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)

THE DITZY CHICKS & THE BEACH BYRDS: BANDS TO ADMIRE


Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘KEITH’

‘THE DITZY CHICKS’ & ‘THE BEACH BYRDS’: BANDS TO ADMIRE

Piping plovers are rare, tiny, unutterably cute, weigh about 2oz – and every Fall they fly south 1000 miles or more to warmer climes. Abaco is one such clime. The data collected during the 4 years of the ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH project shows annual counts of ±250 individual birds found either in flocks in specific hotspots, or more randomly in small groups, pairs or singles. Certain areas on the Cays are also popular. Of all these, around 10% are banded. All the birds are banded in their breeding grounds, usually as chicks (apart from a few ‘pink flags’ banded as adults on Long Beach, South Abaco). 

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘CHEROKEE’

SQUID’S KIDS

To set the scene (the story is developed below). The 3 tiny chicks with the ring bling in the large photos hatched at a Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey about 10 days ago. Their parents are Squid and Sophie. The scientists who captured, weighed, measured and banded them also named them, for reasons which will become apparent, Keith, Cherokee and Abaco. This post aims to explain the background story, and in particular the great significance of banding as a tool of research into rare species.

At the outset – and because a few people express concern –  I’d better add that no deleterious effects arise from banding. The bands are not constricting, and the birds are unaware of them. Individual banded birds are often seen year after year at either end of their migration or at both; and sometimes during stopovers along the way:  they have all survived being banded, Also, if the scientists and conservationists were to take risks with the chicks in their care by using inappropriate methods, they would in fact be damaging or destroying the very creatures they have dedicated their skills to preserving.

Piping Plover Chick

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SPECIES?

PIPL are not just rare, they are IUCN Red-listed as ‘near-threatened’. Last Autumn the IUCN estimate for adult birds was 8000. The summer breeding grounds are located in quite specific areas of North America and Canada.

These vulnerable little shorebirds nest in scrapes on the beaches and forage on the shoreline. They face many dangers including predation (eg gulls, cats, foxes), human activities and disturbance (eg the inalienable right to use beaches for off-road fun), and habitat degradation (eg. development, encroachment, and pollution). This last is the greatest problem of the three, and it is of course the responsibility – or fault – of humans. Fortunately, the establishment of extensive coastal / shoreline wildlife refuges has provided managed habitat and careful protection in some areas.

Piping Plover Chick Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial)

‘ABACO’

WHERE DOES BANDING COME INTO ALL THIS?

For the purposes of the ongoing scientific investigation and conservation research, the wildlife organisations in each area carry out programs to examine, measure, weigh and band birds on their ‘home’ beach. This process builds a database year on year against which the health of the birds and also the habitat can be measured. 

       

Banding enables individuals to be identified and observed in the breeding grounds; and crucially, where the birds overwinter (see below). Birds are given flags or bands or both in unique combinations. These may be put on one or both legs; mostly they will be on the upper leg(s), but sometimes the lower legs are also used; unique alphanumerics or coloured dots provide further means of ID. Some locations have a tradition of naming the chicks during banding. Thus ‘Green Flag AH3’ became ‘Atari’ . Felicia Fancybottom is the most exotic name so far (she had a random posterior-feather sticking out when banded).

On Abaco, we sometimes give unnamed overwintering banded birds an ID to avoid confusion, for easy reference, or actually just for fun. For example Green Flag 70E became (obviously) ‘Joe’.

