THE SYMBOL OF A RESILIENT BAHAMAS: BAHAMA PARROTS


ABACO (BAHAMA) PARROT for Hurricane Dorian (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

THE SYMBOL OF A RESILIENT BAHAMAS

 THE BAHAMA PARROT

Hurricane Dorian makes landfall on Abaco later today. The island has been in an unwavering direct line for several days, gaining force to Cat. 4** while slowing down as it approaches. The skies have darkened, the seas are turbulent, danger to humans, wildlife, property, landscape is imminent.

** UPDATE just before landfall today, Dorian strengthened to a rare and very dangerous Cat. 5 hurricane. This is when not just property and land is threatened, but life itself. Early reports are of flooding and structural damage. Now is not the moment to pick through the information filtering through. Better to assess the impact after the storm has passed on to the north-west, where it is currently headed via Grand Bahama.

When we first became involved with Abaco, the parrot numbers were believed to be fewer than 1000, a barely sustainable population. An intensive, continuing conservation program over several years has seen the numbers treble or more. This recovery is as much due to the resilience of the species as to human intervention. 

The parrots will be lying low in the National Park, some in the limestone caves they nest in during the breeding season. As humans take equivalent protective measures we are watching from a thankfully safe distance. We wish the very best of luck to our friends, and to all on the island and its cays during the next 48 hours.

Abaco Parrots in limestone cave, breeding season (Caroline Stahala)

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT


Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT

Getting close to a herring gull is not a particularly heroic act, and yet… they look quite intimidating. The glint in the eye is somewhat evil. And they can be fairly aggressive when the mood takes them. I once had my scalp raked by a herring gull when I got too near a breeding area on a small island in Scotland. It got me from behind. There was blood. Plenty of it. It was my own stupid fault, and a lesson learned.

 Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Behold a fine herring gull stepping ashore with its beady eye fixed on me. Behold it starting to advance towards me in a purposeful way… Then it noticed the camera and decided to pose instead of attack.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

One complication for amateur birders is that these (and other) gulls take 4 years to reach maturity and the full adult plumage shown here . We’ve all seen those huge browny-gray-speckled babies crying pitifully to be fed, when they are nearly the same size as the food-providing parent. Over those few first years the plumage goes through several stages, and other colour changes – eyes and feet, for example – take place. Eventually they get to look as handsome as this one.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

I photographed the bird featured here only last week, on the south coast of Ireland, which is a bit of a cheat. Strictly, you are looking at a European herring gull, although the differences from the American ‘Smithsonian’ herring gull is relatively small. I’ll say ‘negligible’ for present purposes.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THE RED BLOB ON THE UNDER-BEAK?

Good question, and one that historically was the subject of hot debate in ornithological circles. The short answer is that scientific investigation and experimentation led to the conclusion that the red blob is a kind of feeding cue for chicks, a target area for them to aim for food or to peck to say they are hungry. Some other gull species also have this clever beak feature.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

“HAPPY FEET”

As we all know, there are gull species with yellow legs (not least the apty-named yellow-legged gull in Europe). Herring gulls have decidedly pink legs and feet, and interestingly constructed ones at that. This isn’t the moment for a lot of technical blurb about it – just take a look at these 2 images. Extraordinary, huh?

Herring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling HarbourHerring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

RELATED POSTS

LAUGHING GULL 

BONAPARTE’S GULL

RING-BILLED GULL

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

 

GULAR SACS: SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF AN IN-DEPTH VIEW…


Brown Pelican, Gular Pouch / Sac (Phil Lanoue)

Large mouth, tiny snack…

GULAR SACS: SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF AN IN-DEPTH VIEW…

A half-way intelligent microbe would make a better job of getting the internet into our home than the current ISP that nominally serves, at some expense, Maison Harbour. So I am restricted to posting 2 fantastic photos of gular pouches as a tempter for things to come when the dimwits in charge of the ‘provision’ of ‘service’ of ‘internix’ locate the act that they need to get together.

