ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)


Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)

Four years ago a young English friend of ours, Oscar Ward, was lucky enough to be offered an internship with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). At the time, he was post-school, and waiting to start a degree course in marine biology at university. He had no practical experience at all, so he had to progress from the menial tasks (scraping barnacles off the bottom of the research boat) to the more adventurous (whale poop-scooping) to the scholarly (collection and analysis of samples and data, including audio file matching of whale calls for identification). The need for hard work, concentration and accuracy were made clear from the outset… and as you will see, Oscar’s short internship has stood him in very good stead during his university course.

Oscar weekending at Gilpin Point – self-sufficientBMMRO Internship - weekend off (Oscar Ward)

From a promising start on Abaco, and with 2 year’s study behind him, Oscar is currently spending the 3rd year of his 4-year course in Australia, working with The Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has been involved in a number of complex projects focussed on corals and reef life – as we all know, a matter of huge concern – and the projections for the future of the reef systems in a time of warming seas and raised acid levels. Oscar also assists PhD students, for example examining the damaging effects of parasitic worms on coral; and the effect of changing light conditions on corals.

Nurse Sharks, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Much of Oscar’s time has been spent doing fieldwork. Often he is at sea, monitoring and collecting samples in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, diving two or three times a day. This work is often carried out in restricted or preservation zones, and with ever-present manta rays, sharks and sea turtles around him.

Manta Ray, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Right now Oscar is involved with the investigations into the recent bleaching events, work that is at the forefront of serious concern for the GBR and far beyond. I have recently corresponded with him – he has definitely not forgotten that his grounding for the fieldwork and studies that he is engaged in – and very likely his career – came from his time on Abaco and the lessons he learned during his time with the BMMRO at Sandy Point.  (In part 2: another good intern, currently at Sandy Point)

Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRDS ON ABACO: GOOD IMPRESSIONS


Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Tom Sheley

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRDS ON ABACO: GOOD IMPRESSIONS

The Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii is similar to its slightly smaller cousin, the widespread Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottis. The range of Bahama Mockingbirds is not restricted to the Bahamas themselves, and includes areas of  Cuba, Jamaica and TCI, so despite the name they are not an endemic species to the Bahamas.  They are also occasional vagrants to the United States, especially – for reasons of proximity – southeastern Florida.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Peter Mantle

The Bahama Mockingbird is browner than the greyish Northern Mockingbird, and has distinctive streaking and spotting to its breast and undercarriage. This may extend to what you might describe as the bird’s ‘trouser legs’, though I’m sure there’s a more technically correct term.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Charlie Skinner

Both mockingbird species are found on Abaco. The NMs are ubiquitous in towns, settlements, gardens, coppice and pine forest, whereas BMs are shyer and tend to be found in the pine forest and well away from humans and their operations. When we were putting together The Birds of Abaco, I went on a birding trip with Abaco birding legend Woody Bracey and Ohio bird photographer Tom Sheley. We took a truck into the pine forest down a logging track south of Delphi, and they were quick to locate a bird, not least because one was sitting prettily on a branch singing lustily and unmistakably. It was well within range of Tom’s massive lens; more of a struggle for my modest camera (below). Caught the cobwebs, though…

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

I was astounded by the beauty and variety of the song. It consisted of very varied notes and phrases, each repeated 3 or 4 times before moving on to the next sounds in the repertoire. Here is a short 18 second example I recorded, using my unpatented iPhone method, for which see HERE.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Alex Hughes

For those with interest in birdsong, here is a longer 1:13 minute song from the same bird, with largely different sounds from the first recording made minutes earlier. There’s even a decent stab at imitation of a 1960s Trimphone™. Had we not had to move on to Sandy Point for an appointment with some cattle egrets and American kestrels, I could have stayed listening for far longer.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Tom Sheley

THE ‘SUBSPECIES’ THAT WASN’T…

More recently, on a trip in backcountry to find Kirtland’s warblers – we saw 4 – the slow-moving truck jolted to halt in the middle of nowhere. This was because a Bahama Mockingbird was right by the track. I fired off some quick shots out of the window into a rather difficult light, to find that we appeared to have found a new subspecies, the scarlet-faced mockingbird.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

The reason was clear, however. The bird had been pigging out on some red berries, and had managed to collect plenty of the juice round the base of its beak. Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

SO WHAT DOES A NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD LOOK LIKE, THEN?