Piping Plover Banding Box (Steph Egger)

Bander’s Box: H22 is now on ‘Harry Potter’

Piping Plover Chick NJ (Kim / CWFNJ)

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS IN PRACTICE

MANY HAPPY RETURNS FOR ‘SQUID’

January 2, 2018 the female bird called ‘SQUID’ was resighted on Abaco at Casuarina. Her bands were: upper left, blue on black; upper right, green on red (photo below). Checks of the band combination produced the following information:

  • originated from the Holgate unit of Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in NJ, banded there as a female
  • monitored and researched by Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ
  • recorded at the same location the previous summer so had already completed Fall and Sping migrartion, returning to the same beach where she hatched and fledged.
  • named for the bander’s mom’s cat
Piping Plover, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

‘SQUID’

July 29 2018 SQUID was resighted for the second year at the same location on Casuarina flats, Abaco, the first banded bird of the season. She was also the last to leave, in mid-March – a stay of of around 8 months. During that time, APPW beach monitor Keith Kemp saw Squid on several occasions, all in the immediate area of Cherokee Sound (of which Casuarina is a part).

LATE MAY / EARLY JUNE 2019 Resighted for the third season at EBF, and nested with male (as it has turned out) called Sophia! Sexing tiny newly hatched chicks is not an exact science. Originally there were 4 eggs, but on June 2 only 3 chicks hatched – ‘nature’ had intervened with the 4th. They were named ABACO, CHEROKEE… and KEITH (a kindly nod both to me and to monitor Keith Kemp). The chicks were captured by Michelle Stantial of SUNY, in conjunction with CWFNJ, to be banded, weighed, and measured so they can be monitored and assessed for growth, beach activity, and protection purposes. In a couple of months these chicks will themselves feel the urge to fly south, and will continue the annual PIPL migration cycle.

Piping Plover Chick Banding, Holgate NJ (Michelle Stantial / Todd Pover)

Squid being banded by Michelle Stantial in July 2017

 WHAT HAS THE RESEARCH REVEALED SO FAR – AND IS IT USEFUL?

SQUID is an excellent example of conservation, research, and science (both pro and citizen) in action. From his story we can conclude the following:

  • Squid has been on the same summer beach in NJ for 3 years running
  • She has also overwintered for 2 years running in the same location on Abaco
  • So she has flown 4 migrations of c1000 miles with extraordinary location accuracy
  • This is a prime example of ‘beach loyalty’, a vital ingredient for species conservation
  • At 2 oz, she is a doughty and determined survivor of all the dangers arising from such long journeys
  • The habitats at both ends of the migration are good and safe, without notable degradation 
  • The nesting success with A, C and K adds 3 more birds to the population, if they all fledge and survive
  • There is every chance that Squid will be seen on Abaco this Fall
  • There is some chance that at least one of the chicks will turn up on Abaco too; or in the Bahamas anyway

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

This story is one example of many similar ones that occur every season. One plover, Bahama Mama from Michigan, has spent the last 5 winters on the same Abaco shoreline. Overall, there is optimism that the conservation measures in place will prevent the decline and encourage the increase of the species. There’s a lot of dedication that goes into all this. I think it can be fairly said that the story of Squid and Sophia’s little family is a both reward for that dedication, and a sign of hope for the future.

NOT THE DITZY CHICKS!

Credits: Michelle Stantial / SUNY; Todd Pover / CWFNJ; Holgate Unit EBF NWR; Stephanie Egger (now with NOAA); photos from Keith Kemp, Kim / CWFNJ, ‘Northside’ Jim Verhagen LBI

Piping Plover Chick, LBI (Northside Jim)

Goodbye, and well done for sticking it out to the end

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO


Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO

One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed to BIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun. 

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

It is 5.30 pm. The sun is sinking in the early evening sky. The tide is on the rise at the north end of the Delphi beach where the reef joins the land. There is a small spit of sand that will be covered quite soon, but meanwhile two dozen sanderlings mixed in with assorted ruddy turnstones are doing their idiot feeding thing, rushing around on their tiny legs, stabbing in the sand, and generally behaving like clockwork toys on speed. Meanwhile a handful have found the fun to be had in the swirling tide as it pours round the head of the reef onto the sand spit. Yes, it’s sandpiper bath-time!

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand.  And so the tidal process repeats.

