The Great Egret is actually a heron rather than an egret. It’s a Great Heron. All egrets are members of the heron family Ardeidae, but the converse is not true. As long ago as 1758,Linnaeus awarded the bird the binomial name Ardea alba i.e. ‘Heron white‘. Why it should have been so hard to stick to that authoritative nomenclature, I can’t imagine. Perhaps in time all heron and egret species became so hopelessly confusing for people that it ceased to matter much what they were called.
Maybe it was that type of carelessness that led to people from the mid-c19 onwards eyeing up GREGs as a source of hat feathers and other decorative necessities. As with flamingos and many other beautiful avian species, mankind’s millinery and other fashion needs were satisfied at the expense of gorgeous plumage. Actually, at the cost of the birds’ lives: they were simply shot in huge numbers.
Healthy populations were decimated; for some species they never recovered. For others, the great egret among them, the passage of time and the passing of fashions – backed in many cases with conservation programs – have successfully restored the populations. In 1953 theNational Audubon Society, which was formed at least in part to discourage the killing of birds for their feathers, took a decisive step in the cause of the great egret by making the bird the emblem of the organisation.
Photo Credit: Nina Henry photographed all the egrets in this post. Her wonderful images made a significant contribution to the “BIRDS OF ABACO” project.
Every day of the year, or so it seems, at least one worthy creature has been awarded an ‘Appreciation Day’, a special day when a particular species has its profile raised and awareness spread around. It certainly seems to be the case with birds; I’m going to assume that it applies to all the other classes of animal – mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, each with their own worthy candidates for recognition. Except for no-see-ums, obviously. And fire ants, I hope. You’d think standing on a nest while taking photos just once in a lifetime would be a lesson. I’ve done it twice… Anyway, yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day 2018.
PLOVERS ON ABACO
Until recently Abaco had 33 recorded shorebird species but since the first-ever sightings of a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER in 2016, the number has risen to 34. Of these, a mere 6 are plovers:
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola WR 1
American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica TR 4
Wilson’s Plover Ochthodromus wilsonia PR B 2
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus WR 2
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus WR 3
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus WR 2
The codes tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5)
The best-known of the 6 Abaco plover species is the Wilson’s Plover, because it is the only permanent resident. The American Golden Plover is a rare transient, but we luckily have a photo of one (below) taken on Abaco. All the others are winter residents and easy to middling hard to find.
The Piping Plover is the most interesting species, with a mere 8000 left in the world. There is a vigorous conservation program to protect them and their habitat, both in their breeding grounds in the North and their southern overwintering grounds. Their summer breeding range is in Canada and the Great Lakes, north-central US, and the eastern seaboard. In winter they migrate south, many to the Bahamas – and Abaco is one of their preferred homes. We count as many as we can between August and February, report the banded ones, and find out their origins and histories
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER Pluvialis squatarola WR 1
Non-breeding plumage (as you would see normally it on Abaco, without the black belly)
Breeding plumage – and the reason for the name
AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER Pluvialis dominica TR 4
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER Charadrius semipalmatus WR 2
KILLDEER Charadrius vociferus WR 2
PIPING PLOVER Charadrius melodus WR 3
WILSON’S PLOVER Ochthodromus wilsonia PR B 2
This permanent resident plover is a year-round presence on the Delphi Club beach, where in summer they nest and raise their tiny fluffball chicks. They are especially significant on Abaco as the only breeding plover species – it’s the only chance we get to see plover nests and chicks… (see header image and below).
The WTF? series is aimed at shedding light on fishes that are unusual. Or very unusual. Or puzzling, dangerous and maybe less than elegant in appearance. The scorpionfish is one such. It belongs to a large family, the Scorpaenidae, and many types are found throughout the world, especially in the Pacific and Indian oceans. LIONFISH, the newcomers to the western Atlantic, are a species of scorpionfish.
Just another rock on the seabed…
WHY ‘SCORPIONFISH’? THEY LOOK SCARY. ARE THEY DANGEROUS?
One feature common to many scorpionfish species is that they are highly venomous. As the name suggests, a sting is involved. Or several stings. These come from the creature’s sharp spines, which are coated with mucus, and are to be avoided. If you want to pet one, the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins are the ones to steer clear of – these all have venom glands at the base. The spines act like injection needles. Scorpionfish aren’t naturally aggressive (except to prey), but they know how to defend themselves if need be. If you get ‘got’, you are in for “extreme pain and burning sensation”.
DO THEY HAVE ANY OTHER TRICKS TO WATCH OUT FOR?
