DOWITCHERS FOR ABACO TWITCHERS


Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco (Bruce Hallett) DOWITCHERS FOR ABACO TWITCHERS

(THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT…)

Long-billed (Limnodromus scolopaceus)? Or Short-billed (Limnodromus griseus)? Which one is that over there? No, not there. There! For Abaco, the answer is very easy. The SBD is a common winter resident, whereas the LBD is an occasional casual visitor, recorded rarely and irregularly in the Northern Bahamas. So if you are looking at a Dowitcher, it’s 98% certain that’s it’s an SBD. Which is lucky – they are so similar that telling them apart is a complex ID challenge, even if seen together! Until 60 years ago they happily existed as one species until the avian powers-that-be decided to prise them apart and award them separate species status. All the birds featured here are Abaco SDBs, with one exception… More on the comparisons and differences below.

The Dowitcher’s bill is an extremely effective instrument for probing deep into low water and mud. The rapid stabbing for concealed invertebrates has been vividly described as being ‘like a sewing-machine’. A ‘Dowitcher Stitcher’. So to speak.Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco 2 (Bruce Hallett)

 HOW DID THE DOWITCHER GET ITS NAME?

I had assumed that the strange name for these birds was onomatopoeic, in the same way that a Killdeer is supposed to call “Kill…Deer”. And a Bobwhite, an interrogative “Bob…White?”. When I tried to check this online, I found that the usually valuable primary sources for bird info were silent on the topic. In the end, I tracked down a Merriam Webster entry that simply said “probably of Iroquoian origin; akin to Oneida tawístawis. First Known Use: 1841″. Which left me better informed, but no wiser…

Short-billed Dowitcher2.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

THERE’S A BUNCH OF SHOREBIRDS OVER THERE – WHAT DO SBDs SOUND LIKE?

 Phoenix Birder / Xeno Canto

In the header image, the bird is foraging in shallow water. In deeper water or with softer mud, SBDs will plunge their bills in to the hilt

Short-billed Dowitchers, Abaco -  Bruce Hallett

SHORT OR LONG – HOW ON EARTH DO I TELL? 

1. HELPFUL(ISH) WAYS

  • On Abaco, if you see a Dowitcher the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s a SBD
  • The species prefer different habitats, with the LBS preferring freshwater even in coastal regions
  • The SBD prefers coastal areas, shorelines and brackish / muddy ponds
  • The SBD’s call is said to be “mellower” than the LDB – though unless you have heard both for comparison, that’s not a very useful identifier.
  • The body shapes are apparently subtly different, in ways I personally can only begin to guess
  • In breeding plumage, the species have perceptible colour / pattern differences. (If you have binoculars?)
 2. CONFUSING FACTORS
  • LBDs may occasionally join SBDs that are foraging on open tidal flats
  • Actual bill length may not help, there’s an overlap – some SBDs may have longer bills and vice versa.
  • There are theories about bill-length / head size comparison as a field ID method. Do they work? As if!
  • Winter plumage of both species is very similar (grey). Both are only on Abaco in winter. Go figure.

Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco 1 Bruce Hallett

DOES THE DOWITCHER HAVE ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION?

Yes! In Scrabble you can form a stonking 315 words from those 9 letters, all permitted under Scrabble rules (though not my own house rules, which forbid ridiculous 2 and 3 letter words that sound invented for the purpose of winning Scrabble). Apart from the full 9 letter original, there’s one 8 letter word – ‘witherod’, a type of viburnum plant; and 13 words of 7 letters, of which I’d say 8 are in common though not everyday usage. I’ll leave you to work out the remaining 301 words…

Short-billed Dowitcher.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

DO YOU HAVE ANY LBD PHOTOS TAKEN ON ABACO?

