Monday, June 20, 2011

Jamaica: Chi Chi Bud Oh!

Chi chi bud oh!
Some a dem a holler, some a bawl.

So begins an old Jamaican song, a catalogue of Jamaican birds by their local names:

Some a John Crow [Turkey Vulture]
Some a Kling Kling [Greater Antillean Grackle]....

Here, in somewhat the same spirit, is a catalogue of birds from the north coast and the hinterland.

Let's start with the gaulins [herons].  They're the same ones you can find in Florida: here, at the mouth of the river by the Shaw Park Resort, are Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) and a greyish immature Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens).
Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) have gotten used to visiting the tables at hotel patios: an ideal opportunity for portrait photography at breakfast time.

This Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was hanging around a very touristy shark-feeding pool, obviously for reasons of its own.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) are known as "crabier" in the French-speaking islands of the West Indies, and as Crab Catcher in Jamaica.  It lives up to its popular names (usually at dusk or very early in the morning).  This immature bird greeted us just outside the door of our room.
In Jamaica the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is sometimes called the Killy Killy - in imitation of its call, not in reference to its predatory habits!

Zenaida Doves (Zenaida aurita; Pea Doves to Jamaicans, I'm not sure why) are common, tame birds, and frequent visitors (like this one) to hotel patios.  This is quite a change from the days of Philip Henry Gosse, whose "The Birds of Jamaica" (1847) reported that "Few birds are more difficult of approach".  Of course Gosse was going after the birds with a gun, not a pair of binoculars or a handful of bread crumbs!

The common large pigeon of the coast is the White-crowned (Patagioenas leucocephala), locally known as the Bald Pate. 

Jamaica once had at least one species of macaw, gone so long ago that not even specimens exist.  Today it has two endemic amazon parrots, but near the coast you are more likely to see the Olive-throated Parakeet (Aratinga nana), a bird that also occurs in Mexico.

One of my favourite birds as a child was the ungainly looking Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani), which, despite  being a sort of cuckoo, looks rather more like a poorly-assembled parrot.  It is known as the Savanna Blackbird in Jamaica.  Anis are highly sociable birds, almost always in family groups.

For most people, the bird of Jamaica is its national symbol, Gosse's "gem of Jamaican ornithology", the Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) or Doctor Bird.  The name "Doctor Bird" is probably a reference to its needle-like bill, though May Jeffrey-Smith, in my childhood bible "Bird-watching in Jamaica", suggested that its black crest may have reminded some of the black top hats old-fashioned doctors used to wear.

One of the nicest things about this splendid hummingbird is that it is not only gorgeous and endemic, but common and widespread - the two don't often go hand in hand these days.  This is an immature male, lacking the fully-developed streamers of an adult.

A strong contender for the joint titles of prettiest, cutest and most interesting bird on Jamaica is the Jamaican Tody (Todus todus). Jamaicans call it the Robin Redbreast. Prettiness and cuteness are in the eye of the beholder, so judge for yourself. Interest, for someone like me interested in bird systematics and evolution, is another matter. Todies belong to their own unique family, entirely confined to the Greater Antilles.  There are five species: the Jamaican Tody, plus one each on Cuba and Puerto Rico and two, largely separated by altitude, on Hispaniola.

Todies are related to kingfishers and motmots. Birds rather like todies, members of the extinct family Primobucconidae, were widespread in the Northern Hemisphere until they were supplanted, About 30 million years ago, by the arrival from the south of the songbirds (Passeriformes). Birding must have been quite delightful back then.

Another highly attractive endemic is the Jamaican Woodpecker (Melanerpes radiolatus), one of a number of related birds scattered about the West Indies and, in fact, throughout much of the Americas.  Like many other Jamaican endemics, it is, fortunately, still common and widespread.  This is a female.

Jamaica boasts eight breeding species of tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae), one of the largest tyrannid faunas in the West Indies.  The Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) is one of two common Jamaican kingbirds.  It is a resident on the island; the other species, the Grey Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis) or Petchary, is a migrant that had departed Jamaica by the time of our November visit.

Jamaica is the only Caribbean island with three species of the genus Myiarchus - including, like the three bears, a big one, a middle-sized one and a little one.  This is the baby of the group, the endemic Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris).  The local name for Myiarchus in Jamaica is Tom Fool, and this species, accordingly, is the Little Tom Fool.

In my younger days, Jamaican Crows (Corvus jamaicensis)were pretty much confined to the highlands.  In recent years they have increased along the north coast, and to my surprise they were common around our hotel. They are particularly noisy birds, producing, among other things, a high-pitched yammering - "like a turkey being strangled", according to Ann Haynes-Sutton et al.'s "A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica" - that gives them their local name of Jabbering Crow.

Every tourist in Jamaica, bird lover or not, knows the Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger), an inveterate scavenger at poolside tables.  The Kling Kling - obviously named for its voice - is one of the most familiar of Jamaican lowland birds.  It is rather small and short-tailed as grackles go - the upper bird seems to be losing his tail altogether!

