A Blizzard of Butterflies



How lovely to go for a walk accompanied by a magical fluttering of yellowish-white butterflies. It is enough to make anyone feel like a Disney princess, or like Bambi exploring a technicolor forest.


 
In other years there have sometimes been sudden butterfly hatchings, but I have never seen so many, or for so long. It seems that when the heavy November rains broke our six month drought and trees were able to grow new leaves, that in turn created unusually favorable conditions for butterfly eggs to develop into caterpillars that could grow and thrive and produce an abundance of butterflies.     


Cluster of Great Southern White butterflies in Fish Bay  Photo Gail Karlsson
 Although there are several similar types of butterflies around, the ones I have been seeing the most are Great Southern Whites. You can tell because they have distinctive turquoise tips on their antennas. 

Close-up of Great Southern White on a branch
Photo Gail Karlsson

The Great Southern Whites are not special to the Virgin Islands. They are also common throughout the southern United States, South America and the Caribbean. Other Caribbean islands have reported mass hatchings this season as well.   

In the Virgin Islands, the Great Southern Whites tend to use the numerous, local limber caper trees as hosts. The females attach clusters of about 20 tiny torpedo-shaped eggs to the leaves of the tree – potentially producing up to 500 eggs each. When conditions are right, the eggs develop into caterpillars with black spots, dark hairs, and yellow stripes running lengthwise along their backs - much smaller than the well-known frangipani caterpillar. After two or three weeks of feeding on leaves, the caterpillar will transform into a chrysalis with a hard shell, usually hanging inconspicuously on the tree. After a week or so the chrysalis bursts open and the butterfly emerges. All in all, it is an amazingly complex process.   

Butterflies mostly suck nectar from flowers, using a long proboscis that they can extend and insert into the flowers. They are important pollinators for many plants, transferring pollen from one flower to another as they flit about.

The Great Southern Whites also seem to be social drinkers. I have often seen them gathering in groups along on our dirt road, apparently getting together to drink and draw minerals from the wet spots – an activity known as ‘puddling’.
Great Southern Whites puddling in the dirt road
Photo Gail Karlsson
 

Unfortunately these butterflies have a short life span. While they are here, they bring great joy to people on St. John, and we can hope for another big batch of them again – if all the eggs these ones lay are able to hatch, and there are enough leaves for the hungry caterpillars to eat, as well as nectar-filled flowers for the next generation of emerging butterflies.

 
 

 


War on Tan-tans?

Headline News:
Trump to Tan-tans “Go Back to Mexico!”
“They’re ugly, they don’t belong here, and they’re crowding out valuable native trees. They have no pretty flowers or tasty fruit, and they’re un-American. Let’s root them out now!”
Tan-tan (False tamarind)
Photo Gail Karlsson

Well, not really, though it does seem like if he knew about these invasive aliens, Trump would want to send them back across the border.  

It is true that St. John residents have been complaining about all the tan-tan trees sprouting up around the island after the abundant November rains. Known formally as Leucaena leucocephala, they are also called ‘false tamarinds’, as they slightly resemble (and may try to pass for) these ‘real’ trees. They seek out areas where the land is disturbed and spread their seeds widely, waiting for opportunities to take over new territory.   

The tan-tans were able to wait out the recent six month drought that brought down even some usually hardy native trees, and then sprang up with a vengeance when the heavens opened up in November. Once they put down their deep tap roots, it is extremely difficult to eradicate them. You cut them down but they keep on growing back. 

Local tree expert and historian Eleanor Gibney (though by no means a tan-tan supporter) reported that they were actually introduced to the Virgin Islands intentionally for an important purpose. During the mid-1800s there were a couple of thousand cows on St. John and the ranchers brought in the tan-tans as a fast-growing source of forage fodder. Some sources indicate that the trees probably came from coastal Mexico or Central America. Those deep tap roots allow them to survive the dry season, and to spring back to life after being chomped and stomped on by careless cattle. Some people still gather tan-tan branches to feed their goats, but mostly these trees are now viewed as undesirable aliens.    

