UNDENIABLY NATTY: BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS ON ABACO


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 1 copy

UNDENIABLY NATTY: BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS ON ABACO

As I sort through 11,867* recent photographs from Abaco and dump the 99% of them that fall into any of the ‘epic fail’, ‘hopeless’, ‘what on earth?’, ‘why on earth’?, ‘sun-flared’, ‘pitch black’, and ‘bird-butt’ categories, a few are making it through the rigorous editorial process. There will be birds, fish, whales, dolphins, expeditions and scenery in due course, but I’m kicking off with a small bird that is a great favourite, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea. This is because it is probably the easiest bird to pish, click, whistle or otherwise vocalise from the back of the coppice to the front. Then it gets flirty with the camera, performs cutely, and follows you down the track. The perfect subject except for one thing: they are small and branches / twigs are numerous. So, many shots consist of a magnificently focussed stick or leaf, with a blue-gray blur behind it…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 7Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 6Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 1Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 2Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas 5

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BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS “TOP 5 CUTE?”

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*This may be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seems like it now…

All photos: RH

THE WARBLER GUIDE: BOOK OR EASY ID IN NEW APP


The Warbler Guide App (cover)

 THE WARBLER GUIDE: BOOK OR EASY ID IN NEW APP

In 2013 Princeton University published a well-received – indeed award-winning – guide to North American warblers. Its relevance to the Northern Bahamas is that all 37 species of warbler recorded for Abaco are found on its pages. Plus, you can use it in North America as a bonus! Details of the book are given below.

As a follow-up project, Princeton has now produced a Warbler Guide App that looks quite impressive at a glance. It’s not cheap, at £9.99 or dollar equivalent, but with bird apps you generally get what you pay for. Included are song/call IDs for a start, which takes the App a long way beyond mere visual recognition. And the illustrations are from several angles, taking account of the fact that you may not get an ideal broadside view of a bird in the field. Below are a few sample images.

To go straight to the App on iTunes CLICK HERE

The Warbler Guide App (Princeton)The Warbler Guide App (Princeton) The Warbler Guide App (Princeton) The Warbler Guide App (Princeton)

 THE WARBLER GUIDE IN BOOK FORM

(Amazon listing details March 2015)

WARBLER GUIDE  for post jpg

The Warbler Guide revolutionizes birdwatching, making warbler identification easier than ever before. For more information, please see the author videos on the Princeton University Press website.

  • Covers all 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada
  • Visual quick finders help you identify warblers from any angle
  • Song and call finders make identification easy using a few simple questions
  • Uses sonograms to teach a new system of song identification that makes it easier to understand and hear differences between similar species
  • Detailed species accounts show multiple views with diagnostic points, direct comparisons of plumage and vocalizations with similar species, and complete aging and sexing descriptions
  • New aids to identification include song mnemonics and icons for undertail pattern, color impression, habitat, and behavior
  • Includes field exercises, flight shots, general identification strategies, and quizzes
  • A complete, page-by-page audio companion to all of the 1,000-plus songs and calls covered by the book is available for purchase and download from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library by using the link at http://www.TheWarblerGuide.com
  • Winner of a 2014 National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks
  • Second Place for the 2013 BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year, British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology
  • Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in Single Volume Reference/Science, Association of American Publishers

THE SWIMMING PIGS OF ABACO (THEY CAN’T FLY YET…)


Pig at No Name Cay, Abaco (Tripadvisor on Pinterest)

THE SWIMMING PIGS OF ABACO (THEY CAN’T FLY YET…)

Many or most people with a Bahamian interest are familiar with the swimming feral pigs of the Exumas. They deservedly receive quite a lot of publicity, being (a) demonstrably porcine yet (b) inherently *adorbz* and (c) keen swimmers. A better kept secret is that there are swimming pigs on Abaco. Like these ones for example…

Swimming Pigs - Abaco, Bahamas (Vorobek / Wiki)

Where, you may ask. And the correct answer is that the location has no name though, as a logical paradox, it has one. No Name Cay is a name to conjure with. It is a small uninhabited Cay south of Green Turtle Cay, where pigs can swim and people can play with them. And did I mention the piglets?

