I'll Be Home For Earth Day

    Schoolchildren learned about local birds at the 2019 Earth Day fair on St. John. 

As Earth Day events have been cancelled in the Virgin Islands and around the world, can we find other ways to acknowledge this historic anniversary?

Maybe a good start would be to review what Earth Day was originally about, and consider what has changed over the past 50 years.

The idea of a national mobilization day to protect the earth came from Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, in response to uncontrolled pollution from power plant emissions, industrial wastes, sewage runoff, oil spills and pesticides.
In January 1969, about 3 million gallons of crude oil was released off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, leaving an oil slick that spread over 35 miles. People across the country were shocked to see photos of thousands of birds and fish smothered in oil. The damage resulted from inadequate safety precautions by an oil drilling company. An explosion cracked the sea floor, and the flow of crude oil went on for over a month.
Another dramatic incident in June 1969 also captured the nation’s attention. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire, with flames shooting up a hundred feet into the sky. What kind of river catches fire? The Cuyahoga, which empties into Lake Erie, was heavily polluted by industrial waste from manufacturing plants.   
On April 22, 1970, about 20 million Americans (close to ten percent of the population then) participated in the first Earth Day. The event sparked an organized public environmental movement in the country, and by July 1970 President Nixon had proposed the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In December 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act was added in 1972.
So Earth Day was a great success, right?
Well, the environmental movement was strongly countered by industrial pushback. Over the past 50 years, there have been continued tensions between demands for unfettered economic development and efforts to maintain and expand environmental protections. 
I was working as a lawyer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1980 when President Reagan was elected. He promised to shrink government bureaucracy and free American businesses from what he viewed as unnecessary and burdensome regulations – especially environmental regulations. The agency was seriously weakened as a result.
Still, over time, national air and water pollution levels were brought down considerably. 
Then in the 1990s a new global environmental threat came into focus. Scientists warned that the earth’s atmosphere was in danger of overheating due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases released by power plants, motor vehicles and industrial production processes.  They explained that these ‘greenhouse gases’ trap heat near the earth’s surface, and that increasingly warmer temperatures would lead to global climate disruption, including droughts, fires, flooding, and more intense storms.
Many trees were blown over in the Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma in 2017. 
Earth Day took on a new significance as global greenhouse gas emission concerns began to overshadow local and national pollution problems. 
In 1992, I was involved with the preparations for an international ‘Earth Summit’ organized by the United Nations, which resulted in several critical environmental agreements. One of them was the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was agreed to by all countries, including the United States. It was signed by President Bush, Sr. and ratified by the U.S. Senate.
However, the United States has not supported many of the subsequent international initiatives designed to prevent or reduce the predicted damage to the earth’s climate. Industries that would be negatively affected by regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions (like fossil fuel companies) have argued that the economic costs and disruptions would be too extreme. Meanwhile, some of the predicted effects from climate change are already being seen in many parts of the world.   

This year the organizers of Earth Day hoped for another historic moment when citizens everywhere would rise up to call for greater creativity, bravery and action on averting a catastrophic climate crisis.
Ironically, today the world is, in fact, bound together for a shared historic moment, as the coronavirus pandemic has completely disrupted business-as-usual in unimaginable ways, and most of us are confined to our homes.
Yet while we are concentrating on the current health threats, this crisis does provide us with an unexpected opportunity to rethink our lives and priorities.
I was preparing for Earth Day this year by raising tree seedlings to be distributed through a project organized by the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. The idea was to help people who lost trees (and maybe also houses) to be able to do some replanting. Since the pandemic, I have also started planting vegetables for a quarantine garden.
Sugar apple tree seedlings for a planned Earth Day 2020 replanting project. 

Germinating seeds and nurturing small sprouts requires patience as well as vigilance. I have had to protect them from deer and iguanas, and have been amazed by all the types of damaging insects they attract. Successfully producing food is actually quite miraculous, and cannot be taken for granted.
Although this may not be the right moment for mass mobilization gatherings to demand action on climate change, there are many online ways we can support climate protection and local conservation projects. Meanwhile, those of us lucky enough to be safe in our homes can reflect on how closely all of us on the earth are linked to each other, and how dependent we are on a healthy, functioning planet for our food and other survival needs.

