September 16th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Our most exciting historical excursion in Sanary-sur-Mer was the Frédérick Dumas Museum, which featured diving and snorkeling equipment from the very beginnings of modern diving and snorkeling. As you can see from the photos, most of the equipment was handmade, including leather diving fins, wooden underwater camera housings and a depth meter made by a pipe. There was even a “Bends-o-Matic” decompression meter.

It was a fantastic voyage through the history of diving and snorkeling. Of course, there were many items in the museum that had been used by Cousteau, Dumas and other early innovators of undersea exploration.

May 24th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

With polluted water from Salines d’Orient contaminating Le Galion, polluted water from Étang Chevrise contaminating Orient Bay, it has been a bad couple weeks for Saint Martin’s salt ponds. More accurately, it’s been a bad couple decades, and perhaps now the impacts of poor environmental stewardship are accelerating. Perhaps it is not entirely bad. We may be content to live with the smell of our own waste rising from our ponds, but when we can’t swim at our beaches maybe we will make a change.

At Salines de l’Aeroport in Grand Case, I have been noticing some troubling signs as of late. Dead fish and crabs in the water and along the shore have been noticeable the past few days, though not in the thousands like last year at Salines d’Orient. Perhaps they are an indicator of worse things to come.

On the mud flats near the airport, I was surprised to see six dead laughing gulls ( Leucophaeus atricilla). Although some of the dead fish show signs that they had been partially scavenged, I couldn’t say whether the two things are related. It is something I haven’t seen before, though.

Meanwhile, life goes on, despite our best efforts to ruin things. A snowy egret fishes for guppies in a trash-filled canal. Laughing gulls congregate on the mud flat surrounded by the bodies of their kin. Killdeer and black-necked stilts shriek warning calls and feign broken wings, a good sign that there are nests nearby. Sandwich terns fly off with fish before becoming a target for the circling frigatebirds. Willet wander the mud flat, mostly in pairs. Green herons and yellow-crowned night herons hunt at the edge of the mangroves. Life goes on, and for now, there is destruction, but not quite disaster.

May 13th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

This April, a groundbreaking paper was published, identifying 24 new species of skink from the Caribbean. (The abstract is here.) The study generated quite a bit of press because it is very unusual to discover so many new species of lizard these days. One of the species, the newly-named St. Martin skink (Spondylurus martinae) is known only from St. Martin.

Exciting news, but there is a catch. The St. Martin skink was described from museum specimens, some dating from the 1800s and one acquired by a museum in 1965, although the date of collection is unknown. There are no documented sightings of this lizard in decades, and it is at best very rare and more probably extinct. Our new species was gone before we even knew about it.

We did know that there were skinks here, but they were previously considered to be from a more widespread species. It’s something that has happened here on multiple occasions. Anolis pogus has been considered a species only since 1990, and Thecadactylus oskrobapreinorum was described in 2011. Both species are lizards that live only on St. Martin, but previously weren’t considered separate species. Luckily, unlike the skink, those two are still easily found on the island.

Historically, endemic species from the Caribbean have often been under-studied and misunderstood. Today there are still opportunities to learn more about them using new technology like DNA analysis, but also just by taking the time to use more traditional scientific analysis to learn about our fauna. Although it is exciting that a new species has been named from St. Martin, it’s profoundly disappointing that it will probably only be known from a few museum specimens and observational accounts from the past.

This brings us to the kitchen. One account I found of the St. Martin skink described it living in dry areas, and “sometimes also in or near kitchens.” Reading this description, I was struck with two possible interpretations. One is that skinks do in fact have a fondness for kitchens. The other is that we know so little about them that every scrap of information about them is worth mentioning. I don’t own the book that cites this, but it makes me wonder how many people actually saw this lizard in their kitchen: a few? maybe just one person?

If another new species of reptile is discovered from St. Martin, I wonder what it will be. Will it be described from museum specimens of other reptiles that are now extinct on the island (the Leeward Island racer or the Lesser Antillean iguana, perhaps) or will it be something that we still have a chance to see, study and protect from extinction? Hopefully, by investing in studying our fauna and protecting at least some of the natural environment on St. Martin, we’ll find it while it is still with us.

In the meantime, on the off chance that the St. Martin skink is still surviving somewhere on the island, keep an eye out for lizards in your kitchen.

May 11th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

Right now there are killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) nests all over St. Martin, in fields and on mudflats. In most cases I’ve seen, the nest just a small bowl of bits of stone or shell on the ground with two to four eggs inside. Although the nests seem obvious in the photos below, they can be very hard to spot, and could easily be trampled.

