Thursday, October 26, 2017

Guests of Honour in Tobago

Faraaz Abdool is an avid wildlife photographer and conservationist. His passion is to record and share the beauty of nature in the hope that future generations would be able to also enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth. In this feature, he asks that we ensure the safety and survival of some very special visitors to Tobago's shores, by preserving the healthy ecosystems on our shoreline and beaches. All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool

What if I told you that each year, our shores are hosts to hundreds – maybe thousands – of extreme long distance travelers. None of these intrepid voyagers travel by plane, boat or bus. Many of them weigh no more than a few ounces. And all of them have feathers.

Ruddy Turnstones have a short, thick bill that is designed not for probing in the sand, but for flipping stones and small rocks to reveal what’s hiding underneath
These feathered friends are on the run, escaping the cold fingers of the northern winter. They are collectively known as “shorebirds” – unsurprisingly they are usually found near water. That thin line between land and sea is their main habitat. Shorebirds don’t eat a wide variety of food – all of their nutrition comes from various invertebrates they find by probing with their long bills in the mud and sand. This means that they can only eat from very specific locations – sort of like a picky person who will only eat from a certain restaurant. They don’t swim, so they can’t venture into deep water. They don’t dig their prey out of the ground, so they can’t eat where the ground is too dry and hard. This is precisely why coasts and waterways are of such great importance to these migratory birds.

The long legs of the Greater Yellowlegs allow it to wade in deeper waters than other shorebirds
Shorebirds can be found around Tobago, on beaches from Pigeon Point to Charlotteville, as well as  on the banks of slow moving bodies of freshwater. The wetlands of Bon Accord are among their most preferred sites. They can be found from late August to March each year, wintering in the tropics.
A shorebird’s life begins high in the Arctic; many are hatched in the late spring on the tundra of the north. As flowers bloom and food is plentiful, the ground is also soft and rich with food for these tiny birds. Shorebirds are precocial – meaning that from the time they hatch they are already in an advanced state of development – most of them can run around from a few hours after hatching! Such is their level of independence that many of their parents begin their southward migration not long after the eggs hatch. This may seem cruel, but in fact it is to reduce competition for food, ensuring that the young birds have enough to eat to survive on their maiden journeys.

Shorebirds have built-in GPS and impeccable memory. Once they leave the Arctic, they make several stops along the way at what are termed “stop-over-sites”. These locations are not unlike a rest stop and gas station rolled into one; a place where they can rest their wings, refuel, sleep and resume their journey after a few days.

By the time August draws to a close, the first shorebirds start arriving. Of course, the adults arrive first.  The juvenile birds stay a little longer in their Arctic breeding grounds fattening up and growing their first set of feathers for a journey of a lifetime. The young birds know exactly where to go, without a single adult to show them the way. Flying day and night, some of them arrive at the verge of starvation! Before long, areas that were once devoid of birds are now filled with scores of brown and white birds scampering everywhere.

A pair of Sanderlings chases the receding surf
Superficially, they are all very similar. This is because they all occupy a similar place in the ecosystem. They all poke around in the soft mud and sand for invertebrates. They are all painted with various shades of brown, russet and white. Their coloration ensures that they blend in perfectly with the landscape to avoid detection by would-be predators. But as one examines closer, the differences start to appear. Some are big, some are small. Some have extra long legs, some have short legs. Some have short, cute bills, others have very long bills. These finer details give an extra insight into their individual lives. Long-legged birds can afford to wade into deeper water than their short-legged cousins. Shorebirds with short bills will catch food close to and even on the surface of the mud, while longer-billed species can afford to reach deeper into the mud.

Beach specialists like the Sanderling have adapted to a lifestyle of being on the go – these are the birds that seem to madly chase each wave as it breaks on the shore. Every time a wave breaks, tiny invertebrates hidden in the sand emerge for a brief moment in the water. As the wave recedes, there is a tiny window where the little creatures would still be visible – a tiny window which the Sanderling capitalizes upon with a mad dash to the water’s edge. In fact, it’s been running at full speed for so many generations that it has lost its hind toe entirely!