1604843_476007815838674_1896625020_n

These great shots were posted by the indispensable Albury’s Ferry Services, without whom inter-island travel would be problematic, to say the least. They always have a good eye for a picture to post or a topical theme to run with, and this is no exception. Check out their FB page HERE.

Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown)Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown) Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown) Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown) Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown) Swimming Pigs of No Name Cay, Abaco (Albury's ferry Services, photographer unknown)

Once one gets started with these creatures, it’s hard to stop. Here  are 2 contented pigs instagramed and posted on FB recently with the caption “The piggies didn’t go hungry today…”. 

IMG_8601

Before I get completely carried away, here is a video posted by well-known Abaconian Dr Ralph, in which you can enjoy seeing some active swimming. ‘Porky stroke’, I guess.

Oooiiinkkkk! Sorry. Posted the wrong vid. Can’t correct until reunited with my computer…  See the pigs on land in the meanwhile…

Credits: Tripadvisor via Pinterest; Vorobek via Wiki; Albury’s ferry Services (photographers unknown, but cheers for these shots!); Alexa Pepe / Clinton Adderly (with apologies for assuming use permission as they are already ‘out there’ for anyone to see…); Dr Ralph for the video

THE PECKING ORDER: FEEDER GREED ON ABACO


Black-faced Grassquits, Delphi, Abaco 2

THE PECKING ORDER: FEEDER GREED ON ABACO

At Delphi there are several feeders, with seeds for the garden birds in general, and sugar water feeders for the specialist hummingbirds. The seed feeders are the cause of a certain amount of species squabbling, with a pecking order based on size. Smaller birds tend to give way to larger, and either flutter down to the ground to pick up dropped seeds or fly off to the bushes until it’s safe to return.  The hummer feeders are also visited by birds with adaptive beaks to fit the tiny holes, such as bananaquits; and birds with long and probing tongues like the resident West Indian woodpeckers. The hummers tend to flit away until the intruders have flown off again.

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS

There’s no getting away from it, I’m afraid. BFGs are greedy little birds. Many would also call them dull, but personally I rather like the assertive colouring of the male and the subtle olive shades of the female (but that said I’d trade one in for a painted bunting without a second thought…). They are easily bullied out of the way by GABs (see below), although I have noticed that both species happily coexist on the ground under the feeders, where there is more space for them to pick up fallen seeds.

Black-faced Grassquits, Delphi, Abaco 4Black-faced Grassquits, Delphi, Abaco 3 Black-faced Grassquits, Delphi, Abaco 6

 GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH

These fine birds with their striking livery assume feeder priority. They are just as voracious as the BFGs, and get seriously stuck in. No other birds spoil their feasting. These are alpha seed guzzlers.Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Delphi, AbacoGreater Antillean Bullfinch, Delphi, Abaco

HEY YOU! GRASSQUIT! DON’T YOU DARE COME ANY CLOSER… MINE!Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Delphi, AbacoGreater Antillean Bullfinch, Delphi, Abaco

HUMMINGBIRD FEEDER RIVALS

BANANAQUIT

This bird had been sticking its thin, curved beak in to the tiny holes and drinking until I got a bead on it (with the camera). Annoyingly it then started to sip the spillage, so I missed the shot I really wanted… Meanwhile two Emeralds had retired to the bushed nearby, waiting for their chance at what was after all their own designated feeder.Bananaquit at Hummer feeder, Delphi, Abaco Bananaquit at Hummer feeder, Delphi, Abaco

This is a beak that can easily negotiate a little feeder holeBananaquit & palm, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas 7

WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER

When Delphi’s resident woodpeckers decide to try out the hummer feeder, everyone keeps clear. Very meanly, the male takes precedence over the female, despite the fact that in the course of each year she rears two families, moving to the second nesting box to rearrange the furniture even before the chicks in the first box have flown. Nevertheless, she has to wait her turn… Note how the male manages to get his long tongue right into the small hole in the yellow flower…West Indian Woodpecker (male) at Hummer Feeder, Delphi, Abaco

Meanwhile, Mrs Woody politely waits her turn…West Indian Woodpecker (female) at Hummer Feeder, Delphi, Abaco

 All photos: RH

SAW FISH IN THE ABACO MARLS? NO SURPRISE. SAW A SAWFISH? AWESOME!


