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 learn today that this week is Insect Week (or, as it may prefer, The International Week for Insect Appreciation and Protection). I’m all for it. There are annual Days for almost any creature you can think of – Warthogs; Fruit Bats; Porcupine Fish, and so on. There are few whole Weeks devoted to an entire taxonomic class. Here is an insect I wrote about several years ago. It’s an aggressive-looking creature that I found in the coppice on South Abaco. 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 I later found 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 given 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 in a small box as a pet.  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”. The Pepsis wasp is a sub-species, and is called Tarantula Hawk 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)

THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO by KEITH SALVESEN – a few copies now available


Delphi Club Guide to the Birds of Abaco (Jacket)

THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO

BIRDS OF ABACO was launched at the Delphi Club, Abaco, Bahamas in March 2014. I thought all copies had been sold or donated ages ago. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, a number of Abaconians asked if I could replace their ruined copies. Sadly I could not. Or so I thought. A current blitz to clear our house (40 years-worth of stuff) has unearthed 2 boxes of the book, so I have decided to sell them. Scroll to the end for further details. First, though, check out these birds… Blue-gray Gnatcatcher vocalizing.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley a The originator of the idea for the book – as with the entire Delphi Club project – was Peter Mantle, the publisher. He took a risk based on my (then) quite feeble Rolling Harbour blog about the birds and other attractions of the island. The 2kg book took 16 months from conception to the arrival of three pallets of printed books on the dockside in Marsh Harbour, having travelled by a tortuous route from specialist printers in Italy. Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) As part of the project, Abaco schools, libraries and wildlife organisations were given copies for educational purposes. A percentage of profits was given to local wildlife causes. We quickly sold a great many copies,  and couldn’t have been more pleased with the response to the book, a unique publication for the Bahamas. The captions (below) about the book and content were written much nearer the time, so I’ll leave them as they are. I hope you enjoy the photos even if you don’t want a copy! Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco (Bruce Hallett) The Guide showcases the rich and varied bird life of Abaco, Bahamas and features both resident and migratory species including rarities and unusual sightings. The main features are as follows:
  • 272 pages with more than 350 photographs
  • 163 species shown in vivid colour – nearly two-thirds of all the bird species ever recorded for Abaco
  • Every single photograph was taken on Abaco or in Abaco waters
  • All birds are shown in their natural surroundings – no feeders or seed trails were used
  • Several birds featured are the first ones ever recorded for Abaco or even for the entire Bahamas
Clapper Rail Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley
  • A total of 30 photographers, both experienced and amateur, contributed to the project
  • The book has had the generous support of many well-known names of Abaco and Bahamas birding
  • A complete checklist of every bird recorded for Abaco since 1950 up to the date of publication was compiled specially for the book.
  • A neat code was devised to show at a glance when you may see a particular bird, and the likelihood of doing so. Birds found at Delphi are also marked.
  • Specially commissioned cartographer’s Map of Abaco showing places named in the book
Least Tern_ACH3672 copy
  • Informative captions intentionally depart from the standard field guide approach…
  • …as does the listing of the birds in alphabetical rather than scientific order
  • Say goodbye to ’37 warbler species on consecutive pages’ misery
  • Say hello to astonishing and unexpected juxtapositions of species
Abaco_Bahama Yellowthroat_Gerlinde Taurer copy
  • The book was printed in Florence, Italy by specialist printers on Grade-1 quality paper
  • Printing took pairs of printers working in 6 hour shifts 33 hours over 3 days to complete
  • The project manager and the author personally oversaw the printing
Smooth-billed Ani pair GT
  • The book is dedicated to the wildlife organisations of Abaco
  • A percentage of the proceeds of sale will be donated for the support of local wildlife organisations
  • A copy of the book has been presented to every school and library on Abaco
Piping Plover BH IMG_1919

The book is published by the Delphi Club. The project was managed by a publishing specialist in art and architecture books. The author is the wildlife blogger more widely known on Abaco and (possibly) beyond as ‘Rolling Harbour’. Oh! So that would in fact be Mrs Harbour and myself. Well well! What were the chances?

