Friday, July 11, 2008

Bubba on Subspecies

Birds of Ambergris Caye
“Birds can fly where they want to, when they want to, or so it seems to us,”
Bubba on Subspecies
While passing a quiet afternoon in my hammock with Bubba fishing from the dock, the low roar of
the reef was all the sound to be heard. I thought I would entertain myself by asking him something about
the birds. Just to start a conversation, I asked, “Why do you spend so much time studying the birds?” He
responded with “It helps me understand humans!”
“Maybe I should restate my question. Why do people study birds?”
He replied, “It helps them understand themselves.”
“Well I guess I can see how behaviors can be similar and parallels can be drawn but all that classification
stuff seems unrelated.
“No, you’re wrong! All that classification ‘stuff ’ as you call it has more value in understanding ourselves
than behavior parallels. I’ll give you a profound example. From what I’ve learned from taxonomy I have
an understanding of what’s happening in Kosovo between the Serbs and Albanians, and how that could
never happen to us in Belize.”
“I’m going to call you to task on that one Bubba; that’s a little farfetched for me to believe!”
“I’ll show you, but first let me explain taxonomy and how classification began. The word is derived
from Greek, taxis(‘arrangement’) and nomos(‘law’). In the 1800’s a Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linnaeus,
invented a system of classifying living things into divisions. The first division was plant or animal; he called
it the ‘Kingdom’. Then there was a ‘Class’ dividing creatures such as reptiles and mammals from birds. Then
came ‘Orders’ separating, heron from sparrows, and finally ‘genus’ and then ‘species’. The species was to
be the smallest division; example: people are Homo sapiens and sugar maple trees are Acer saccharum and
Dogs like me are Canis familiaris, etc. A subdivision of species was called a race or ‘Subspecies’. Remember
in 1737 Darwin’s theory of evolution was still a long time away. Did you know that Darwin was pressured to
quickly release his famous book ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ because of concerns
he might be scooped by one of his colleagues and originally had it titled, ‘The Preservation of Favoured
Races in the Struggle for Life’?
Linnaeus was only attempting a convenient way of categorizing the elements of the natural world. He
defined race as, ‘an interbreeding, usually geographically isolated population of organisms differing from
other populations of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits. A race that has been given formal
taxonomic recognition is known as a subspecies.’ A good example would be the Great Blue Heron and the
Great White Heron. The famous birder, Rodger Troy Peterson described the Great White Heron as the white
race of the Great Blue Heron. Linnaeus published his theories and his standard of divisions under which
for centuries the world used and believed. The demise of his theories validly came with assumptions he
made about race behavior. He declared that humanity fell into just four races and described characteristics
of each that are considered humorous in today’s societies, or most of today’s societies I should say, at least
controversial in both technical and nontechnical usage, and in some cases they may well be considered
offensive. Within Homo sapiens he proposed four taxa of a lower rank (subspecies). These categories where,
Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus. They were based on place of origin at first, and later
skin color. Linnaeus wrote each Human race had certain characteristics that were endemic to individuals
belonging to it. Native Americans were reddish, stubborn, and angered easily. Africans were black, relaxed
and negligent. Asians were sallow, avaricious, and easily distracted. Europeans were white, gentle, and inventive. Linnaeus’s races were clearly skewed in favor of Europeans. Over time, this classification led to
a racial hierarchy, The term ‘Racist’ was born right here and Europeans were at the top. Members of many
European countries used the classification scheme to validate their conquering or subjugation of members
of the other races. In particular this invented concept of race was used to enforce the inhumane institution
of slavery, particularly in the new world European colonies.
Our conversation seemed to be going just one way and getting a little dry so I asked, “Bubba how does
a race get started in a species?”
“Ironically the most classic explanation uses birds as an example. Darwins theory goes like this. There
is a swamp where a species of birds live, eating crustaceans from the bottom of the water. Something in
nature causes the water to get a little deeper and those birds with a little shorter legs are forced to move
elsewhere to survive. This effectively removes them from the gene pool leaving only those longer legged
birds, reinforcing even longer legs. In time the water rises again and again the shorties of the long legged
group have to leave, strengthening the long legged gene even further, eventually resulting in a distinctly
different bird of the same species.”
“Bubba, are you saying this is true with humans also?”
“Brother Elbert, I’m saying it’s as obvious to me as the nose on your face! Have you ever wondered
why it’s so long and skinny? Your ancestors more than likely evolved in a cold dry climate where having a
long skinny nose moistened and warmed the air before you breathed it in giving you a respiratory health
advantage to survive lots of colds and pneumonias over a broader shorter one used in moist warm climates.
This would evoke The Darwinian Imperative that I’ve been describing to you.”
“What about skin color?”
“That’s easy. It’s simply a protective reaction from harsh sun or no reaction from little sun.”
Bubba pulled in his line and replaced the sardine something had stolen from the hook. A Brown Pelican
standing on the dock cocked his yellow head to eye him closely hoping Bubba might get sloppy with the
“OK Bubba, that all sounds very logical but I haven’t forgotten you said you could explain the war in
Europe and how Belize couldn’t have those kinds of problems from what you know about birds.”
“Well, let’s go back to those short legged birds that had to move from the swamp. Let’s say for the
sake of example, the new shallower swamp they moved to contained shrimp. The birds eat shrimp which
can make astaxanthin from the simpler carotenoids contained in the algae on which they feed. In bottom
feeding birds these pigments dissolve in fats and are deposited in the growing feathers making them pink.
Imagine then, that some act of nature causes the two swamps to become one big swamp mixing the two,
now very distinctly different flocks of the same species in a common feeding ground, one with extra long
legs and gray, the other short with pink feathers. They might not recognize one another as the same species
and fight to defend their feeding ground, mistakenly from their own kind.”
“Bubba you do amaze me! But what about Belize and how it could never happen here?”
“Well, in Belize we have Spanish, Mestizos, Creoles, Garifuna, Mayan, Mennonites, Arabs, East Indian,
British, Mopan, Ketchi and Yucatec all living in a 6000 square mile area. And for hundreds of years we
have been mixing like a box of crayons in the Caribbean sun, creating no majority and no minority. Who’s
going to throw a stone at whom?”
Suddenly Bubba’s fishing pole bent violently with a strike. After a short fight he reeled a large fish onto
the dock.
“What’s that Bubba?”
He replied, “Epinephelus, Mycteroperca of the superclass Pisces, in the family of Sea Bass, commonly
known as a Black Grouper.”
I said, “Bubba, your taking this classification stuff all too serious, let’s clean him and eat!”

