The small bird featured here is a CUBAN PEWEE Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the Crescent-eyed Pewee – see image for why this is so). It is without a doubt a tyrant. At barely 6″ long, it is the smallest tyrant you are likely to encounter in the Bahamas or indeed anywhere else. However it does happen to be a member of the family Tyranidae. These are the flycatchers, and on Abaco they include the larger LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, the still largerLOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDand (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD(this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).
The Cuban Pewee is permanently resident on Abaco, and can be found in both pine woods and coppice. When returning to its perch after a fly-catching sortie – ‘hawking’ on the wing – this wee bird gives a characteristic flick of the tail. The bird featured here was in the rough scrub behind the beach of the beautiful bay at Casuarina. It became a favourite of mine simply by being completely unafraid of me, and accepting my extremely slow approach (3 inches at a time) with apparent interest mixed in with an endearing willingness to pose, even when I could almost have reached out and touched it.
Unlike many creatures, it did not seem concerned by eye-contact. It responded when I made a faint clicking sound by rather sweetly putting its head on one side. However, as I got as close to it as I dared, it began to fidget slightly (possibly feeling camera-shy). So I shuffled slowly back, so as not to disturb it in its own territory, where it was the resident and I was the intruder.
These close-ups clearly show the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which (as in other tyrant species) relates to the business of catching flies. Also like other flycatchers, the Cuban Pewee has very distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. In fact, these are not whiskers as such – not hairs so much as feathers that have modified into bristles. These act as ‘tactile sensors’ to assist the detection and targeting of aerial insects as the bird darts from a perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel.
The range of the Cuban Pewee is limited almost entirely to Cuba and the Bahamas, so it is very region specific. And how lucky we are to have these cute little specimens on Abaco. I note that the Audubon site calls them drab, which I think is a little unfair. Merely because a bird is not decked out like aPAINTED BUNTINGor startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDdoes not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’. I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.
It is sometimes tempting to anthropomorphise such close encounters in terms of imputed human / creature empathy. It is probably best to try to resist that attitude (‘inter-species condescension’, as you might term it). But as I withdrew, leaving this little bird undisturbed on its branch, I did experience a strange feeling of mutual understanding and… [I must interrupt myself here. I’m a lawyer, so that’s quite enough of that sort of emotive nonsense]
As I have mentioned before, theBAHAMAS POSTAL SERVICEhas an exceptionally good record for producing wonderful, colourful stamps showcasing the abundant wealth of natural history in the archipelago. Birds, reef fish, turtles, marine mammals, butterflies, plants and flowers – all these and more have featured on the stamps of the Bahamas for many years. There’s quite a collection of them on a display page of their own HERE.
Quite by chance I recently came across a significant philatelic tribute to one of the rarest Bahamas winter visitors, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii): a complete commemorative sheet of stamps. Reader I bought it (= ‘won’ it on eBay – $2.75!). Produced in conjunction with the WWF, it is a model of conservationist sensitivity.
The sheet of 16 stamps depicts 4 x 4 KIWA variations: a female at the nest; a singing male; a female feeding young; and a juvenile feeding in the Jack pines of its summer habitat, prior to its long Fall migration to Abaco and the Bahamas.
Kirtland’s Warbler in the Abaco National Park: you need to know where to look to find one
I am not a stamp collector, but I do appreciate it when countries take the trouble to showcase their flora and fauna among the notable people, sporting heroes, modes of transport and Harry Potter characters. As I say, the Bahamas is very good in this respect.
A Kirtland’s Warbler on Green Turtle Cay: the first recorded sighting on one of the Cays
You can find out more about these rare and vulnerable little warblers, including the first ever recorded on a Cay in Abaco, using these links:
In the breeding grounds in very limited areas of Michigan and Ohio, the KIWAs are carefully monitored. Vince Cavalieri is a bird expert in those parts, and his bird below was photographed in the heartland of their preferred summer habitat. Vince wrote the following caption:
In 1987 the Kirtland’s Warbler was a hair’s breadth from extinction. A century of fire suppression and encroachment into their habitat by the brown-headed cowbird had reduced its already small population to a tiny number of birds in just a few Michigan counties. A prescribed fire that got out of control may have saved them, creating enough habitat that it gave conservationists enough time to figure out how to save them (highly prescriptive habitat creation and cowbird control). Today their comeback has been so successful that they have been proposed for removal from the endangered species list. They still remain the stuff of birding legend. A tiny range mostly restricted to north central Michigan, a big beautiful warbler with a loud and cheerful song, easy to see and confiding once found. A bird worthy of long travel to check off your list.