I photographed the Northern Mockingbird below in a garden at Casuarina. The species is far tamer than its cousin, and seen side-by-side they are clearly very different. The range maps show the stark contrast between the very limited range of the Bahama Mockingbird and the vast distribution of the Northern Mockingbird.

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Northern Mockingbird, Abaco 1

Photos Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Peter Mantle (2); Charlie Skinner (3); Keith Salvesen (4, 7, 8, 9); Alex Hughes (5); Susan Daughtrey (10). Range maps eBird & wiki.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Susan Daughtry

BROWN PELICANS ON ABACO & BEYOND


Brown Pelican, Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

BROWN PELICANS ON ABACO & BEYOND

Six more sleeps. That’s all. Suddenly, a trip that seemed ages away is rushing towards us. Or, to put it more plausibly science-wise, we are rushing towards it. Abaco beckons, with bonefish, rays, sharks, reef fishes, whales, dolphins, birds and butterflies to investigate. Plus Kaliks to consume. 

Brown Pelican, Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

Idly thinking along those lines and vaguely plotting the first few days, took me to Sandy Point, home of the BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation) and of course the legendary Nancy’s, the restaurant at the end of the road. From where it is a short step to the dock on which the pelicans gather and use as a launch pad for their fishing dives.

I photographed this bird at the end of the SP dock, looking rather bedraggled after a diveBrown Pelican (m), Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Note the significant plumage differences between the male (above) & this femaleBrown Pelican (f), Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I recently read somewhere that the brown pelican is (or has become) quite uncommon in the Bahamas. On Abaco it is a permanent resident breeding species, so a drop in numbers equals fewer nests, fewer chicks and… fewer numbers. It’s a classic cycle towards serious population decline and all that is implied. Has anyone noticed an apparent reduction in numbers, I wonder? Comments welcome.

Brown Pelican, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Brown Pelican, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

The pelicans above were all photographed on Abaco. The two below were not, but are both by exceptional photographers. One, Phil Lanoue, specialises in dramatic sequences, and his work features elsewhere in this blog. The final image was sportingly uploaded by Alan Schmierer from Flickr into the ‘public domain’.

Coming in to land…Brown Pelican coming in to land (Phil Lanoue)

While we are on Abaco, I plan to keep posting as and when, subject to connectivity (always a proviso in the Bahamas). My big hope is that the piping plovers that were on the beach last year and returned this season, will have resisted the increasingly insistent call to fly north to the breeding grounds. If they could just hang on for just a few more days… 

Brown Pelican preening (Alan Schmierer)

Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Tony Hepburn (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 6); Woody Bracey (5); Phil Lanoue (7); Alan Schmierer (8); Birdorable (cartoon)

WATER DOGS: THE POTCAKES OF SANDY POINT, ABACO


potcakes-at-sandy-point-abaco-1

WATER DOGS: THE POTCAKES OF SANDY POINT, ABACO

Sandy Point is the absolute end. Literally. Abaco’s only highway runs 120 miles from north to south. Towards the end, it hooks around to the west, then back north a short distance to the small community. You can drive on right through the settlement, with its criss-crossing side streets. Best stop driving when you see the ocean: you’ve run out of road.

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Sandy Point is home to the renowned Nancy’s culinary establishment, maybe a half-hour drive from the previous place you could get a meal along the highway. It’s that remote. The menu is elementary, the Kaliks are cold, the view from the verandah is out to the wide sea and the pelicans smashing down into the water off the sand bars. And sooner or later you will find a dog’s head in your lap. This is not part of an unordered Abaconian special menu with a Godfather theme; it’s a potcake looking for chicken. Or fish. Or chips. Or anything edible really.