Unfortunately, it would be too difficult to actually send all the tan-tans back to Mexico. More likely people will ramp up attacks on them using machetes, Round-Up and diesel fuel.     

Extermination efforts can lead to collateral damage, however, as many people have difficulty distinguishing between tan-tans and other similar-looking trees – including the amarat, a key hardwood species from the original Virgin Islands forests. Teaching people to distinguish these trees would help prevent indiscriminate damage to native hardwoods.  
The St. John Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Green Sanctuary Committee has recently started a project to raise awareness about the different types of trees commonly seen on St. John.
 
Anyone interested in learning more about local trees, whether native, naturalized or invasive, can connect with the project through its Facebook page UUF Tree Appreciation Project St. John VI, and website http://uufstjohn.com/treeproject/about/.
 
 
Can you identify these trees with leaves that are somewhat similar to tan-tans?
A.







 
 

B.
C.



















Answers:
A. Tamarind
B. Amarat
C. Acacia

Snow Bird or Born Here?


Great egret hunting lizards in my yard
Photo Gail Karlsson
 
It’s not always so easy to tell the difference.
 
This is the time of year when seasonal migrants – birds and people – start showing up in the Caribbean. Many only stay for a brief stopover and then move on, but a certain number of regulars settle in for the winter, filling local beaches and watering holes and acting like they belong here.

Some permanent residents welcome the influx, while others wish the migrants would just stay where they were and leave the islands to the locals.

Of course it is sometimes difficult to distinguish locals from part-timers – at least among the herons and egrets.
 
In the ponds near my house on St. John I see great egrets, snowy egrets, and cattle egrets, as well as black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons, green herons, great blue herons, and little blue herons. None of these are special types of birds that live only in the tropics. They can be found all along the east coast of the US, and lots of other places as well. But some of these birds are actually full-time residents of the Virgin Islands. How can you tell?

 Herons and egrets that breed in the northeast US during the spring generally move south in the fall, and a few might pass through or even end up in the Virgin Islands. Birds in warmer southern states don’t migrate in the same way. In the Caribbean, as well, some of the birds stay around all year, raising their young on island time. Their breeding schedule is linked to the wet and dry seasons that affect the availability of food here, rather than northern temperatures and ecological cycles. 

Raffaele’s book Birds of the West Indies identifies a number of birds in the heron/egret family as “common residents” that live and breed here: snowy egrets and cattle egrets, green and little blue herons, and yellow-crowned night herons.

Great egrets are considered “uncommon residents” in the Caribbean.

Last fall I saw flocks of great egrets gathering in Jamaica Bay in New York City at the end of September, and then one day in early October woke up to find a bunch of them sitting in the trees around the pond by my house in Fish Bay. It seemed like we were on the same flight path.
 
Photo Gail Karlsson

After a few days most of the great egrets were gone, but a couple seemed to be fishing in the pond all winter. Were they on St. John all along, or did one pair of migrants settle down in the neighborhood for the season?
 
Great egret couple in Fish Bay pond
Photo Gail Karlsson
You would definitely be sure that an egret is living on St. John if you could find its nest. Up north, I have seen large numbers of nests all built close together in one or two trees, since there herons and egrets usually breed in colonies in the spring and stick together for protection. An ‘uncommon resident’ couple might end up nesting alone though, and at a different time of year. I have gone around looking for great egret nests in marshy areas of St. John, so far without success. If they are here, they are pretty well hidden. 

There is another indication, though, that a great egret is a resident: if you see breeding plumage. I have definitely seen birds in the pond with the long, lacy breeding feathers that are called aigrettes. (These plumes became popular for decorating ladies’ hats in the late nineteenth century, and during that time egrets were hunted almost to the point of extinction.) 

 
Photo Gail Karlsson


So I do think at least some of the great egrets I see are permanent residents. Others, like me, travel back and forth, attracted to the warmth of the tropics, but not content to stay in one place all year. As Joni Mitchell wrote: “They got the urge for going, and they got the wings so they can go.” 