White-rumped Sandpipers have excessively long wings that extend far beyond the tail.
Some species of shorebird spend the entire winter here, in the tropics; others use our available habitats as stop-over-sites on their way further south. In fact, every year some species of shorebird such as the White-rumped Sandpiper migrate from the Arctic to the southernmost tip of South America – and back again! This pole-to-pole migration means that this species in particular undertakes one of the longest animal migrations in the world. How special we must be that this bird will grace us with its presence, albeit for a few weeks each year! This small bird has unusually long wings for its extra-long journey.

Well-camouflaged, this Wilson’s Snipe crouches in the grass. This is the only species of Snipe found on Tobago.
They may seem dull, drab or even inconspicuous, they don’t have the flair of the Motmot or the song of the Wren – but they are most intriguing pieces in the puzzle of life. They are true citizens of Mother Earth herself, and we should be honoured that they choose our shores to spend some time. The preservation of the habitats they feed in is completely essential to their survival as a species – their finicky nature has made them extremely vulnerable to extinction. In fact, the shorebird family has suffered the highest rate of extinction in recent history among avian families. Developments of beachfront as well as tidal lagoons have proven to be detrimental to the survival of these very unique and special birds. Let us all help to ensure that these tiny travelers complete their epic journeys and return safely to their breeding grounds. We can make them at home every year by preserving their feeding grounds.

A Whimbrel manipulates a prey item before consuming it. All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Oh, Frigate!

Faraaz Abdool is an avid wildlife photographer and conservationist. His passion is to record and share the beauty of nature as art in the hope that future generations would be able to also enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth. Here, he asks us to cherish Trinidad and Tobago’s colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds as he mourns the loss of Barbuda’s colony. (The original version of this feature was first published here: )

With the recent obliteration of Barbuda as a result of Hurricane Irma, there is a major concern about the fate of the island’s bird population. Many migratory birds such as sparrows and shorebirds can sense differences in barometric pressure, and either change their migratory route or delay/expedite their travels to suit. Some others may skirt around the storms, and a few intrepid individuals decide to brave the storm itself. In fact, there is a well-known record of a GPS-enabled Whimbrel – a type of shorebird – named Chinquapin that flew directly into Hurricane Irene in 2011.

But what about birds that live in the path of a monstrous hurricane such as Irma? For the endemic Barbuda Warbler, there was nowhere to hide from the hours of howling 180mph winds. Already classified as Near Threatened according to the IUCN – due to habitat loss, its already low population and use of remaining suitable habitat for grazing of domesticated animals – this recent event might have been  the end. However, the Barbuda Warbler has been found in post-Irma surveys; though official numbers are yet to emerge.

Also on Barbuda was the largest breeding colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the entire western hemisphere. Estimated at around 100,000 birds, they converge around Codrington Lagoon to nest, raise young and then eventually drift westward toward the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. I have to say “was” as Irma’s winds reduced to nothing the mangrove islands upon which they usually nest. The lagoon itself has completely flooded out. I’m sure it will regenerate in time. But do the Frigatebirds have the time? The nesting season usually begins in September. So given the time of year, this means that most female Magnificent Frigatebirds (national bird of Antigua and Barbuda) would either have just laid their eggs, or were about to do so.  (At the time of publication, October 19, 2017, we are told that the Barbuda birds are returning to the Lagoon.)

Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird “practising” the art of picking fish from the surface of the water, using a small twig as a dummy fish. (All photos by Faraaz Abdool)

My heart goes out to not only the affected people, but these magnificent Magnificent Frigatebirds that also stared directly at the beast. It is likely that many of the birds knew what was coming and high-tailed it out of there – except for the ones that had already started to incubate. A comprehensive census must be conducted in due course.