Auntie Katie (or Ma Katie) is the Jamaican Oriole (Icterus leucopteryx). Though perhaps not one of the most striking of the American orioles (no relation to the orioles of the Old World), I find its combination of black, white and lemon-lime quite attractive. Despite its name, it is not quite an endemic; it is also found on Isla San Andres, and a somewhat brighter subspecies once lived on Grand Cayman, where it was last seen in 1967.

One of the most widespread and successful birds in the West Indies is the Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola).  I (and an anonymous commentator) have already had things to say about the distinctive-looking Bananaquits of the Bahamas and the more typical ones of St. Thomas.  Jamaica is home to the nominate subspecies (Coereba flaveola flaveola), which is endemic to the island and common everywhere.

Finally, some visitors.  The West Indies are a major wintering ground for many of the species of wood warblers (Parulidae) that breed in eastern North America.  In fact they may be more critical in some ways than the breeding sites, because the birds are more concentrated in the smaller area of the islands.  A hectare of Jamaican forest may hold several times as many birds as a hectare of prime breeding territory.  This is a Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor), common in Jamaica despite the utter absence of prairies (it likes mangroves in particular).  This may not be an ideal portrait, but it does show off the amount of white in the tail.

Jamaica may be the most important wintering area for one of its commonest migrant visitors (and one of the handsomest and most charming of the lot), the Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens)

The Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina), another favourite of mine, is a good example of how important wintering grounds can be.  It has a tubular tongue, an adaptation for sipping nectar - something it must rarely get a chance to do on its breeding grounds in northern coniferous forests, but an important part of its feeding behaviour on its wintering grounds.  Though it breeds well to the north of even my own home in Canada, it has evolved - so it seems - for the tropics.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jamaica: Old Haunts

A-many years ago, when I was young and charming (well, now you know that Gilbert and Sullivan rank high among my non-naturalist enthusiasms) -- well, actually, when I was almost eleven years old -- my father Charles Orenstein was hired to oversee the building and opening of a resort hotel, the Arawak, near Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

The hotel opened on December 7, 1957.  Here I am at the festivities, flanked by Norman Manley (1893-1969), Chief Minister of Jamaica, soon to be the independent country's first premier [in an earlier version of this entry I misidentified him as his cousin and arch-rival Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was also present]; my dad (1916-, I'm happy to say!); and Sir Hugh Foot (1907-1990), the outgoing colonial governor.

We lived in Jamaica for over a year.  Imagine how it felt to be a young boy fascinated by natural history, suddenly transported to a tropical island filled with birds and butterflies, with a coral reef off the coast and a shell-laden beach to explore.  It was the happiest year of my childhood, and I though it was many years before I returned I have had a soft spot for Jamaica ever since.

I have been back several times, and in November 2010 I had a chance to go again - this time to attend a meeting of the Protocol to the Cartagena Convention on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife in the Wider Caribbean Region (or SPAW, to its devotees).  Eileen went with me, and together we visited some of my old haunts along the north coast, where we stayed at the charming Shaw Park Resort courtesy of my old friend from childhood days, Ernie Smatt, who ran the water sports concession at the Arawak and is now a highly successful hotelman in his own right..

Morning walks around the hotel gardens brought me to some charming flowers - does anyone out there know what these are?

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is not only a highly attractive tree and a staple item in Jamaican diets - it has its famous (or rather infamous) place in history.  The tree, a member of the mulberry family (Moraceae), is native to Southeast Asia and the tropical Pacific.  It owes its presence in the Caribbean to the famous 18th-century botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who promoted it as a cheap and nutritious food for slaves working British possessions in the West Indies.

 The first attempt to transport breadfruit to the Caribbean, in 1787, must rank as one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful ventures in the history of botany: the ship chosen for the expedition was the HMS Bounty under the command of William Bligh.  Bligh succeeded in getting plants to their destination on a later, less mutinous venture, only to find that the slaves wouldn't eat the stuff.  Well, I'm not a huge fan of breadfruit myself....
There is no more typical tree of Caribbean coastlines than the seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) - not a grape, but a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) with thickened, waxy leaves adapted to survive in the salt spray and edible, if not particularly tasty, grape-like fruits that are used to make a local jam.

Anything away from the coast is, of course,off the regular tourist beat.  This is a shame, because Jamaica has beautiful forested hills (and some green landscapes that look remarkably like parts of rural England).  We drove up to Brown's Town to see the local market, nature-watching on the way (and road-watching, too - driving in rural Jamaica can be something of a hazardous experience).

 Jamaica is rich in native plants, with a high number of species found nowhere else (and like tropical plants everywhere, they receive far less protection than they deserve). Here are an unidentified (at least by me) leguminous tree and a strangler fig.

A sure clue that we were in the New World tropics - not the old - was the presence of bromeliads, in some places seemingly decorating every tree of suitable size.  Only a single member of the 3000+ strong family Bromeliaceae is native to the Old World, and that one, restricted to West Africa, is probably a fairly recent colonist whose seeds were spread across the Atlantic by migratory birds.