 


 
 

Gratitude for Sargassum?


Is St. John ‘paradise’?
 
The recent Cosmopolitan magazine article by Noelle Hancock that went viral on the Internet offered an idyllic version of island life: “Sunlight sparkles on the water. Sailboats bob companionably in the distance.”

 
              Fish Bay.  Photo Gail Karlsson

Images of the attractive author in her bikini cavorting on one of St. John’s loveliest beaches seemed to prompt thousands of people to consider chucking their dismal lives and moving here to serve ice cream in paradise. “I was happier scooping mint chocolate chip for $10 an hour than I was making almost six figures at my previous corporate job.”

At a recent beach party there was grumbling about what she left out. Sure she mentioned that there was a chicken in the shower – that was cute maybe – but what about big flying cockroaches? Some critics thought people reading the article would show up with unreasonable expectations. Others worried that if it sounded too perfect here on St. John, too many people come and that would ruin what is actually great about the island.

Earlier that morning during a talk on the topic of celebrating island life we had been encouraged to respond to whatever we experience with a sense of gratitude: remember nothing is either good or bad, everything just is. Hmm…people could stay in the city if they believed that – they wouldn’t need to come to St. John to look for happiness.

Those who are not ‘one with everything’ tend to have strong opinions about what is acceptable in paradise. It is great to spend a sunny afternoon fooling around with friends in clear turquoise water, but we are quick to pass judgment on unwelcome intruders. What are those nasty little stinging things in the water? Sea lice? Yikes!

On the way home I drove past the sargassum seaweed that had accumulated in Fish Bay. My neighbors living nearby complained it was stinky – and they were right. Besides it didn’t belong there.

                                   Sargassum seaweed in Fish Bay. Photo Gail Karlsson

 Sargassum is a type of marine plant – actually brown macroalgae – with air bubbles that keep it afloat. There is a huge mass of it north of us in the Sargasso Sea where several different ocean currents form the North Atlantic Gyre. It supports a wide diversity of sea life, including crabs, mollusks, shrimp, seahorses and fish. In addition, it provides a home for baby sea turtles, which ride the Gulf Stream to go hang out there and hide from predators until they are fully grown.

However ecologically important sargassum may be in the Atlantic, it is not welcomed by beach lovers or boaters in this area expecting to enjoy clean shorelines and clear water. Or even by hatching baby turtles that wouldn’t even be able to get into the water because of the piles of seaweed in the way.

There does not seem to be one simple explanation for recent incursions of sargassum into the Caribbean. Late last year, the VI National Park explained that "When certain weather patterns interact, the yellow-orange weed is 'burped' out of the Sargasso Sea and carried by air and water currents through Atlantic and Caribbean waters." (St. John VI Tradewinds, December 19, 2014) However, researchers tracking the origin of a 2011 sargassum invasion into the eastern Caribbean concluded that a new source of the seaweed had developed in an area off the coast of Brazil, possibly due to high ocean temperatures and nutrient loads from the Amazon river's outflow. "The unusual nature of this event suggests that it may be coupled to larger swings in regional ecosystem dynamics due to global temperature increases." 

I was feeling pretty upset about the seaweed in paradise situation, and snarling about another apparent disruption of marine life due to climate change – until I noticed the birds. Great white egrets were perched on the posts from the old dock, scanning for crustaceans hidden in the leafy sargassum strands, while a crab-eating night heron lurked in the mangroves.  
 
                        Yellow crowned night heron by Fish Bay. Photo Gail Karlsson

 
I stopped to get a better look, and held the bottom of my shirt over my nose while I crept closer to the shoreline. There I saw spotted sandpipers running across the seaweed.

                                                              Sandpiper on sargassum. Photo Gail Karlsson

Then I was excited to see a group of some other unfamiliar and creatively-patterned shorebirds riding on the raft of sargassum, which gently rose and fell on the waves. As they drifted in and out, they flipped over pieces of seaweed with their bills to uncover the small prey it concealed.

