BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)
Polioptila caerulea PR|B|1
A delicate featherweight gnatcatcher that has characteristic full eye-rings. The long tail may be cocked when perching, often as a territorial assertion. They are capable of hovering briefly over shrubs to feed on insects, but mostly they ‘hawk’ for insects on the wing (“Birds of Abaco”).
ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER
The rare Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is rightly prized both in its very specific breeding grounds and in its winter migration locations. Abaco is fortunate to be one of these, but they are extremely difficult to find, even with local knowledge. The latest IUCN Red List assessment of numbers of adult warblers (2018) gives a figure of 4,500 – 5,000. The species is categorised as ‘near-threatened’. Numbers are gradually increasing, thanks to a major recovery plan and intensive conservation measures in areas where they nest.
WHERE THEY LIVE
SPRING & SUMMER Mostly, the KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. As numbers have increased, the range has expanded more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)
FALL & WINTER the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.
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 by development is a major concern (as with so many species everywhere)
KIWAs are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds in the breeding areas
Their winter habitat is mostly in remote or protected areas, but on Abaco a proposed development in the National Park where they live will probably wipe them out, if built
Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk to the species; at both ends, extinction could loom again
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?
Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
Females are paler and more streaked
Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
Frequent tail pumping and bobbing
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
Some say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found it claimed that they produce ‘a loud tchip, with song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). I’m not a big fan of phonetic spelling for bird sounds. Here’s a sample for you to assess:
Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)
Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician & amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler & also in a couple of snake species.
The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 5, 6); Vince Cavalieri (2); Tom Sheley (3); Tony Hepburn (4); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.
May 15th is – was – Endangered Species Day worldwide. I missed it, of course I did. Typical. So, belatedly, here’s the first of a short series highlighting the Endangered Species of Abaco, Bahamas. It will include a couple of species formerly found on Abaco but now extirpated and hanging on in tiny numbers in specific habitats in the wider Bahamas archipelago. Regrettably, much of the endangerment has been caused, or substantially contributed to, by a dominant species that tends to prize self-interest over broader considerations.
These gorgeous and beloved parrots nest uniquely in limestone ground burrows in the island’s protected National Park in the south of the island, a vast area of pine forest. They are the big success story of Abaco conservation. I was fortunate enough to become tangentially involved with the parrots just as years of patient research and intensive fieldwork were beginning to impact positively on a dwindling and barely sustainable population (fewer than 1000 birds). Adults and particularly the chicks in breeding season were very vulnerable to the attentions of feral cats, non-native racoons and rats. Nests were protected, cameras were deployed, and predators eradicated.
The work of scientists such as Caroline Stahala was (and still is) supported by local organisations such as Bahamas National Trust and Friends of the Environment Abaco. Local communities lent valuable encouragement and enthusiasm to the project. No one can fail to be uplifted by the sight of a flock of these parrots flying overhead, flaunting their bright green, red and blue feathers that flash in the sunlight. Even the sound of a flock squabbling in the trees like noisy children just let out of school is a joy. Here’s a sample, recorded at Bahama Palm Shores: see if you agree…
Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
10 years on, these gorgeous, raucous and intriguing birds have made a comeback, and the pleasure of their continuing visual and audible presence is hopefully secure.
Credits: Nina Henry (1, 2); Caroline Stahala (3); Keith Salvesen (4) and audio clip
The Cuban pewee Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the crescent-eyed pewee) is the smallest of the four so-called ‘tyrant’ species found on Abaco. These flycatchers are tiny compared with their kingbird cousins. You can clearly see the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which helps to trap caught insects.
Like other flycatchers, the Cuban pewee has distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. These are in fact feathers that have modified into bristles. They act as tactile sensors that help detect and target aerial insects. The pewee will then dart from its perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel (known sometimes as ‘hawking’), returning to the branch to swallow the snack.
Of all small unassuming brownish birds – and there are a great many – I consider the pewee to be one of the prettiest. It is also rewarding to photograph, being inquisitive by nature and as likely to pose for the camera as to fly away.
The Bahama Yellowthroat Geothlypis rostrata is one of 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas. Three other endemics found on Abaco are the Bahama Woodstar,Bahama WarblerandBahama Swallow. The fifth is the endangeredBahama Oriole, now only found in very small numbers on Andros. They once lived on Abaco, but are unrecorded there since the 1990s and are considered extirpated. You can find out more about all these endemic birds together in a nest HERE.
I’m fond of these birds with their striking Zorro masks. It is one of the few species that I am able to imitate with sufficient accuracy to draw one out of the coppice. Their call is usually described as a ‘wichety-wichety‘. I realise that the talent to mimic it has no other use in life. Here’s a short recording I made – the Yellowthroat is the first and last call of the sample, with other species in between.
Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 2); Bruce Hallett (3,); sound recording Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
Photo: Tom Sheley, taken at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco
This wonderful and mood-brightening photo was taken by Tom while we were compiling an archive for my book BIRDS OF ABACOIt is one of the most memorable images of the very large number of photographs featured. Every one of them was taken on Abaco (photos taken ‘off-island’ were ruthlessly excluded); and each one in natural surroundings (no seed-trails, recorded calls and so on). Sadly the edition sold out well before Hurricane Dorian so we have been unable to replace any of the many lost copies. However, I am contemplating producing a pdf version of the pre-print draft (a Covid displacement activity). If that goes ahead I will devise a way to distribute it simply, and possibly in return for a modest donation towards the work of Abaco wildlife organisations.
We saw this green heron (Butorides virescens) at Gilpin Pond, South Abaco. It’s an excellent location for waterbirds and waders, although in hot weather when the water level drops an algal bloom colours the water with a reddish tinge. The coppice around the pond is good for small birds; parrots pass through on their daily flights to and from the forest; and the beach the other side of the dunes can be excellent for shorebirds.
We watched this heron fishing for some time. I took quite a few photos of the bird in action, including its successes in nabbing tiny fish. However there were two problems with getting the perfect action shot. First, the bird’s rapid darts forwards and downwards, the fish grabs, and the returns to perching position with its snack were incredibly quick. Secondly, my slow reactions and innate stupidity with camera settings militated against a sharp ‘in-motion’ image to be proud of. So I’m afraid you get the bird having just swallowed its catch.