Mixed Up About Manchineel?

The most famous sign on St. John is probably the ominous red board on the road to Annaberg that says “Warning! Manchineel Tree.”
According to the sign, Christopher Columbus described its small green fruits as “death apples.” Diego Alvarez Chanca, a Spanish doctor who sailed with him in 1493, noted that: “There were wild fruits of various kinds, some of which our men, not very prudently, tasted; and on only touching them with their tongues, their mouths and cheeks became swollen, and they suffered such a great heat and pain.”
Its sap is very caustic as well, and was reportedly used by the Caribs to poison their arrows. The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon is said to have suffered a long and painful death in 1521 after being hit by one of those poisoned arrows when he attempted to occupy territory in what is now Florida. 
Given this history, you would think that everyone would learn what this tree and its death apples look like. Sadly, that is not so.
I recently heard that a small child took a bite from one of the little apples and suffered a sore mouth and swollen throat as a result. The fruit tastes sweet at first, and then quickly you start to feel the burn. Usually the symptoms go away after a few painful hours, especially if the person spits it out right away rather than swallowing it.
My friend Suki Buchalter, who is working with me on the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s tree identification project, suggested that we should help tell people how to recognize manchineel trees, because they grow other places on St. John than on the Annaberg Road and those are not marked. One thing she was concerned about was that some people were being told that the manchineel has heart-shaped leaves – which is not right. My husband said he had heard that also.

Manchineel leaf

Maho leaf
I carefully picked a few of the fruits that had fallen around the tree. Some were from the maho and some were manchineel apples. Even on the ground they looked similar if the maho fruits were lying butt up, though the maho fruit is not round if you see it from the stem side.
Manchineel apple on left, maho fruit on right

Manchineel apple on left, maho fruit on right
When I got home I realized that the manchineel apples in my specimen bag looked just like a fruit I had picked up a few days before on the shoreline near my house. I had never seen fruit on the ground there before, so I took one home. All I could see in the area were maho trees and red mangroves. I thought maybe it could be a maho fruit that gotten soft and round, since at that point I had never really examined a ripe one close up.

There was the little green fruit sitting on the counter when I got back from Annaberg. Now I could see that it was definitely a manchineel apple. 

Warning my husband not to bite into any of my specimens, I went back on the shoreline trail by my house and saw what I decided was the trunk of a manchineel tree. I still couldn’t make out any leaves, or fruit on the tree, because it was so tall and obscured by the nearby maho trees. Later I went back and put a sign on the tree warning other people not to pick up the fruit lying on the ground. 








With eBird, Every Day Can Be a Bird Count Day

Year round residents  - Brown pelican and brown booby in Leinster Bay
Photo Gail Karlsson 
It sounds pretty geeky to post your bird sightings on the internet, but I recently decided to give it a try. It turns out to be a pretty special and relatively easy way for ordinary nature lovers to make a contribution as citizen scientists.   

One reason I decided to try eBird was because I was disappointed to be missing the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count. It’s always fun to spend a morning roaming around the neighborhood marking down the birds you can identify on the VI checklist.

All the Christmas bird count reports collected from St. John, and everywhere around the US, are sent to the National Audubon Society and used to help scientists track long-term population numbers and migration trends. This information is important for conservation efforts as well as scientific research.  

I often go on the Friday morning bird walks around Francis Bay led by National Park Service ranger Laurel Brannick to see what types of birds come to St. John at different times of the year. When I told her I would be away on the official Christmas bird count day this year, she suggested that I do my counting early, before I left town, and post the results on eBird.

I usually find the idea of ‘e’ or ‘i’ anything pretty daunting, but I was also interested in trying out eBird because I recently saw a presentation by a representative of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology who was involved in developing it. He is currently working on tracking annual migrations using millions of bird sighting reports posted by volunteers across the country. He cross-references their data about where specific birds are being seen with radar images that indicate mass movements of birds, and sound recordings of the nighttime flight calls of migratory birds. This sophisticated merging of different information sources means it’s becoming a lot easier to find out about the seasonal movements and ranges of different birds.  

My interest in bird migration has so far been pretty much focused on identifying local versus transitory herons and egrets in the Virgin Islands. I have wondered if any of the birds I see in the northeast over the summer wind up in the Caribbean, and got excited about using eBird to explore the Virgin Islands database of sightings.  

But when I looked on eBird, I found that there wasn’t actually all that much data specifically about St. John.  

Now I’m thinking it would be great if more bird watchers in different areas of St. John could take the time and make the effort to figure out how to use eBird too, so we (and people who are visiting ) can have a better idea about which birds are coming and going, or staying put.
Here’s how to get started:
Go to eBird.org
Click on Submit Observations
Create an account – name and password
Identify a location for your observations. Enter VI in the box and a map will come up. Use the map to choose an existing site on St John. Or you can create a new one by clicking on the magnifying glass icon, moving it to your spot and clicking, and then naming the spot.
Check off 'how' you went birding - walking a trail, sitting in one place, etc – and the time and duration.
Use the checklist page provided to report the types and numbers of birds you are confident you saw or heard. If you can't find the species you're looking for on the checklist, use the 'Add a species' box.
Add a photo or confirming info if asked to. The checklist is monitored by regional experts, and if a sighting seems unusual they may request additional info
Check off whether or not it is a complete list of all the birds you observed. It is much more useful if you put in all the birds you could identify rather than just the unusual ones. 
Fall migrants in Fish Bay - short-billed dowitcher and lesser yellowlegs
Photo Gail Karlsson