KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS


Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS

I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…

I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27,  was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.

Kirtland's Warble, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Roger Neilson)

AN EXCITING SIGHTING

On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.

KIWA CHIP CALL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too. 

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?

  • Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species
  • Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once

Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (50): TOBACCO BASSLET


Tobacco Basslet (Serranus tabacarius) Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (50): TOBACCO BASSLET

Welcome to #50 in the Bahamas Reef Fish series. I chose this fish to honour the landmark before thinking about its features. Grumpy. Also, associated with a narcotic and dangerous drug. And a fish one probably wouldn’t bother to smoke (even if one could get it to light underwater). In the Bahamas you’ll find these little fish around the coral reefs where they play their part as reef denizens, which includes being prey to larger species. If one looks them up online, however, the overwhelming impression from the websites and images available is that they exist largely for the benefit of the aquarium industry.

Tobacco Basslet (Serranus tabacarius) Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Tobacco basslets (Serranus tabacarius) – more commonly just called tobacco fish or tobaccofish – are related to the HARLEQUIN BASS(LET), a species that was most unfairly included as #9 in my parallel WTF? series among all the seriously weird sea creatures that feature in that category. A wrong I must right one day.

Tobacco Basslet (Serranus tabacarius) Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Tobacco fish are considered to be hardy, unaggressive (except towards the tiny fishes and crustaceans they feed on) but apparently they need quite a large tank to hold them. The ocean might be suitably large for the purpose. Especially as it seems that in an aquarium there needs to be a cover on top: “these fish are expert jumpers…“, as one source puts it…

BESIDES THE BAHAMAS & AQUARIUMS WHERE ELSE DO THEY LIVE?

TOBACCO BASSLET RANGE MAP

APART FROM THE HIGH JUMP THING, ANY OTHER TRICKS?

Yes indeed. The Tobacco Basslet is hermaphroditic, like all other members of its genus.

DON’T LEAVE IT AT THAT… HOW DO THEY, YOU KNOW?

I didn’t want you to ask. All their FB pages say “It’s complicated“, but here’s a rough idea…

  • All individuals start life as simultaneous hermaphrodites (with sex organs of both sexes)
  • The largest fish lose their female functions and become active sperm-producing males
  • Each male leads a group of hermaphrodites and protects them from other males 
  • This gives them exclusive rights to the female parts of members of their ‘harem’
  • Sometimes hermies may use their male bits to join in & release sperm – ‘streaking’
  • There are rarer mating strategies… Oh heck, please look at the abstract of a scientific paper for details. I had to! And all because you, gentle reader, asked that question.

With some relief, here is very short video. It probably doesn’t accurately show how Tobacco fish might behave on a Bahamian reef. In captivity, from the look of it, they get pushed around by bigger fish. But maybe, if their co-residents are carefully selected, the bonus is that they don’t risk getting eaten.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL INTERLUDE

There are no songs ever that mention tobacco fish or tobacco basslets (though lots involve bass). And more oddly, apart from a couple of old blues songs the only truly mainstream song about tobacco by name (as opposed to content) is Tobacco Road, a song as frequently and thoroughly covered as an aquarium tank containing jumpy tobacco fish.

Rare photos from the actual sea captured by Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; Science Direct plus magpie pickings; Captive Aquatic Ecosytems (video)

I didn’t enjoy this article about me very much. I am NOT grumpy.Tobacco Basslet (Serranus tabacarius) Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION


Red-tailed Hawk, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-tailed Hawk

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION

It is axiomatic that people tend towards birding – if at all – in later life. Not the scientists, of course: they must commit themselves to the study of natural history at an early age, collecting qualifications by degrees (as it were), through Masters, Field Work, their first posts, PhDs and beyond.

American Redstart (m), Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

American Redstart (m)

I didn’t take a very active interest in birds until the first time I investigated Central Park NYC and saw a blue jay. Followed by a cardinal… a red-tailed hawk… chickadees… American robins (or ‘Mercan rubbins‘, as I was informed). These were alien species for a European, and they awoke my interest.

Brown Pelican, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Brown Pelican

On later trips to NYC I have always spent a day in CP, wandering from end to end, spending time in the hotspots like The Ramble, the JO Reservoir, and the pretty Loch trail to the north, and wondering at the huge and expensive birding hardware toted by those around me (while knowing I didn’t want it). And then a visit to Prospect Park Brooklyn too, if I have the time. More recently came Abaco, and a whole new world of wildlife that has captivated me…

Hermit Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hermit Thrush

This reminiscence by an oldster brings me to Chris Johnson, a young Bahamian man who will be familiar to many readers of this blog. I first encountered him when I was researching the Bahama Oriole and discovered that he, in his early teens, had found one on a trip to Andros and photographed it. It was a pleasure to be able to include the image in my article. 