 
When I got home I looked in my field guide and saw that they were Ruddy Turnstones, either winter residents or migrants from further south, getting ready to go up to breed in the Arctic tundra, probably thankful for something to fill their bellies for the long flight.

                 Ruddy turnstones. Photo Gail Karlsson 

I was filled with gratitude myself. It wasn’t a typical blissful island experience, sneaking along through smelly decomposing seaweed to spy on skittish shorebirds, and yet for me it was all good. I was fully present, intently focused on what was there in front of me, with no complaints. What more could I ask from paradise?    

   

It's Not A Snake!


My scientist friend Kevel Lindsay from the Island Resources Foundation recently posted a picture of a little snake on Facebook. He identified it as a ground snake (Magliophis exiguum exiguum), a rarely seen Virgin Islands native, and expressed his concern about the survival of local species due to land development and loss of habitat.

Unfortunately photos of snakes are not too popular, so only a couple of people ‘Liked’ that post.

Imagine my excitement when shortly afterwards I spotted this little pinkish guy by the side of the road right near my house in Fish Bay.
Dried up Amphisbaena fenestrate. Photo Gail Karlsson
 
I wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t been pulling up some weeds next to it.

At first I thought it was a big worm, but then I saw that it had a face and a mouth with teeth. I called my husband over. “Look a little snake! I have to show Kevel.” It wasn’t moving, so I was able to get my camera and take some pictures of it.
 
Close up of Amphisbaena face. Photo Gail Karlsson
 
Sadly, it was dead. Not just dead but all dried up and stuck in its twisty position. It was still there when we returned from our walk, so my husband picked it up and brought it inside. It seemed like it would be about 9 inches long if it was straightened out, and thinner than a pencil.

I posed it next to a scorpion exoskeleton I happened to have on my shelf in order to show its size, and sent that photo off to Kevel in an email titled “Dried up snake” with the message “Look what we found!”
 

My kids had reported seeing a blind snake one time when they went to camp at the VI Environmental Resource Station, but I had never seen one myself – or any other kind of snake here.

Kevel wrote back “Amphisbaena” and also forwarded it to Dr. Renata Platenberg, a herpetologist and Assistant Professor of Natural Resource Management at UVI. She confirmed that it was an Amphisbaena fenestrata and kindly shared a picture of a live one. I asked why the one I found was all dried up like that on the ground instead or rotten or eaten up by something. Apparently they are mostly found in moist forest areas and under the ground, and their skin does not protect them from the sun, so they can quickly become desiccated.
 
Live amphisbaena fenestrate. Photo Renata Platenberg 
 
Then I got another message from Kevel. “It’s a legless lizard, not a snake.”

Well, that was a surprise. I went on the Internet to find out more, and saw on the kingsnake.com website that “until recently they were considered to be legless lizards, but they are now placed their own taxonomic order, Amphisbaenia, apart from lizards and snakes”.

I asked Renata about that and she said she has always considered them to be neither lizards nor snakes, though the most recent genetic studies place them closer to lizards. It seems they still have some traces of their former shoulders and pelvic girdles, which would clearly distinguish them from snakes.

The name ‘amphisbaena’ is from the Greek, meaning ‘goes both ways’ – because the head and tail look similar, and they can actually move backwards and forwards making tunnels underground. They eat insects and other invertebrates they find in the ground or under rocks and fallen trees. They don’t come to the surface very often – usually only if they get flooded out or otherwise disturbed. It is hard to say why this one was caught and flash-dried by our house. There hadn’t been any big rain storm that day to wash it out.

The VI Division of Fish and Wildlife reports that these creatures are not very abundant, and very few people have seen them. (Renata said she has looked and looked for them for 10 years and has only seen a handful.) Mostly gardeners and farmers come across them when they are digging in the soil. Or people’s cats drag them in. Our cat is much too old now to catch lizards, even legless ones. I guess we just got lucky.

Now we are going to keep watching for a live one.

