Low Water Leads to Bird Fights

By April, the bottom mud was exposed in the shallow pond near our Fish Bay house. During months without rain there is no freshwater runoff to capture from the hill behind us, while a seasonal drop in the Fish Bay water level cuts off the flow of salt water through the inlet.

Small fish come into the pond along with the flow from the bay, and get trapped as the water starts drying up. The easy fishing attracted egrets and herons and other wetland birds – and one morning there was some unusual squawking and a flurry of wings so I went down to investigate. A couple of great egrets seemed to be quarreling over fishing rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This pond’s not big enough for both of us.”

Then a third great egret dropped in.

Maybe I got a little bit too close to the action.

See video of the great egrets chasing each other around

Meanwhile smaller birds were busy snarfing up the fish.

A green heron

A spotted sandpiper

A clapper rail

An adult little blue heron

And a juvenile little blue heron – their feathers are white for the first year.

The juvenile little blue heron got chased off by the adult

But was tolerated by one of the great egrets

A busy and exciting time in the pond

 

 

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
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 on Fish Bay shoreline. Photo Gail Karlsson
Sargassum on Fish Bay shoreline. 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.” (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.” (www.usm.edu/gcrl/sargassum/docs/Johnson.et.al.Sargassum.event.in.Caribbean.2011.65th.GCFI.Abstract.pdf )

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 near Fish Bay. Photo Gail Karlsson
Yellow crowned night heron near 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
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 turnstone. Photo Gail Karlsson
Ruddy turnstone. 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.

Also known as 'legless lizard'

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.

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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.

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 courtesy of Dr. Renata Platenberg
Live amphisbaena fenestrate
Photo courtesy of Dr. 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.

The Hunter

Just before Valentine’s Day, I started feeling a bit lonely for company out by Fish Bay. My sons had come and gone with their friends and holiday merry-making and my husband and I were back working quietly at our separate desks. I needed something to distract me from the beginnings of a dark turn of mind. And then the universe obligingly provided me with a new interest to dispel my wistful thoughts about city life.

There he was, tall and handsome, standing by the side of the dirt road near my house, next to the wetlands conservation area. He was staring intently at something hidden in the bushes and barely glanced at me as I drove up. Looking for something? In my usual proprietary way, I stopped and asked what he was doing there, but he was already moving into the underbrush and didn’t hear, or didn’t bother to respond. I was used to that.

Still, I let myself think about him all the way into town. He had looked so elegant, maybe he was only here for a short time, happy to escape the northern winter. Like the weekly renters next door. We call them ‘whoopers’ because of their noisy excitement when they step on onto the deck into the sudden warmth and sunshine. He had been quiet, though, definitely not a whooper. Very serious.

Maybe he had been around for years and I just never met him. After all, I am often away, and don’t get out very much even when I am on-island.

Later in the week I caught a glimpse of long legs moving quickly out of sight along the Fish Bay road. Was it him? I found reasons to drive to town, and fantasized about meeting up with him, hoping for a life-altering chance encounter. I imagined him turning to me with the look of intense concentration that had attracted me, his eyes filled with knowledge of faraway lands and exotic adventures.

Then one afternoon I saw him again, walking very near my house. Had he come looking for me? I slowed down and cautiously watched him. Once again, he had an air of busy importance and seemed to ignore me, though I noticed a quick slide of his eye in my direction to acknowledge my presence. He was probably didn’t want to admit that he was interested in me, too.

I didn’t want to intrude on whatever his important work was, but as I passed by I couldn’t help whispering very quietly “I love you. I love you so much. Seeing you makes me so happy.”

The next time I saw him my husband was in the car with me. I tried to contain my excitement and nonchalantly said “I’ve been seeing that guy around along the road. Do you know him?” My husband replied: “I don’t know. There are a lot of guys like that around here. Probably hunting for bugs or land crabs or something on the conservation land. Why?” “Oh nothing” I muttered. “Just wondering what he’s doing out this way.”

A few days later my husband came upstairs after a snack break and said “You know that guy you were asking about the other day? He’s out across the road, by our driveway, doing something. Maybe you want to check him out.” Did I ever! My husband had a conference call or something, and anyway he leaves most of the nosy neighbor stuff to me.

I put on my shades and a clean shirt and moseyed out along the walkway. When I saw him, he was near the wall, right there next to my new jeep! Finally a vehicle with a hard top, windows that close to keep out the cats and the rain, doors that lock – what a gift. I had just washed it to get off the mud from the constant puddles in the dirt road. But he wasn’t admiring my ride.

He was doing that thing again where he looked intently into the bushes. What could be so interesting in there? I watched him quietly from behind the coconut tree. He stood very still at first, then started moving his head back and forth slowly, like a hypnotist. After a minute he began moving his neck and shoulders as well, a strange erotic dance. There was something so wild and untamed about him, I was entranced. But obviously he was not doing this for my benefit. He didn’t even know I was there, or did he? Maybe he had recognized from that first glance that I was a soul mate. Maybe he had found out where I lived….

When the phone rang I was startled out of my reverie. He didn’t seem to pay any attention, but my husband called out “That’s your phone” and I crept quietly back to the house hoping this strange guy didn’t notice I had been spying on him. Back to business. When I was finished, he was gone. That night I dreamed about flying away with him, slow dancing with him on some other distant shore.

The next day he was back, right in our yard, closely examining our flowers and fruit trees. I was afraid to make any noise and reluctant to call my husband, who might scare him off. What could he mean by coming around like this, not saying anything, lurking in the bushes near our isolated house. But it was broad daylight, and he was alone and didn’t look very dangerous. I was drawn to him. I wanted to get to know him, to understand his solitary roamings, his mission, his secret passions.

As I eased down the outside staircase he turned and gave me a commanding look. I froze. What did he want? It was my yard after all, and he was an intruder. I felt the need to confront him, but something held me back. I didn’t want to ruin everything before we even got to know each other.

He turned back towards the trees and began his dance again, not looking at me, caught up in his own mysterious rhythm. Moving his neck the way a cobra swaying to the piper’s tune rises up out of the basket. Now bringing one foot slowly up to knee level, posing, then creeping forward, all the time waving from side to side. Suddenly he darted his head forward, quick as a snake, then raised his face to the sky, opened his mouth wide, and gulped.

Oh lordy, what a fool I was! It wasn’t a dance of romance. My husband had been right, he was just a hunter after all. He wasn’t looking for love in the afternoon. He was there to catch lizards in my garden!

I still see him around sometimes. He wasn’t just a passing visitor. I have let go of my silly fantasies, and yet – I am not ashamed to say that I still love him.

One night when I found myself awake at 3am feeling anxious and agitated, I picked up a meditation CD I got from one of the visiting Unitarian speakers. It was about angels. Not usually my thing, but I decided to give it a try. As the soothing voice lulled me with detailed images of beautiful seraphim eager to greet me with healing light and celestial love, I found my mind lingering on the descriptions of their gleaming white wings. I imagined the joy of being enveloped in strong muscles covered by soft feathers, being sheltered, validated, at home. I drifted off hugging my down pillow with unusual intensity.

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St. John, US Virgin Islands