WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO


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

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO

It’s often a hard decision whether to include a short piece of video footage in a post. By short, I mean less than a minute. On the one hand, there is usually a good reason for inclusion, even if only aesthetic. On the other, it simply takes up more time for busy people who may prefer to flick through an article and enjoy some nice images along the way. Today, you can have the best of both worlds.

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

Sanderlings are definitively ‘peeps’, a group name that embraces the smallest and squeakiest sandpiper species. They are the wave chasers, the tiny birds that scuttle along the beach, into the retreating tide for a snack from the sand, and back to the beach again as the waves creep in. Their little legs and feet move in a blur, and many people immediately think of wind-up clockwork toys as they watch the birds in action.

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

One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.

I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.

Waves and incoming tide getting a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Next to the migratory PIPING PLOVERS that favour Abaco as their winter home, the wave chasers are my favourite shorebirds. My keenness on them killed my camera. I went out into the incoming waves to get shots back at the beach with the sun behind me. Great idea until I lost my balance with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Lesson learnt – never turn your back on waves.

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

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour taken on the beach at Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (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)

BOUQUET OF ABACO FLOWERS (1): HIBISCUSES


BOUQUET OF ABACO FLOWERS (1): HIBISCUSES

‘HIBISCUSES’ as the plural for more than one Hibiscus schizopetalus looks wrong somehow (hibisci?) but is in fact right. It’s similar to the problem with the correct PLURAL OF OCTOPUS, a name that is also of Greek and Latin origin. The ‘schizo’ part reflects the division of the petals (though this characteristic surely applies plenty of other species).

Pink Hibiscus (with Polydamus Swallowtail) Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The flower above is being visited by the familiar and lovely POLYDAMAS SWALLOWTAIL or Gold-rimmed butterfly. They are extraordinarily difficult to photograph when their wings are open – they flutter by, and carry on fluttering non-stop. I have always found it hard to get an entirely in-focus open wing shot. And when I say hard, on reflexion I don’t think I ever have…

Elegant coral hibiscus

The hibiscus is kind of mallow, a large and colourful family found throughout the world in warm-to-hot areas. Apart from the bright colours and pretty looks, the plant makes for a nice cup of tea (cf camomile tea) that some say may help to lower blood pressure.

There’s a lot of technical stuff to say about the petal construction and leaf forms, but I prefer to leave you to look it up if you want a deeper analysis than I am minded to give. I love flowers to look at and even to grow – who does not – but unlike the mechanics of birds, botanical intricacies seem *whisper* quite dull.

IS THERE A STIGMA ATTACHED TO THESE FLOWERS?

Yes indeed, but not in the more common usage for disgrace, disrepute or dishonour. In the botanical sense, it is the central part where the pollen of a flower is to be found. It’s the part that the bees are looking for.

A massive stigma

Besides the tea / blood-pressure reduction benefits of hibiscus mentioned earlier, the plant is used in many places round the world for folk medicine for a variety of ailments. I don’t actually know if it is used in the Bahamas, where bush medicine certainly has its place in the treatment of some conditions. Any comments on this would be welcome.

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO


Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO

One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed to BIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun. 

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

It is 5.30 pm. The sun is sinking in the early evening sky. The tide is on the rise at the north end of the Delphi beach where the reef joins the land. There is a small spit of sand that will be covered quite soon, but meanwhile two dozen sanderlings mixed in with assorted ruddy turnstones are doing their idiot feeding thing, rushing around on their tiny legs, stabbing in the sand, and generally behaving like clockwork toys on speed. Meanwhile a handful have found the fun to be had in the swirling tide as it pours round the head of the reef onto the sand spit. Yes, it’s sandpiper bath-time!

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand.  And so the tidal process repeats.