I surely do. Woody Bracey photographed a pair of dowitchers together on Abaco, one SBD and one LBD. But even though this looks a pretty straightforward comparison of bill length, colouring and marking, by now I’m now so confused that I’m beginning to wish the two species could be happily reunited into one…Long & Short Billed Dowitchers, Abaco Woody Bracey

 Credits: Bruce Hallett, Tom Sheley, Woody Bracey, past researches, the usual bird info suspects

MASKED BOOBY: A SPECTACULAR NEW BIRD SPECIES FOR ABACO


Masked Boobies, Norfolk Island  (Steve Daggar - Wikimedia)

MASKED BOOBY: A SPECTACULAR NEW BIRD SPECIES FOR ABACO

Hot avian news has arrived today from Woody Bracey: the 4th brand new species recorded for Abaco within the last 12 months has just been sighted in Abaco waters, north of Great Guana Cay. It was a single Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), a large seabird also known as a Masked Gannet (and it certainly looks quite gannet-like). [NB the photos in this post are obviously not of the new bird, but are illustrative of the species]

Masked booby & chick (Duncan Wright Wikimedia)

THE LOGGED SIGHTING DETAILS 

Date: Wed Jan 21, 2015 10:00 AM

Location: Deep Sea 2-15 miles off Great Guana Cay, Central Abaco, Hope Town and Green Turtle Cay, BS

Protocols: traveling – party size 2 – duration 6 hours – distance 30.0 miles

Observers: Karl Kleim and Kim Kuhnle; Reporter via Ebird, Elwood Bracey

Description:  Single Masked Booby “Large white bird sitting on the sea with a yellow-greenish bill and no yellow on the head, then flew a few 100 yards showing the black trailing edge to the wings and wingtips and tail. Adult female.”

Masked Booby Sighting Map 1 jpg      Masked Booby Sighting Map 2

Masked Booby Sula dactylatra (Drew Avery / Amada44 Wikimedia)

EIGHT ESSENTIAL MASKED BOOBY FACTS

  • First described by A French naturalist in 1831
  • One of six species of booby in the ‘Booby’ genus Sula 
  • The largest Booby species
  • The only other Booby species recorded for Abaco is the Brown Booby
  • The closest breeding populations to Abaco are off Mexico and southern Caribbean
  • Silent at sea, whistling greeting call in nesting colonies plus a repertoire of ‘hissing and quacking’
  • Spectacular diving abilities
  • 2 eggs are laid: very often the first chick to hatch kills the second (“Siblicide”)

Masked_Booby_Chick by Pauk (Wiki)

The wingspan of an adult Masked Booby can exceed 5 feetMasked_Booby_(Sula_dactylatra) by Drew Avery

Here’s looking at you…Masked Booby (SuperStock) jpg

ABACO’S OTHER RECENT NEW BIRD SPECIES

and before that, a hugely exciting seabird find

Credits: Steve Daggar, Duncan Wright, Drew Avery, Pauk, Superstock, Wiki images & open source

GREEDY GREEN HERON & A FACEFUL OF FISH


Green Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

GREEDY GREEN HERON & A FACEFUL OF FISH

The Green Heron Butorides virescens is one of 6 heron species found on Abaco. I wrote a detailed post about them last summer HERE, with some wonderful Abaco images (none taken by me…). Since then, I got in touch with Binkie van Es, who had photographed the increasingly rare Bahama Oriole on Andros. Small areas of  the island are the last remaining habitat of a lovely bird that until recently was one of Abaco’s prized endemics. You can see some excellent pictures of them HERE (none mine either!) and read the sad story of their population decline towards extinction.

Binkie kindly gave use permission for some of his other photos. I especially like this sequence of a green heron getting more than he bargained for in his choice of lunch. In the end greed overcomes a formidably large snack, but it’s a hard one to swallow…

I caught me a handsome fish to take to my dining areaGreen Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

Think this ain’t going to be easy? Just you watch!Green Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

See? I just sort of slurp it in like… so. Practice makes perfect.
Green Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

Busy… can’t really talk right nowGreen Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

Nmmpphh Grfffffff Mmpphphphph Rmmmmmmmph!Green Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

Ulppppp! Green Heron eating fish (Binkie van Es)

No Green Heron was harmed in the photographing of this sequence. Sadly I can’t say the same for the fish, which despite its size had met its match… 

Credits: All photos Binkie van Es, with thanks

FIERCE LITTLE FALCONS: MERLINS ON ABACO


Merlin, Abaco (Becky Marvil)FIERCE LITTLE FALCONS: MERLINS ON ABACO

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are fierce small falcons that are fast and agile in flight. On Abaco, they are fairly common winter residents – though finding one and managing to photograph it may take a bit of doing. And maybe a dose of luck. The ‘columbarius‘ part of their taxonomy reflects their colloquial name ‘Pigeon Hawk’. Merlins are found throughout much of the northern hemisphere. They are classified as a New World species and an Old World / Eurasian subspecies, F c aesalon. Some argue for two distinct species, the gene pools of the two versions apparently having parted company ten of thousands of years ago. The birds aren’t overly bothered by the debate.