Perhaps some of them may choose to visit our very own colony – if there is any room for newcomers. T&T houses a reasonable breeding population of Magnificent Frigatebirds on the islands of Saint Giles. These islands form the northernmost land mass that belongs to Trinidad and Tobago, and they are home to a few hundred pairs of Magnificent Frigatebirds, as well as other seabird species.
Magnificent Frigatebirds are mostly black with a distinctive angular silhouette. Of the five members of the Frigatebird family, Magnificent Frigatebirds are the largest. They are graceful masters of the air and open ocean as they are able to soar effortlessly for hours without expending much energy flapping their wings. This is because they have the largest wingspan to body length ratio of any bird – this means that they have tremendously large wings for a relatively small bodies. This trait allows them to be very skilful on the wing – something that is necessary for a bird that eats fish but can’t afford to get wet!
Female Magnificent Frigatebird perched. Tobago’s offshore islands are the only place within T&T one would be able to see a perched Magnificent Frigatebird.

Magnificent Frigatebirds live over the ocean, eat fish but if they ever land on the surface of the water, they become waterlogged and drown. Their feathers do not have the waterproofing that other seabirds have. Furthermore, they would be unable to flap their huge wings properly to enable a takeoff from the water. So how do they get their food?

Their high level of maneuverability lets them fly down to the water and deftly pick floating morsels off the surface –  fish or discarded offal from a fishing vessel. They have also been known to eat flying fish that have taken to the air to escape a predator underwater. A now famous clip of the flying fish’s predicament was filmed by the BBC a couple years ago just off St Giles.
What makes them most infamous – and what has given rise to their various names – is their habit of stealing food from other seabirds. Boobies, Terns and Tropicbirds are all smaller than the gigantic Frigatebirds, and once the pirates realize there’s booty to be had, it’s all out war. Harassment can range from simply blocking the flight path to outright attacks; Frigatebirds have been known to grab the tails of the smaller birds until they regurgitate their catch. It is for this reason they are called “Man-o-war” – and even their official name is derived from the word “frigate”, which is a type of fast warship.
Male Magnificent Frigatebird with red gular sac visible, sitting among three adult female Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are generally easy to tell apart from each other. Adult females are the largest, they are all black overall with an easily seen white throat patch. Adult males have no white, but they do have a spectacular red throat that they puff up during courtship. Unlike the female’s white throat which is feathered, this red throat of adult males is actually featherless and is referred to as a gular sac. Young Magnificent Frigatebirds start their lives off completely white, and gradually get their black adult feathers as they mature. Immature birds retain a pure white head until they reach adulthood.

Magnificent Frigatebirds occupy a special niche in the ecosystem of the New World Tropics, and most people have only seen them soaring in the sky, not unlike the illustrations of prehistoric flying reptiles. There are few places in the world where they perch – and our very own islands of St Giles is one of those very special places.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Living in a warming world

Climate change scientists are monitoring and adjusting the predictions of global temperature rise upward. While the countries that signed to the Paris Agreement of 2015 are working to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it is already anticipated that the rise may be higher.

Those monitoring the changing climate have observed that for even one-degree rise, the effects – increased precipitation, stronger deadlier storms forming over warming oceans - seem to be growing exponentially. This year’s hurricane season in the Atlantic may be considered evidence, although scientists are slow to conclude that one season may be part of a trend.

Ordinary citizens, however, must come to decisions about their homes, their livelihoods and protections for their families, in the face of higher storm events, greater flooding, and the effects these will surely have on coastal landscapes. It may seem that an individual, or community, even a country, by itself, is “farting against thunder” to believe that his/ her action might have an effect. However, the actions of individuals can coalesce into collective consciousness and inspire change.  

It is also hard to know whether the warming trend can actually be reversed, or only slowed. Even if we reduced or halted all major carbon producing activities, removed all plastics from our waste stream, do we know whether we have already passed the threshold of safety from deadly storms? Or will the earth, Mother Nature, whatever you call this planetary eco-system of which we are part, require time to assimilate the changes?