Hooded Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hooded Warbler

Since then, Chris’s birding and photographic skills have rapidly developed and his reputation is growing too. This summer he was one of 12 students chosen to attend Cornell University Lab of Ornithology for their Young Birder’s Event in Ithaca NY, a great tribute to his accomplishments and a wonderful opportunity too. It is worth noting that Chris is the first Bahamian to be invited to attend this event.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Loggerhead Kingbird

Chris is also beginning to make his own presentations, as he did recently to the Bird Club of New Providence. It won’t be long before he is leading bird groups – in fact, he is probably doing this already.

Another impressive feature of Chris’s birding is his photography. I have watched the progression online with interest. The crispness of his images, the composition and the right ‘take’ to make the best of each bird is wonderful, and he has a great eye for a neat shot – for example in the header image I have chosen, with its awareness of the effective use of dark and light.

Black-and-white Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Black-and-white Warbler

I should say that I have never met Chris, although we have occasionally been in touch. I am featuring him because I believe he and other young people of his age – Chris is 17 – are the future for birding, for wildlife, for species protection and for habitat conservation. The older generation will move on and the ‘middles’ may begin to take an interest in the birds around them. But Chris’s generation are the ones who can make a difference in the future. As things stand right now, they may have to. It’s a huge responsibility for them, but it’s one our generation is in the process of transferring to them.

Red-legged Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-legged Thrush

I hope you have enjoyed the small gallery of Chris’s photographs displayed here. If you are interested in the birds of the Bahamas, keep an eye on him and others like him. They need all the encouragement we can give them.

All photos: Chris Johnson, with thanks for use permission. Please do not ‘borrow’ any of these images without asking first. That would only be fair.

Antillean Nighthawk Chick (one of my favourites)Antillean Nighthawk chick, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)


Bald Eagle Juvenile (Audubon)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)

I absolutely knew this would happen. In a sense, I rather wanted it to happen. And now it has, and I have got my comeuppance. Bigly. Hugely. No sooner had I pressed ‘send‘ on my post 2 days ago bemoaning the absence of bald eagles in 2018 than corrections began to come in.

  • Harsh Judgemental Reader: “Do you mean you were wrong?”
    • Contrite Writer: “Yes.”
  • HJR: “Did you check eBird before you fired off your intemperate post?”
    • CW (in a small apologetic voice): “No.”
  • HJR: Well then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
    • CW (*hangs head*): I’m very sorry, everyone. I’ll try to do better this time. Here goes:”

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S) OF 2018: IN NO WAY AWOL!

SIGHTING ONE

On October 25th legendary Bahamas birder Elwood Bracey and a party of 4 were looking out over the Marls from Sunset Ridge when they saw 4 birds flying high. Two were unmistakably turkey vultures; one was a magnificent frigatebird (ie totally non-eagle-ish); and the fourth was much larger, looking like a juvenile bald eagle. Any remaining doubts were dispelled when it dropped into a steep dive and smashed into the water, catching a fish in its talons, much like an osprey. There’s no room for confusion here: Woody has vast experience on Abaco and beyond – and besides, he had a powerful spotting scope and 4 birding witnesses. The ID is, as they say, solid. And it was posted on eBird. Which I should have checked. But didn’t. As Julia Roberts (qua Vivian Ward) actually did say, “Big Mistake. Huge!

Bald Eagle Juvenile (Wiki)

The problem here – you are ahead of me, aren’t you – is that a juvenile bald eagle does not resemble an adult. Rather than the familiar and symbolic look, they are dark brown with white flecks and mottling that changes as they grow older. A juvenile won’t even begin to look like a bald-headed adult until it is around 4 years old. Here are two comparisons of the confusing ages and stages.

SIGHTING 2

Within the last couple of weeks, a resident of Man-o-War Cay saw a huge brown bird – not an osprey, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk – hunting chickens in the area. He told his family and identified the bird from looking at a photo of a juvenile bald eagle. I received this report – the first in time – from Charmaine Albury. Her brother was the sharp-eyed spotter. Had that been the only report, in the absence of a photo I might have had at least some doubt. Then Woody’s report arrived, a definite juvenile bald eagle only 3 weeks before, over the Marls. From there, with its spectacular eyesight it could practically have seen the individual chickens on Man-o-War. So it’s a good fit for ID.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

I’d say that right now on Abaco we have a single juvenile bald eagle. It’s a vagrant, away from its usual hunting ground but unchallenged in the skies where it has ended up. There has been the usual autumn extreme weather (though Abaco has dodged the worst of it) to throw a young bird of course in the last couple of months. So, rather late in the day, we really do have an Abaco Bald Eagle for 2018.