When White Birds Are Blue



A heron-sized white bird in the wetlands is usually an egret – a great white or maybe a snowy. But A heron-sized white bird in the wetlands is usually an egret – a great white or maybe a snowy. But sometimes it is actually a Little Blue Heron.

What sense does that make? If they aren’t always blue, why put the color in their name and confuse people? There are other ways to describe the bird – like by its size or diet or behavior. Maybe Quiet Wader, Lesser Longlegs, or Fiddler Crab Eater.

 
About a month ago I saw a pretty big white bird in the lagoon near Lameshur Bay. Viewing it from a distance I assumed it was a great white egret, but when I crept closer its neck seemed a bit short for a great white, and it was standing in an odd posture on a log. From a picture I was able to take with my telephoto lens, I could see that its bill was grayish with a black tip, and its legs were greenish-yellow.

A great white egret has a yellow bill and black legs.
 
Great White Egret - Gail Karlsson photo
 
 Maybe a snowy egret? No – their bills are black and they have black legs and yellow feet.
 
Snowy egret - Gail Karlsson photo
 
 
After looking through my reference books, I decided the bird I saw had to be a Little Blue Heron in its white phase, even though it seemed pretty large compared to others I had seen before.
More recently I have been seeing a similar bird at Francis Bay. I was crouching in among the mangroves with my camera trying unsuccessfully to catch it with a little fiddler crab actually in its mouth when a young couple passed by on the road to the beach.
 
Juvenile Little Blue Heron - Gail Karlsson photo
 
They saw the white bird too. “An egret” he told her confidently.
I was tempted to call out from the underbrush: “Wait. Don’t be so hasty. Notice the gray in the bill and the color of the legs”. But I didn’t think he would appreciate the advice – and who really cares about the names of the birds anyway?  
The birds certainly don’t care what we call them. They just go about their business. They do care about the color though.
 
If a Little Blue Heron is white, that means it is a juvenile. Most likely it was born here, and is less than a year old. When it approaches adulthood, it starts looking mottled as darker feathers appear. Until it gets its full adult plumage, other birds know it is still immature and not ready to mate.
 
Juvenile Little Blue Heron getting blue feathers - Gail Karlsson photo 

Until it gets its full adult plumage, other birds know it is still immature and not ready to mate.
 
I got to wondering what it would be like if people also turned different colors when they matured. When my sons were teenagers we learned that their brains wouldn’t be fully developed until they were 25. In the meantime, though they might look like grown men, they would likely still be somewhat impulsive and less equipped to make rational decisions. Imagine if human youngsters turned color when they were fully matured – and until then everyone could tell that they were still really juveniles. Embarrassing for them maybe, but useful information for the people around them.  
 
Adult Little Blue Heron - Gail Karlsson photo

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Juvenile Little Blue Heron hunting fiddler crabs in St. John USVI
Photo: Gail Karlsson

 

Conserving Critical Native Trees


Scientists Kevel Lindsay and Jean-Pierre Bacle from the Island Resources Foundation (IRF) have been surveying the hillsides of St. John and St. Thomas, with input from local horticultural expert Eleanor Gibney, in order to map the locations of rare and endangered native trees and shrubs.
The objective is to evaluate the threats to particularly important species and develop conservation plans for them in collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands’ Cooperative Extension Service. They are currently looking at 20 trees, shrubs and vines from St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix, but in the future hope to expand the effort to cover all rare and endangered native plants in the territory. The project is funded by the Virgin Islands Urban and Community Forestry Program (VI Department of Agriculture).

As more of the Virgin Islands’ land is developed, the remaining woodlands are increasingly pressured by roads, buildings and commercial activities. At the same time, the growing impacts from climate disruption and rising sea levels present other long-term threats to native habitats. Even lands protected within the VI National Park are affected by road cuts and pollution, as well as the broader challenges of a changing climate. 

 
Cock’s-spur flower (Erythrina eggersii) Photo: Kevel C. Lindsay

One native but rarely seen tree is known as Cock's-spur (Erythrina eggersii) due to its spiky branches and reddish flowers. Native only to Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands (Jost Van Dyke) and the US Virgin Islands, it is characterized as ‘Endangered’ on the list of threatened species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, primarily due to land development, habitat loss and introduced insect pests.