Native Flowers Brighten Up the Roadsides

The Black Caper has delicate white flowers that turn purple in the evening. 

While the Virgin Islands beaches are closed, more people are getting their exercise by taking solitary or socially-distanced walks along the roads. In some areas, the native trees and plants on the roadsides can provide a welcome distraction, as they may reveal small beauties that generally go unnoticed.

In the past few years I have gotten to recognize some of the native Virgin Islands flowers, and I have been happy to see familiar friends on my current walks on St. John.

In the cool of the evening I noticed the flowers on a Black Caper tree (Quadrella cynophallophora), which is also known as Black Willow or Jamaican Caper. The ‘black’ in its name refers to the darkness of the leaves and trunk, not the color of the flowers, which are white at first, and then turn purple later in the day. I was excited to catch both colors in the same photo.

The White Cedar (Tabebuia heterophylla) has delicate trumpet-shaped flowers that range in color from pale to bright pink. The flowers are lovely, although they are often sparse and widely spread out on the tree. In this case, the name refers to the color of the wood inside, when it is cut. The larger trees were traditionally used for building boats.
This White Cedar tree had only one pale, purplish pink flower when I passed by.

The Pitch Apple tree (Clusia rosea) also has a pink flower but it is much more fleshy and robust than the White Cedar flower. The name of the tree comes from the fruit, which is about the size of an apple and has sticky seeds inside. Birds eating the fruit sometimes drop the seeds onto other types of trees, where they germinate and develop aerial roots that wrap around the host tree, like a strangler fig. The leaves are thick and fleshy also, and people used to scratch their names or messages into them, so another name for it is “Autograph Tree’.

The Pitch Apple flower develops into a fruit with sticky seeds that is popular with birds. 

Orange Manjack (Cordia rickseckeri) is a drought-resistant tree that only grows in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It has clusters of small, tubular orange blossoms that are attractive to hummingbirds and bananaquits. Bats eat the fruit and spread the seeds.

The flowers on the Orange Manjack tree grow in clusters throughout the year

 In dry, coastal areas, you might see tiny pink flowers growing out of the reddish, bristly crown of a Turk’s Cap cactus (Melocactus intortus). The top of this small barrel-shaped cactus looks a bit like a Moorish fez, a red felt hat that was worn during the time of the Ottoman Empire. The resulting small pink fruits are eaten by people passing by, as well as lizards and birds.     

The Turk’s Cap cactus has tiny pink flowers and fruit. 

The Frangipani tree (Plumeria alba) is probably more familiar to most people. I often see them growing wild, but both the native ones and similar cultivated types are planted in yards because of their beautiful flowers. These trees are also famous for attracting large brightly-colored caterpillars, which eat all the leaves but don’t actually kill the trees. The caterpillars turn into large, gray Pseudosphinx moths.  

                           The Frangipani flower is fragrant at night to attract moths for pollination
These are only a few of the local flowers I have seen recently when I have been out walking. I do look forward to enjoying the beautiful island beaches again soon, but in the meantime at least there are a few bright spots to be found along the road. 

Wintering Warblers Are Leaving Now March 2020

As visitors clear out of the Virgin Islands, many birds are beginning to move on as well. They are not worrying about their health, but are heading towards their regular breeding grounds in the northeast United States and Canada.

The most common types of warblers regularly spending the winter here are the Northern Parula, the American Redstart, and the Black-and-white Warbler. They generally begin to arrive in September and are gone by April.

Northern Parula

You probably won’t miss the wintering warblers after they go because they are very difficult to see even when they are here. They are quite small (about the size of a bananaquit or a bit less) and tend to stay hidden in the forest.  

Also they don’t sing in the winter because they don’t breed here. Most bird songs are produced by males as they advertise their availability to females for mating, and at the same time try to keep other males out of their territory.