The easiest way to find a killdeer nest is to keep an eye out for the parents. They will make alarm calls and put on quite a show to distract you from the nest, including the old broken wing act and another move where they stick their butt in the air. I guess you could call that move the killdeer back-end.

Although the birds are comfortable nesting around human activity, the nests themselves are quite vulnerable, so it is important to be very careful if you are traveling in a potential nesting area, particularly if there are adults exhibiting these behaviors. Below are some photos of nests and the parents guarding them with their distraction displays.

April 23rd, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

A dying Anguilla Bank anole (Anolis gingivinus) provided an interesting case study in how anoles manage territorial disputes. After discovering a sick anole that was emaciated, listless and likely close to death, we took it from the beach to a perch on a nearby tree. Of course, any viable perch is usually occupied by another lizard. In this case, a nearby female began to threaten the “intruder” by bobbing its head and extending its dewlap. Too tired to move, the sick lizard didn’t respond to these signals and the healthy anole escalated the conflict.

Typically, after an initial confrontation the weaker lizard would immediately move on to another location, but the sick lizard was largely immobile. The healthy lizard repeatedly attacked and probably would have continued to do so indefinitely had we not moved the sickly anole. It was interesting to see the reaction of the healthy lizard when the traditional rules of combat were not in play.

The photos below showcase a few interesting things. First, of course, is the unusual appearance of the sickly anole. I couldn’t say what caused its condition. It could have some sort of disease, infection or internal injury or perhaps could have been poisoned by eating insecticide laden insects. The photos also show a healthy female anole displaying aggressive coloration and territorial defense behavior.

As far as the ethics of the situation, I’m not sure there were any great solutions. The lizard was clearly dying, but we found that any available perch was inevitably part of an already occupied territory. Leaving an immobile lizard in the sun would result in it being eaten by a predator or dying of overheating. It may have been best to kill the lizard as painlessly as possible, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. In the end it seemed reasonable to document the behavior and try to find an unoccupied perch but ultimately let the situation work itself out naturally.

April 5th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

This fantastic specimen shows two formidable foes caught forever in their mutual destruction. The wasp (Pepsis rubra) is from a group known as tarantula hawks, which hunt and paralyze tarantulas, bringing them to their burrows as food for their larvae. Typically an egg is laid on the tarantula and the larva eats the paralyzed host. The tarantula (probably Cyrtopholis sp.) is also a venomous predator.

In this case, it seems each was able to kill each other, and they remained joined in death with the tarantula’s fangs gripping one of the wasp’s legs.

Bonus: The oleander caterpillar moth (Empyreuma affinis) is a wasp-mimic that mimics Pepsis rubra.

March 11th, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

The salt flats surrounding Salines d’Orient serve as a nesting ground for several species of bird, and apparently the nesting season has begun. This killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is brave enough to try to distract and intimidate humans near its nest, even though we are hundreds of times larger than it is. Camouflaged eggs and a dedicated parent are the only protection for a nest on the ground, and unfortunately, few chicks in the area survive until adulthood. Predators include mongoose and dogs, and the barely noticeable nests are also easily trampled by humans.

If you are in the area this time of year, it is best to avoid walking on the salt flats, or to do so very carefully, and keep dogs on their leash. This will at least give these brave birds a fighting chance to raise their young.

March 1st, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

There are few cases when manmade construction actually preserves habitat, but on occasion it does happen. On a recent visit to Fort Amsterdam, I had the pleasure of seeing brown pelicans building their nests on the nearby cliffs. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, it definitely seems likely that if there were no ruins of Fort Amsterdam, the area would have been developed for tourism and the pelicans wouldn’t be nesting there. A win-win for history and natural history on the island.

February 23rd, 2012 by Marc AuMarc

There aren’t a whole lot of different butterflies on St. Martin, around 30 species compared to perhaps 1,000 insects total. After not seeing any new butterflies for many months, I saw two new ones in about a week.

The first was along the Crest Trail between Mt. Flagstaff and Pic Paradis. The Zestos skipper (Epargyreus zestos) is fairly large for a skipper, and a lighter brown than other species on the island of a similar size.

The other skipper was also in the highlands, between Hope Hill and Pic Paradis. The dark longtail (Urbanus obscurus) would be easy to overlook, as it looks similar to a couple more common species, the hammock skipper and the long-tailed skipper. Up-close, it is pretty easy to distinguish, as it has fewer markings, and its tails are halfway between the little stubs of the hammock skipper and the very long tails of the long-tailed skipper.

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.