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

For the sanderlings, the best part of the day is when the tide is rising. At ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and as the water pours in around the end of the rocks, it froths like an overenthusiastic bubblebath. Right then is an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Substantial immersion is not out of the question…Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

CAPE MAY WARBLER FOR MAY: WHAT’S IN A NAME?


Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

CAPE MAY WARBLER FOR MAY: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The history of ornithological classification and nomenclature is littered with peculiarities, of which the attractive Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina provides a good example. And May is obviously the perfect month to feature this little bird.

The range of the species is well defined. In the summer the birds live within a broad band that straddles northern USA and Canada. In the winter they head south with all their migratory warbler cousins. Again, the target area is in a quite specific range.

As with all migratory species, some birds each year will wander or be blown off-course; or will take a rest stop en route and decide to stick around. And so it was that in May 1812, a month before the Battle of Waterloo, the first specimen of the species was collected on Cape May by George Ord during a trip with naturalist ALEXANDER WILSON (he of plover & snipe fame). To be specific, they had gone to shoot the birds they wanted to collect; the little bodies were after all the only irrefutable evidence of a new ‘find’ at that time.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

As Wilson later wrote (and note his use of the words ‘shooting excursion’ and ‘ransacked’)

THIS new and beautiful little species was discovered in a maple swamp, in Cape May county, not far from the coast, by Mr. George Ord of this city, who accompanied me on a shooting excursion to that quarter in the month of May last…The same swamp that furnished us with this elegant little stranger, and indeed several miles around it, were ransacked by us both for another specimen of the same; but without success. Fortunately it proved to be a male, and being in excellent plumage, enabled me to preserve a faithful portrait of the original.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

The odd (indeed ‘Ord’) thing was that the specimen was a complete one-off at that time. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can say it came in the category of ‘rare vagrant’: no other specimen of this species (named Sylvia maritima by Wilson) was seen on Cape May for more than a century… Then in 1920, another example was found. Over the succeeding years sightings have gradually increased, and the CMW is no longer regarded as unusual in the location that gave it its name. It has become an uncommon migrant instead.

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

On Abaco, CMWs are classified as WR1, which is to say common winter residents. Males have striking chestnut cheeks in the breeding season, with strong streaking on the underside. Note also the black eyestripe. Females and juveniles are paler and the marking is less prominent. These warblers are insectivorous; in winter they may also feed on nectar and fruit. Behaviour-wise, they have aggressive tendencies in defence of their territory and of their food sources. 

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

In researching this post, I discovered a strange (but slightly dull) fact. The CMW is unique among warblers in having a tubular tongue to enable nectar feeding (as with hummingbirds). This random fact hardly has the makings of a chat-up line, I do realise, but considering the multitude of warbler species in existence, the CMW has the benefit of a rather special adaptation. It’s one that Darwin himself might rightly be proud to have observed.

Tongue 2 (bottom left) is the CMW; No.5 is a bananaquit’s feathery tongue

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHAT SHOULD I LISTEN OUT FOR?

Unhelpfully, even the authorities have a tough time describing the song and call of a CMW. As with so many song-birds, variations on the theme “the song is a simple repetition of high tsi notes; the call is a thin sip” are the best you can hope for. However, it’s worth noting that the species generally prefers to sing from high perches. But then so do many others I’m afraid. Here’s something more practical  – the tsi and the sip:

Cape May Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

ALL BIRDS, EXCEPT THE LAST, PHOTOGRAPHED ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

  • Photo Credits: Charmaine Albury [from The Birds of Abaco] (1); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Sandy Walker (3, 4, 7); Becky Marvil (5); Danny Sauvageau (8).
  • Drawing, Nat Geo
  • Range map, Wiki.
  • Audio clips Martin St-Michel / Xeno-Canto;
  • Research refs include, with thanks, American Ornithological Society / Bob Montgomerie (Queen’s University); Camino Travel Costa Rica / OS

Cape May Warbler (Danny Sauvageau)

