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.
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.
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.
Tom also took this outstanding photo, on an overcast day, of a kestrel feeding its fledgeling a large insect.
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.
A richly-coloured specimen
A kestrel in streamlined flight, with its feet tucked tightly under its body
Bird on the Wire
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)
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.
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 WHALEspeciescan 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
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)
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
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.
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…
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
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…
Conchs also enjoy racing each other…
“Eat my dust…”
Conch Pearl – one of the rarest natural pearls in the world
A conch spiral close-up
Conch shells just lie around the place at Sandy Point
Conchs are widely used for serving cocktails or as ashtrays in the best beach bars*
*This is a lie. Sorry about that. I meant to say “make prefect table decorations”
Sandy Point always promises well for birding. There are plenty of ‘good’ birds to see there, depending on the time of year: tropicbirds, frigatebirds, ospreys, brown pelicans, white ibis, cattle egrets, other egrets and herons, kestrels, and a variety of shorebirds. And gulls. We encountered a pair of Laughing Gulls perched on a piling.
To begin with they were laughing merrily. Then they quietened down. Maybe one of them told a somewhat off-colour joke. In the sequence of photos below, you can see the left hand gull tensing and preparing to fly. Then it does – leaving his buddy all alone to contemplate the consequences of causing a sense of humour failure…
This is the sound of a pair of laughing gulls on the Marls objecting as we slowly poled through the mangroves towards them. Not laughing, but complaining…
The small settlement of Sandy Point is literally at the end of the road. Beyond the limit of the tarmac lies the shallow sea. The Highway – Abaco’s only main road – extends the length of the skinny island, 120 miles roughly north to south with occasional side roads to settlements, dirt roads, forestry tracks, and something a bit more significant for Marsh Harbour – a roundabout, a single set of working traffic lights, the only ones on the island. There’s a second set but I have never seen them working. I don’t think anyone ever has. Maybe they were never even wired up.
We went to Sandy Point for lunch with friends at the famous (though not yet world-famous) Nancy’s, with its reliably comforting menu of a choice of the same 3 dishes permanently on offer (fresh fish, conch, or chicken), plus Kalik or Sands beer. Simple yet satisfying. Sandy Point is a great place for birding, both sea / shore / wading birds, and land birds. Ospreys are often around. And brown pelicans. At high tide they dive off the dock (see HERE). At low tide, when the long sand bars are just visible above the water level, the pelicans use them as base for their fishing operations, often some 200 yards from the shoreline.
We were watching 5 pelicans doing just that – lazily flapping aloft from the water in their clumsy way, then turning swiftly and diving with some elegance before smashing into the water for fish, returning in triumph or sorrow to the sand bar to eat… or plan the next foray. Then one detached itself from the group and flew closer to us for a single dive in deeper water, before flapping heavily back to the sand bar.
I took a sequence of photos with ‘Hated Camera’ (having drowned ‘Loved Camera’ in a minor marine mishap). As I have since discovered, ‘HC’ was on the wrong setting the whole time – by which I mean several days (some small but important side switch I’d neglected to remember). Hence the pelican images are in small format because I am slightly ashamed of the quality… There’s a theory about cartoons that there are two possible reasons for pairing them together on a magazine page: (1) they are each doubly funny and therefore only need half the space; or (2) they are only half as funny and so two are needed to double the overall chuckle quotient…
So here is the pelican dive sequence – unsuccessful in terms of fish – with the bird then flying back past us to the sand bar to rejoin his 4 buddies. I’ve put 2 images per line – either because (on the cartoon principle above) they are so good they only need half the allotted space or (hint: this is the truth) they are of such indifferent image quality that I am too embarrassed to enlarge them…
In the final image you can just make out a spooky ghost ship on the horizon. This is the huge vessel moored at the ‘Disney’ island, historically named Gorda Cay but now ‘pirated up’ to Castaway Cay. Arrrrrrrr!
Credits: all images RH & ‘Hated Camera’; Mrs RH kindly being encouraging about the results
Gina (adult female) and her calf – last seen August 6th, 2015 in Spanish Wells Key feature – numerous paddle cuts; white oval scar on left side of back; linear scar on posterior right side of body
BAHAMAS MANATEE MAGIC ON ABACO & BEYOND
Four years ago, there were no manatees in Abaco waters. Then a couple of adventuresome sirenians made the trip over from the Berry Is. and since then, there have been at least one, sometimes two and occasionally three resident on Abaco. And for slow, gentle, animals they certainly move around, too. In the past, I wrote quite often about the manatees, charting their journeys based on satellite tracking and sightings. I reported the tantalising prospect of the young male, Randy, hooking up with young female Georgie in Cherokee Sound, only to turn back when he reached Little Harbour. You can read more about the manatees of Abaco on my manatee pageHERE.
Georgie’s epic trip (Sept 12) continued to Cherokee Sound; and Randy’s ‘pursuit’ (Sept 14)
The most comprehensive source for Bahamas Manatee information is now to be found by joining the open Facebook group BAHAMA MANATEE CLUB, skilfully curated by Felice Leanne Knowles. There, you can follow the meanderings of your favourite Abaco manatee, watching as he or she moves around the island and cays. In recent months there have been sightings of single or pairs of manatees in several places, including Sandy Point, Little harbour, Marsh Harbour, Schooner Bay and Hope Town Harbour (where two are right now). Here’s an excellent example of how, just like a Beach Boy, an Abaco manatee gets around. In July, Randy moved from Sandy Point to Schooner Bay in 2 days. The big question is, did he travel round the longer top route, as he has in the past; or (more likely in the time taken) via Hole-in-the-Wall?
