From the East Indies (if anyone still calls them that) to the West Indies!
After our return from Borneo and Hong Kong, Eileen and I flew to Florida to join my parents on a short cruise through the Caribbean. Our first stop, on Monday April 6, was the tiny, flat island of Grand Turk, near the eastern end of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Turks and Caicos, though politically distinct, are biologically the southeasternmost part of the Bahamas, and their flora and fauna (with a few exceptions) are related to the rest of the Bahamian chain.
Mind you, not much of that biology was on view, at least above sea level, on the day we were there. Other than a few doves, there were no land birds in sight at all. Cruise stops, of course, are not ideal for wildlife-watching. You can rarely get off the boat until fairly late in the morning. On the other hand, what I saw may reflect the real situation. Only last September, Grand Turk lay directly in the path of Hurricane Ike. 80% of the island's homes were damaged, and the effect on its wildlife may well have been considerable.
Other than wildlife, one of the chief points of interest above the waterline is, of all things, a replica of John Glenn's original space capsule Friendship 7, which splashed down near the island in 1962. The original is in Washington, DC at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum (though our taxi driver cheerfully claimed that this roadside monument was, in fact, the original capsule. Credulous tourists beware!).
The only real town on Grand Turk, and the capital of the Turks and Caicos generally, is Cockburn Town. Like many another Caribbean city, its streets are lined with flowering trees. Unlike some others, though, the commonest flowering tree in Cockburn Town is a native species, the Geiger Tree (Cordia sebestena). Geiger Trees, though beautiful, are perhaps not as flashy as some of the exotics so widely planed in the tropics, but it is nice to see a town decorated with flowers that actually belong there.
This little tree, however, is an exotic - the giant milkweed or bowstring hemp (Calotropis gigantea) from eastern Asia. It was being visited by numbers of visiting monarch butterflies, happy to find a local milkweed and apparently unconcerned by its alien origin.
This is another common native plant, Yellow Trumpetbush or ginger-thomas (Tecoma stans). Its range goes well beyond the Turks, to the southwestern United States south to Central and South America, and it has become an exotic nuisance weed in the south Pacific.
However diminished the wildlife of Grand Turk may be above the water, the situation beneath the waves is another matter altogether. Grand Turk is exceedingly fortunately situated as far as wealth of marine life is concerned. Only a few hundred metres off its eastern shore, the sea floor becomes a sheer wall plunging to over 2000 metres depth in places. In the photograph above you can see the edge of the wall, marked by the sudden change from azure to cobalt blue as the bottom drops away beneath the surface. The wall is rich in reef life (and is a magnet for scuba divers).
What's good for life below the water is good for seabirds above it. While land birds proved hard to find on Grand Turk, Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla) remained numerous, obvious, and, as far as this group outside Cockburn Town was concerned, easily approachable.
So, of course, are the people of Grand Turk. These two little girls seemed to find me most entertaining (I guess not every tourist in Cockburn Town takes pictures of Geiger Trees)!