Spoiler Alert: ‘Gular Sacs’ has nothing to do with modern jazz. You need to go somewhere else for that…

Photo credits (if they load in the next fortnight or so): Phil Lanoue; Franz Delcroix – with thanks for use permission

Frigate bird male, gular pouch /sac (Frantz Delcroix)

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO


Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO

It’s often a hard decision whether to include a short piece of video footage in a post. By short, I mean less than a minute. On the one hand, there is usually a good reason for inclusion, even if only aesthetic. On the other, it simply takes up more time for busy people who may prefer to flick through an article and enjoy some nice images along the way. Today, you can have the best of both worlds.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Sanderlings are definitively ‘peeps’, a group name that embraces the smallest and squeakiest sandpiper species. They are the wave chasers, the tiny birds that scuttle along the beach, into the retreating tide for a snack from the sand, and back to the beach again as the waves creep in. Their little legs and feet move in a blur, and many people immediately think of wind-up clockwork toys as they watch the birds in action.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.

I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.

Waves and incoming tide getting a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Next to the migratory PIPING PLOVERS that favour Abaco as their winter home, the wave chasers are my favourite shorebirds. My keenness on them killed my camera. I went out into the incoming waves to get shots back at the beach with the sun behind me. Great idea until I lost my balance with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Lesson learnt – never turn your back on waves.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour taken on the beach at Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

ABACO’S RARE PIPING PLOVERS: CITIZEN SCIENTISTS WANTED FOR YEAR 5


Piping plover adult & chick (Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ / birdsbyKim)

ABACO’S RARE PIPING PLOVERS: CITIZEN SCIENTISTS WANTED FOR YEAR 5

  • BE A BEACH MONITOR IN THE CAUSE OF RESEARCH AND CONSERVATION OF A TINY RARE BIRD THAT CHOOSES ABACO FOR ITS WINTER HOME
  • NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY; MINIMAL EQUIPMENT (pen, paper, binox & a ‘normal’ camera)
  • ABILITY TO COUNT TINY BIRDS IN (USUALLY) SMALL NUMBERS AN ADVANTAGE
  • SIMPLE AS TAKING A NATURE WALK ON YOUR FAVOURITE BEACH (but sorry, not with a dog)
  • COMMITMENT UP TO YOU – ONCE A WEEK, ONCE A MONTH, JUST THE ONCE
  • EVERY SIGHTING IS LOGGED – BANDED BIRDS ARE TRACKED BACK TO THEIR ORIGINS
  • EVERY BIRD IS A STAT THAT ADDS TO THE OVERALL PICTURE FOR RESEARCHERS
  • THE BIRDS MAY BE FOUND ON THE MAINLAND AND THE CAYS – EVEN THE MARLS
  • WE WORK IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE SCIENTISTS  IN THE BREEDING GROUNDS
  • ABACO IS THE ONLY BAHAMAS ISLAND WITH AN ANNUAL WINTER-LONG WATCH

At the end of July – my guess is the 28th, on past form – the first piping plover of the winter season will be resighted on Abaco. It will weigh less than 2oz, and will have travelled at least 1000 miles (direct route). In practice it will be much further, because the journey will be broken by coastal stopovers en route.

‘SQUID’ from the Holgate Unit of the Edwin B Forsythe NWR, NJ, overwintering on Abaco (year 2)Piping Plover Squid from NJ - on Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

My bet is that the first bird will touch down in the Cherokee Sound area. There’s a fair chance it will be called ‘Squid’  from New Jersey (for the 3rd year) or ‘Black Flag 2J’ from Prince Edward Island, Canada (for the 2nd year). At once, ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH will switch from summer indolence to red alert and piping hot… for the next 7 months. The last winter visitor will leave on ± March 15 2020 to return to its breeding grounds in the North (specific parts of northern US / Canada).

Piping Plover on Man-o-War Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)Piping Plover on Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

HOW ON EARTH CAN YOU PREDICT THIS?

Since the 2015-16 season, we have been monitoring Abaco’s beaches, shorelines, and flats (there are specific locations that are preferred by the birds) throughout the winter season. Each year adds to the data from previous years and as the annual information is analysed, the knowledge of the behaviours of this little plover significantly increases.

‘TUNA’ – a legendary regular from past years (Rhonda Pearce)Piping Plover on Abaco Bahamas (Rhonda Pearce)

Over 4 years, distinctive patterns have emerged.