As many have written, scorpionfish are ‘Masters of Camouflage’. They are able to disguise themselves very effectively. Their appearance is a remarkably adapted to their surroundings, as if covered in a raggle-taggle of colourful algae. They can change colour to aid concealment. They can flick sand over themselves as they settle on the seabed. These ploys enable them to lie motionless on a coral reef or on the seabed, ready to ambush their prey. This consists mainly of small fishes and crustaceans, but really anything edible that will fit in their mouths is fair game.
Concealed against coral
HOW DO THEY FEED?
The large mouth of scorpionfishes has a particular function. They don’t have teeth because they have no need. A scorpionfish can open its mouth and its gills simultaneously, thereby creating an instant vacuum that will suck in its prey in a flash. I have seen this described as “a nearly imperceptible split-second movement (15 milliseconds)”…
THESE SCARY MONSTERS MUST BE HUGE, RIGHT? I’M KEEPING OUT OF THE WATER
Not so fast. When all is said and done – and in my view, most disappointingly – adult Caribbean Scorpionfish grow in the range of… erm… 7 – 14 inches. So now you are reassured, here’s a great short video from Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop, who kindly shared it on YT. I’ve used a couple of illustrative stills from it too.
ANYTHING ELSE WE NEED TO KNOW?
I can do no better than to turn to Card 81 to the excellent ‘Monsters of the Deep‘ series of trading cards (the link is to my MotD page). I do realise that this is a rather unscientific approach. On the other hand these guys pack memorable information into a very short space, and do it well. Note that you can get a reflex sting from a scorpionfish for up to a week after it has died. Eat dust, earthbound scorpions.
Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 3, 4,); Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop (video from YT, 2 stills); Wierd (sic) Creatures / Monsters of the Deep (O/S)
These coot fight images are from Phil Lanoue, whom I have featured before. He is a master of bird sequences, magicking a whole avian story or drama in a few clear, sharp photos. These types of image are well beyond my skills and my camera limitations. Here are 2 males battling over a female which, by the final aggressive image in which dominance is asserted, has disappeared for the picture…
The other battle in Coot World occurred in 2016 when the endemic Caribbean Coot (formerly Fulica caribaea) was defeated by the combined forces of the American Coot (Fulica americana) and the all-powerful AOU, official arbiter of bird categorisation. They are now joined as a single species, the differences between the two types being considered insufficient to warrant separate species status. The familiar American version looks like this (note the red area on the shield above the beak):
The ex-Caribbean Coot, has white frontal shield that extends to the top of the head. When I was compiling ‘Birds of Abaco‘ in 2013, there was already a question mark over the separate species status, with many regarding it as a sub-species of the American Coot. I wrote: “There is an intriguing debate, a small book in itself, about the existence as a distinct species of the Caribbean Coot, with its white frontal shield. Many field guides include it separately, some with the rider that it is ‘unrecorded in the Bahamas’. The Bahamas Bird Records Committee does not recognise it, and Hallett, among other experts, views it simply as an American Coot variant. The image below of the two coots together is included to illustrate the visible difference between the birds. The genetic debate is fortunately outside the scope of this book”.That said, I pigheadedly went ahead and included it as a separate species anyway…
An ex-Caribbean coot, with its white frontal shield. Since 2016, just another coot
The research that led to the reclassification was based on the fact that breeding biology suggests that different species favour their own species for breeding. Research by Douglas McNair and Carol Cramer-Burke indicated that there is little or no ‘reproductive isolation’ of the sort to be expected in different species. The coots had no particular preference in their choice of mate. Also, they sound alike.
Today, September 6th, is World Shorebirds Day. Every year, a Shorebird of the Yearis selected by the organisers of this global event, and this year they have gone ‘large’. Perhaps in response to the declining populations of curlew species, they have chosen a fine representative – the whimbrel. Inconveniently – and although the whimbrel is a worldwide species – it is extremely rare on Abaco. In the definitive Abaco Checklist (see below), it is coded a TR4, i.e. a very uncommon transient with a handful of sporadic reports. Until last year, sightings were very few and far between. Then suddenly last autumn, they made a small migratory comeback. You can read about it HERE.
BLACK-NECKED STILT Himantopus mexicanus PR B 3
Abaco is home to 33 shorebird species. Like the human residents of the main island and cays, some are permanent; some are winter residents arriving from the north to enjoy a warmer climate; and some are transients – visitors that pass through a couple of times a year on their way from and to their nesting habitats.
