  Charmaine Albury, para-breakers 

Cuban (Crescent-eyed) Pewee, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Cuban Pewee Keith Salvesen

STICKING TOGETHER: BIRDS OF A FEATHER ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Ani Pair, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Birds of Abaco)

Smooth-billed Anis, Abaco – Gerlinde Taurer

STICKING TOGETHER: BIRDS OF A FEATHER

In times of trouble, of grief and of despair, humans have an instinct to rally round for the greater good. Right now, I am very conscious that on Abaco – and indeed Grand Bahama – there is little or no time or mental space for overmuch concern about the wildlife. I am safely distanced from the tragedies and dire misfortunes of the countless individuals, families and communities affected by Hurricane Dorian. In this post I simply offer some images of birds – all photographed on Abaco – that are bonded together as adults or adult and chick, as symbolic of the huge combined human efforts on Abaco to comfort, restore, and rebuild a shattered island.

Northern Bobwhite pair, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Northern Bobwhites, Abaco backcountry – Tom Sheley

Piping Plovers, Delphi Beach, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Piping Plover, Delphi Beach Abaco – Keith Salvesen

Abaco (Bahama) Parrots, Bahamas - Peter Mantle

Abaco Parrots – Peter Mantle

Neotropic Cormorants, Treasure Cay, Abaco Bahamas - Bruce Hallett

Neotropic Cormorants, Treasure Cay, Abaco – Bruce Hallett

Common Gallinule Adult & Chick, Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley

Common Gallinule adult & chick, Abaco – Tom Sheley

Wilson's Plover adult & chick, Abaco Bahamas - Sandy Walker

Wilson’s Plover adult & chick, Abaco Bahamas – Sandy Walker

American Oystercatcher pair, Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley

American Oystercatchers, Abaco Bahamas – Tom Sheley

CREDITS: Gerlinde Taurer (1); Tom Sheley (2, 6, 8); Keith Salvesen (3, 8); Peter Mantle (4); Bruce Hallett (5); Sandy Walker (7)

Sanderlings, Delphi Beach, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Sanderlings, Delphi Beach, Abaco Bahamas – Keith Salvesen

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT


Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT

Getting close to a herring gull is not a particularly heroic act, and yet… they look quite intimidating. The glint in the eye is somewhat evil. And they can be fairly aggressive when the mood takes them. I once had my scalp raked by a herring gull when I got too near a breeding area on a small island in Scotland. It got me from behind. There was blood. Plenty of it. It was my own stupid fault, and a lesson learned.

 Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Behold a fine herring gull stepping ashore with its beady eye fixed on me. Behold it starting to advance towards me in a purposeful way… Then it noticed the camera and decided to pose instead of attack.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

One complication for amateur birders is that these (and other) gulls take 4 years to reach maturity and the full adult plumage shown here . We’ve all seen those huge browny-gray-speckled babies crying pitifully to be fed, when they are nearly the same size as the food-providing parent. Over those few first years the plumage goes through several stages, and other colour changes – eyes and feet, for example – take place. Eventually they get to look as handsome as this one.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

I photographed the bird featured here only last week, on the south coast of Ireland, which is a bit of a cheat. Strictly, you are looking at a European herring gull, although the differences from the American ‘Smithsonian’ herring gull is relatively small. I’ll say ‘negligible’ for present purposes.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THE RED BLOB ON THE UNDER-BEAK?

Good question, and one that historically was the subject of hot debate in ornithological circles. The short answer is that scientific investigation and experimentation led to the conclusion that the red blob is a kind of feeding cue for chicks, a target area for them to aim for food or to peck to say they are hungry. Some other gull species also have this clever beak feature.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

“HAPPY FEET”

As we all know, there are gull species with yellow legs (not least the apty-named yellow-legged gull in Europe). Herring gulls have decidedly pink legs and feet, and interestingly constructed ones at that. This isn’t the moment for a lot of technical blurb about it – just take a look at these 2 images. Extraordinary, huh?

Herring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling HarbourHerring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

RELATED POSTS

LAUGHING GULL 

BONAPARTE’S GULL

RING-BILLED GULL

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

 

SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS: STEP AWAY FROM THIS INSECT


Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

SPIDER WASPS  & TARANTULA HAWKS (PEPSIS WASPS)

I’ve recently had a flood of online hits for a creature I wrote about several years ago. It’s an aggressive-looking insect that I found in the coppice on South Abaco. I have revisited and revised the original article, with some better images than my own original ones. I could only get a partial shot of the insect, and I wondered whether to try to reach it and get a more complete shot. Perhaps I could have, but very fortunately for for me (as it later turned out) I didn’t touch it.

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

This creature turned out to be a Spider Wasp (aka Pepsis Wasp), of the Pompilidae family. The insect is familiarly known as a Tarantula Hawk, for reasons give in unsparing detail below. For it turns out that this creature would be the hardest bastard insect on Planet Bastard in the Galaxy Bastardium. 