  1. Firstly, the plover numbers each season are fairly constant.
  2. Next, we have found that a number of birds return the following winter. Some are repeat returners – the current record is held by Bahama Mama from Lake Michigan, with 5 annual visits to the very same beach.
  3. Then, we have established that many of the banded birds are (a) resighted along the US coastline where they take a stopover during migration and (b) return to exactly the same beach where they were born.
  4. Often, we can find out when they hatched, fledged and left the beach – and even the person who did the banding.
  5. Finally, the number of banded birds – especially Canadian ones – is on the rise. This in part reflects an increase in summer chicks banding – but the fact is, we can show that they are turning up on Abaco, and returners usually turn up either on the same shoreline (or very close to it) as the previous year.

Piping Plover on Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WOULD IT MATTER IF APPW DIDN’T EXIST?

In one sense no, because the birds would still undertake their Fall and Spring migrations, even if no one took any notice. But then, of course, no one would have any idea where the plovers might be for 6 – 8 months of the year. What the Watch can do, in conjunction with our partners in the breeding grounds, is to complete the annual migration circle and provide the specific details that help research and conservation of this rare little bird (world population around 8000). Furthermore, the Watch results provide continuing evidence that Abaco and its Cays provide a safe and suitable overwintering habitat for the birds. 

SQUIDS KIDS – THE MIGRATION CIRCLE COMPLETED

KEITH, CHEROKEE & ABACOPiping Plover 'Keith' - CWFNJ    Piping Plover 'Cherokee' - CWFNJ Piping Plover 'Abaco' CWFNJ

These 3 little chicks are this summer’s hatchlings (in June) of parents Squid (see above) and ‘Sophia’. This is on the very same beach where Squid was born and banded in July 2017. Sometime this Fall, we hope that Squid will return for a 3rd year in Cherokee Sound. And we hope just as much that one or maybe all his chicks will arrive on Abaco too. We’ll certainly know if they do – we already know their band combinations! They each have an Abaco-related name – maybe that will encourage them too.

Piping plover on the beach at Delphi (Peter Mantle)Piping Plover on Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)

WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE CAN BE BEACH MONITORS?

Anyone at all. No experience is needed. You’ll be given all the info you need about the birds you’ll be looking for, and it may be possible to go out with a monitor to see what it’s like. Even a blank report is useful to have, to indicate where the plovers are not… And there’s no such thing as a mistake – the system allows for occasional miscounts, for example. Below is a summary of the last season, from which you can see the kind of data that is accumulated. 

You’ll see that there were 17 beach monitors of whom most were local Abaconians or regular second-homers. You probably know some or all of them! A few were visitors from US and UK. The 2 pro monitors were from our partners Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ, and Audubon Caribbean. Keith Kemp is the wonderful and hard-working lead monitor and very regularly visits the hotspot shorelines. Other people made quite frequent reports, some about once a month, and several made fewer than 5. Each one added to the overall picture.

Piping Plover chick on LBI (Northside Jim Verhagen)

 

If you would like to become involved, even on the most casual basis, please do get in touch. Ditto if you’d like to know a bit more about it. If you decide not to go ahead – or once started, to stop – that’s all fine. It’s basically up to you whether you want to turn a beach walk into a bit of research (though as I mentioned above, it’s not a thing that can be done with a dog, for obvious reasons). Take a friend – or even a spouse. A single sighting might reveal a hitherto unknown location or a new banded bird – it happens every year. It’s Citizen Science in action!

Please email me at rolllingharbour.delphi [@] gmail.com or contact me via FB. Or just comment on this post!

A flock of piping plovers (with a few birds that aren’t), Cherokee Flats (Lucy & mark Davies)Piping Plover Flock, Cherokee Sound, Abaco Bahamas (Lucy & Mark Davies)

Credits: CWFNJ / Kim; Keith Kemp; Charmaine Albury; Rhonda Pearce; Keith Salvesen; CWFNJ / Michelle Stantial x 3; Peter Mantle; ‘Northside’ Jim Verhagen x 2, LBI; Lucy & Mark Davies

I’m on Long Beach Island right now – hope to meet you on Abaco in the Fall (Northside Jim)
Piping Plover chick on LBI (Northside Jim Verhagen)

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: UNWELCOME NEWS


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. These are Audubon’s Shearwaters, also known as Dusky Petrels. They are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco. Three others (Cory’s, Great and Sooty) are rare transients; and the last – the Manx – is a very rare off-course vagrant.