CHECKLIST OF ALL 33 SHOREBIRDS
The definitive checklist of Abaco’s birds was compiled especially for the BIRDS OF ABACO by Bahamas Birding author and authority, the late and much missed Tony White, with Abaco’s bird expert Elwood Bracey. Below is the shorebird list, with a photographic selection of the larger and/or longer-billed shorebirds in checklist order. Yes, including an Abaco whimbrel.
The codes will tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient, V = vagrant); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5).
AMERICAN AVOCET Recurvirostra americana WR 4
AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER Haematopus palliatus PR B 2
GREATER YELLOWLEGS Tringa melanoleuca WR 2
LESSER YELLOWLEGS Tringa flavipes WR 3
WHIMBREL Numenius phaeopus TR4 (an Abaco one)
HUDSONIAN GODWIT Limosa haemastica [V5]
Like the whimbrel, this bird is another special bird to be able to include. Until last October, it was categorised as a V5, meaning that one or perhaps 2 vagrants had ever been seen on Abaco. Then one appeared on a pond and was spotted by Woody Bracey and, a few days later, by Keith Kemp – who even took confirmatory photos. You can read the storyHERE.
Photo Credits: Andreas Trepte / Wiki (1);Tom Sheley (2, 5, 6, 7, 13); Alex Hughes (3);Tony Hepburn (4); Charmaine Albury (8, 9); Stewart Neilson / Wiki (10); Bruce Hallett (11); Mike Baird / Wiki (12); Woody Bracey (14)
The Goldentail Moray Eel Gymnothorax miliaris is one of the half-dozen moray species found in Bahamas waters. Adults range in length from about 1.5 to 2.5 feet, and they are creatures of the reefs and rocks of the western Atlantic. As far as I can make out, the goldentails are rather less common than green or spotted morays, the two main eel species of the Bahamas.
Like their moray cousins, goldentails likes to keep themselves to themselves, and lead largely solitary lives. That said, sometimes they have been observed hunting in a group. They live in holes, clefts, and caverns which they leave both during the day and at night to hunt for prey along the reefs, aided by an acute sense of smell. Their diet is mainly of crustaceans, mollusks, and small fishes.
ARE GOLDENTAILS DANGEROUS?
Like many other eels, goldentails secrete a protective mucus that contains a toxin, making them unattractive prey for large predators such a groupers and barracudas. They are also associated with ciguatera poisoning, the active ingredients of which are found in the mucus coating. They are sometimes found in aquariums – the associated sites give a warning of painful bites, because they have backwards-pointing teeth (aka prey traps) – see header image for a clear view of this.
CAN YOU EAT THESE FISH?
Well I wondered that too, so I checked. The answer seems to be yes, if you real really want to. Comments on forums include:
“Yes they are edible, I just ate one few weeks ago. Some parts are little bony and skinning it is a bitch. But the meat is very soft and white, delicious. Deep fry works”.
“After eating our moray eel something changed. The next morning, we were decidedly feeling ill. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say that “gastrointestinal effects”
“…symptoms (of ciguatera) include gastronomic effects, and neurological effects which include headaches, numbness, paresthesia, muscle ache, and even hallucinations”.
“Before you can eat one you have to kill it. They are amazingly hard to kill. I would skip it.”
“I would rather eat a shoe”
So I’ll be moving straight on to the next course, please. Or just a Kalik would do, thanks.
The first Canada Warbler recorded for Abaco AND Bahamas (Christopher Johnson)
CANADA WARBLER: A NEW BIRD FOR ABACO & BAHAMAS
As reliable as seasonal clockwork, the migratory warblers are swarming south from their summer breeding grounds to warmer climes for the winter. In the case of Abaco, this amounts to 32 warbler species to add to the 5 resident breeding species (Bahama Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Olive-capped Warbler, Pine Warbler & Bahama Warbler. 37 warblers in total.
Well, now make that 38. On August 28th, young birder Christopher Johnson was out with well-known birding sage Woody Bracey when he saw something small and yellow hopping about in the coppice. On closer examination – and he took the photos to prove it – it was not just one of the many familiar yellowy winter warblers, but a completely new species recorded for Abaco and (more significantly) the entire Bahamas. It was a Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis (Linn. 1766) aka Wilsonia canadensis.
The photo above is one of 3 that Christopher managed to take. In many respects it is typical of a field photograph: a small bird, at a distance, zero’d into focus through a small gap in the leaves and branches of thick coppice. Sharp bird, blurry surroundings. The trick is not to end up with a wonderful clear shot of a green leaf on its twig, with a small yellow blur in the background. (I perfected this ill-advised technique with my only photo of a Kirtland’s warbler).