BOOK LAUNCH BAHAMAS BIRDING ROYALTY (Tony White, Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey), A COMMONER… & AN EMBARRASSING AMOUNT OF REFRESHMENT 

Painted Bunting male.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

BOOK SALE DETAILS 2021
I am pricing the books at $120 inc. shipping. They are in England, heavy, and expensive to post. 1/3 of the price will be the flight of the birds across the Atlantic. If you would like a copy and do not already have my contact details, email me at rollingharbour.delphi@gmail.com
American Oystercatchers BH IMG_2000 copy 2

Photos: Tom Sheley (3,4,9,10),  Bruce Hallett (6,8), Gerlinde Taurer (1,7), Tony Hepburn (5), Keith Salvesen (2,11)

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

THE ORIGINAL FLYER

"Birds of Abaco" flyer

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS


Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS: DECORATIVE CORAL-DWELLERS

FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS Cyphoma gibbous are small marine gastropod molluscs related to cowries. The living animal is brightly coloured and strikingly patterned, but that colour only exists in the ‘live’ parts – the so-called ‘mantle’. The shell itself is usually pale, and characterised by a thick ridge round the middle. These snails live in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and the wider western Atlantic. Whether alive or dead, they are gratifyingly easy to identify.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THE IMPORTANCE OF CORAL

Flamingo tongue snails feed by browsing on soft corals. Often, they will leave tracks behind them on the coral stems as they forage (see image below). But corals are not only food – they provide the ideal sites for the creature’s breeding cycle.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Dive Abaco, Bahamas)Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

Adult females attach eggs to coral which they have recently fed upon. About 10 days later, the larvae hatch. They eventually settle onto other gorgonian corals such as Sea Fans. Juveniles tend to live on the underside of coral branches, while adults are far more visible and mobile. Where the snail leaves a feeding scar, the corals can regrow the polyps, and therefore the snail’s feeding preference is generally not harmful to the coral.

The principal purpose of the patterned mantle of tissue over the shell is to act as the creature’s breathing apparatus. The tissue absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. As it has been (unkindly?) described, the mantle is “basically their lungs, stretched out over their rather boring-looking shell”

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

THREATS AND DEFENCE

The species, once common, is becoming rarer. The natural predators include hogfish, pufferfish and spiny lobsters, though the spotted mantle provides some defence by being rather unpalatable. Gorgonian corals contain natural toxins, and instead of secreting these after feeding, the snail stores them. This supplements the defence provided by its APOSEMATIC COLORATION, the vivid colour and /or pattern warning sign to predators found in many animal species.

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

MANKIND’S CONTRIBUTION

It comes as little surprise to learn that man is now considered to be the greatest menace to these little creatures, and the reason for their significant decline in numbers. The threat comes from snorkelers and divers who mistakenly / ignorantly think that the colour of the mantle is the actual shell of the animal, collect up a whole bunch from the reef, and in due course are left with… dead snails and “boring-looking shells” (see photos below). Don’t be a collector; be a protector…

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

The photos below are of nude flamingo tongue shells from the Delphi Club Collection. Until I read the ‘boring-looking shell’ comment, I believed everyone thought they were rather lovely… I did, anyway. You decide!

Flamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen AbacoFlamingo Tongue Snail Shell, Keith Salvesen Abaco

Image Credits:  Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Flamingo Tongue Snails (Melinda Rogers, Dive Abaco, Bahamas)

ROLLING + TROLLING


Reddish Egret (white morph ) Danny Sauvageau

Reddish Egret (white morph)

TROLLING

The hot news hereabouts is that my troll friend is back. I mention it not because it remotely bothers me but so that he? she? they? they all? will know that I have noticed. That must be the point. If I didn’t notice, all that effort working through my posts of the last 3 months would be wasted. Where’s the joy in that? So it’s kindest to let you know that I know that you know that I know. And well done you  – it’s your second outing this year. It’s been twice a year for about 4 years, so it may be that the medication periodically wears off. Time for a top up, you may think. Meanwhile, you are more than welcome to comment on any post you find disagreeable or offensive. Natural History can be so aggravating, can it not?