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. As in previous years, a few of the birds that succumb may be Great Shearwaters mixed in with the Audubon’s. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote two detailed posts about the situation. This bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from the mainland and the cays from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks, all duly mapped to get the overall picture. 

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. The prospects for recovery for birds that were captured and cared for were not good.

Audubon's shearwater - Kinlarak / wiki

Two years on, and the melancholy cycle is repeating itself. A few days ago, Melissa Maura, an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater, now being cared for by Melissa Maura

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looks to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). The cause is probably a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor fishing conditions out at sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay a couple of days ago
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds is not that good. They may have been carried a long way from open sea and they will be exhausted and starved. Those that are strong enough may recover naturally; but most will sadly die, being too weak and emaciated to survive. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds.
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this seems to be working, then carry on until the bird is strong enough to fly (this may be quite a commitment)
(5) do not reproach yourself if a bird you try to help dies. Many will be in such bad shape by the time they are washed up that they are unlikely to survive whatever steps you take
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of this year’s dieback, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me, DM, or FB.
Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this event over the last few days; Dominic Sherony (1); Melissa Maura (2, 5); Keith Kemp (3); Kinlarak / wiki (4); Rhonda Pearce (6); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell  (7); )Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture

‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS


Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS

There are twelve (12!) species of tern – ‘swallows of the sea’ – that to a greater or lesser extent may be found on Abaco. Whether they will actually  be visible at any given time is less certain, though. For a start, the only resident species is the lovely Royal Tern, available at many locations on Abaco and the cays throughout the year.

ROYAL TERNS Thalasseus maximus PR1

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

In the slightly less commonly-found category are the summer migrant terns that, by definition, are only in residence for around half the year. Four of these are fairly common in certain areas, and actually breed on Abaco; these include arguably the prettiest of all, the bridled tern. The other two tern species (gull-billed and sandwich) are more rare and as far as I can make out do not breed locally; or perhaps only rarely. 

LEAST TERN Sternula antillarum SR B 1

LeastTern, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

BRIDLED TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ROSEATE TERN Sterna Dougallii SR B 2

Roseate Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

SOOTY TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

Sooty Tern, Duncan Wright wiki

GULL-BILLED TERN Gelochelidon nilotica SR 3 

Gull-billed Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)Gull-billed Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SANDWICH TERN Thalasseus sandvicensis SR 4

Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

There is one rare winter resident migratory tern species. I had to check when the last one was recorded for Abaco. It was of course only in January this year, when ace birder-photographer Sally Chisholm saw one at Treasure Cay and managed to photograph it for posterity.

FORSTER’S TERN Sterna forsteri  WR 4

Forster's Tern (Dick Daniels)Forster's Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The final four ‘Abaco’ terns are very much the occasional visitors. Three of them pass over the Bahamas on their longer migration, but may make a pit-stop around Abaco to take on fuel. Likelihood of sighting one? Slender but not impossible… The fourth, the Arctic Tern, is a very rare vagrant, a bird well away from its usual home or migration route as the result of storms or faulty satnav or sheer happenstance. Don’t travel to the Bahamas intent on seeing one.

CASPIAN TERN Hydroprogne caspia TR 4

Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

As for the remaining three species, they are the transient black tern and common tern; and the vanishingly rare vagrant  Arctic tern (the clue is in the name). No photos of any of these I’m afraid, so here’s a handy checklist instead. 

     ELECTIVE MUSICAL DIGRESSION

Written by Peter Seeger a few years earlier, Turn x 3 was released in 1965, the title track on the second album from the Byrds. At a rather febrile time in US history (Vietnam, draft riots, black civil rightists v cops and so on), this unusually palliative and thoughtful song with its religious connotations to some extent stood for peace and hope in a time of turmoil.

PS the somewhat laboured title of this post shoehorns in the name of another Byrds album, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’

Photo credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2, 3, 5, 18); Tony Hepburn (4); Alex Hughes (10, 11); Bruce Hallett (6, 7, 12); Woody Bracey (8, 13, 16); Duncan Wright (9); Dick Daniels (14); Sally Chisholm (15); Keith Kemp (17)

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)