The question for the individual remains: how to survive in a world where there is increased incidence of severe storms and flooding; where there may be scarcities of fresh water and food. God may be a Tobagonian, but all it takes is one hurricane, one severe flood, one earthquake to take away our homes, to deprive us of shelter, food, water, safety and security.
Picturesque Charlotteville, north-west Tobago, was badly damaged by hurricane Flora in 1963.

In 1963, 54 years ago – outside the life span of half the population of Trinidad and Tobago - Flora passed over Tobago on its way to becoming a category 3 hurricane. In those days of limited detection (by radar) and even lower communications capability, the tropical storm which started off the coast of Africa (September 26) in the mid Atlantic, crossed Tobago late on September 30. Flora caused tides five to seven feet over normal, sank ships in Scarborough harbor, and brought rainfall so heavy that there was a mud slide from Mt Dillon to Castara. It is estimated the one third of the housing stock of Tobago was destroyed and 75% of forest trees in the Main Ridge Reserve were felled. Agriculture – especially cocoa and tree crops – were devastated and abandoned; a few of these cocoa estates are only now being rehabilitated. 

Flora went on to drop some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the islands of the Greater Antilles: Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cuba.

Tobago knows the damage that can be inflicted by a one-in-a-hundred-years storm. Even though we may lie outside the statistical path of hurricanes, all it took was one outlier storm a few degrees south of the path to knock down the trees of the Main Ridge Reserve so that it would take another 25 years for the treeline to re-grow.

So what can we do for ourselves? What can we do collectively, as a community, an island, a nation? Should we consider different architecture (roofs that would not lift off in high winds for instance)? How should we protect the shoreline? Should we be thinking of bigger lifestyle changes? Here are some basic notes in case of storms and flooding. What more should we consider, and how should we now act.

A family plan includes:
Brief all members of your family about what they should do in an emergency: storm, earthquake or other disaster. If members are likely to be away from the home, what should they do. Figure out whether they might be safer in a school or public building than trying to return home. Make an emergency communication plan: what low tech methods might you have to use.

Assess the risk in and around your home: is the location prone to flooding? Are there tall trees around: ensure that branches are trimmed and maintained on a regular basis) Maintain your surroundings and the integrity of your house: clear drains and surrounding bush.
Identify a safe room: on the ground floor, is there a room (a bathroom for instance) that might be a place of safety.

Ensure that the plan includes the animals and pets in the household.

Do you live near the shore? On a hillside? Is there a building (school or church or solid structure) central to the community that might be safer than your home or the beach? Are there elderly persons in your home that might be better relocated before the storm?

If evacuation is necessary, where should the emergency shelters in your village or community be located? Get together with neighbours and determine your safe spots.

Create such a kit in a backpack or waterproof bag. Include flashlight, batteries, first aid supplies, critical documents (or copies), medications, cash. Update the kit on a regular basis.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Great Barrier Reef observed over five years

Anjani Ganase, marine biologist, returns to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In this feature, she warns that we ignore climate change to our peril.

In about week’s time, I’ll be heading out by boat on my final expedition to survey the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) before I return to the Caribbean. This will be the fourth time exploring the GBR, since I first came to Australia five years ago.

The GBR was my first home in Australia. I lived on a research station on tiny Heron Island, located in the southern GBR. I lived on Heron Island for about six months, working on experiments to see the effect of extreme temperatures on corals. During this time, I explored the reefs, viewed migrating whales and followed nesting and hatching turtles on the beach, where the GBR is also their home.

