September 24th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Usually when I’m out and about on the island, I’m lugging around too many pounds of lenses. The really long zoom is indispensable for birds, and my macro is the same for insects and other small things. I also usually have a super wide angle lens which is good for big views or capturing as much as possible in a tight spot. One thing I usually don’t have on me is a regular zoom lens, so I have a big gap between 16mm and 80mm, which is basically the range that most people photograph in all the time.

So, for a change of pace, I went out for a couple hikes without all the other lenses and just brought the 18-105mm zoom that came with my camera. One location was Grandes Cayes, which is one of the more scenic areas of the island. I would also argue, that despite the smell and the inconvenience of the sargassum that has washed up, it does add a nice visual accent, a bit like fall foliage in the northeastern US.

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The other was Cole Bay, which perhaps is one of the less scenic areas. It is interesting, though, that while Cole Bay the town is so busy, Cole Bay the bay is actually very quiet.

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September 24th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

The town of Colombier, nestled in the valley on the western side of the central mountains was the breadbasket of Saint Martin. Here the runoff from the hills is sheltered from the prevailing winds that keep the eastern side of the island drier. And, of course, there’s been plenty of rain lately, so the area is lush, green and damp.

Just past town, heading up into the hills, there is a small, but charming waterfall where the stream flies over a mossy rock face. It’s the perfect place to stop for a moment and wonder what other little treasures are waiting to be found on St. Martin. See it in the photos below, along with various critters making the most of the rainy season.

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September 23rd, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

I recently saw the large and rather fantastic tropical orb weaver Eriophora ravilla hiding in some leaves on the side of a trail. As you can see below, it’s a very cool find. At the same time, any new discovery has the potential to open up a can of worms. First, it was a bit tricky to identify this spider because it comes in a variety of colors, so more than half of the photos of this species that I found online don’t look too much like it. Second, the male is smaller and looks considerably different, sometimes much like a spider from the Eustala genus, which is making me wonder if some spiders I had previously assumed were Eustala are in fact the males of this species.

As usual, there are many mysteries and few easy answers.

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September 16th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

There’s a stream in St. Martin that runs from Colombier to Anse des Pères. At least, it does when there’s enough water coming down from the central mountains to fill it. I followed it up from the beach through the Friar’s Bay area recently and it’s really quite nice, with clear water, at least three kinds of fish, crayfish and a variety of freshwater snails.

As a side note, what’s going on with the beach names in this area? Anse des Pères is basically the same name as Friar’s Bay. And were there friars in the area at some point? I have a theory that perhaps Anse des Pères was actually Anse des Pierres because it is a beach of stones. Perhaps this was misunderstood at some point to be Anse des Pères, which was translated to Friar’s Bay and then used to name the wrong beach. And presumably, it should be Friars’ Bay if there were multiple friars there.

Anyhow, whether that is true or not, the stream itself is quite pretty in parts, as you can see below. If you look down on the area from above, there’s a good chunk coming from the beach that is surrounded by tall trees, a tranquil little space between the houses of La Batterie.

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September 14th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Yesterday I spent a few afternoon hours wandering the trails of Bellevue. While not the wildest spot on the island, it’s a bit of a secret gem. The easiest point of entry is across from the Cole Bay Grand Marché, where there is a small gate on the left hand side of a dirt parking area. From there a number of trails meander between Cole Bay and Marigot, which are also used for mountain biking. I’m not sure who owns the land or who made the trails, but apparently cattle were at least partially responsible.

The area is a mix of grassy hillside, scrub and secondary forest and there is plenty of wildlife to be found. I was mostly focused on the smaller kinds, and was happy to see tiny frogs, dwarf geckos, and a variety of spiders and centipedes. It was a bit disturbing to see quite a bit of dodder, a parasitic plant with telltale orange vines that feeds off trees and other plants. The invasive checkered swallowtail is easily seen, due to the large number of mutton lime bushes that the caterpillars feed on. I also came across a calabash tree on one of the hillsides.

If you haven’t been there, I would highly recommend it. As a bonus, some vantage points on the hillsides offer great views of the lagoon. If anyone is familiar with the history of the area, I’d love to know more. Below are photos of some of the things I saw.

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September 14th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

I have a couple follow-ups to previous posts. The first involves the ruddy turnstone with the banded leg. I heard back from bandedbirds.org, which is indeed still active and receives resightings pretty much daily. I also got a response from reportband.gov. This bird had hatched in 2007 or earlier, and was banded on May 14th, 2009 in Cape May County, NJ. Also, instead of just sending the info, they build it into a certificate of of appreciation awarded to the person who reported the sighting. If this isn’t a great way to encourage people to go out and check for banded birds, I don’t know what is.

My other follow-up concerns the very beautiful wolf spider I saw two days ago, which is in the last photo in this post. I was consulting Mark de Silva’s book on spiders of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and noticed that my spider was strikingly similar to Hogna sanctivincenti, which was thought to be endemic to (only found in) St. Vincent. I emailed Mark, and he agreed that it is probably the same spider, noting that so little is known about the spiders of the Caribbean we really don’t have a good idea of their ranges. In the case of this spider, the sighting here is probably a pretty strong indicator that this species may also live on many of the islands between here and St. Vincent. Think about how much there is to be learned about the creatures on this island and our neighbors in the Caribbean.



September 13th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Even a short walk around the Grand Case area can be full of little mysteries. Or, at least, a few things that are interesting to ponder. Here are a few things I wondered about yesterday.