Here are a couple more ‘summer birds’ to admire
Credits: Woody Bracey (1, 2); Sally Chisholm (3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Joel Trick FWSH (5); Andrew C (Wiki) (6); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS and eBay (KIWA stamps)
In mid-December, Kaderin Mills of the Bahamas National Trust saw Abaco’s first-ever reported Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) in the Fox Town area of North Abaco. Woody Bracey was quickly onto the news and in the afternoon he took photos of the bird. I posted about this exciting (because a new species is always exciting) event, with details about its significance plus facts, maps etcHERE
Six weeks later, the crane is still in residence. In the meantime a number of birders have been to see the new novelty bird for Abaco in what has become a small but significant birding hotspot right at the top end of the island, in area round the Church, the Primary School, and the Clinic. The crane is now firmly on the eBird map for the Bahamas.
This elegant visitor seems to be quite tame and unfazed by its new fame. People watch while it forages for invertebrates in the grass, pausing to check on bystanders before resuming its feeding. It tolerates the presence of humans without showing fear, let alone flying away.
The call of the Sandhill Crane sounds like this:
To test its reaction, a recording was played and immediately the crane responded and called out to the (apparent) co-crane. The bird has also (rather sadly?) been seen by locals by the door of the Church, looking at its reflection and even making pecking motions at it. A lonely crane, maybe.
This bird is likely to remain disappointed by any expectation or hope of company. With any luck in the Spring, the instinctive call to the north (Canada and nearby US) will persuade it to migrate back to sandhill habitat to join a flock in the summer breeding grounds.
It is always a somewhat melancholy occurrence when a fine bird like this – or like last season’s lone BALD EAGLE– takes a wrong turn on their migration or perhaps get blown off course and finds itself on its own, species-wise. This bird seems to be taking it in its (longish) stride, however, and it has become something of a celebrity avian for the local folk. It will be interesting to find out when the migration urge finally encourages its flight away from its unusual overwintering habitat.
Credits: Chris Johnson (1); Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright (2, 4); Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (3, 5, 6); Audubon (7); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon); and a tip of the hat to the School Principal, to Kadie Mills, and to Uli Nowlan who uploaded her sighting to eBird.
It is an ill-concealed secret that I don’t have an artistic bone in my body – I get acute angst if asked to draw a stickman. As I was looking through photos of large pink flamingo groups, I suddenly realised that I was getting some sort of abstract vision of them. Whoooh! Art-talk. Anyway, I wondered how a legion of flamingos might look in B&W. Add a bit of highlight and… does it work at all? Whether yes or no, this may be the only B&W photo of flamingos since the invention of colour film. Why would you? [Impatient reader: ‘Why did you?]
All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura (1, 2, 3, 9, 10); Mary Kay Beach (4, 5, 6, 7, 8); Michael Vaughn (11), with many thanks for use permission; Cartoon, Birdorable
I was always taught ‘keep your mind open and your mouth closed’. Bad advice. Such bad advice. The worst. So many reasons to be exactly the opposite in these troubled times…
Spotted Moray eels Gymnothorax moringa, however, seem to have their own rules to live by. They appear to be open-minded and fairly sensible creatures around the reef. They tend to keep themselves to themselves, hanging out unassumingly in holes and crevices in the coral.
They do tend to stick their necks out a bit, but unless provoked (see below) they seem to be reasonably amiable (except maybe to the small fish and crustaceans that make up their diet).
They do keep their mouths open a lot, though. And as you can see, they have sharp-looking teeth that you mightn’t want too near to you. I say that because their bite can be dangerous and should be avoided. To start with, the teeth are slightly backward-facing, so that when they bite there is a ‘pull-back’ effect when you react (not unlike a barb on a fish hook). They are not aggressive as such, but they know how to deal with unwanted interference in their lives…
Apart from the unpleasant bite and associated pain that moray eels can inflict in defence, they are also poisonous (as opposed to venomous). Specifically they can release toxins into the wound; and in some species their skin contains toxins as well**. Serious infection may result.