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The origins of these ‘community dogs’ – no one’s and everyone’s – are many and various, just like their assorted shapes, sizes and colours. You can read about their history, the reason for their name, and about ‘Amigo’, the most famous potcake of all, HERE. There are many of these semi-feral dogs on the island, slinking around the settlements and even the main town. They have a tough life. They are generally ignored or shooed away. But in Sandy Point at least, they seem healthy and well-fed. Nancy’s may have something to do with it…

potcakes-at-sandy-point-abaco-5

The potcakes of Sandy Point make the beach and the sea their playground. If you walk along the strand and round the point, they may tag along for a while. Then they get bored and rush off. When the tide is low, they will trot along the exposed sandbars right out into the sea. Or chase each other into the sea. Or maybe just relax and watch an endemic Bahama swallow flit past.

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There are active potcake rescue schemes aimed at rehoming strays. Spay and neuter clinics are regularly held. The aim seems to be to keep the numbers down with benign control rather than anything more radical. And rehomed animals make excellent pets, being “intelligent, loyal, calm, and resilient”. I’m guessing the potcakes of Sandy Point reckon they have a pretty good life as it is. 

potcakes-at-sandy-point-abaco-12

AND FINALLY… here is a video with a difference: Salty Dog the potcake goes mad on a beach – wearing a GoPro! Great idea…

Credits: All photos by the management

AMERICAN KESTRELS ON ABACO: ‘LET US PREY…’


american-kestrel-f-abaco-bruce-hallett-img_1235-copy

AMERICAN KESTRELS ON ABACO: ‘LET US PREY…’

To be honest, I haven’t done these fine birds justice. Barely a mention of them for 3 years. Too much else on the land and in the water to choose from. I posted some of my photos from an outing to Sandy Point HERE. And the kestrel kinsman MERLIN got some attention a while later. Time to make amends with some more AMKE.

american-kestrel-abaco-charles-skinner

As many or most of the images show, utility wires (also posts) are a favourite perch for kestrels. They get an unimpeded view of the only thing that really matters in their lives – outside the breeding season, of course – PREY.

american-kestrel-abaco-2-peter-mantle

In my experience it’s quite rare to see AMKEs on the ground – unless they are in the act of ripping up some hapless rodent pinned to the earth. I was with photographer Tom Sheley when he captured this fine bird in the grass. 

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Tom also took this outstanding photo, on an overcast day, of a kestrel feeding its fledgeling a large insect.american-kestrel-feeding-fledgling-2-delphi-club-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Treasure Cay and its surrounding area makes for a good day’s birding. Although South Abaco, below Marsh Harbour, is the go-to location, TC has plenty of scope for a great variety of species from shore birds to songbirds – including the occasional Kirtland’s warbler. The golf course pond at hole #11 is well worth checking out (with permission at the club house, rarely declined unless there’s an event of some sort). So is the large brackish lake system where you may well find herons and egrets. There’s been a rare (for Abaco) pearly-eyed thrasher there recently. And you may find yourself being watched by a kestrel from a vantage point.

american-kestrel-treasure-cay-abaco-bahamas-6-13-tom-sheley

A richly-coloured specimenAMERICAN KESTREL, Abaco -Nina Henry

A kestrel in streamlined flight, with its feet tucked tightly under its bodyamerican-kestrel-abaco-tom-reed

Bird on the Wireamerican-kestrel-abaco-peter-mantle-copy

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION

One of Leonard Cohen’s standards, and a song covered by almost everyone from Johnny Cash to Heathen Gonads*, Bird on the Wire was on the album Songs from a Room (1969). It was a favourite of Cohen’s, who once said “I always begin my concert with this song”. Covers range from the excellent via good, interesting, and strange to outright bizarre. Joe Bonamassa’s take on it (as Bird on a Wire) on Black Rock, is certainly… unusual**.

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 10); Charles Skinner (2); Peter Mantle (3, 9); Tom Sheley 4, 5, 6); Nina Henry (7); Tom Reed (8)

american-kestrel-f-abaco-bruce-hallett-img_1222

*not really .    **shows originality & ingenuity -vs- dents his purist bluesman credentials