Reddish Egret (white morph ) Phil Lanoue

Reddish Egret (white morph)

Reddish egret credits: white morphs – Danny Sauvageau and Phil Lanoue; standard version in full breeding plumage at Crossing Rocks Abaco – Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Reddish Egret, Crossing Rocks, Abaco, Bahamas - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Reddish Egret dark morph (breeding plumage)

 

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS


Wilson's Plover & Chick - Sandy Walker, Abaco Bahamas

Wilson’s Plover & Chick, Abaco, Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS

WHO’S WHO? POTTED BIOGRAPHIES!

Who were all the people – all men, I’m afraid – who are immortalised in the names of birds they first discovered or recorded or collected specimens of or wrote about? In various previous bird posts I gave brief bios of the specific naturalist for whom the particular species under consideration was named. In due course I decided to bring all those who relate to the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular, together in one place. 

John James Audubon (Am Mus Of Nat Hist)

John James Audubon with his specimen gathering kit

This is an interesting moment to be revisiting and revising the earlier collection. There is a groundswell of demand for reappraisal of the many people whose endeavours and achievements in former times were honoured in paint, in stone, on paper, or by associative naming. However, ‘the past is a foreign country, they did things differently then’, to adapt L. P. Hartley. Suffice it to say that already, naturalists are under scrutiny for views and behaviours that were of their time and are now considered debatable or unacceptable. Audubon (above) – he of the shearwater, warbler and oriole – is one ornithologist whose scientific methods and wider perspectives are now in question. As far as I know, this applies to none of the others featured below.

ALEXANDER WILSON 1766 – 1813

Wilson’s plover, warbler, phalarope,snipe, storm-petrel

Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson, the ‘father of ornithology’, was a scottish poet and writer. He specialised in ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. The latter got him into trouble when he overstepped the mark by making a vicious written attack on one mill owner. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to burn the work in public (fair enough, perhaps) and imprisoned (somewhat harsh). After his release, he sensibly emigrated to America in 1794.

Wilson's Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson’s Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson became a teacher in Pennsylvania, and developed his interests in ornithology and painting. His ambitious plan was to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America. He travelled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions to fund a nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated, 26 had never previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord. Wilson predated John James Audubon (though not by many years) and  is generally acknowledged to be the founder of American ornithology. It appears that Audubon himself may have thought otherwise…

For examples of Wilson’s American Birds, check out the excellent Virginia University records HERE 

Wilson's Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

Wilson’s Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

 

CHARLES LUCIEN BONAPARTE 1803 – 1853

Bonaparte, Charles Lucien (1803-1857)Bonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino and Musignano was a French biologist and ornithologist. He was nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson (see above).

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Bonaparte’s Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

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

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

RAMON LA SAGRA (1798 -1871)

Mr La Sagra La Sagra’s Flycatcher

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris was a multi-talented man, being a Spanish botanist and also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). He lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be a contradiction in terms…).

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the naturalist who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the flycatcher, and who himself is honoured in the name of the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii 

Cuba Stamp La Sagra's Flycatcher

 

WILLIAM JOHN SWAINSON (1789 – 1855)

Mr SwainsonSwainson’s Hawk, Thrush & Warbler

Swainson was an English ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, natural historian, and a gifted illustrator of the natural world. He was a pioneer of the new lithographic technology, which enabled quicker reproduction of his work than engraving. Swainson lent his name to a number of avian species, three of which may be found on Abaco – the Swainson’s Hawk, Thrush and Warbler. The hawk is a rare visitor; the thrush is a transient, passing through the Bahamas during migration; and the warbler is a hard-to-find winter resident. Below is the only known Swainson’s Hawk to be photographed on Abaco.

Swainson's Hawk, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Swainson’s Hawk, Abaco, Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

JOHN ISIAH NORTHROP (1861 – 91)

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)

John Isiah Northrop, for whom the endemic BAHAMA ORIOLE Icterus northropi is named, entailed a bit more research. The link above will take you to my post about this very beautiful species that is sadly on the brink of extinction. Until recently it was found only on Abaco and Andros, but is now extirpated from Abaco and exists only in certain enclaves on Andros.

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

I can do no better than regurgitate the info 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 (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)”.