Here in the Virgin Islands you might hear faint ‘chip’ sounds in a tree as warblers call to each other, and if you have a lot of time and patience, the birds might eventually show themselves. Bananaquits sometimes make ‘chip’ sounds too, which can be confusing, but the warblers are generally quieter and more secretive.   

If you are looking for warblers, it is also helpful to know that they have different bug-hunting strategies.

I have watched Northern Parulas quietly creeping around the tops of trees in the early morning, when the sun begins to warm the leaves, picking off insects as they wake up.   

American Redstarts are more noticeable as they hop around in the tree branches, flapping their bright tails and wing feathers to scare up insects.  

American Redstart

Black-and-white Warblers methodically crawl up tree trunks and branches, carefully digging into the bark for grubs and other bugs.    
Black-and-white Warbler

For a long time I didn’t really look for warblers because it just seemed too hard. Then last year I had an opportunity to go along on a warbler identification mission with an expert, David Ewert from the American Bird Conservancy in Virginia, who could recognize different warblers just by listening to slight differences in their ‘chip’ sounds. I was impressed.  

In January 2019, Ewert was in St. John with his colleague Robert Askins from Connecticut College doing an assessment of changes in the warbler population after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Previously, Ewert and Askins had studied birds on St. John every couple of years between 1987 and 1997. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, they observed that the estimated population densities of many species declined significantly, particularly among birds that depend on fruit or nectar.

In 2019, Ewert and Askins received a grant from the Friends of the VI National Park to return and compare the number of forest birds on St. John with their earlier records at the same survey points. They reported that warblers were still coming to winter on St. John despite the damage to forests from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Since these warblers mostly eat insects, they were not directly impacted by the loss of flowers and fruits after the storms, unlike the resident pigeons, doves and hummingbirds. The number of Black-and-white Warblers was down though. Since they mostly forage on the thick branches and trunks of live trees, they may have found the forests less hospitable after the 2017 storms.

My experience on the trail with Ewert encouraged me to pay more attention to warblers.  Even though I have not yet learned to identify them by the sound of their ‘chips’, I have become more patient about listening, waiting and looking. As a result, I discovered that some warblers actually spent the winter near my house, especially Northern Parulas. I have been happy for their company, and will miss them after they move north.  

Meanwhile there are Yellow Warblers that live here all year and breed here. I can hear them singing their song, which is commonly interpreted by birders as “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet”.  A joyful sound in these troubled times.

Tracking Endangered Mute Frogs February 2020

                         A mute frog located in January 2020 by researcher Pearl Cales in Cruz Bay, St. John

Rainy evenings can be very loud in the Virgin Islands, as male frogs call out in the night to declare their availability for mating, or to assert their territorial rights.

Despite their lusty roaring, the native tree frogs are quite small and hard for most people to see. However, when I went out hunting one night with frog expert Pearl Cales and her team of researchers, she was able to locate several of them within just a few minutes.

We were particularly looking for a type of native tree frog, Eleutherodactylus lentus, found only in Virgin Islands woodland areas. It is a yellow mottled coqui, commonly known as a mute frog. While it is not really mute, it does have a call that is much softer than the other local frogs.

Cales was excited to find a few of the mute frogs last year along a gut behind Cruz Bay. It was the first recorded sighting of these frogs on St. John since 2004, when they were seen near The Westin.

                                     Pearl Cales with a mute frog she sighted in 2019 in Cruz Bay, St. John
                                            (Photo by William Stelzer)

Cales was hoping the mute frogs were still around.

Wearing our headlamps, we walked carefully along the trail until Cales quickly spotted one of the frogs sitting on a log, very close to where she saw them last year. I was happy that the frog didn’t seem scared, and sat still for a while so I could get a close look and a photo.

There are more mute frogs on St. Thomas and St. Croix, but they have all suffered from habitat loss, particularly where land has been cleared for roads, houses, tourism and agricultural use.