Another locally rare species the IRF researchers looked for was a cactus called Stenocereus fimbriatus, which is native only to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It is somewhat similar to the more familiar pipe-organ cactus (Pilosocereus royenii) though its columns are light green rather than bluish in color. It has rose-pink flowers that are pollinated by bats, and produces tart red fruit. This cactus is also being impacted by habitat loss, and there now may be only about 20 plants left on St. John.



Other endangered plants on St. John include the well-known Lignum vitae (‘tree of life’) which was heavily harvested in early colonial times due to its extraordinary strength, toughness and density, and the rare but beautiful Eggers’ milkpea (Galactia eggersii), a vine with velvety leaves and bright red flowers.

                                          Eggers’ milkpea vine (Galactia eggersii) Photo: Kevel Lindsay
  

In 2011, Solanum conocarpum, a plant endemic to St. John, was found worthy of protection under the US Endangered Species Act. It is threatened by habitat loss from residential and tourist development, as well as feral animals. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are only approximately 200 of these plants in the wild.  

 
Solanum conocarpum Photo: Eleanor Gibney

 
On St. Thomas, the researchers examined the leaves of a tree to determine whether it was a Lyonia rubiginosa, which is extremely rare, and threatened by development for houses and roads.

 
                                           Kevel Lindsay with Lyonia rubiginosa. Photo: Jean-Pierre Bacle

 Although IRF has undertaken comprehensive on-site environmental profiles for other Caribbean islands, the unique native plants and habitats of the Virgin Islands have not been adequately mapped. Therefore, the current survey is an important step towards identifying and protecting rare trees here.

As the project progresses, future steps could include collecting genetic material for propagation, monitoring particular trees and woodlands, working with private landowners and the National Park Service to protect endangered species and their habitats, and possibly restoring certain areas to improve the viability of plant populations and ecosystem functions. 

Since community support is important for the success of any conservation effort, IRF and the UVI Cooperative Extension Service hope to be able to educate and engage local citizens, schools and organizations interested in preserving the biological heritage of the Virgin Islands, and also attract additional financial resources for this work.

For more information or to get involved, contact Kevel Lindsay at Island Resources Foundation klindsay@irf.org or Eleanor Gibney at eleanorfgibney@gmail.com.

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer and part-time resident of St. John. Her book The Wild Life in an Island House is available on amazon.com

Fishing Bats, Singing Frogs, Ravenous Toads and Rare Birds


        Richard Veit and Danielle Fibikar banding an Antillean cave bat. Photo William Stelzer
 
Once again, Richard Veit, a professor of biology at the College of Staten Island in New York City, brought a group of college students to St. John to examine the rich habitats surrounding the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) in Lameshur Bay. The area seems to be full of familiar wildlife (including over 60 types of birds), while also supporting newcomers and at least one species thought to have disappeared.   

I met Professor Veit and two of his graduate students last April at VIERS and reported for the Tradewinds on their respective research projects: Danielle Fibikar is working on documenting the size and health of local bat populations, and Pearl Cales is studying different types of frog vocalizations, while also identifying changes over time in their density and distribution in certain areas of the island.

These researchers returned to St. John in November, and then came back again in January to follow up on their subjects, while the undergraduates in the Tropical Ecology Course were just getting familiar with the different birds, lizards, and crabs around Lameshur.    

My husband and I, and local photographer Bill Stelzer, were excited take a trip out to VIERS and catch up with the research team to get an update about their findings. We set out along the road by the beach at Lameshur, where they set up fine-threaded ‘mist’ nets to catch bats flying along the roadway after dark.
 
Close up of fishing bat's face. Photo William Stelzer. 