Pristis_pectinata _Georgia_Aquarium_ Diliff Wiki

SAW FISH IN THE ABACO MARLS? NO SURPRISE. SAW A SAWFISH? AWESOME!

Exactly a year ago, an extraordinary find was made out on the Abaco Marls. Almost disguised against the pale mud under the low water was the first sawfish reported for the Marls. This fish is not merely a rarity in the Northern Bahamas: all species of sawfishes worldwide are IUCN listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

Sawfish, Abaco Marls Feb 2014 (Photo: Jacque Cannon)

Sawfish, Abaco Marls Feb 2014 (Photo: Jacque Cannon)

Here is an account of the discovery reported by FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT: “On a recent fishing trip in the Marls with local guide Justin Sands, Sam and Jacque Cannon had an exciting encounter. As Justin was poling the flats, with Sam on the bow searching for bonefish, Jacque spotted a Sawfish! Jacque and Justin quickly forgot about Sam and his efforts to catch a bonefish and turned their focus to the Sawfish. This is a very rare sighting and one we are happy there was a camera available to document it…” A couple of weeks later I was lucky enough to sit next to Jacque at dinner at the Delphi Club, so I was able to hear at first hand the story of this amazing find. It also turned out to be the perfect time to sign an early copy of “The Birds of Abaco” for Jacque and Sam… 1900063_10152069487394482_984358031_n

Sawfish Book Plate (1884)

Sawfish Book Plate (1884)

 10 ESSENTIAL SAWFISH FACTS

  • Sawfishes are also known as Carpenter Sharks; their ‘saw’ is called a ROSTRUM
  • There are 7 species in oceans and seas worldwide, including the Mediterranean
  • All populations have declined drastically due to habitat loss, overfishing & pollution
  • The rostrum is used to feel, to dig, to slash & impale or stun its prey, and for defence
  • Sawfishes are nocturnal creatures and spend a lot of time face down on the sea floor
  • Like sharks, their skeleton is made of cartilage and not bone.
  • Some species can grow up to 7m long
  • They are generally unaggressive unless provoked but fight strongly when caught
  • Sawfishes are slow breeders, making population recovery more difficult
  • Babies are called ‘pups’. Their rostrum is flexible and sheathed until after birth
Sawfish seen from Underwater Tunnel - Atlantis, Nassau Bahamas (Fred Hsu)

Sawfish seen from below – Atlantis, Nassau, Bahamas (Fred Hsu)

Other sawfish have been seen recently in the Northern Bahamas, though not in Abaco waters. Last summer the Bahamas National Trust posted 2 great images of a Smalltooth Sawfish, saying “BNT was excited to receive these photographs of a Smalltooth Sawfish photographed in the proposed East Grand Bahama National Park – Bersus Cay Area. The sawfish was 12 to 13 feet long and was seen in water that was 2 -3 feet deep. Thank you to Buzz Cox, Island Manager at Deep water Cay for sending us these photos”. Sawfish, Grand Bahama Sawfish, Grand Bahama

CONSERVATION ISSUES

POPULATION DECLINE As noted above, Sawfish populations have declined to less than 10% of historical levels. The Smalltooth Sawfish – seen above – was once prolific in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean, Black Sea and Indo-Pacific. Population numbers of this species are now estimated at less than 5% to perhaps as low as 1% of their historic levels.

THREAT TO SURVIVAL The threats to their existence are many: habitat loss, overfishing, accidental bycatch, rostrum souvenir hunters (good prices can be obtained), taking them for fins (as a delicacy) or oil from their liver (medicinal).

LEGAL PROTECTION Capturing a sawfish is illegal in certain countries, including the United States. The sale of smalltooth sawfish rostra is prohibited in the United States under the Endangered Species Act.  The import for sale of that of any sawfish species is also prohibited. The international trade of sawfish was banned by the CITES convention in June 2007.
For those that want to find out  a bit more detail about these issues, there’s plenty on interesting information in a scientific (but readable) paper from NOAA – click the link below

A very recent Bahamas smalltooth sawfish sighting on Bimini – Jan 2015Pristis_pectinata_(smalltooth_sawfish)_(Bimini,_western_Bahamas) Lee & Mary Ellen St John Jan 2015 Wiki

Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) Bimini, Bahamas – Lee & Mary Ellen St John Jan 2015

Time for some footage of these rare and wonderful creatures in the Bahamas. The first is from John Flanagan and was taken during a dive off Bimini in early 2014. He was so surprised by the sight that he nearly forgot to turn on his camera to take a short video… The second is a longer 5 min video taken off Andros by Grant Johnson of “wild footage of the critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata). The west side of Andros, Bahamas is one of the last places on Earth that still provides vast refuge for this incredible animal”.