 

JARED POTTER KIRTLAND 1793 –1877

260px-Jared_Potter_Kirtland_1793-1877Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)

Jared Potter Kirtland was a naturalist, malacologist and politician, most active in Ohio where he served as a probate judge and in the Ohio House of Representatives. He was also a physician and co-founder of a University Medical School. Kirtland became one of America’s leading naturalists, with a particular interest in horticulture and sea shells. He published numerous natural history articles, and was a founder and president of the Kirtland Society of Natural History and the Cleveland Academy of Natural Science.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Somewhere in amongst all this, he discovered or at least studied the warbler that was named after him. This rare ‘at risk’ bird breeds in small numbers only in certain areas of Michigan and Ohio, favouring jack-pine territory. The warblers overwinter in the Bahamas, including on Abaco. They a very hard to find – and to photograph, in my limited experience. We once made an expedition into remote backcountry scrubland and found 4 KIWAs within a couple of hours. My only photo to come out was of a small lemon obscured by twigs.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

If you want to fixate on a warbler species, this is the one. Wiki, very good on this sort of thing, has an excellent entry that will tell you all you need to know and far more besides: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirtland%27s_warbler

Kirtland's Warbler (Tom Sheley)

Kirtland’s Warbler (Tom Sheley)

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785 – 1851)

Audubon's Shearwater, Warbler, OrioleAudubon’s Shearwater, Warbler, Oriole

John James Audubon never went to Abaco. The nearest he got was probably in 1820, when he made a field trip to the southern states, including Florida; or in the 1830s when he made at least one trip to Key West. One technique that set him apart from contemporaries was his method of producing naturalistic (as opposed to ‘stuffed bird’) drawings. It involved killing birds using very fine shot, and then using wires to pose them naturally, according to his field sketches. This contrasted with the usual technique of using a stuffed specimen as a model.

Audubon's Shearwater (Dominic Sherony Wiki)

Audubon’s Shearwater (Dominic Sherony)

In my original post I stated that no birds found on Abaco were specifically named for Audubon but that ‘it is almost impossible to dip a toe into ornithological history without immediately stubbing it on Audubon’s name’. As it turns out, the shearwater has raised its profile for the northern Bahamas, but in the saddest of circumstances. Every 2 years or so, there is a phenomenon called ‘die-back’ that seems to affect the pelagic shearwaters, and large numbers are washed up on the shorelines, either dying or already dead. A few can be rescued; few of those survive. The causes are complex: I wrote about this season’s die-back HERE if you want to know more.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Since the last outing, I have found another more tenuous avian link between Abaco and Audubon / his namesake birds. The yellowed-rumped warbler, a summer migrant to Abaco, is considered to be a close cousin of the myrtle warbler and Audubon’s warbler.

Audubon’s master-work was his renowned Birds of America, arguably the most famous bird tome ever. There are about 120 sets of the original book still in existence. They were incredibly expensive to produce in contemporary terms; and in modern times a set sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s London in 2010, setting the unbeaten record for the world’s most expensive book sale. Recently there was great excitement over the sale of another set at Christie’s New York, but the sale price was far lower, a mere $7,922,500… 

Audubon Birds of America.jpg

Credits: Bird pictures as shown; Encyclopaedia of Cleveland History, American Museum of Natural History, Britannica, University of Glasgow Library, The Auk, Audubon Society, Wiki, Magpie pickings

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’s finches. So, we are “common”, huh? Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS

  • Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
  • Both sexes build the nest together
  • Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
  • Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
  • They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
  • Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

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

 

CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)


CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)

Cuban Pewee, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

The Cuban pewee Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the crescent-eyed pewee) is the smallest of the four so-called ‘tyrant’ species found on Abaco. These flycatchers are tiny compared with their kingbird cousins. You can clearly see the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which helps to trap caught insects.

Like other flycatchers, the Cuban pewee has distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. These are in fact feathers that have modified into bristles. They act as tactile sensors that help detect and target aerial insects. The pewee will then dart from its perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel (known sometimes as ‘hawking’), returning to the branch to swallow the snack.

Of all small unassuming brownish birds – and there are a great many – I consider the pewee to be one of the prettiest. It is also rewarding to photograph, being inquisitive by nature and as likely to pose for the camera as to fly away.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

 

SMALL BEE FOR GOOD CHEER


SMALL BEE FOR GOOD CHEERSmall Bee - Pollen-covered Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

I photographed this little bee a couple of days ago (nb not in Bahamas). Watching it foraging and getting covered in pollen was curiously relaxing, even though it kept moving from flower to flower with no regard to my camera focus. Life is so bizarre at the moment that it was good to see a creature happily getting on with its everyday life. 