In 2004 these Virgin Islands mute frogs were listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Eleutherodactylus frogs evolved to survive in forest habitats, rather than ponds. During the rainy season, they lay their eggs in ditches or bromeliad plants, or on wet leaves on the ground (which is what the mute frogs do). The developing frogs go through their tadpole phase inside the tiny egg, and hatch as miniature grown frogs.

Cales received a grant this year from the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park to support her research. She will gather more information about how many mute frogs are living in St. John’s Cruz Bay area, and what sorts of habitat they prefer. She will also follow up on her earlier data collection studies. For six years she has been conducting ‘roadside listening’ surveys to document the calls and population numbers of native frogs on St. John, including: the red-eyed coqui (Eleutherodactylus antillensis), the whistling coqui (Eleutherodactylus cochranae), and the Caribbean white-lipped frog (Leptodactylus albilabris).

                                        A whistling coqui frog on a bromeliad (Photo by William Stelzer)

Cales’s goal is to provide a baseline for protecting the endangered mute frogs, as well as the other types of native frogs.

“Data gathered from this project, and our prior work over the past years, will help support future preservation efforts in the Virgin Islands”, said Cales. “Conservation is the ultimate duty we, as scientists, owe to species around the world. Public outreach and education is critical for that work.”

One particular threat comes in the form of large, non-native cane toads. They are voracious eaters, consuming anything they can fit into their mouths, including smaller frogs. A couple of years ago some of these toads were found very close to the gut where the mute frogs live in Cruz Bay, and nearby residents have been alerted to watch out for them.  

Cales first came to the Virgin Islands in January 2014 for an undergraduate course in Tropical Ecology taught by Richard Veit, a professor at the City University of New York in Staten Island. She is expecting to receive a master’s degree in Environmental Science in June 2020, and is currently working at the Staten Island Zoo, which is also supporting her Virgin Islands frog research.  

Pearl Cales with her colleagues on a recent evening of frog research. From left to right: Jessica Abalos, Educator/ Lead Farmer at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden; Pearl Cales, Adjunct Professor at the College of Staten Island and Urban Advantage Coordinator at the Staten Island Zoo; and Danielle Fibikar, Wildlife Field Biologist/ Adjunct Professor at the College of Staten Island, and Educator at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden

Butterfly or Moth: What’s the Difference? January 2020

Composia credula moth
Zebra Longwing butterfly

I recently saw a bunch of different butterflies in my yard, flitting around on the tamarind flowers, the bougainvillea, and the pigeon berry tree – one of the joyful aspects of life in the Virgin Islands.

At least I thought they were butterflies, until I found out that some of them were moths.

But wait – don’t moths come out at night, and butterflies during the day? That’s how you know they’re butterflies, right?  

Well, it turns out some moths are out during the day along with the butterflies, so now how do you tell the difference?

I learned that one way to tell them apart by sight is that they have different types of antennas.
Butterflies have thin antennas, with tiny clubs on the end. Moths generally have shorter antennas, without clubs, and the males have feathery ones.

                                                       Julia or Flambeau butterfly    

             Erastria decrepitaria moth 

Antennas are very important for both moths and butterflies, as they contain sensors for smelling nectar, identifying pheromones emitted by potential mates, and detecting nutrients in soil. An organ at the base of the antenna also responds to information about its position, helping to control orientation and balance during flight.                                         
Both moths and butterflies also have a long tube-like proboscis that can be extended to suck up liquids, like nectar from flowers.

A Caribbean Buckeye butterfly showing its curled proboscis (lower right) and clubbed antenna

But moths actually came into existence long before butterflies, or flowering plants – over two hundred million years ago. Originally they had mouths made for chewing. Moths may have later developed their proboscises for easier access to food sources like tree sap.  

Butterflies eventually evolved from moths. They took advantage of the nectar available from flowers open during the day, producing scents to attract pollinators.

Butterflies are also often brilliantly colored, which makes them more visible to possible mates, while at the same time informing would-be predators that they contain toxic chemicals (obtained from plants consumed when they were in a caterpillar state) and are therefore not good to eat.

