January 31st, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Yesterday I spent a few hours in the Philipsburg area searching for the Cuban brown anole (Anolis sagrei), which has been seen there. Although I didn’t find it, I did spend a lot of time photographing lizards. The photos below showcase the variations in color and pattern of one of our two native anoles, Anolis gingivinus. The variability in this species is perhaps less striking than that of our other native species Anolis pogus, but is remarkable in its own right. The different looks these lizards achieve are related to maturity and gender, camouflage, control of their body temperature and communication with other lizards.

While these variations are beneficial to the lizards, they can pose a challenge to those who study them. This was particularly true for the first couple centuries of study when most scientists were almost exclusively using dead specimens for their research. Even as late as the 1960s, much research was missing crucial information about both the appearance and behavior of many species. Even today, I would wager there is much to be learned, especially about species in the Lesser Antilles.

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January 29th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Agriculture in St. Martin is a complicated issue for me. As a naturalist, it can be saddening and worrisome to see landscapes disturbed by agriculture. On the other hand, there are benefits, like fresh local food and important cultural traditions, best exemplified by events like the Arrowroot Jollification.

From the colonial era until relatively recently, agriculture was more widespread on the island and seems to have diminished significantly with the rise of tourism as the primary industry. As you can see from old photos, many areas that are scrub and forest were cleared in the past. Any walk into the hills will also confirm this, with old stone walls hidden in what is now dense vegetation. Even with larger areas under cultivation and a much smaller population, my understanding is that food has always been imported to the island because it is relatively dry and unsuitable for many crops.

Today, with much larger areas developed for homes and tourism, and the lack of available water in many places, the areas suitable for cultivation remain relatively small. They also seem to coincide with areas that are the best for tropical forests. In the photos below from the area behind Agrement and Concordia, one can see cultivated areas that are encroaching on secondary forest, where trees are cleared and burned to create charcoal. Beyond the preservation of wild habitat, deforestation also has the potential to cause big problems for people as well, as can be seen clearly in places like Haiti.

To me this raises a number of questions: How can we implement sustainable agriculture on St. Martin? What is the appropriate balance between crops and forests? How can we tell when/where the benefits of agriculture outweigh the benefits of an undisturbed landscape? If we do determine the balance, how can that be turned into enforceable policy? Obviously, I don’t know the answers, but I think the questions are worthy of attention.

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January 28th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

A couple days ago I had the chance to check out the Puerto Rican crested anole (Anolis cristatellus) population at Port de Plaisance for a few minutes. The site of the first colony I located was a stand of ficus trees on one side of a wooden fence and the scrub on the other side at the edge of a lot that was being cleared. Depending on the overall distribution of the colony, it might be interesting to see how this impacts the viability of what seems to be a relatively restricted area of colonization. Ideally, the colony could collapse. The next step is to survey a broader area to determine the extent of the invasion.

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January 28th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

I have to admit, even though the island is small, I don’t get to the Dutch side as much as I should. One of the areas that definitely deserves more exploration is Pointe Blanche. I think of Pointe Blanche as the whole southeast corner of the island, which may be overly broad, but it does include some nice, relatively-undeveloped areas.

I know of a few ways to access the area: via the Dutch Hope Estate, via the road heading up from the Vineyard building, and via the road into the industrial area across from the cruise ship dock. The first set of photos here is from a loop up the Vineyard Building road, up the dirt road to the hilltop farm, down a trail to Hope Estate and back along the roadside canal. It was a bit surprising to see so many birds on the roadside canal, because it is so busy, dirty and often there is just a bare minimum of natural vegetation beside it.

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The second set of photos here is mostly taken from the dirt road that runs along the ridge between the prison and the communication towers above Philipsburg. The views from the towers are probably amongst the most expansive on the island. Of course, the views also include a few of the less savory scenes, like erosion on the hill below Fort William and the dump on Salt Pond Island.

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January 28th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

I’ve seen it referred to as either Ravine St. Louis or Rambaud Gut, but whatever you call it, the ravine running between Pic Paradis and La Savane is a terrific place to explore. If you’re driving past it on the main road, it’s the dip between Pic Paradis and the last hill that you crest before the downhill into Grand Case, and you may have noticed loads of banana trees in that little valley.

