February 17th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

I’ve been spending more time with my plexiglass box and I think the results are pretty nifty. The first set includes spiders and insects from the field behind the Grand Case Cultural Center:

The next day I shot a bunch of invertebrates on the road to Petite Plage:

That night, I tried the box out on some nocturnal critters. I actually found that nocturnal insects seem to be more compliant when it comes to sitting still in a small plastic box, particularly if there is light shining on them. I think because many of them are cryptic, they may stay motionless as a defense mechanism. At any rate, it actually makes using the plexibox easier at night, even when photographing crickets or other insects that could jump out if they chose to.

Of particular note are the photos of the thread-legged bug, which resembles a walking stick and has praying mantis-like forelimbs. Also, I couldn’t resist trying out the plexibox on a couple young Anolis gingivinus.

February 9th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Locally known as the woodslave, the turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) is a large, native gecko that is seen less regularly than the introduced house gecko. It has huge eyes, partially-webbed feet and toes that are partially split and look like double toes.

Nothing being simple in St. Martin biology, since last year, there actually seem to be two species on the island. A new species (T. oskrobapreinorum) has been described that is known only from St. Martin, primarily distinguished by its coloration, light skin with distinct black spots. Although people have seen geckos like this on St. Martin for years, it has only recently been proposed as a new species.

Below are some photos of T. rapicauda. Given the close relationship between it and its newly-named relative, there is perhaps a bit of a mystery as to how they can coexist on the same island. For example, if T. oskrobapreinorum evolved on St. Martin from T. rapicauda how did it diverge if there was a population of T. rapicauda to breed with? Or perhaps T. oskrobapreinorum evolved in isolation on St. Martin and T. rapicauda was reintroduced more recently. If that’s the case, then does T. rapicauda represent a threat to T. oskrobapreinorum?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.