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk - TheCrotalusfreak

It’s lucky that I didn’t try to try to collect it to keep it in a matchbox (if those even exist now).  Note, for start, the scary eating apparatus… and it’s not for nibbling leaves as I had thought, but chopping up small insects. The leg claws and barbs are for pinning down its prey. You would not believe how unpleasant these little buddies are –  and that’s before we even mention the sting…

SPIDER WASPS IN ACTION

These wasps are known in some countries as “horse-killers”. There are many species around the world, with 6 subspecies, one of which being the Tarantula Hawk or Pepsis Wasp – so-called because it hunts tarantulas and uses them in a most ingenious and cruel way… NB the BNT have rightly pointed out that these insects are unaggressive to humans. If you leave them alone, they will spare you. I’ve also read that “The tarantula hawk is relatively docile and rarely stings without provocation” Now read on to see if it might be sensible to provoke one or not.

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk - astrobradley

SCARY CRITTERS & LIVING LARDERS

(Trigger Warning: this is really rather gross)

SPIDER WASPS are ‘solitary’ insects that feed on ground spiders/ tarantulas by stinging them to paralyse them, then eating them. In the most sinister way, the females also make use of spiders for breeding purposes. Hear this! They build a nest in a burrow, find a spider (a tarantula for choice), paralyse it with their sting, drag it to the nest and lay a single egg on its abdomen. Then they seal up the burrow. 

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk mshandro

When the egg hatches, the larva chews a hole on the spider’s abdomen and enters a living larder. It gradually eat its host as it grows. The spider’s vital organs are left till last, so that the spider stays alive as long as possible until the larva has reached full-size. After several weeks, the larva spins a cocoon and pupates (often over winter). Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, bursts Alien-like from the spider’s abdomen (deftly evading Ripley), and tunnels out of the burrow… 

Do NOT try this at home or more than 10 yards from a medical centre Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk _ Paul Nylander

SPIDER WASPS: MORE FEARFUL FACTS

  • Their hunting improves with experience – the more spiders they eat, the quicker they find, attack & kill them
  • Males use ‘perch territories’ to scan for receptive females from a tall plant or other vantage point, a behaviour known as HILL-TOPPING
  • Adult wasps also feed on a variety of plants for nectar & pollen. They may become intoxicated on fermented fruit, which affects their ability to get around (I think we’ve all been there at some time…)
  • The female Pepsis gets her spider in two main ways: approaching a tarantula causing it to rear up defensively on its legs, thus exposing its abdomen to the sting or
  • She locates a tarantula’s burrow, using her sense of smell. She tricks the spider into emerging by tweaking the web at the burrow’s entrance or ‘intruding’ (see video below)
  • The wasp uses her long stinger to stab her prey. The poison rapidly paralyses the spider. She then drags it to her burrow, lays her egg onto the tarantula’s abdomen, seals the burrow and leaves. Job done
  • The hooked claws and barbs on the wasps’ long legs are weapons for grappling with victims
  • The stinger of a female tarantula hawk can be up to 7 mm (1/3 inch) long – and the sting is among the most painful insect stings in the world (see below)
  • Only the females sting (males may pretend to) because the stinger is linked to the ovipositor (egg-laying organ)
  • You can distinguish females from males by the curled antennae of the female. Mine was therefore female
  • The Pepsis wasp has (unsurprisingly) very few predators, though apparently roadrunners and bullfrogs may tackle them

Here is a hypnotically fascinating 3-minute video of the life-or-death struggle

SPIDER WASP  –v-  TARANTULA 

THE STING

The sting of these wasps is among the most painful of any insect, though the most intense pain lasts on a few minutes. Entomologist Justin Schmidt bravely submitted himself to the stings of various insects and described this pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” 

Schmidt produced his SCHMIDT STING PAIN INDEX The pain scale, based on 78 species, runs from 0 to 4, with 4 awarded for the most intense pain. Spider Wasps of the species Pepsis – i.e. Tarantula Hawks – have a sting rating of 4.0, described as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath” Only the bite of the Bullet Ant – and the sting of the Warrior Wasp – is ranked higher, with a 4.0+ rating, vividly described as pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel”

LIGHT RELIEF AFTER THE PAIN

1. In 1989, New Mexico chose the Tarantula hawk wasp as the official state insect. The choice seems to have been left to schoolchildren and I’m guessing here (or gender-stereotyping) but I suspect it was the boys’ choice that won…

2. Tarantula Hawk is a “psychedelic progressive metal band” from San Diego, Ca. Their short discography includes their debut Tarantula Hawk (CD/LP, 1998); Burrow (Live CD, 2000, self-released); and Untitled. The cover of their debut provides the perfect ending for this post, vividly depicting the colour and texture of the swirling fiery pain you could experience (and I don’t really mean from listening to the music…) 

UNDOUBTEDLY PAINFUL EXPERIENCE

ARGUABLY PAINFUL STING

Mr Gordon Sumner

AN ENJOYABLE STING

Credits:  Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1, 2, 7); TheCrotalusfreak (video clip) (3);  astrobradley (4);  mshandro (5); Paul Nylander (6)


Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)