Finally, you may be wondering how exactly the sawfish uses its rostrum to stun fish, as mentioned earlier. Watch this short video – see how quickly it moves, for such an apparently cumbersome and dozy creature…
Credits as shown above, with particular mention of Jacque Cannon for probably the first known sighting and anyway photo of an Abaco sawfish…; header pic in aquarium Diliff (Wiki)

“PELICAN BRIEF”: BROWN PELICANS AT SANDY POINT, ABACO


Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 12

 “PELICAN BRIEF”: BROWN PELICANS AT SANDY POINT, ABACO

The Brief today is to write about Brown Pelicans at Sandy Point. And to shoehorn in the traditional titular pun somehow (job done!). For those unfamiliar with Abaco, SP is the end of the road. Literally. The island has one highway 120 miles long, mostly straight, from north to nearly south where it curves abruptly west for a while, past the airfield, and when it reaches the ocean at Rocky Point there’s a 90º turn. For a couple of miles, you travel north again into Sandy Point… then stop when you see the sea ahead of you. Dead end. Time to park and explore… 

Abaco Road Map

Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 4

The birding at SP can be very rewarding. Depending on the time of year, you may see ospreys, tropicbirds, heron and egrets of various sorts, kestrels, anis and plenty of shorebirds. The last are found on the narrow beaches and at low tide on the sandbars close to the shore. On the more distant sandbars in Spring, you may see a colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds (or Man-0-War birds), the males with their amazing ‘look-at-me’ bright red throat-balloons (‘gular pouches’) inflated to enhance their wooing prospects. This is exactly the time you’ll realise you haven’t brought your binoculars with you…  Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 9 We’d gone to a (very) informal lunch party at the legendary Nancy’s, but there was activity on the nearby dock that caught my eye. A pair of pelicans were fishing from it, then drying in the sun, then having a little fly around. I only had a rather underwhelming camera with me, so I did what I could in a short time before returning to the matter in hand. Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 8Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 6Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 7 Although I watched the birds diving off the dock a few times, I never actually saw them catch anything. Maybe they had already swallowed some hapless little fish before returning to the dock. I was reminded of a poem by a poet called James Montgomery. Here’s his vivid and perhaps overwrought description of pelican feeding habits: Nimbly they seized and secreted their prey, Alive and wriggling in the elastic net, Which Nature hung beneath their grasping beaks; Till, swoln, with captures, the unwieldy burden Clogg’d their slow flight, as heavily to land, These mighty hunters of the deep return’d. There on the cragged cliffs they perch’d at ease, Gorging their hapless victims one by one; Then full and weary, side by side, they slept, Till evening roused them to the chase again. James Montgomery (4 November 1771 – 30 April 1854): Pelican Island, 1828 (canto IV, l. 141)

Watching the water intentlyBrown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 10

Check out that ‘gular pouch’… Pelicans, like frigatebirds, have them – cormorants too.Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 14

After each sortie a certain amount of shaking down, feather fluffing & general drying-off took placeBrown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 13

Although these pelicans look generally rather clumsy and ponderous both in flight and on land, they are surprisingly quick and agile in the dive. Occasionally, however, the take-off was a bit ragged… Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 16 Usually the male took the tallest post from which to survey the scene, but occasionally the female beat him to a good vantage point.Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 17 I’d never seen pelicans so close-to before. At Delphi they can be seen flying lazily past over the bay, quite high. I’ve seen one in Hope Town, but some distance away. So it was a huge thrill to be able to watch these two birds from the dock itself. You’ll see that the female was ringed (banded), but the male was not. Very soon we’ll be back on Abaco. I’m hoping the pelicans will be at Sandy Point again. And the ospreys. And the Frigatebirds.  And that I’ll have remembered the binoculars. And that the Kaliks at Nancy’s will be ice-cold…  All photos, RH