CAN YOU GIVE THE POISONOUS / VENOMOUS DISTINCTION AGAIN
I could, but ace natural history cartoonist Rosemary Mosco makes a better job than I can:
**Before I leave the topic, maybe I ought to mention one bit of research I have just come across at Dove Med, from which I take away the message that you definitely don’t want to annoy a moray eel or get bitten by one. Ever. They are fine and interesting denizens of the reef, to be admired from a respectful distance…
Photo credits: all amazing photos courtesy of Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba; cute yet educative cartoon by Rosemary Mosco. Check out her website HERE – and birders, she v good on your specialist subject…
The Abaco Field Office of the AMMC is located at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour. Primarily geared toward the study and research of the natural history and prehistory of The Bahamas, the expanding collection makes a huge contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the environment from both before and after the arrival of people to the archipelago.
The cases shown below hold carefully labelled exhibits, against a background showing the structure of the cave systems and blue holes of the island. Prehistoric fossils and turtle shells, early lucayan human skulls, a HUTIA(extirpated from Abaco in times past), a deceased parrot, bats, butterflies, and a whole lot more are on display.
There is even a small reminder of Abaco’s once-thriving logging industry, in the shape of two circular blades from the area around the Sawmill Sink blue hole. For more of the ‘industrial archeology’ at the site (with photos,) check out what was revealed by a still-smouldering forest fireHERE. The activities conducted through the office include site surveys, excavation and documentation, collection, the conservation and curation of artifacts and fossil material, and public outreach. .
Specialised scientific activities include researching the blue holes and cave systems of Abaco. The explorations have discovered the prehistoric remains of now-extinct vertebrate species; geologic anomalies; evidence of prehistoric storm and fluctuating sea levels; and valuable data about the biodiversity of cave-adapted fauna and vegetation.
Dry caves and blue holes also provide evidence the arrival of the first humans that migrated to the Bahamas, beginning with the early Lucayan Amerindians, as well as the plant and animal communities during their initial occupation more than 1000 years ago. One skull (r) demonstrates graphically the effect of the Lucayan practice of (deliberate) cranial deformation.
The Field Office’s collaborative research involves a number of scientific organisations; and the educative outreach includes schools, universities, scientific conferences and public forums. As importantly, the valuable community resource of a first-rate small museum that contains many fascinating exhibits it right there in Marsh Harbour. And it is free to all.
Some of the cave bats of Abaco. In Ralph’s Cave, to this day there’s a fossilised bat entombed forever on the floor of the cave.
The museum is located at the Abaco offices of the AMMC and Friends of the Environment. It is open for viewing during 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. There is no admission fee, but donations for exhibit development are gratefully accepted. School groups should call in advance to arrange a tour. LOCATION: just drive up the hill past Maxwell’s, to the junction at the top and turn left. If you want to know about Abaco’s past in the broadest sense, this should be your first stop. You can even ‘get the t-shirt’ to complete the experience and support the institution…
This strange, ill-clad male is either (a) trying to give an authentic traditional Lucayan greeting or (b) trying to high-five Nancy Albury (who is ignoring it) or (c) just behaving bizarrely. I go for (c).
Credits: first and foremost, curator Nancy Albury and her team; Friends of the Environment; AMMC. All photos are mine (with plenty of excuses for poor indoor colour, display glass reflections etc), except the tragically entombed cave-bat in the bat-cave from well-known diving and cave-system exploration expert Brian Kakuk / Bahamas Cave Research Foundation; and the wonderful photo below of a Barn Owl flying out of a dry cave on Abaco, by kind permission of Nan Woodbury.
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are causing some comment on FB at the moment, in particular about why they like to stand on utility posts with their wings spread out wide. So, bending my flexible rule against reposts, I am updating a very old TUVU post with lots of new images and facts about this fascinating bird, which manages to be simultaneously majestic, hideous, revolting and socially vital, all packed into a single species…
The TUVU is a familiar sight flying over Abaco, wheeling effortlessly overhead on thermals or gliding with the wind in singles, pairs or flocks. Statistically, 83% of all photographs of turkey vultures are taken from below and look like this:
Of those, 57% are taken in unhelpful light, and look like the one below. On the positive side, this picture show the extreme delicacy of the wing-tip feathering that enables these birds to adjust their direction and speed (this is not the bird above; it was taken by someone else at a different time. But 100% of TUVU in-flight photos are indistinguishable).