Merlin World Range Map: yellow = summer, blue = winter220px-Falco_columbarius_distribution_map

HOW DO MERLINS DIFFER FROM AMERICAN KESTRELS (AMKE)?

  • Slightly larger and notably heavier (thus having more speed and endurance in flight)
  • Different colouring, e.g. lacking the indicative reddish-browns of the AMKE
  • Distinctive tail-barring as against black ends to the tail feathers with a white fringe
  • Unlike the AMKE they don’t hover, but close in directly on the small birds that are the main prey, often flying very low to surprise the victim.

For comparison: Merlin in  South Abaco, American kestrel at Sandy PointMerlin, Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)American Kestrel, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

 SO JUST HOW FIERCE ARE MERLINS?

Formidable! If you are a small or even medium-sized bird, you need to keep your wits about you. Merlins are largely ‘omni-habitat’ within their range, which includes open country, shrubland, light forest, and grasslands. They are fast, agile and strong. They can fly high, at medium height or at ground level, and are expert in surprise attack and rapid pursuit of prey. If you are a large bird of prey – a red-tailed hawk, perhaps – they may attack you with ferocity. They may not actually be trying to nail you, but to get you out of their territory and their catchment area.Merlin in flight, Abaco (Craig Nash)

Most of a merlin’s prey is taken in flight, and their speciality is ‘tail-chasing’ terrified birds. Breeding pairs may hunt cooperatively, with one bird flushing prey from cover into the open for its mate to… well, you get the picture – they are clever too. They may even pursue birds that have been flushed out by another bird of prey in the vicinity.Merlin in flight, Abaco (Craig Nash)

MERLINS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS

This is a slightly fraught relationship, because Merlins do not always pose as one might wish. Sometimes they are hard to see, being fairly well camouflaged unless they choose to ‘go out on a limb’. Merlin, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

And sometimes they don’t play by the rules relating to light and focus, making a clear shot difficultMerlin, Abaco (Becky Marvil)

FALCONRY AND MEDIEVAL HISTORY

IMG_6313

Dame Juliana Berners

Merlins were popular birds in medieval English falconry, and according to the 1486 Boke of Seynt Albans, the ‘Marlyon’ was considered the appropriate hunting bird for a lady. This book contained an essay on hunting attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, the prioress of a Priory near St Albans, who, game lady that she must have been, also contributed to one of the earliest treatises on fishing, ‘Fysshynge wyth an Angle‘ (hence, angling).  

IMG_6316

The Dame’s Manuscript

FURTHER HISTORICAL DIGRESSION (feel free to skip to final para)

While reading up further about Dame Juliana, I came across (wiki-tnx) a wonderful ranking for birds of prey matched to status that I hadn’t encountered before. Here’s the list, from Emperor to Knave / Servant. A Tercel was / is a male falcon, especially a Peregrine or Gyrfalcon. A Musket is a sparrowhawk. 

Falconry Table

The Boke of Seynt Albans also contains list of collective nouns for animals and birds, many familiar today such as “gaggle of geese”. There are also humorous collective nouns for different professions, such as a “diligence of messengers”, a “melody of harpers”, a “blast of hunters”, “a subtlety of sergeants”, and a “superfluity of nuns”…

Merlins are still trained for hunting smaller birds; and because of their speed and agility they are used in falconry displays. Despite changing habitat, and a perceptible dip in population from the use of pesticides now banned (such as DDT), the Merlin seems to be holding its own very well 5 centuries after the Boke was written.