In Jamaica bromeliads (this one looks like a member of the genus Tillandsia) are known as wild pines (presumably because the most widely-cultivated bromeliad is the pineapple).  Bromeliads tend to collect rainwater in the bases of their leaves, creating tiny arboreal wetlands that are home to a variety of specialized creatures.  Jamaican bromeliads boast, among other things, a unique crab (Metopaulias depressus) that breeds in bromeliad pools and cares for its young to a remarkable degree for an invertebrate.

Here is a particularly large and robust bromeliad, possibly a species of Aechmea.
Many thanks to Rich Hoyer for identifying this damselfly for me!  It is a female Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii), a very widespread member of the Coenagrionidae whose range extends from the USA to Chile and even Hawaii.

There are 13 species of damselfly on Jamaica. At least one, the endemic Diceratobasis macrogaster, is a bromeliad specialist, laying its eggs in the plant's water traps where its young feed on the other invertebrates swimming there (see Rich's photo of this species here).
Anolis lizards are widespread and familiar in the West Indies.  There are seven species on Jamaica, six of them endemic. As you might expect, the seventh  is the likeliest to be found around coastal resorts, and that is where I photographed this one.  It is a Cuban Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei), a species that has been introduced, very successfully (at least from the lizard's point of view), in South Florida.

The six native species are the result of a radiation from a single ancestral form that invaded the island long ago.  This is one of them, the Jamaican Turquoise Anole (Anolis grahami), photographed in the forest near Brown's Town above Ocho Rios.
Here is a Tropical Buckeye (Junonia genoveva).  Notice the extensive whitish area around the eyespot on the forewing - that is one key to distinuish it from a very similar butterfly, the West Indian Buckeye (Junonia evarete).

This magnificent spider is a Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes).  Nephila spiders are found around the world in warmer latitudes.  This is apparently the only member of its genus in the Americas, where it lives from the southern United states through Central America and the West Indies into South America.
As a boy, I was less interested in the forest (after all, I couldn't drive) than in the sea, and the wonders that the sea might cast up on the beach below us.  I spent many happy hours collecting shells washed up on the sand, or poking about in the shallows in search of strange marine creatures.  A brief stroll along the beach at the Shaw Park Hotel, where Eileen and I stayed, brought some of those memories back again.
The delicately-coloured valves of tellins (this appears to be the Alternate Tellin (Tellina alternata)) lay among sand grains and the remains of smaller molluscs.

Snail shells decorated the sand (this is a common one, but I'm not too sure what it is - the thickened lip recalls not so much a marine shell as one of Jamaica's land snails (Lucidella sp.?), incongruously washed up on the beach.

Not all the small objects cast up on a beach are the remains of marine animals.  large seeds from a variety of land plants - so-called "sea beans"  - are common in beach wrack, where sea-bean fanciers collect them as enthusiastically as shell-collectors do mollusc shells.  This one appears to be the seed of Jamaican Navelspurge (Omphalea diandra), a shrub in the euphorbia family with relatives in tropical America, Africa and Madagascar.

My walks usually led me to outcrops of limestone interrupting the flow of sand along the beach, where I could find a further range of creatures clinging to the rocks or living in the tidepools.

A closer look reveals that the rock is actually the skeletons coral, the remains of an ancient reef.

Nerrite snails (genus Nerita) cluster together at the tideline, often in large numbers, lending a touch of colour and pattern to the bare rocks.  Here two species sit side by side: on the left, the Tessellated Nerite (Nerita tessellata), and on the right, the Plicate or Four-toothed Nerite (Nerita versicolor).
In Jamaica, chitons (this appears to be the West Indian Green Chiton (Chiton tuberculatus)) are known as "sea beef".  Though they might look, I suppose, like a slab of raw meat (and they are eaten, and used as bait), chitons are actually mollusks (Class Polyplacophora).  They are distinguished from other mollusks by the row of eight overlapping shell plates running down their upper surface.  Chitons cling tightly to the rocks, move little and seem singularly unexciting animals.

A very recent discovery, though, published only in April 2011, has shown that some adult chitons (this one is probably a Squamous Chiton (Chiton squamosus)) have at least one remarkable feature: eyes made of, essentially, stone.  Their shells contain hundreds of light-sensitive cells linked to crystals of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This network of crystalline eyes can actually see shapes, admittedly at very low resolution.  By human standards chiton vision is pretty poor, but it may be good enough to warn them of the approach of a predator (they cannot run away, but they can clamp down more tightly to the rocks if threatened).  Furthermore, the light-bending properties of aragonite means that chiton eyes work both in and out of the water - a useful feature for animals that spend their lives along the tide line.

Chitons are they only known animals with aragonite lenses.  Only some chiton species have eyes, and they seem to have acquired them only in the last 25 million years - not a long time, considering that chitons have been around since at least the Cambrian, 500 million years ago.  This (if I have identified it correctly) is one of the eyed species (and in fact the one in which the discovery was made): the West Indian Fuzzy Chiton (Acanthopleura granulata).