Randy the Abaco Manatee goes swimabout
Felice has just produced a great map that shows the present locations of all the Bahamas manatees currently recorded. She has also supplied photos and information about them. Most have names and are well-known to the research team and the locals where they stay. There is one new calf – Gina’s – this year. One or two manatees are new on the scene and have yet to be identified or named.
Manatees Throughout The Bahamas
The map shows the last location of the named manatees. The pink dots label females, the green dots label males, and the yellow dots label unknown manatees. The number of unknown manatees has been approximated to reduce error. The photos are of the individual manatees with dates and specific locations of their most recent sighting. We do not have enough data and photos to confirm the unknowns labeled. Any help from the public would be greatly appreciated. Send sighting reports tohttp://www.bahamaswhales.org/sightings/index.htmlNB Felice points out“Full body and paddle photos are very important for the identification of manatees. Facial shots do not provide enough information for a manatee to be identified”
Georgie (sub-adult female) Last seen in Casuarina, Abaco 9th July, 2015 Key feature – 2 pink scars on the right posterior of her body
Randy (sub-adult male) Last sighted in Hope Town August 12th, 2015 Key feature – triangle cut on right side of paddle
Unknown (adult, presumed female) with Randy Last seen in Hope Town August 12th, 2015 Key feature – 3 prop scars on the posterior right side of body
Gina’s Calf Last seen August 6th, Spanish Wells Key feature – none yet, just really tiny!
Blackbeard (adult male) Last seen in Lyford Cay August 13th, 2015 Key features – triangle cut on right side of paddle (similar to Randy’s); oval scar on centre of paddle; three prop scars on the back and linear scar
Kong (adult male) Last seen in Great Harbour Cay Marina, February 25th, 2015 Key feature – triangle cut on the left side of paddle; linear scar across the back; oval scar on the back near paddle
J.J. (sub-adult female) Last seen in Great Harbour Cay Marina, Berry Islands, February 25th, 2015 Key feature – 3 small semi-circular cuts out of paddle at the very end
Rita (adult female) Last seen 23rd March, 2014 Hawks Nest Marine, Cat Island Key feature – Large triangle cut on right side of paddle; two small triangular cuts side by side forming a “w” on the left side of paddle
Unknown adult, West Grand Bahama – Key feature: too distant!
You may have noticed that several of the manatees shown carry scars attributable to prop wounds. Almost all carry injuries of some sort. Because manatees are slow, gentle, inquisitive and trusting creatures, they are especially vulnerable in harbour areas for obvious reasons. Elsewhere than the Bahamas, boat-strike is one of the main causes of manatee mortality. The BMMRO recently issued the above advisory notice because of the uncertainty about the rights and wrongs of watering manatees from docks with hoses and feeding them lettuce etc. Overall the message is that, though creatures of wonder, they are better off being admired but left to their own devices. They are adept at finding the fresh water sources they need, and their sea-grass diet is amply provided for. Dependence on humans, however well-meaning, is actually harmful.
Credits: first and foremost, Felice Leanne Knowles; also BMMRO, Charlotte, & Diane for permission to make free with their material and photos from the get-go; any other photographers of the manatees shown and posted via BMMRO / FLK (Cha Boyce, Jessica Mullen,Otis Wilhoyte I think, maybe others…)
BAHAMAS WHALES & DOLPHINS IN ABACO & ANDROS WATERS
The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO) has its HQ at Sandy Point, Abaco. We recently went out in their research boat, a RHIB, to spend an unforgettable day with Blainville’s beaked whales and bottlenose dolphins. I posted some of the dolphins HERE; and a two-part beaked whale post is a work in progress.
Male Blainville’s beaked whale with its extraordinary barnacle-encrusted teeth that protrude upwards from its lower jaw. The prominent beak is plainly visible. Sighted off the south-west point of Abaco during our second encounter with a group of these whales – the only male we saw that day
Abaco waters are ideal for marine mammals, especially off the southern shores where the walls of the Great Bahama Canyon drop vertiginously down from the shallow coastal waters to depths of up to 3 miles below. This is one of the deepest ocean canyons in the world. The area provides a rich source of food and nutrients for the whales and dolphins and many different species are regularly sighted there, from huge sperm whales to small pilot whales (including plenty of species I had never heard of before).
As the name suggests, the BMMRO’s remit extends far beyond Abaco. The researchers often spend time exploring and recording cetaceans in other Bahamian waters. For the last few weeks the team have been off Andros and have encountered quite a few target species. I have included a selection below taken within the last month to illustrate the importance of the area for a remarkable assortment of wonderful whales and dolphins.
BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALE
DWARF SPERM WHALES
PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHINS
On board the research vessel, every sighting is recorded in detail – where possible by species, numbers, ages, sexes, and individual identifying characteristics. Thus ‘SW34’ may have a damaged fluke, whereas ‘RD49’ may have a long scar on its back.
The research boat is equipped with sound devices which, when the microphone is immersed, are capable of picking up whale or dolphin sounds from a considerable distance. It’s astounding to be able to listen in ‘live’ to the wide assortment of clicks and whistles produced as the creatures communicate with each other. The recorded sound patterns are studied and can often be matched to enable an individual animal to be identified.
Other work, including photography, is done underwater. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the collection of poop specimens, from which a great deal can be ascertained about the diet and health of an individual animal. I wrote about this task and the methods used a while ago in ‘FAMILIAR FECES‘.
I’ll be writing more about whales soon. Meanwhile, here’s a short BMMRO video of a large group of melon-headed males. At the start, you can clearly hear communication sounds between them.
Credits: Charlotte & Diane of the BMMRO for taking us out with them and for all the photos except the male Blainville’s beaked whale (mine, for once!)