A juvenile bald eagle – not at all like its parents to look at

Credits: Woody and Char for the sighting reports; header image (1), Audubon; (2) wiki; (3) Allaboutbirds.com; comparative drawing, Birdwatchers’ Digest; (4) FB, source unknown (and a credit or take-down as you wish if it’s yours); cute cartoon, the most excellent Birdorable

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018


Bald Eagle in flight (Phil Lanoue)

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018

It is a year since I last wrote about the Abaco Bald Eagle(s) of 2017. The bracketed ‘s’ signifies the absence of firm evidence that there was just the one. Equally, there was no indication that there were ever two. All reported sightings were of a single bird, seen at a distance. The likelihood is that it was a lone visitor. The bald eagle is classified as a very rare vagrant on Abaco, and I gathered together as many reports since 2000 as I could find (see below). Not many, in summary, and never two.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

Last year, a bald eagle was sighted around to coast of Abaco over a period of several months. There were 8 sightings in all, and I had hoped that the bird might stay around for 2018. Sadly, not so. The photos featured here come from a sequence by photographer Phil Lanoue. They were not taken on Abaco of course, so don’t be confused. But they illustrate the magnificence of this iconic bird as it prepares for its landing in a pine tree. We do have wonderful ospreys of course, but the occasional eagle makes for a rare treat.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

As I said last year, the 2017 sightings were most likely all of the same lone bird that had somehow strayed over to Abaco and found the available prey good, and the location congenial. As undisputed king of the skies, its daily hunting range was a wide one which would explain the varied sighting locations.  I ended: “I’m sticking with this theory unless and until 2 eagles are seen together”. 

BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)

Here is the list of sightings. They start in 2000, because there are no known reports for Abaco prior to that from when they started to be kept in the 1950s. If anyone has others, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

  • 2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
  • 2001  December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
  • 2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
  • 2004 Autumn – south of Lynard Cay (after hurricane) – Cheryl Noice
  • 2014  Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
  • ===================================
  • 2017  March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
  • 2017  Early May – Power plant area – LC
  • 2017  May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
  • 2017  May  – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’
  • 2017  September – Cross Harbour – Carol Rivard Roberts (with photo)
  • 2017  November – Cherokee Road – Howard Pitts
  • 2017 November – Bahama Palm Shores / 8-mile beach – Steve Roessler
  • 2017 November – Tilloo Bank – Laurie Schreiner (with photo)

Italics = report in comments on Danny Sawyer’s FB page; Blue = added reports to me

The first-ever bald eagle photo on Abaco Sept 2017

Carol Rivard Roberts

The last bald eagle photo on Abaco Nov 2017

Laurie Schreiner

Credits: all brilliant ‘eagle landing’ photos, Phil Lanoue with many thanks for use permission; Abaco eagles by Carol Rivard Roberts and Laurie Schreiner; amusing cartoon, Birdorable; thanks to all spotters and reporters.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

BAHAMAS REEF FISH (49): BANDED BUTTERFLYFISH


Banded Butterflyfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

BANDED BUTTERFLYFISH – BAHAMAS REEF FISH (49)

The banded butterflyfish (Chaetodon striatus) is one of several butterflyfish species found in Bahamas waters. There are links to some of the others at the end of this post. The reason for the name is obvious. The purpose of the patterning (striatus) is to act as an adaptive anti-predator defence when seen against the varied landscape of the coral reefs that are its home. 

Banded Butterflyfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

These little fish tend to be found either singly or in pairs. Two of them together may play a form of chase game among the corals and anemones of the reef. 

Banded Butterflyfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Banded butterfishes, like their cousins, have a varied diet that includes small crustaceans, worms, and coral polyps. They also have a valuable role on the reef by acting a cleaner fish for larger species like grunts, tangs and parrot fish. This sort of relationship, where one party benefits from this kind of interaction , is known as ‘commensalism’, one of the 4 types of symbiotic relationship.

Banded Butterflyfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

RELATED LINKS

LONGSNOUT BUTTERFLYFISH

BUTTERFLYFISHES (RH guide to reef, banded, four-eyed & spotfin)

REEF FISH INDEX gateway to loads of colourful finny species

WHAT’S THAT FISH? A handy resource

FLORENT’S GUIDE A ditto

Banded Butterflyfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / GB Scuba)

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba

BOOKCOMBING: BIRDS OF THE WEST INDIES (MK 2)


BOOKCOMBING: BIRDS OF THE WEST INDIES (MK 2)

The number of bird books that are devoted entirely to the Bahamas is very small. Most books that include the region have a wider ambit. They feature birds of the West Indies as a whole, many of which are also found on Abaco but a good proportion of which are not. The header image, for example, is a resolutely non-Abaconian Jamaican Tody and is the cover bird for the book featured in this post.