However, there are some flowers (like the night-blooming cereus) that open in the evening, because they evolved to attract nocturnal moths.

And, as I learned, a number of moths are colorful daytime feeders.

Certain daytime moths protect themselves from predators by pretending to be dangerous wasps, including the ones in the Virgin Islands that look like Jack Spaniards, which have wicked stingers.


                                                             Horama pretus moth 

                                                             Jack Spaniard wasp  

Because many moths are active at night, they do tend to be darker and less colorful than butterflies. Still, some daytime butterflies are also quite dark.    

                                                      Caribbean Dusky Wing butterfly 


                                                           Hammock Skipper butterfly               

The skipper butterflies, like the Hammock Skipper shown in the photo here, have larger bodies and heads than the other butterflies, which can be confusing because that make them look more like the generally stouter moths. Their antennas are also more like a hook than a club.
Light-colored ones can also be confusing. A few years ago there were a lot of white butterflies that hatched at the same time, which was really fun. Most of them were butterflies called Great Southern Whites, which are distinctive because the clubs on their antennas are light blue.

                                                    Great Southern White butterfly  

But there were some brilliant white moths out there too.

                                                                Snowy Urola moth  

People like to see butterflies because they are beautiful, but they often also take on a more mystical significance as powerful symbols of rebirth and transfiguration, due to their seemingly miraculous physical changes. While most life forms go through quite dramatic changes over the course of their development, few go through such a strange and complete transition from creeping, chewing caterpillars to graceful flying creatures.


                                                       Monarch Butterfly caterpillar      

                                            Monarch Butterfly on tropical milkweed  

In general moths are not viewed in the same inspirational and uplifting way that butterflies are, despite their many similarities. Maybe that is because of our primitive fears of dark things fluttering around in the night.

                                                                   Black Witch moth  

But both moths and butterflies are wondrous in their complex transitions. Even without applying any sort of mystical perspective, learning about butterflies and moths increases our understanding of the amazing variety of life forms around us, connecting us with the eons of natural history and evolution supporting our own development – and potential for transformation.      

Scarlet Ibis Sighted on St. John - December 2019

In late October, Dav Worthington at the Virgin Islands National Park posted a cell phone photo of the red mangrove area near St. John’s Annaberg plantation ruins. In the center of the picture there were two blurry white blobs, and next to them a pink blob that he said was a scarlet ibis.

Almost immediately afterwards I heard from Laurel Brannick, the VI National Park Ranger who leads weekly bird walks on St. John. I agreed to pick her up early the next morning – with my telephoto lens – so we could look for the scarlet ibis. I had never seen one before.

Laurel and I did spot the ibis that morning. It was pretty far off, standing on the shoreline across the bay with a small flock of great and snowy egrets. Even at a distance it was remarkable – so shockingly pink, with some orange, not exactly scarlet.

How did it get there we wondered.  

Though October often brings in unusual birds moving to or through the Virgin Islands, a scarlet ibis is not the usual migrant moving south for the winter. It is a tropical bird, native to the northern coast of South America and the nearby islands of Trinidad and Tobago. However, these birds do migrate some distance north during fall and winter, generally from flooded grasslands in South American to the nearby islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where they roost and feed among the mangroves.    

The most likely possibility is that our bird flew over from Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, which is owned by the British investor Sir Richard Branson. He has been working on developing a flock of flamingos there, along with some scarlet ibises. The Necker Island birds are not banded or confined, so they can move around if they want to without being tracked.

The Necker Island website says the birds are being reintroduced. Are, or were, scarlet ibises native?

I could not find any historical reports of scarlet ibises living naturally in the Virgin Islands.

In 1767, when C. G. A. Oldendorp traveled to the West Indies as a representative of the Moravian church, he observed that flamingos were plentiful along the shorelines and inland on the north side of St. Thomas. His book, A Caribbean Mission, also noted that “the flesh of this bird is very good-tasting” – unfortunately for them. Most of them probably were in fact eaten, except the ones that were able to take refuge on Anegada.