Photo Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

 

RED HIBISCUS FLOWER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (8)


Red Hibiscus Flower, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

Not much in the way of a caption needed here. As the poet said:  “He that loves not the Hibiscus has a Soul assuredly viscous…”

EASTER BUNNY: OUT STANDING IN ITS FIELD


EASTER BUNNY: OUT STANDING IN ITS FIELD

Rabbit, Dorset UK (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Well, strictly more lying down than standing I suppose, not least because it had sensed me. When I was one-and-twenty* rabbits were a-plenty… and I might have shot it with a bun gun. Then I decided that shooting with a camera was the better way forward. 

*Nod to A.E.Housman; also to my erstwhile online natural scientist friend who led an outdoorsy life and blogged as ‘Out Standing in my Field’, a self-referencing ID never bettered.

LUNAR SEA + CRATERS = SUPERMOON


LUNAR SEA + CRATERS = SUPERMOON

Supermoon - annotated mapping (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

This is not the ‘pink’ supermoon you saw the other day, but one from a couple of years back. I only had a bridge camera with me with a cheapo 1.7 teleconverter, but luckily a sturdy windowsill as well to reduce the shakes (that kind, anyway…). I marked a few prominent features on the image. Some of these took me back to a childhood astronomy book (‘Imbrium!’; ‘Nubium!’) where I learned about stars well beyond Orion, Ursa ma. & mi., and Cassiopeia – about the only constellations I can reliably point to these days. 

This week’s supermoon shone very brightly where I am now, but the moon itself was rather hazy. It certainly wasn’t pink but rather more of a pale cold white. As it turns out, the ‘pink’ doesn’t refer to the lunar colouring anyway, but to the full moon in Spring that occurs when the early-blooming wild pink comes into flower. So, it’s a seasonally-based name and a bit like the harvest moon not being harvest coloured…

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)


GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)

Green Heron, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

We saw this green heron (Butorides virescens) at Gilpin Pond, South Abaco. It’s an excellent location for waterbirds and waders, although in hot weather when the water level drops an algal bloom colours the water with a reddish tinge. The coppice around the pond is good for small birds; parrots pass through on their daily flights to and from the forest; and the beach the other side of the dunes can be excellent for shorebirds. 

We watched this heron fishing for some time. I took quite a few photos of the bird in action, including its successes in nabbing tiny fish. However there were two problems with getting the perfect action shot. First, the bird’s rapid darts forwards and downwards, the fish grabs, and the returns to perching position with its snack were incredibly quick. Secondly, my slow reactions and innate stupidity with camera settings militated against a sharp ‘in-motion’ image to be proud of. So I’m afraid you get the bird having just swallowed its catch.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)


CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)

I spent a wonderful 15 minutes with this little Cuban Emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii), which I found perched on a stick in a small clearing in the coppice at Delphi. I was several feet away when I first noticed it, so I spent some time inching forward towards it. Even from a distance, the metallic sheen of the feathers glinted in the bright sunlight. The bird watched me, tame and unruffled, as I approached. I took photos as I moved closer so that if it flew off at least I’d have something to remember it by. In the end it let me get so close that I could almost have touched it. When I’d taken some close-ups, I backed very slowly away. The little beady black eyes followed my retreat with interest. The bird was still happily perched on the stick when I lost eye-contact with it. In the end I was more moved (in one sense) than it was (in another).

Credit: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

‘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)

ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Craig Nash)

ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS

As the intensive Hurricane Dorian relief operation continues on a devastated Abaco, the extent of the destructive power of the huge storm is all too evident. Gradually restored communications and the availability of social media have circulated far and wide the awful photos and aerial views of the smashed island, and the tragic stories of loss and desolation. Accounts of astonishing courage, determination and generosity are for all to see. And, nearly 4 weeks later, we have early signs of recovery and grounds for hope in a stricken land.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

For the last 10 days or so, inquiries about Abaco’s birds and other wildlife have begun and are increasing daily. I take this as a sign that people are at last able to look slightly beyond the immediate horrors of the storm to the brighter horizon of the future. The iconic parrots are the principle concern, and finally – finally – I have some good news to bring. Here it is, in all its glory.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas post hurricane Dorian (Tara Lavallee)