The ravine extends in both directions from the road. Downhill it heads to Étang Guichard and Friar’s Bay, while uphill it heads towards the top of Pic Paradis. On my last two visits, I’ve explored the uphill section. From the main road, access to the ravine starts at a well, then continues through a number of small farms. After that, you can continue to follow a small stream to its source, which also features a well. Above that area, there is a dry ravine that is easy to follow until the forest gives way to scrub. At this point, the ravine continues, but the lack of a canopy means lots of undergrowth to tackle.

In the first set of photos from the area you can see a variety of forest dwellers as well as a look at the huge buttress roots of a large tree near the source of the stream.

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The second set of photos includes a lot of whistling frogs. The literature asserts that there are two similar species on St. Martin, Eleutherodactylus johnstonei and E. martinicensis. Of course, the descriptions of the two species are almost identical, so it looks like someone will need to get to know these frogs a little better. For the record, at the moment I think these are E. johnstonei.

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January 28th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

We attended the Nature Foundation’s Rockstars for Nature grand finale in January, presenting the Incomplete Guide to the Wildlife of St. Martin, and several interactive wildlife games for the visitors to play. The games included a search for cryptic critters (Find the Animal), identifying animals from extreme close-ups (What is it? and Whose Eye Am I?) and several other games. The event was loads of fun and it was great see people having fun while learning about the wildlife of the island.

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January 26th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

I’ve been wanting to make a small box out of white plexiglass for a while, and now I have it. It is open on the top and has wings on the sides to attach small flash units. I made it to photograph insects and other small animals in the field and, so far, it seems pretty promising.

Here are a few test shots I took at our house:

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As you can see, it provides a pretty nice, even lighting because the flash is diffused through the plexiglass. The background is more or less pure white for uncluttered images of the subjects. In the field, the results are similar.

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With a few tweaks, I think it should be very useful, at least for certain critters, like ones that don’t fly. Stay tuned!



January 24th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Chemin des Douaniers seems to mean customs officers’ trail, but Google Translate also translates it as coastal trail. At any rate, on St. Martin, it makes up part of the walk from Grand Case to Marigot that I took with St. Martin Trails on Sunday. It’s a very nice coastal walk starting at Grand Case and heading along the coast via Happy Bay, Friar’s Bay, Anse des Peres, Pointe Arago and Galisbay.

I didn’t take any photos on the way to Marigot, but on my way back I couldn’t resist. It started with some interesting flies that seemed to be interested in laying eggs on some flowers, then continued with more flies that congregated on what was left of a bunch of bananas hanging from a sign pole. The stretch of trail from Galisbay around Pointe Arago tends to be a good spot to see insects as well. Starting in La Baterie, I saw eight American kestrels in under an hour, and I wrapped things up with a cattle egret that was hanging out by the abandoned swimming pool in Happy Bay.

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January 21st, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Dust bath may sound like an oxymoron, but it is something that many birds do to clean themselves and to get rid of parasites. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) are pretty social, and often take dust baths together, which is what you can see in the photos below. Originally from the Middle East, house sparrows have been following humans around for thousands of years and now live practically everywhere. In the Caribbean their range is still expanding. On St. Martin there are groups scattered around the island, mostly in urban areas.

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January 20th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

The black witch (Ascalapha odorata) is big, 6-7 inches in wingspan, but it isn’t actually black. I usually see this moth in shady areas like forests or ravines where it is a little dark, so it might look black, but it’s actually quite colorful. It is sometimes called a bat because of its size, color and bat-like flight, but that’s nothing more than a passing resemblance.

In various parts of the world, this moth may be considered a bad luck omen, a harbinger of death, a loved one’s soul returning to say goodbye or a sign that you will win the lottery. It’s easy to identify because it’s much bigger than any other moth on the island, but if you have any doubts, look for the eyespots on the front wings in the shape of the number nine. Or the number six if it is upside down, like the one in the photo below.