HUMPBACK WHALE SEEN OFF SANDY POINT, ABACO


bmmro-humpbacks-2

HUMPBACK WHALE SEEN OFF SANDY POINT, ABACO

Dolphins are regularly seen around the coast and in the fishing grounds of Abaco. Sometimes, they make it easy by nosing into harbours and being generally adorable for a while, to the delight of onlookers. Hope Town can be a good place for this. Those aboard the “Donnies” –  the ferries that criss-cross the Sea of Abaco from the main island to the various Cays – may be in luck too. However, it is perhaps less well known that Abaco waters provide a home or a migratory passage for gigantic whales. Beside these mighty creatures, the several other whale species of the Bahamas seem relatively small. Yes it’s true: there are huge whales – humpbacks and sperm whales (cachalots) – to be found in Abaco waters, and not so very far from land either.

bmmro-humpbacks-5

The humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae above, with its characteristic white pectoral fins, was seen about a week ago off Sandy Point (southwest Abaco). You’ll get an idea of its immense size from the photo. An adult of this BALEEN WHALE species can reach 50 feet in length and weigh 35 tons or more. Imagine watching one slipping silently past your boat… and then consider that even larger sperm whales are seen in the same area. 

For the link to report a Bahamas whale sighting, please see either link provided below

Humpback whale / adult male human in scuba gear comparison
humpback_whale_size-svg

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Humpbacks are found in oceans throughout the world. They migrate huge distances each year, from polar regions to the tropical and sub-tropical waters where they breed. These are the whales beloved of wildlife film producers and whale-watching trips, with their spectacular arched breaching in which half their length or more may emerge from the water before smashing back into the waves. 

A humpback breaches on the Stellwagen Bank (about 50 miles offshore of Boston)
humpback_stellwagen-whit-wells-wiki

Like other large whale species, humpbacks were unsurprisingly prime targets for the whaling industry in a melancholy era of marine history that took them to the edge of extinction until a moratorium was declared in 1966. Since then the population has recovered significantly. They remain vulnerable, however: in some locations, to killing; to entanglement in heavy-duty fishing gear; to ship collisions; and to noise pollution that affects their ability to communicate long-distances underwater, as they need to do.

Finally, the Sandy Point humpback makes a last dive and, with a wave of its fluke, disappears  bmmro-humpbacks-4    bmmro-humpbacks-3

Do you have a Bahamas whale or dolphin sighting to report? Please use this link, giving as many of the details as you can. Each report makes a valuable contribution to the BMMRO’s research. 

http://www.bahamaswhales.org/sightings.aspx

As a footnote, my first whale encounter was on the Stellwagen Bank mentioned above, when I went on a whale-watching trip from Boston. We encountered a mother humpback with her calf and spent about 1/2 hour watching them interacting. I have the memories luckily – my photos were rubbish, using a very early digital camera that these days would be less effective and well-spec’d that a luminous pink plastic child’s camera now… 
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RELATED POSTS

HUMPBACK HOPE TOWN ABACO

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES

BMMRO

SIGHTING REPORTS

Credits: Brad & his crew, and the BMMRO; Whit Wells / Wiki for the breaching whale; moi for the rotten but quite interesting archive photos from the same place; the whale for being awesome in the true sense of the word

CONCH QUEST: ABACO’S MOST VERSATILE GASTROPOD


Conch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco

CONCH QUEST: ABACO’S MOST VERSATILE GASTROPOD

The conch. Such a fascinating gastropod, and with so many uses both culinary and decorative. In certain cultures, religiously significant. A rudimentary musical instrument for a shell.  And did I mention delicious? 

Live conchs enjoy motoring around uninhibitedly on the sea floor, keeping an eye out…Conch on the move ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy Conch Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury) copy Conch in shell ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Conchs also enjoy racing each other…Conch race ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

“Eat my dust…”Conch Trail ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Conch Pearl – one of the rarest natural pearls in the worldConch Pearl (Ambergris Caye Beize)

A conch spiral close-up

Conch close-up, Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

Conch shells just lie around the place at Sandy PointConch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2Conch Shells, Sandy Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3

Conchs are widely used for serving cocktails or as ashtrays in the best beach bars*Conch Shells, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

*This is a lie. Sorry about that. I meant to say “make prefect table decorations”

Image credits: Keith Salvesen / RH (1, 9, 10 ,11); Melinda Riger / GB Scuba (2, 4, 5, 6); Charmaine Albury (3); AmbergrisCaye.com (7); Rhonda Pearce (8)