After Heron, I got the dream job as part of a research expedition, surveying the rest of the Great Barrier Reef. Over the next four months my home became a boat and my office the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. 2300 km in length covering an area of about 344,400 km2, the GBR sits just within the tropical latitudes along the northeastern tip of Australia. In 2012, our team made the amazing effort to survey and map about 1000 km2 of reefs over four months, still less than 1 % of its total area. The first time I explored these reefs in 2012, many sections of reefs seemed almost picture perfect - vibrant and colourful coral cities bustling with fish and marine life. As we steamed north to more remote locations, it appeared as if these healthy sections of reef became more extensive, away from coastal development, ports and agricultural lands. Some reefs are so faraway that sharks and fish approach divers with a curiosity as if they have never engaged with a human and are unafraid of being fished.
Healthy hard coral in the far northern Great Barrier Reef, 2010. Photo by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Although the expedition in 2012 was my baseline for observing change on the Great Barrier Reef, the GBR has been home to great scientific research for generations and has been monitored broadly for coral reef health since the 1980s. A compilation of these assessments, released in 2012 while we were doing our own survey, stated that there was a 50 % loss in hard coral cover on the shallow reefs (6 – 9 m depth) of the Great Barrier Reef over the last 27 years (De’ath et al. 2012). Most of this loss was a result of Crown of Thorns outbreak, potentially linked to increased water nutrient pollution (runoff from agriculture), cyclone damage and coral bleaching (De’ath et al. 2012). It was also noted that this decline was not evenly distributed across the GBR; the central and southern regions of the GBR declined significantly more than the northern section, which had a relatively stable hard coral cover over the years (De’ath et al 2012). This statistic overlapped with much of our observations, where the healthiest reefs with the highest coral cover were indeed more common on remote far north GBR reefs. It was necessary for me to adjust my first view observations and judgements, so that I can imagine what these impacted reefs may have looked like 27 years ago.

I was able to visit the GBR two more times since 2012, but most of the subsequent visits followed major disturbance events. In 2014, we specifically visited outer reef sites just off Lizard Island, which were in the direct path of Cyclone Ita, to assess the immediate damage of the surrounding reefs. One week after the cyclone, we witnessed parts of the Ribbon Reef not just stripped of coral but with infrastructure completely turned over; and parts where the framework had avalanched on to deeper parts of the reef. Also apparent was the absence of the usual marine chatter that typically inhabited the living corals.

At the end of 2014, we resurveyed many of our original our surveys from 2012 to assess how reefs changed from two year before. It was clear the impacts that Cyclone Ita had affected, not only in the sections of the reef directly in its path, but reefs much farther away. Within this short time, I was already witnessing significant degradation to reefs I had been introduced to, only two years ago.

In 2016, sections of the GBR again suffered from a different natural disaster, this time it was one of the longest and most severe coral bleaching ever recorded. Overall, higher than average water temperatures resulted in the bleaching being up to four times more severe compared to 1998 bleaching (Hughes et al. 2017). The bleaching event extended to more offshore reefs and the northern sections of the GBR with the southern section being saved by the winds of tropical Cyclone Winston that stirred up the water column. Surveys carried out on the GBR in the months following bleaching found that the heat stress alone was so severe that it was the main prevailing factor for bleaching and death of the corals, even across reefs of varying anthropogenic stress, protection and bleaching history (Hughes et al 2017).  This time, it was clear that climate change driven coral bleaching was the culprit.
Documenting the dead coral overgrown by cyanobacteria after the bleaching event at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in May 2016. Photo by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Considering that many corals may take several decades to recover depending on the species; and there is a predicted increase in temperature anomalies and bleaching events under future scenarios of climate change, the decline in coral cover will likely continue, and even increase in its rate of decline. Local management may not be able to significantly improve the recovery of coral reefs, without active reduction in our carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

As we survey GBR over the next two weeks, we hope to reveal the cumulative effects of these disturbances over the last five years and taking into account the historical disturbances. We may be able to identify why some reefs continue to prevail while other communities lose following one or other, or multiple, disturbance. I suspect that many of the once pristine reefs that I have observed might be unrecognisable and in a state that is unlikely to recover in my lifetime. It also makes me think about my mentors and their mentors who have been observing changes in the reefs for much longer, over forty years, and I cannot fathom how many reefs that they have witnessed degrade over the years. However I’m also comforted that these experiences only make their drive to present their work to change the minds of citizens, influencing policies and laws, only stronger. I hope that I would be able to do the same, because to resign means to fail our future generations.

De’ath, Glenn, et al. "The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.44 (2012): 17995-17999.

Hughes, Terry P., et al. "Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals." Nature 543.7645 (2017): 373-377.