Merlin & Prey - Just a Prairie Boy, Calgary

 

AND FINALLY… AUDUBON’S HANDSOME MERLINS

audubon-iii-scavengers-and-birds-of-prey-merlin-aka-le-petit-caporal audubon-iii-scavengers-and-birds-of-prey-merlin-aka-pigeon-hawk

Credits: Becky Marvil (1 & 7); RH (2); Rhonda Pearce (3); Craig Nash (4 & 5); Gerlinde Taurer (6); Prairie Boy (8) wiki – not taken on Abaco, but I liked it; Dame Juliana Berners (1486); Magpie Pickings

FESTIVE BIRDING ON ABACO WITH GUEST BIRDER VELMA


Abaco Parrot, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

FESTIVE BIRDING ON ABACO WITH GUEST BIRDER VELMA

Velma Knowles is a resident of Nassau but originates from Abaco, where her grandparents lived. She is a keen photographer and birder, and recently spent a few days ‘back home’ on Abaco, staying on Man-o-War Cay during that strange ‘Christmas to New Year’ period that people have begun to refer to uncomfortably as ‘Twixmas’. Which I guess goes well with ‘Winterval’, if that neologism to describe the festive season rocks your sleigh. 

Obviously, Velma had her camera with her; and a bit of quality birding was built into her schedule. Man-o-War has been having a prolific winter season, birdwise, with plenty of interesting migratory species passing through or settling there till Spring. But who would be content with a random warbler from the North, when there are Abaco’s specialist birds to encounter. Many of the birds featured – all are permanent residents – were seen on Man-o-War; others on the main island, though not actually at Delphi. Every bird shown can readily be found at Delphi, except perhaps for the Royal Tern, hence a few mentions. Let’s see how Velma did during her brief visit. (Spoiler Alert: very well indeed!).

ABACO PARROTS

A first ‘get’ for anyone’s Abaco checklist, and hence the header image. Not available on the Cays, so a trip to the ‘mainland’ and the wild pine forest and coppice of South Abaco is called for (they don’t venture north of Marsh Harbour). Rescued from the brink of extinction by careful conservation measures, the newly regenerating population of these unique underground-nesting parrots is gradually spreading, making them easier to find. During the day, Bahamas Palm Shores is a likely spot, as are locations to the south, including Delphi and the area around Crossing Rocks down to Gilpin Point. 

Abaco Parrot, Abaco (Velma Knowles)Abaco Parrot pair, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

BAHAMA WOODSTAR

Abaco’s lovely endemic hummingbird, rather pushed around by the brash incomer Cuban Emerald and therefore tending to avoid  them (though both can be found at Delphi). The MALE CUBAN EMERALD has a striking purple throat aka ‘gorget'; the female (below) encountered by Velma has a more delicate colouring.

Bahama Woodstar, Abaco (Velma Knowles)Bahama Woodstar, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

CUBAN EMERALD

Unlike the Woodstar, these pretty iridescent green hummers are not endemic yet are more frequently encountered. They fly and change direction with astonishing speed, and are feeder-keen! Your sugar-water feeder will also attract Bananquits (pointy curved beak for the little holes) and West Indian Woodpeckers (long tongue) – and possibly Woodstars.Cuban Emerald, Abaco (Velma Knowles)Cuban Emerald, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER   

Splendid and occasionally noisy birds that nest in boxes under the eaves at Delphi. They produce two families a year. Velma writes “It has been a long wait but I finally saw this lifer, the West Indian Woodpecker. This bird is only found in The Bahamas, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Awesome call!”West-Indian Woodpecker, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

WESTERN SPINDALIS

Velma writes “One of my targeted birds, the Western Spindalis, formerly called the stripe-headed tanager. On the way from the airport we spotted him on the side-of-the-road. Now that’s island-birding!”Western Spindalis, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

 BANANAQUIT

One of my own  favourite small birds. Irresistably cheery, busy and ubiquit(-ous) Bananaquit, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

THICK-BILLED VIREO

Velma writes “Such a beautiful call… the Thick-billed Vireo. We heard a number of these guys on our bird-walks. The Thick-billed Vireo is a Caribbean endemic, being restricted to The Bahamas, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, two islands off of Cuba and one off of Haiti (though it has been reported in Florida)”Thick-billed Vireo, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH

The adult male’s striking colour patches are orange-red; the female’s are more yellow. They are greedy at the feeder and rank high up in the pecking order, where smaller birds defer to them. One local name for them is ‘Police Bird’: the adult male’s colouring matches that of a Bahamian Police Officer’s uniform.

Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT HERON (juvenile)  Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

ROYAL TERNRoyal Tern, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

ROYAL TERN SYNCHRONISED DIVING SCHOOL, LONG DOCK, CHEROKEE

At 770 feet, this dock is the longest in the entire BahamasRoyal Terns at Long Dock, Cherokee, Abaco (Velma Knowles)

All photos: Velma Knowles, with thanks for use permission

SANDERLING ON ABACO: A PERFECT PEEP FOR THE NEW YEAR


Sanderling Pair, Abaco (Craig Nash)

SANDERLING ON ABACO: A PERFECT PEEP FOR THE NEW YEAR

Various matters have kept me from the Blogosphere over the last week, so this is the first post for 2015. And what gorgeous little birds to have to hand for it – the Sanderling Calidris alba, a small sandpiper or ‘stint’ that is a common and welcome winter sight on the shorelines of Abaco, as in many other parts of the world. Who can resist these little guys, the ‘wave chasers’ that work along the shoreline, rapidly following the surf as food is exposed on the tide. Sometimes they will actually run into the ripples of an incoming wave to snap up a morsel of food, before scuttling back up the beach. They have been likened to clockwork toys. Amusing and cheering little birds to watch, so here is a gallery of them to enjoy and to welcome in the new year.

Sanderling in the Surf, Abaco (Craig Nash)Sanderling, Abaco (Craig Nash)  Sanderling, Abaco (Alex Hughes)1Classic Sanderling foraging area in the wet sand left by the retreating tideSanderling, Abaco (Alex Hughes)4The birds are small and fly fast: a clear ‘in-flight’ photo is a great achievementSanderling, Abaco (Alex Hughes)2 Sanderling, Abaco (Alex Hughes)3 Sanderling.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley1 Sanderling.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley2

This sandpiper was taken by the late Tony Hepburn on Abaco. It has been ringed in its summer breeding grounds, and feeds in wave-softened sand with the tidal foam still visible all around it.Sanderling, Abaco (Tony Hepburn) copy

This made me chortle… Sanderling Lonelyheart!photo

Credits: Craig Nash (1 – 3); Alex Hughes (4 – 7); Tom Sheley (8 – 9); Tony Hepburn (10)

“A WHALE OF A YEAR”: 12 MONTHS FROM ROLLING HARBOUR ABACO


Whale Tailing, Bahamas (BMMRO)

“A WHALE OF A YEAR”: 12 MONTHS FROM ROLLING HARBOUR ABACO

 JANUARY

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco Backcountry

FEBRUARY

French Angelfish (juv)

French Angelfish (juvenile), Bahamas

MARCH

Publication & Launch of “The Birds of Abaco”

dcbg2ba-jacket-grab-for-pm-v2-copy

book-launch-1 Author signing copies, with Bahamas birding gurus Tony White, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey

1900063_10152069487394482_984358031_n flyer-21

APRIL

20130106_Bahamas-Great Abaco_4846_Bahama Yellowthroat_Gerlinde Taurer copy

Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco

MAY

Bananaquit & palm, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas 7

Bananaquit, Delphi Club, Abaco, Bahamas

JUNE

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Abaco : WWT - RH 3

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Abaco – first recorded sighting

JULY

Octopus ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

Octopus, Bahamas

AUGUST 

Bobwhite pair 2.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley cr

Bobwhite pair, Abaco, Bahamas

SEPTEMBER

Black-necked stilt Alex Hughes, Abaco

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco

OCTOBER

White-winged Dove, Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley

White-winged Dove, Abaco, Bahamas

NOVEMBER

Exploring Dan's Cave, Abaco

Exploring Dan’s Cave, Abaco

DECEMBER

Piping Plover, Abaco - Charmaine Albury

Piping Plover: a precious winter visitor to Man-o-War Cay, Abaco

All the best for 2015 to Rolling Harbour’s regular, occasional and random visitors

Credits: BMMRO, RH, Melinda Riger, Gerlinde Taurer, Tom Sheley, Alex Hughes, Brian Kakuk, Charmaine Albury