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Turkey Vulture

Photo By Ianthes
Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura
I went down to the beach this morning to find Bubba lying on his back with his eyes closed looking very dead. I walked up to him slowly and sad, thinking of all the birdwatching adventures we had been through in these last ten years. I had just begun to sob when he suddenly opened one eye, looked at the vultures circling over him and explained in a low voice that I was spoiling his ploy to get a close look at the Ambergris Turkey Vulture from the order of Cathartidae. Not moving and still speaking from his post mortem posture he explained that Vultures of Ambergris hunt actively, quartering the savanna like a harrier. Searching for small aquatic animals. When the dry season strands fish in shrinking ponds or savanna flats these nomadic birds will be visiting the island in masses. Bubba was successful in arousing the curiosity of several, luring them close enough to see their dark eyes and naked red skin heads. They have a white bill. The red color of its head is accented by a blood red nape band giving this bird an eerie macab appearance. I'm constantly amazed with Bubba's resourcefulness and totally appreciative of our close look at another magnificent island bird.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Royal Tern Sterna maxima

If you sail or motor up to one of San Pedro's many docks, you're greeted by a group of comical-looking white birds with zany black hairdos and long orange noses called Royal Terns.
During the day the terns stand in flocks on the ends of the docks in town, facing the wind very uniformly and when the trade wind blows from the north-east, all the terns turn to the left. And when the breeze comes from the South-east, the terns all turn to the right. Our island and reef run predominately North and South, so if you're sitting in one of San Pedro's many bars overlooking the reef, you're seeing another end of the Royal Tern.
The family is Laridae and includes all gulls and terns with about 80 species. Long, large wings and a good fishing bill make this tern one of Ambergris' successful fishing birds, and it even wears webbed feet for a little swimming if it has to.
Terns are excellent flyers and able to fish well offshore. They breed in monogamous pairs, always nest in colonies and build a crude nest on the ground or grasses deep in the Savannah's protection. Our island is home for hundreds. They have a high-pitched voice of "Keerr, kree, tsirr" like a sea gull.
In my reading I find birders seem to disagree about one point or another consistently. The Royal Tern is no exception. One book says, "The Royal Tern is a thief and steals fish from frigates and other birds," the next book will say, " The Royal Tern's fish are stolen by frigates." The only way to really find out is to see for myself, so I went down to Cholo's Bar & Pool Hall at the beach and made myself comfortable in a stool overlooking the docks where 200 or more terns, gulls and frigates seem to be having their afternoon meal of sardines and scraps from the fisherman cleaning the catch on the dock. A frigate swooped down and scooped up some fish parts from the surface of the water and another accosted him in mid-air causing him to drop the object of their confrontation, only to fall another few feet and get caught in the air by a tern when suddenly another tern collided head on in a cat fight with Tern#1 only to lose everyone's desired prize into the water below. Surprised by this free-for-all and still uncertain who steals from whom, I turned to one of our knowledgeable local guides having a beer on the stool next to me and asked, "Who steals from who? The tern or the frigate?
He replied, " Well you should know, gringo. You're the one who writes about birds."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Little Blue Heron of Ambergris Caye