I have been waiting anxiously to pick up the first reports of parrot sightings – or even of their raucous squawks. This iPhone photo was taken yesterday at Bahama Palm Shores by Tara Lavallee. You are looking at the first photograph of the parrots since the end of last month. This pair were apparently wary and jumpy – quite unlike the unselfconscious rowdy birds with which we are so familiar. There was a sighting near Casuarina, too. It looks as though the parrots are returning.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

WHERE HAVE THE PARROTS BEEN IN THE MEANTIME?

The parrots live and breed in the Abaco National Park right down in the south of the island. This is a vast area of pine forest that gives way to scrubland as it nears the coast. The assumption is that the approaching storm will have driven the parrots deep into the forest where, happily, they will have been some distance away from the destructive path of the hurricane. Many creatures can sense the approach of bad weather from changes in the air around them. This may trigger an instinct to head for home some time before the threat arrives. 

ONCE THEY GET THERE, WHAT DO THEY DO?

They lie low. The parrots have an additional and most unusual way to stay safe. They can avoid the dangers of adverse weather and even forest fires because they live and nest underground in limestone caves deep in the National Park.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

HOW RARE IS THAT?

The Abaco parrot (as opposed to its tree-nesting cousins in Inagua and in small numbers in Nassau) is unique in this respect, certainly in the northern hemisphere. There are half-a-dozen mostly inter-related species in the Antipodes that nest underground, but that is all. Even if the caves get flooded, limestone is a permeable rock and water will dissipate. And as for fires, the holes are deep enough for the flames to pass over them. Tree-dwellers are far more vulnerable.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

DOES THIS MEAN THE PARROTS ARE ALL SAFE?

It’s much too early to judge, because there is another vital component in their survival: the availability and sufficiency of suitable food. This is the factor that most worries those concerned with the parrots’ welfare – the BNT, the scientists and naturalists who helped to bring the species back from the edge of extinction, and organisations further afield such as Birds Caribbean. So it’s a question now of where they will find to feed; and beyond that, how they respond if they find their usual feeding haunts trashed. 

Feeding on Gumbo Limbo berries, a favourite snackAbaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

SIGHTING REPORTS

The signs are that the parrots are now emerging and looking for food. With luck their presence will become more noticeable. This is an important moment for collecting stats. They will help research into the effect of Dorian on the population including the wellbeing of the birds, their flocking behaviour, and the locations they now find to their liking. The fact that parrots have been seen at BPS, the parrot hotspot, is encouraging. 

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (from a photo by Craig Nash))

If anyone sees or even hears parrots over the next couple of weeks I’d welcome a report either directly or indirectly. The most helpful details are date, time, location and approx numbers (1, pair, a few, lots). Beyond that, behaviour notes are of interest – feeding, chattering, hanging round, being unsettled and so on. A photo is always a bonus, even a phone one. 

Parrot Crossing sign Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Do not doubt the resilience of these beautiful birds. Now that the threat of extinction has been removed through skilled  conservation, management and predator control, they will win through. If you doubt it, just look at this image below. It shows a nest in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Irene, with its occupant safe and sound as the parents forage for food and parrot scientist Caroline nips in with her camera.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

Credits: Craig Nash (1, 9); Caroline Stahala Walker (2, 4, 6, 7, 11); Tara Lavallee (3); Keith Salvesen (5, 10); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Melissa Maura (12)

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF


Abaco (Bahama) Parrot - Melissa Maura

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF

ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GO FUND ME BIRDS

For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.

Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.



‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed. 

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK.  Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through their DORIAN RELIEF FUND .

A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book.  Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.

Cuban Pewee, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)


The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays. 

The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.

Reddish Egret, breeding colours - Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.

Keith Salvesen

Rolling Harbour Abaco

Photo Credits: Melissa Maura – Abaco Parrot (1); Alex Hughes – Black-necked Stilt (2); Sally Salvesen – book jacket (3); Tom Sheley – Olive-capped Warbler (4); Keith Salvesen – Cuban Pewee; Reddish Egret in breeding plumage (5, 6)

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

 

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)