October 25th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Yesterday the Compound Eye blog about insect photography introduced me to the Meet Your Neighbors project and an interesting approach to photographing animals. Of course, I got to work immediately on a variant of the technique that I could use with the materials I had on hand, namely a cardboard box, some tissue paper and one of my macro flash units.

The technique is to use diffused backlighting to take animal portraits in the wild that are backlit and have pure white backgrounds making them more or less like studio portraits done in the field. It’s a bit tricky because you have to position yourself on one side of the subject and the flash on the other. My variation is all handheld, making it easier to maneuver around a moving subject. I still have a lot of practice to really get good at the technique, but with some experimentation with exposure and positioning I was able to get some promising shots the first time out.

Practicing a new technique also seems to be a good way to find new, interesting insects. In this case, my favorites were a couple different immature hemipterans, one of which is an ant-mimic.

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October 23rd, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

It may be lazy to just take a little hike around Grand Case, but sometimes it’s just really hot out. Besides, there’s plenty to see in the area. The first photos are from the area just across the main road.

One thing that I keep noticing over and over is the localized abundance of various spider species. Whether it’s a tree, or a building or a fence, I frequently find spots where spiders that may not be common throughout the island are present in great numbers. I haven’t done research into it, but I feel like it may have to do with their limited dispersal abilities. Unlike flying insects, spiderlings (baby spiders) disperse on foot, or by ballooning (releasing silk in the air that catches the wind like a kite and blows the spiderling to a new location). In some cases, I think ballooning can take a spiderling quite far, perhaps even to a nearby island. In other cases, where perhaps the wind is limited, I’m guessing spiderlings all take off from one spot, then all get blown to another spot nearby, resulting in increased concentrations in that microhabitat.

In the photos below, the first example is an unidentified sheetweb weaver. I found a number of specimens living on different leaves of the same tree. Just a few meters away, I found concentrations of the prowling spider Teminius insularis and the gray wall jumper on the same stretch of wall.

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The next day I had the chance to get a few close-ups of a snowy egret which was doing some sort of hyperventilating thing, perhaps to cool itself down. Nearby, at the semi-secret Étang de Grand Case, I was able to see one of my favorite things, iguanas swimming.

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October 20th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

While not yet over, it seems like the sargassum invasion on the island’s east side beaches is losing steam. The New York Times recently published an article about the sargassum, which features a couple photos from yours truly. I’ve personally noticed that there is much less new sargassum on the beaches I frequent, with fresh sargassum often only appearing in isolated spots rather than entire shorelines.

Below are a few photos of the state of the sargassum from early October on Baie de l’Embouchure. The last few photos are from the Le Galion portion of the beach, which was largely spared due to the protective outcrop that shields it from direct easterly swell.

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While I was there, I also took a little time to photograph some birds. I even managed to get a few decent shots of barn swallows, which are one of the toughest birds to photograph on the island as they seem to be almost always in flight.

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October 10th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

My friend Valerie has been organizing some hikes along the coast of the island, with the goal of hiking the entire shoreline. The most recent hikes have been to Cay Bay and Little Bay/Fort Amsterdam.

At Cay Bay, we start with the unmistakable signs of “progress” in the form of new development in the previously “empty” area. They did create a few manmade ponds as part of the landscaping, where we saw a few birds, including a kingfisher. The rest of the walk along the rocky coastline towards Little Bay was much more enjoyable, particularly the colorful rock formations. Since I know little about geology, I guess it is about time to go visit Dr. Jay Haviser to get a little schooling on these things.

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Little Bay and Fort Amsterdam made for an easy, but enjoyable little hike. I had never had a chance to visit the actual site of the Fort, of which relatively little remains. The two buildings seen in the photo were built well after the original fort, but the wall where the canons are is presumably older. The views from the peninsula were great, which is probably why they built the fort there. We were able to see St. Barths, St. Kitts, Statia and Saba.

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October 9th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

Below are some photos I took while walking from Grand Case to Anse des Peres via Friar’s Bay. There are a few interesting things to note. The caterpillar is from the geometrid family, and typically accumulates bits of vegetation as camouflage. The hammock skipper egg is one of the most beautiful butterfly eggs I’ve ever seen. The walking stick is, I think, the first one I’ve actually spotted during the day.

I’m pretty sure that the smaller common moorhen in the photos below is a youth, just on the edge of adulthood. It’s still smaller and has lighter plumage, especially on the face, but its bill and legs have adult coloration. It’s also probably worth noting that, according to the American Ornithologists’ Union, as of July it is no longer a common moorhen. The Eurasian common moorhen retains the old name, while the birds in the Americas are now called the common gallinule. The ones we have here are now considered the subspecies called the Antillean common gallinule and have the scientific name Gallinula galeata cerceris. So, science marches on and I have one more change to add to the next edition of The Incomplete Guide to the Wildlife of Saint Martin.