The Little Blue Heron is a conniiform and by name alone we know this long legged, wading bird is a masterful fisherman. Its specialized neck with twenty-two vertebra allows it to thrust forward rapidly to impale prey in the water before it. Like all fishing, when to fish is as important as where.
The Little Blue Heron has a powder blue to gray body and glossy purple neck. Its bill is yellow and tipped with black. Its legs and feet are a yellowish green. He can be seen walking along the shoreline's shallow waters, fishing almost everywhere on the island.
It nests in the protection of the mangrove on the lagoon side of the island and builds a crude platform of sticks atop with the sky as a roof. Until this heron is about one year old it is snow white but can be distinguished from the white egret by its bill and leg colors.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

San Pedro Sun

“From Outrage to Action”
Bubba got this unusual title for this week’s story from an old document in my mother’s attic. It told of an ornithologist who had taken a stroll through Manhattan in 1886 and counted 542 exotic birds ------ all of them stuffed and mounted on top women’s hats.
In 1896 this account, and many like it, incited Mrs. Augustus Hemenway to collect a list of names from her “BOSTON BLUE BOOK.” The list of names was of the women most likely to wear feathers, plumes, and even whole birds on their heads.
Within a few weeks, circulars had been mailed asking Boston’s most fashionable ladies to join a society for the protection of these fashionable animals.
By 1899, this action on the part of Mrs. Hemenway had fueled alliances between concerned socialites, sportsmen and ornithologist who met and agreed, ”To discourage the buying and wearing, for ornamental purposes, of the feathers of any wild birds except ducks and game birds; and to otherwise further the protection of native birds”. Mrs. Hemenway’s letter-writing caused a movement that grew into an organization that has 7 million members and over the years has expanded their concerns to protection of eggs, nests and habitat, resulting in thousands of inland and coastal sanctuaries with strict laws to protect them.
Today in Belize this same group is largely responsible for the creation of our countries many reserves. Their work is seen in a stately heron stalking its next meal outside your window, in a flock of terns diving to catch small fish that swim just below our clean waters surface and majestic pelicans gliding effortlessly above San Pedro.
The strength for this organization for 100 years has come from the same source, “Someone has to decide to take some action and write a few letters!”
I’m not sure Bubba truly understood the message of this story , all afternoon he’s been designing ladies hats made entirely of cat fur.
Anyone wishing to write letters should contact either or both of these offices:
The Belize Audubon Society,
12 Fort St.,
Belize City, Belize
The Department of Environment,
Chief Environmental Officer,
1012 Ambergris Avenue,
Belmopan, Belize.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Osprey on Ambergris Caye Belize

While trying to decide on the bird of the week I read about a candidate on the island called an osprey. Tired of researching and trying to choose, I got in my boat and headed north on the island. In passing Tres Cocos I saw from a distance one bird among the many silhouettes over the shore, laboriously flapping its wings in a hover. Fast flaps of long wings designed to glide caught my eye, and as I got closer I saw its neck bent at a right angle to its body, focusing on some aquatic prey about 100 feet below in the water. Just as I felt my boat's closeness to the bird's target area might make it abort and fly away, it suddenly plummeted, raising talons and throwing wings back. This rocketing fisherman snatched dinner in a big splash. The Bonefish wiggled and fought as the osprey recovered from the water and became airborne again. Then as if was annoyed by the fish's struggle the bird lowered its sharp beak and stopped the movement of the fish with a strategic shot to the fish's head. With the slippery fish grasped in its long curved claws it flew away.
Decision made!
Ornithologists categorize birds into families, such as the spotted owl, screech owl and horned owl. All have several things in common and belong to a family called Strigidae with 120 members. The blue-tailed hummingbird, the violet-crowned hummingbird and the rufous-tailed all belong to a family called Trochilidae with 320 members. The decision on which family you belong to is made on common traits like flattened faces, forward looking eyes or hooked bills, a lot like human traits. The osprey is said, by some, to be a one of a kind, single member its own unique family called Pandionidae, because of specialized joints in its feet and curved razor talons used for fishing. It seems there is some disagreement in the world of birders over its family tree, whether it's hawks, eagle, falcon or vulture is probably not on the osprey's mind. The osprey is very territorial and claims a few square miles for its hunting and fishing grounds. That's why it appears each cocal up and down the island seems to be home for one pair. Osprey nest in a bulky stick nest placed high in tree tops or platforms of man-made structures like water towers and roof peaks. It uses the same nest year after year.
Sometimes when the water is cloudy from bad weather and the fishing is bad, the osprey will resort to eating snakes and lizards. Its voice is a distinctive, sharp, high pitched and easily recognized, "Keeip".