Étang de Cimetiere, at the southwest end of Grand Case, is a popular nesting area for many egrets. In particular, there is one mangrove surrounded entirely by water that is the most popular. (You can see it during nesting season here.) You can see a current photo below, and it is pretty amazing how defoliated this tree is in comparison to those on the shore. It’s easy to understand that a nest surrounded by water is going to be safer for eggs and chicks, but are nesting aggregations normally this extreme? Also, how long can the tree withstand this disturbance, and if it dies, where will the egrets nest? It is interesting to note that cattle egrets, which are now probably the most common egret on the island, are actually an old world species that came here on its own. They first became established in South America in the 1930s, and expanded from there. So, they’re actually fairly new here and perhaps it wouldn’t be that surprising if they’re more than a mangrove can handle.

I am also intrigued by Étang de Grand Case, which is somewhat different from most of the other ponds on the island. On the south side of the pond there’s a large grassy wetland area. It is pretty much like the typical temperate wetland one would find in the US, but unlike the mangrove wetlands that are the primary type seen in tropical areas. In this area, you can see various grasses and succulents that are adapted to wetland conditions. It makes me wonder if this is a naturally occurring habitat, or if it is there because mangroves were cleared from the area at some point. There are some similar areas surrounding the airport pond in Grand Case and near the lagoon, so it is also possible that this exists here naturally. Perhaps there were more areas like this that are gone now because they’re easier to clear and develop than mangroves.

Then, of course, there are the frogs. When walking around Étang de Grand Case, I found two dead frogs, both several times larger than any frog I’ve seen on the island. They have the toe-pads of a tree frog, so my best guess is that they are Cuban tree frogs, which are large and are on the island. If that’s true, then every other Cuban tree frog I’ve seen has been relatively small. Regardless of the species, though, why were they dead? It’s well known that amphibians are vulnerable to pollution because their skin is permeable, so perhaps that’s the case. I suppose they could have also been killed by a bird that was big enough to kill them but too small to swallow them. There are many possibilities, but for now it is a mystery.

The photos below include the things mentioned above, as well as immature common moorhens, an American coot with its chicks, a great blue heron, a Caribbean leatherleaf slug, a spitting spider with its egg sac and a really pretty wolf spider.

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September 8th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Did I say manta ray? I meant EXTREME SHALLOW manta ray. Anyhow, I first saw it from our balcony, where it was circling (presumably feeding) in the shallow water just off the beach. A small crowd, mostly kids, had already been watching it for some time. Although the visibility was really bad, it was still amazing to snorkel with it, or just stand in the water and watch it cruise around. It didn’t seem bothered by us and would swim right up to us.

After maybe half-an-hour, I figured I might as well put my camera in its underwater housing and give it a shot. Unfortunately, the visibility was super bad, so mostly I ended up with photos of ghost manta ray. After another half-hour or so, it went out into the bay. If it’s the same manta that was seen near the Grand Case Beach Club a few weeks ago, though, perhaps it will be back.

Perhaps the best part was how excited everyone was to see it and pretty much everyone went out into the water check it out. One girl, who was probably about five years old, told me that she had lived in St. Martin her whole life and had never seen one, except in Finding Nemo.

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September 8th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

The late-summer and early-fall in Saint Martin is a unique time. Restaurants and other businesses close for vacation. Construction projects are underway that have been waiting for this quiet season. Wooden tables are re-varnished. The people who are on the island keep an eye on the hurricane forecast. And it’s also a time of change for many birds, whether passing through or getting ready to leave for the season.

Laughing gulls are still on the island. Past Grandes Cayes, they gather at tide pools during low tide and flock at the dump at high tide. Soon, though, they’ll be on their way. You can already see they are losing the dark head plumage of the breeding season.

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Recently arrived, however, are various sandpipers in large numbers. These are many of the little brown or gray shorebirds that appear on beaches and salt ponds around August. There are a number of species, and I find it a bit tricky to keep track of which is which. There are quite a few similar looking shorebirds, and to complicate things more, many shorebirds have different coloration when breeding than at other times.

On Baie de l’Embouchure, the beach seems to be dominated by semipalmated sandpipers, least sandpipers, semipalmated plovers, ruddy turnstones and short-billed dowitchers. These birds roam the beach, feeding on whatever invertebrates are living in the sargassum as it decays.

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On the mud flats of Salines d’Orient, many of these same birds can be seen feeding, digging into the mud for snails and such. The salt pond is also popular with other birds, like the black-necked stilt and the various egrets and herons who are not normally seen on the beach.

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Various species of tern move back and forth between the pond and the sea, preferring to rest in protected areas well out into the water. At Le Galion they can be seen on the diving platform if you’re there before the beach gets busy, and on the pond they sit on rocks, often grooming themselves.

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Finally, the osprey is a relatively uncommon sight on the island, especially during the late spring and early summer. From now through the spring, it should be at least a bit easier to see one as they pass through the area. Incidentally, although osprey is a pretty awesome name, the French name, balbuzard pêcheur, is pretty great, too.

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September 6th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

In my excitement about tiny shrimp, I’ve neglected some older sets of photos. In this case, some photos of birds that I took while surveying for sea turtle tracks on the beaches at Baie de Grandes Cayes and Baie de Petites Cayes. The photos start on the beach at Grandes Cayes with semipalmated sandpipers hopping along the sargassum floating just off shore. After a few other feeding shorebirds are featured as well. Progressing north to Eastern Point, we see on of my favorite birds on the island, the American kestrel, known locally as the killy-killy. These can often be seen in this area, usually perched on the rocks looking across the low grass field for food. The set ends near Petites Cayes with another favorite, the American oystercatcher. This bird typically travels in couples, but the one we often see up there is always alone.

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