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October 8th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

On a recent walk out on Bell Point I encountered a whole bunch of insects, including a few rather interesting looking ones that you can see below. In particular, I was fascinated by the leafhoppers that are covered in fuzz to protect them from predators, the owlfly which I almost didn’t notice at all, the dragonfly nymph and the water beetle larva that was several inches long with intimidating mouthparts. It will take a little research to figure out which species these are, or even to get close,

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October 8th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

I’ve already posted tons of photos of the shorebirds visiting St. Martin during their fall migrations, but I still have loads that I haven’t posted, so I’m going to unload a bunch of them now. To be fair, some of the birds featured here are not shorebirds and some are residents, but this post should give some idea of how amazing the birds are on St. Martin during this time of year. Most of the photos are from September, when the number of shorebirds peaked on the island.

This first set of photos is from Salines d’Orient, a salt pond that features what I think are the most extensive mud flats on the island. A variety of birds come here to fish in the shallows and extract mollusks and crustaceans from the mud flats. There are a few interesting things to see in this photo set, including a couple first-year laughing gulls, the least tern and the magnificent frigatebird doing what it does best, intimidating other birds. This is a great place to see a variety of birds year-round.

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For a little change of pace, here are some photos from the beach at Grandes Cayes and the Eastern Point area. In addition to the beautiful landscape, it’s perhaps the best place to see my two favorite local birds, the American oystercatcher and American kestrel. If there are any birds on the island that are more beautiful than these two, I have yet to see them. There are also a few shots here showing how semipalmated plovers forage on floating mats of sargassum.

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In the photos below from Baie de l’Embouchure, you can see the black-bellied plover wearing its non-breeding plumage in which it, of course, does not have a black belly. For this reason, some prefer to use the European common name of grey plover. There are also a few photos of the sargassum accumulations on the beach, and some examples of the mixed flocks of shorebirds that pretty much cover the area during the peak times of the migratory stopover. The flocks are largely made up of semipalmated sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, semipalmated plovers and ruddy turnstones. A few other species, including the least sandpiper and sanderling can also be seen regularly.

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Just inland at Salines d’Orient, the mix of species is a bit different. In the photos below, the number of birds is smaller, but the diversity is greater, including sandpipers, plovers, herons, terns and ducks.

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Etang Chevrise, at least for the last few months, has been very popular with pelicans, who have been congregating there in the dozens. In the photos below you can also see a family of black-necked stilts, and a few iguanas that happened to be there.

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The last set of photos is from the end of September in the Le Galion area, including Baie de l’Embouchure and Salines d’Orient. It features some of the same shorebirds as the other sets, as well as a couple of doves and the Lesser Antillean bullfinch. As you can see, even once the migration has passed completely, there will be plenty of birds to see on the island.

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October 5th, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

It’s been a good week to see birds, and it’s not even over. Although the number of migrating shorebirds is steadily dropping, there are still plenty of beautiful and intriguing birds to see.

On Tuesday, I was looking for sea turtle tracks at Baie de Petites Cayes and Baie de Grandes Cayes and there were some real treats. For the second week in a row we saw a belted kingfisher (and for the second week in a row, I didn’t get a great photo of it). We also saw a family of American oystercatchers, who seem to always be there during low tide, when they can forage in the tide pools. The mom and dad have bright red bills, while the juvenile has a dark bill with a red tip. You can even see the young one with a whelk in its bill in one of the photos below.

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Today at Baie de l’Embouchure, Le Galion and Salines d’Orient, there were also some nice sightings. The best was a great egret fishing in the bay. After catching a pretty good-sized fish, it was just about to swallow when a magnificant frigatebird swooped in and stole the catch. I ended up missing what would have been an awesome photo of the steal, but it was still great to see. The low tide also meant extended mud flats on Salines d’Orient and a chance to see the Wilson’s plover, which is not particularly common here (the last photo below).

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October 3rd, 2011 by Marc AuMarc

On Saturday, EPIC volunteer Ronald Pieters hosted a bird walk at Salines d’Orient as part of International Migratory Bird Day. We are currently in the fall migration period when a number of birds are making stops in the Caribbean. On the walk we saw 34 species of bird, including migratory and resident species. Below are photographs of a few of the birds we saw.

The next bird walk is scheduled for December 10th, so get in touch with EPIC if you are interested in attending.

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