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

For the sanderlings, the best part of the day is when the tide is rising. At ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and as the water pours in around the end of the rocks, it froths like an overenthusiastic bubblebath. Right then is an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Substantial immersion is not out of the question…Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO


Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO

By the end of day 2 during my recent stay at Sandy Point, I thought that I had had just about enough of the laughing gulls Leucophaeus atricilla. They are delightful of course, and (in small doses) a joy to listen to. But their incessant outbursts of humour were getting beyond a joke.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The next day, on the nearby jetty, the gulls were in full cry. A lone brown pelican stood on top of a piling, looking out to sea. A few Royal Terns turned their faces, characteristically, into the light wind. I wandered over and slowly walked down the jetty. This generated some laughter, but the birds were quite content to watch me edge slowly towards them.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Probably, the gulls feel safety in numbers. Maybe they hope the din will send you away. Or perhaps, if approached very carefully, they are simply curious. I got close to the birds, and one in particular caught my eye. It was plainly having a bad-feather day. I took it to be a non-breeding adult, but it lacked the white spots on the tail-feathers (primaries). Maybe it was a first winter juvenile. Whichever, it was happy to pose for me.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I realised, of course, that the jetty belonged to the birds, including the ruddy turnstones that had just joined the gang at the end of the jetty. I was the intruder in their world, and I had willingly visited their territory. So their racket was entirely their business, and absolutely none of mine**.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHAT DO LAUGHING GULLS SOUND LIKE? ARE YOU OVERSENSITIVE?

I made a couple of short recordings of the gulls in full humour mode. If you have never heard them before, you might want to listen to the full 30 seconds. For anyone else there’s a convenient lull at around 15 secs before they kick off again.

Breeding adult (Birdorable)

**In the UK there’s a thing where someone buys an attractive cottage next to the c15 village church. Then they discover that the clock chimes. And the bell-ringers practise their art on Monday and Thursday evenings. And on Sunday all hell breaks loose, especially if there is Sunday cricket on the village green in the mix. And the occasional ball being hit into the flowerbed. So, complaints are made to the Council, noise abatement orders are sought, legal letters fly round the Parish. And everyone hates the newcomers. Adopting village life with no research? Way to go!

All photos + audio clip: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO

I’m just back from Abaco. Mostly, it was about Marine Mammals (i.e. whales, dolphins, manatees) and the biennial Retreat for the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). There was still time for some birding in Sandy Point, though. It’s a good place at any time for bird-watching BUT the settlement is rather remote. Specifically it is the terminus of the single 120-mile Highway that stretches south from Little Abaco in the north. Then the tarmac abruptly runs out and gives way at once to white sand. If that doesn’t halt you, you’ll wish your vehicle was amphibious… 

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead kingbirds, with their hooky flycatcher beaks, cresty hair and dashing yellowish undersides, are intriguing companions. If they get interested in you (or maybe your camera bleep, as I have discovered), they will accompany you on a walk, flying ahead until you catch up, then doing it again. And if they are ‘hawking’ for flies from a favourite perch, they are fun to watch and… a big bonus… they won’t stop because you are spectating.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Like all the Bahamas flycatchers, from the little cuban pewee upwards, the Kingbirds have a charming way of cocking their head to one side or dropping it down towards their chest. Slightly posey, always endearing.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION

‘Bird on the Wire’ was originally sung by Judy Collins, though written by Leonard Cohen. His own definitive version from 1968’s ‘Songs from a Room‘ is arguable the best known recording and preceded several hundred later cover versions. LC is a really “difficult” artist, however. Many will agree with his expressed view that the song is ‘a prayer and an anthem’. Others might say that it is simply growly dirge-like maundering. The (then-modish) mouth-harp twangling in the background may also be an opinion-divider. Since I have shoehorned Cohen’s song title into my blog title, you might as well have the song too, for contemplation. Is it a life-affirming ‘upper’ or a funereal ‘downer’? You be the judge!

Photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Sandy point, Abaco.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO


Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO

I’ve been checking out jetties at Sandy Point, of which there are several. They look a bit rickety but are in fact sound except for having to step rounds piles of (empty) conch shells and occasional evidence on the timbers of recent fish-cleaning. This is a time of Laughing Gulls, and I have been recording their raucous hilarity. I may add a couple of sound files when I’ve downloaded them.

Sharing a jokeLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Right now, ruddy turnstones and laughing gulls seems to have formed a team of jetty birds, with a few royal terns in the mix and (as here) a random sanderling. The turnstones like to lie down in the hot sun on the jetty, possibly because it’s a bit breezier than on the burning sand of the beach.

Exhausted from turning stones

Random sanderlingRuddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

These jokers are wild…Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The jetties also attract pelicans, which use them to sun themselves and also to fish from. I will post about these remarkable birds another time. The largest flock of them I have seen so far is 5, one with a gold ‘breeding crown’.

Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The gulls also spend time on the beach, and flock on the sandbars that emerge at low tideLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)