It’s a poor photo, but it illustrates the huge wingspan compared to body length…Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco 15

WHAT’S IN A NAME? COMMON GALLINULE aka MOORHEN


Common Gallinule.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

WHAT’S IN A NAME? COMMON GALLINULE aka MOORHEN

Names can be a hassle. My own, when not my alter ego Rolling Harbour (from a long line of Harbours), was a act of Baptismal Folly for which I cannot be held responsible. I could have changed it by Deed Poll were I seriously bothered, but I am aware that there are far worse names out there and at least mine reflects my scandi-scottish origins I suppose.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

The Moorhen has had a far worse time of it. Over many decades its name has been changed, changed back and changed again. Partly it’s to do with a continuing debate over the New World and Old World subspecies – or as it now stands, separate species. Even that status has changed around over time. It’s enough to give the poor creature an ID crisis.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7551_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

The Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata, as it has been known since 2011, is a bird of the rail family. The AOU decreed its divorce from the Common Moorhen after due consideration of the evidence and it is now lumbered with the less familiar and user-friendly Gallinule name.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Peter Mantle

Note the yellow legs and large feet (unwebbed)

Moorhens (I’m using this as a comfortable nickname, aware that I am flying in the face of progress) are usually seen swimming serenely around ponds or picking their way through marshy ground as they forage. They have an aggressive side, hissing loudly if they feel threatened and fighting to preserve their territory or nest. Nestlings have been observed clinging to a parent as it flies to safety with its offspring as passengers.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7536_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

WHAT IS A ‘GALLINULE’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME

I wondered what the word ‘Gallinule’ actually means? What is the derivation? The BINOMIAL NOMENCLATURE (basically = scientific name in Latin) of most species is largely unintelligible unless you have some knowledge of Latin. But most birds end up with a useful, often descriptive, everyday name. Red-tailed Hawk. Least Tern. Yellow Warbler. Painted Bunting. You know what to expect with those. But a ‘Gallinule’ could as easily be a french cooking receptacle or delicious dish. Or a grim and slimy horror from Tolkien. Or maybe something / someone out of Harry Potter. Sleuthing online reveals that the word is a modern Latin construct of the c18, derived from the Latin diminutive word for a ‘hen’. So it’s simply a hen. As in Moorhen.

Common Gallinule, Abaco Woody Bracey

WHAT IS A ‘MOOR’ WHEN IT’S ATTACHED TO A HEN?

This does not refer to a wide swathe of open upland country, often covered in heather and gorse, where in the UK (especially in Scotland) every August 12 thousands of grouse are traditionally shot. It stems from an honest Old English word for a marshy or swampy area, Mor. It was used from early mediaeval times and itself comes from Saxon and Germanic roots. So perhaps calling the Common Gallinule a [Common] Marsh Hen would be more helpful… Or – hey! – why not have American Moorhen and Eurasian Moorhen, a perfectly valid differentiation used quite satisfactorily for other species…?

Common Gallinule (nonbreeding adult).Abaco Bahamas.2.12.Tom Sheley

Adult non-breeding plumage

There’s more on the naming of birds generally and Moorhens specifically in a couple of amusingly-written sources I came across. The first is from NEMESIS BIRD written by Alex Lamoreaux in 2011, called Goodbye Moorhen, Hello Gallinule. The second is from the excellent 10000BIRDS.COM entitled Moorhen Mania – the splitting and renaming of the Common Moorhen

Common Gallinule (Leucistic?) - Tony Hepburn

The bird above with a striking colouring and orange beak was photographed by the late Tony Hepburn. He believed it to be an unusual LEUCISTIC moorhen with reduced pigmentation, a condition that has similarities with ALBINISM

BAHAMAS - Common Gallinule, Abaco, TC GC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

At some stage I am planning a companion Coot post. I won’t need to go on and on about that name. It may not be descriptive but it is short and simple, and everyone knows where they stand with it. Until they decide to rename it a Cotellinule…

Gallinule © Hans Hillewaert

Credits: Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Peter Mantle, Gerlinde Taurer, Woody Bracey, Tony Hepburn, Becky Marvil, Hans Hillewaert, Nemesis Bird, 10000birds.com

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