Oldendorp did not mention seeing any scarlet ibis, though. Maybe he mostly saw the flocks of birds from a distance and couldn’t clearly distinguish the ibises from the flamingos. Or maybe ibises came later. They could have been intentionally brought to the Virgin Islands because of their beautiful plumage – or because they, too, are tasty birds.

In Trinidad and Tobago, where the scarlet ibis is the national bird, eco-tourists flock to see thousands of them roosting in the Caroni Swamp. Yet, I found a September 2017 article by Jessica Rozek on the BirdsCaribbean.org website with the title Scarlet Ibis: A National Symbol Under Siege.  Despite its protected status, the scarlet ibis is “a black market delicacy illegally served at elite parties”. Eating the national bird seems to have become a status symbol, condoned by some due to its historical status as a game bird.

Native or not, there hadn’t been any scarlet ibises reported in the Virgin Islands for a long time before Branson brought in the Necker Island birds, so the simplest explanation is that a few of them are exploring the other islands in the neighborhood. It turns out that one was sighted in 2018 over in Culebra, on the east side of Puerto Rico. Another has been reported recently on Jost van Dyke, and based on the photo I saw it does not seem to be the same bird as the St. John one, though it is hard to be sure.  

Still, I couldn’t help wondering if it was possible for a wild scarlet ibis to show up in the Virgin Islands on its own – as a so-called vagrant?

I asked Richard Veit, a professor at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, who has studied birds on St. John for many years. He told me that although scarlet ibises mostly move to Trinidad and Tobago in the fall and winter, over the years a number of vagrants have reached the West Indies. “How many is an open question since many are suspected of being ‘escapees’, although I am sure this suspicion is exaggerated. (There is a much higher tendency to call a wild bird an escapee than the other way around).” 

Through developments in satellite tracking, radar, and organized citizen science reporting around the world, a great deal of new information about the movements of birds is now becoming available. Professor Veit observed that birds tend to ‘wander’ more than was previously thought, dispersing over long distances and exploring different areas. This exploration will be important for birds’ survival as the world’s climate changes, and birds are able to adapt, or not, to new conditions. 

So not impossible that it was a wild bird that came up from the south.

Alternatively, could it have come from the west?

The famous bird observer John J. Audubon did include the scarlet ibis in his Birds of America, after seeing three of them along the coast of Louisiana in July 1821. But he referred to them as ‘accidental’ and declared that these birds were not common in the southern parts of the United States, as others had claimed, unlike the abundant white ibis. 

The iBird Pro birding app on my phone showed the year-round range of the scarlet ibis extending from southern Florida all the way over to the Dominican Republic. However, I did not find any postings of a scarlet ibis in that area on the citizen science eBird site (which was set up in 2002). Historically, there have been scarlet ibises imported into Florida, so any seen in the northwestern Caribbean were probably thought to be escapees from there – but again, there could be ‘accidental’ wanderers.        

Blown here by a storm?

Not likely according to Professor Veit. “We need to extinguish the notion that a bird in a new place is a mistake of some sort – like being blown by a storm.” Ibises are strong flyers, and other sea birds fitted out with satellite trackers have flown directly through hurricanes and emerging unharmed on the other side. For the most part, too, birds try to hunker down and take shelter during storms.  

 A 1960 short story called The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst is not about birds, but does feature a scarlet ibis that has been blown into a family’s yard by a hurricane – probably into the North Carolina area where the author is from. Sadly, the family in the story viewed the sudden appearance of the rare, blood-red bird as an omen of death.

Personally, I view the scarlet ibis on St. John as a blessing, whether it is a natural wanderer or a drifter from an introduced flock. It provides an unusually vibrant spot of life in a tangle of gray mangrove stumps left by Hurricane Irma. It is even becoming a celebrity, something to seek out, almost like the famous escaped mandarin duck, which recently turned thousands of New Yorkers into exotic bird gawkers.

I keep going back to see if it is still there, or to show other people where it usually hangs out. It doesn’t seem to mind the attention. I hope it stays for a while.