Birds of Abaco by Keith Salvesen

In the early days of this blog I started a ‘birdyography’ page (accessible on the menu bar at the top under BOOKS ETC). This includes most (if not all) of the books most helpful for Bahamas birders, and all are field guides except for one. That’s my own Birds of Abaco, which some have described using the words ‘table’ in conjunction with ‘coffee’. Anyway, at nearly 2 kilos it’s certainly not a pocket field guide, nor even a backpack one…

The go-to Bahamas field guide is Bruce Hallett’s magisterial Birds of the Bahamas and TCI. So far so very good – except that it is out-of-print and highly sought after. I have just checked and a copy on Abe.com comes in at around $300! I have 3 copies but 2 are out on loan, probably permanently… There are several other book contenders for consideration, all appearing on my book list linked above.

These include the legendary James Bond’s book dating from 1936 (see HERE for more) and its many subsequent incarnations (my 1947 2nd edition shown above, also featuring a tody); Brudenell-Bruce’s charming but dated book; Rafaelle’s rather good Field Guide of the Birds of the West Indies; and the excellent recent Bahamas-produced book Beautiful Bahama Birds by Carolyn Wardle, Lynn Gape and Predensa Moore that features most of the birds one might be likely to see, with help with locations and so on. I reviewed it HERE

                                                                 

FLIEG & SANDER: A NEW EDITION

There’s one small book that is, at first glance, far too wide in scope and slim to be of much use in the Northern Bahamas. However, it contains many of the birds that a casual birder might come across on Abaco. It’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s useful and handy. First published in 2000 with subsequent reprints, Birds of the West Indies by Flieg and Sander was repackaged as a new edition last year. I meant to write about it sooner; now I have got round to it. Here is a photo of the original – already a small pocket-sized book – and on top, the new revised edition: slimmer, lighter and apparently more up-to-date.

This compact pocket guide has 144 pages of photos of some 250 species, with brief descriptions (135 pp in the old version). Bird groups are listed under numerous helpful coloured-coded corner tabs (‘Gulls & Terns’; ‘Woodpeckers’; ‘Vireos’ etc). The book also contains (very) brief notes on birding locations; a detailed guide to the endemics throughout the region covered; a glossary; a reading list; and a decent index. 

   

The photos in the original are generally quite clear and helpful for ID by the puzzled amateur birder; but inevitably the use of pre-millennial photographic equipment does not quite do the birds justice in terms of the bird book images we have become accustomed to in the digital age.

           

Recognisable as our beloved parrots but showing their age in digital times…

The disappointment is that Bloomsbury decided to go with what they had, a dated book that might have benefitted from a more radical approach to the contents as well as the design. Basically the very neat new edition is the old one repackaged in a better format, with few detectable changes to the original. In fact, the text itself seems unaltered. Most probably – since this is a budget book – a radical reworking was simply not a practical or cost-effective option. This means that changes between 2000 and 2017 go unremarked. For example (as far as the Bahamas is concerned):

  1. The endemic bird we know as the Bahama Oriole (called Black-cowled Oriole in the book) was originally correctly described as ‘a resident of Andros‘, but also said to be ‘a rare resident of Abaco… threatened by unknown factors’. In fact by 2000, the bird was already believed to be extirpated from Abaco during the previous decade. None has been found since, and no one now expects to find one. The text, however, is unchanged in the new edition.
  2. The original edition gives the Bahamas 3 endemic species: the swallow, the woodstar and the yellowthroat. Unchanged for the new edition is the fact that in 2011, the AOU awarded endemic status to another species – the Bahama Warbler. I haven’t checked for other locations, but similar changes have occurred over the period elsewhere in the region covered, so further inaccuracies are pretty inevitable.

Overall I’d say (as I did originally) this is a useful and handy little guide for ID of the mainstream birds you are likely to encounter on Abaco. It would do perfectly well as a book to take out and about with you for those “what on earth is that?” moments. For the interested birder travelling light for a few days, this would serve the purpose, with the added benefit of being cheap – around $15. Beware when online, especially on eBay. People are still selling old editions without reference to the new one, and at much the same price. You want to make sure you get the improved slimline version…

If I now had to recommend for an affordable, simple, portable, practical bird guide for the casual birder in the Bahamas, then I would go now go for Beautiful Bahama Birds. It is Bahamas-specific for a start; although it contains drawings rather than photographs, they are fresh and informative; it was published in 2014 and is as accurate as you could wish for as at that date; and it has a great deal more useful information for Bahamas (as opposed to more general) birding. The link to my detailed review is given above.

Credits: well, I took some photos from the book and publishers material (eg a good crop for the header image) for non-commercial illustrative purposes, so it’s more like apologies to publishers New Holland (original ed.) and Bloomsbury (new ed.). Last image – RH.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot (Keith Salvesen)