The first ones caught were fishing bats, Noctilio leporinus, out for dinner. One of the fishing bats that got tangled up in the net had a familiar face – they had caught him several times before, most recently just a few days before. It was easy to tell because they put tiny metal tags on the wings of the bats before releasing them. Their re-catch rate shows that there is a fairly stable community of fishing bats in that area. The researchers also weigh and measure the bats. The one caught a few days earlier hadn’t grown in such a short time but turned out to be 8 grams heavier than before, probably because he had just eaten a small fish that evening before flying into the net. These bats fly low over the water in the dark using echolocation to locate little fish and grabbing them with the sharp claws on their hind feet.

                                             Antillean cave bat resting in a tree. Photo William Stelzer

The other bats caught that night were fruit-eating Antillian cave bats, Brachiphylla cavernarum, which seem to be getting more numerous on St. John based on the recent mist net counts and an examination of the buildings at the old Reef Bay sugar mill. These bats represented less than 10 percent of the bats netted on St. John by the Island Resources Foundation team in their 2009 survey (with Jamaican fruit bats, Artibeus jamaicensis, making up close to 75 percent of the total). The cave bats have been listed as a species of ‘Greatest Concern’ on the Territory's Endangered Species List, probably due to a limited number of caves for roosting and a general loss of habitat. www.irf.org/documents/VI_Bat_C%20&_M_Plan_December%2009.pdf

The researchers told us that one night they caught five different types of bats within a few hours – including (besides the ones already mentioned) a relatively common insect-eating velvety free-tailed bat, Molossus molossus, and a rare red fig-eating bat, Stenoderma rufum, which is only found in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and is also listed as a species of Greatest Concern on the Virgin Island’s Endangered Species List. During the Island Resources Foundation three-year survey, there were only 15 of the red fig-eating bats caught - out of 1,200 - slightly more than one percent of the total.    
 
Meanwhile, Pearl Cales was chasing a Caribbean White-lipped Frog in the bushes along the road. It got away at one point and hid in a large puddle, but eventually it raised its face up to the surface of the muddy water and she was able to recapture it. She measured and examined it, then snipped off a tiny piece of its toe for a DNA sample to verify its identification (since the little frogs are difficult to distinguish with scientific certainty otherwise).
 


     Caribbean White-lipped frog. Photo William Stelzer

Pearl is focusing part of her research on documenting the different sounds made by the white-lipped frogs. She is also doing a survey of overall frog sounds at selected points to see if there are any changes. Mostly she is concerned about whether there has been an invasion of large cane toads, which could potentially eat up many of the local tree frogs. This year, she did find one cane toad in Coral Bay on the flat land near the site of the Roller’s farm. 

     Pearl Cales with cane toad

As a bird lover, I was pretty excited to hear that Professor Veit had also identified a rare bird in the flat area near Coral Bay – a screech owl, Otus nudipes, that has been found only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In 1995, these birds were declared extinct in the Virgin Islands because a careful survey of the three main islands (which have the woody habitats they require) had turned up no evidence of them. I thought I had heard an owl in the night recently, and wondered if it could have been this type. Although the recorded common cries of the screech owl didn’t exactly match up with the hooting sounds I remember hearing, these little owls do apparently make loud ‘coo-coo’ sounds - as a result of which they were given the name “Cuckoo-bird” in the Virgin Islands. www.oiseaux-birds.com/card-puerto-rican-screech-owl.html

Professor Veit also saw another unusual bird in the lagoon near Lameshur Bay – a Little Egret. This bird is a Eurasian species that is in the process of colonizing the western hemisphere. They first nested in Barbados in 1994, where there are now 15-25 nesting pairs. That is still the only western hemisphere breeding location, but they have been recorded on many Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico, and have even been found as far north as Newfoundland. It looks like a snowy egret, but has two distinctive thin feathers at the back of its head.

In addition, he ran into four brightly colored Adelaide’s warblers, which are generally found only in Puerto Rico, along the south shore trail near VIERS. These sightings of rare birds were particularly interesting to me, since I was asked to lead an early morning bird walk at Lameshur during the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship retreat at VIERS. Meanwhile I have been practicing trying to identify the different bird songs and frog voices around my house.