WHERE WAS THIS BIRD DISCOVERED?
One of the features of the excellent birding to be found on Abaco is that some of it can be carried out in unexpected places. Town dumps are a classic example, though photos have to be taken with care to avoid unsightly rubbish-based settings. The Abaco Big Bird Poultry Farm area is another. This little bird was found there.
SO WHERE WOULD IT NORMALLY BE FOUND?
In summer, roughly 80% of CAWAs live and breed in Canada; 20% in the northern US. They spend a relatively short summer there. In the early Fall they fly down to South America. From the range map below, it looks as though their flight path would naturally take them right over the Bahamas to get to their destination. In fact, their journey is quite different. Following the central ‘bend’ of the Americas, they fly at night along a southwesterly route to the Texas coast, then on to southern Mexico and beyond.
I suspect that, as with many migratory birds, the occasional specimen takes a wrong turn on its route south, or is blown off-course by a storm. Maybe a few such vagrants pass through further east – even over the Bahamas perhaps – each year, as ‘vagrants’. But in reality their tiny size in the dense foliage of the land masses means that only a fluke sighting could result. So Christopher’s sighting will be recorded as a V5 – a vanishingly rare vagrant with only a single sighting (cf Abaco’s BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS).
Q. DO MALES & FEMALES LOOK MUCH THE SAME? A. NO
Based on the Macaulay Library pictures below, the Abaco CAWA must be a female or an immature male. In comparing photos of this species (which I had never come across before) I have noticed one thing. The yellow lore (the area between the base of the beak and the eye) extends to include the top of the bird’s otherwise white eye-ring. This is found in both the male and the female. Now I need to check other eye-ringed species to see if this feature is a unique identifier or not…
WHAT DO I LISTEN FOR (JUST IN CASE…)?
The two sounds to listen for are the chirpy scrap of song and the ‘chip’ call.
WHAT IS THE CAWA’S CONSERVATION STATUS?
The CAWA is IUCN-listed as being of ‘least concern’. That of course is very far from saying it is of no concern at all. Surveys are already showing a gradual population decline in the breeding grounds. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the CAWA as ‘threatened’. Dull as it is to keep repeating the point, this species like most others faces all the usual threats to its existence, mostly man-made and during my lifetime…
Deforestation, habitat destruction and intrusion, development etc etc
Problems arising from acid rain and pollution
The uncontrolled spread of the tree-destroying woolly adelgid, an import from Asia
Oh, and all those damn deer browsing the understory a bit. Blame them!
ARE THERE ANY FUN FACTS ABOUT THIS BIRD?
Well, confusion about its name, maybe, though that’s more ‘interesting’ than ‘fun’, I think. In 1760, a French zoologist named Brisson gave a name to a warbler specimen from Canada. It was “Le gobe-mouche cendré de Canada”, ie ‘The Canadian Ash-gray Flycatcher’. Because he needed a conventional Latin name for the bird, he put together the name Muscicapa Canadensis Cinerea. This did not fit in with the binomial system of taxonomy (nor was it a very good description of the bird), and the name was accordingly rejected by the wonderfully named International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Linnaeus (to cut a longer story short) sorted it all out in his next edition of Systema Naturae in 1766, with the binomial name Muscicapa canadensis. In due course the genus Muscicapa was changed to Cardellina.
THAT WASN’T A WHOLE LOT OF FUN. IS THERE MORE?
Well, there were more naming shenanigans when John James Audubon illustrated a female Canada warbler in Birds of America nearly a century later. Plate 73 (below) was entitled “Bonaparte’s Flycatching-Warbler—Muscicapa bonapartii.” He’d slipped in the name of ornithologist (and nephew of the more famous Emperor) CHARLES BONAPARTE,he of the BONAPARTE’S GULL. This version did not stick. However the CAWA acquired another ‘tribute’ name, an alternative that is still in use: Wilsonia canadensis. This tip of the hat is to another ornithologist ALEXANDER WILSON, of Wilson’s Plover fame.
Photo Credits: Christopher Johnson (1, 2, 3); Emmet Hume / Wiki (4); Male / Female CAWAs, David Turgeon & Bob Edelen, Macaulay Library; Audubon Plate 73, OS; William H Majoros / Wiki. Sound Files, Ian Davies & Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto; Abaco Resident Warbler Chart, Keith Salvesen;, Cartoon by Birdorable; Range Map, Cornell U.