OSPREY ID GUIDE: THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES REVISITED


Osprey, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

OSPREY ID GUIDE: THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES REVISITED

I am reposting this article in the wake of a recent Bird Club of New Providence bird of prey ID query featuring distant but still helpful photos that enabled the ID as an osprey. As far as I can tell from the visible evidence (the images pixellate when enlarged) this is the ‘local’ Bahamian subspecies that differs in subtle ways from the standard North American version. Both types are found in the northern Bahamas; it would definitely be a great ‘get’ to locate one of each on the same day…

I sometimes feature bird comparatives, not least because there is so much scope for confusion that I have to keep checking for myself. Tyrant flycatchers; a number of superficially similar warbler species (all with yellow bits); those vireos; all those heron-y / egret-y types and their disconcerting morphs (hello, white reddish egret).

Osprey P.h.carolinensis (CWFNJ)

And so to the magnificent osprey Pandion haliaetus. This time, the comparison is between two subspecies, broadly the North American P. h. carolinensis and the Caribbean P.h. ridgwayi. There is some overlap in Florida, and some evidence of interbreeding. In the northern Bahamas in particular there is also an overlap, so an osprey seen on Abaco could be either variety. You’ll probably be too excited watching it to care much which type it is, but this article will help you if you do…

The two ospreys shown below were recently photographed at Spanish Wells, Eleuthera by Barbara Crouchley. This is a ‘bingo’ photographic scoop, because each type of bird was found in the same region; now we can check out the differences between the two birds. 

The first is a North American bird. Note in particular its distinctive eye mask, and the clearly marked upper breast, more so in the female than the male (which may even be white). The overall impression of the upper-parts is dark brown. They are slightly larger than their cousins in the south.

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. carolinensis

In this Caribbean bird with its trophy fish, the eye-mask is absent, and the facial / nape markings are less pronounced. Furthermore, the breast and under-parts are white in both sexes (though slight marking may be apparent in some birds). And  the impression is of lighter upper-parts, even allowing for variable lighting and distance when the photos were taken. Conveniently, there’s not much detectable difference between male and females in the respective populations.

Osprey P.h. Ridgwayi, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi

EXAMPLES OF P. h. carolinensis

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)

EXAMPLES OF P. h. ridgwayi

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Grand Bahama (Linda Barry Cooper)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Jim Todd)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

I’m going to stick my neck out here – I’ve not seen this mentioned anywhere, and I need to do some more comparative research. When I saw Barbara’s pair of photos, I immediately noticed that the eyes of the P.h.r were paler than the bright orangey-yellow of P.h.c. This distinction carries on through the comparative photos above: the P.h.cs were photographed in Florida and further north and have strikingly vivid eyes. The P.h.rs were photographed on Abaco and Grand Bahama at different times by different people. All have noticeably paler irises, more a light greeny-yellow. 

I’d welcome any views on this rash amateur theory. Preferably supportive ones…

UNDERWING DIFFERENCES

There’s a further comparison that can be made with the two subspecies in flight. Without going into technical and linguistic detail, the underwings of the P.h.cs are much darker than the Bahamas birds, whereas P.h.rs are notably paler and in some cases mostly white.  As an example, below is a distance shot I took when bonefishing out on the Abaco Marls, using a pocket camera. This is definitely a local bird! Compare with the dramatic image below it, where the strong darker markings are all too evident. It’s a great shot with which to bring the lesson to an end.

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco Marls (Keith Salvesen)

Osprey in flight with fish (Northside Jim)

Photo credits: Tom Sheley (1); CWFNJ (2); Barbara Crouchley (3, 4); Danny Sauvageau (5, 6, 7); Jim Todd (8); Linda Barry Cooper (9); Woody Bracey (10); Keith Salvesen (11); the inimitable Northside Jim (12); Cute-toon, Birdorable. Thanks for all use permissions – also to Steve Connett for the idea!