TUVUs have a wide range in the Americas and the Caribbean, and can prosper in almost any type of habitat. This is probably because these large birds are almost exclusively carrion feeders, and carrion is everywhere. They spend their days scavenging, or thinking about scavenging. They do not generally kill live creatures.
The word ‘vulture’ derives from the latin word ‘vulturus‘ meaning ‘ripper’, ‘shredder’, or in more recent times, ‘very loud Metallica song*‘. TUVUs have very good eyesight, and an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect the scent of decay (and consequent release of the chemical ethyl mercaptan) from some distance. A breeding pair will raise two chicks, which revoltingly are fed by the regurgitation of all the rank… excuse me a moment while I… I feel a little bit… ~~~~~~~~~~~ …alright, OK again now.
When they are not flying, feeding, breeding or feeding young, TUVUs like best to perch on a vantage point – a utility post is ideal. But unusually for a bird, you won’t ever hear them sing or call. They lack aSYRINX(the avian equivalent of a larynx), and their vocalisation is confined to grunting or hissing sounds. Here’s a hiss (at 10 / 15 secs).
These vultures are often seen in a spread-winged stance, which is believed to serve multiple functions that include drying the wings, warming the body, and baking bacteria. Possibly it also reduces the miasma of rotting meat that may surround them after a good meal.
Equally happy to spread their wings on the ground – a debris-strewn shoreline being ideal
10 SCAVENGED TURKEY VULTURE FACTS FOR YOU TO PICK OVER
One local name for TVs is ‘John Crow’
An adult has a wingspan of up to 6 feet
Sexes are identical in appearance, although the female is slightly larger
The eye has a single row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two on the lower lid
TVs live about 20 years. One named Nero had a confirmed age of 37
LEUCISTIC (pale, often mistakenly called “albino”) variants are sometimes seen
The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups
The Turkey Vulture has few natural predators
Though elegant in flight, they are ungainly on the ground and in take-off
The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but are perforated; from the side one can see through the beak [some humans also suffer from MSS (missing septum syndrome). They tend to ‘sniff’ a lot]
REVOLTING CORNER / DEPT OF ‘WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION’
SQUEAMISH? THEN LOOK AWAY NOW
UNATTRACTIVE HABITS The Turkey Vulture“often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known asUROHIDROSIS.This cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs”. The droppings produced by Turkey Vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Maybe don’t park your nice car under one of their perching posts…
HORRIBLE DEFENCES The main form of defence is“regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator”
DIETARY NOTES TUVUs tend to prefer recently dead creatures, avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. They will occasionally resort to vegetable matter – plants and fruit (you could view this as their side-salad). They rarely, if ever, kill prey – vehicles do this for them, and you’ll often see them on roadsides feeding on roadkill. They also hang around water, feeding on dead fish or fish stranded in shallow water.
ECO-USES If you did not have birds like this, your world would be a great deal smellier and less pleasant place, with higher chance of diseases from polluted water and bacterial spread. TUVUs kept the highways clear and work their way round the town dumps recycling noisome items.
FORAGING TUVUs forage by smell, which is uncommon in birds. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals. Their olfactory lobe in the brain is particularly large compared to that of other animals.
SEX TIPS Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In humans, similar occasions are called ‘Dances’. A pair will fly, with the female closely following the male while they flap & dive… then they land somewhere private and we draw the veil…
My favourite graphic of all time
Credits: Nina Henry (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 5, 11); Clare Latimer (4, 6); amy-at-poweredbybirds (7); Wiki, small pics 8, 9); Charlie Skinner (10); Craig Nash (12); Xeno-Canto / Alvaric (sound file); Info, magpie pickings; Birdorable (cartoon); RH (Keep Calm…); depressingnature.com (puking TUVU)
*As Metallica so appropriately wrote and sweatily sang (luckily there’s no verse referencing urination, defecation and puking). ALERT don’t actually play the video – the song hasn’t aged well! In fact… it’s terrible. Woe woe indeed…
The vultures come
See the vultures come for me
Fly around the sun
But now too late for me
Just sit and stare
Wait ’til I hit the ground
Little vultures tear
Little vultures tear at flesh
Warts and all… the gorgeous, hygienic, roadkill-ridding vulture, with a few dirty habits