Black and orange seem to have become – perhaps always have been – the colours most associated with Halloween (“Holy Evening” at one time in its history). Black, I suppose, for witches, their cats, and the night; orange for fire and pumpkins. In nature, surprisingly few creatures and plants have an exclusively black and orange livery. Some birds. A salamander of two. A few fish and butterflies. The odd flower.
I decided for no reason at all to spend (waste?) a small amount of time discovering which birds found on Abaco are true Halloween species. I had to allow for some white markings, on the spurious basis that white is not a colour but rather an absence of colour… That left 3 species (and even then some troublemakers might argue that the precise borderline between yellow and orange is debatable…).
The Redstart Setophaga ruticilla is a species of warbler and a common winter resident on Abaco. They are mostly seen in the coppice and in gardens. The males are black with orange markings; the females have yellow markings instead of orange and were therefore ineligible for this post. Sorry.
These Orioles Icterus galbula are rather less common winter visitors. A couple have recently been reported. Many are completely black and orange apart from white wing bars. However, there’s no doubt that others are more of a yellowy-orange.
The handsome, colourful Spindalis zena is one of my favourite birds. The Spindalis is a common permanent resident, and I am determined to make it qualify as a Halloween bird even though (arguably) plenty of its surface area is neither black not orange. Apologies to purists.
No birds were hexed, vexed, tricked or even treated in the making of this post
Credits: Craig Nash, Gerlinde Taurer, Tom Sheley, Keith Salvesen, pinterest, wiki & an unknown Angry Bird pumpkin carver
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
I start confidently enough by using plurals in the headline, but in truth I have only ever seen one Spanish Moth on Abaco. It was sunning itself on the wooden stairs leading up to the Delphi Club verandah. I might have trodden on it, except that I usually check out the treads for insects or curly tails (and the surrounding foliage for small birds). They like the warmth of the wood, and also moisture from overnight rain or from plant watering. I took 3 quick photos, but I was on a mission. Breakfast beckoned…
Spanish Moths (Xanthopastis timais) and their ‘Convict Caterpillars’, as they are known, are generally found in South and Central America, and in the Caribbean. There is a similar moth recorded for North America, but it is a different subspecies. However ‘our’ moth is apparently quite commonly found in Florida.
I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has seen these moths – or the caterpillars – on Abaco. Maybe they are everywhere, all the time, and I just haven’t noticed them. Or maybe it’s just that I am an occasional blow-in interloper, not a resident. Anyway, reports, observations and photos welcome (for the usual imaginary Kalik reward).
**I’m never quite sure about the status of Pinterest images. Are they reusable with (where possible) an attribution, on the basis that they have been ‘put out there’ in the public domain, as on Facebook? Or does one risk a getting stroppy comments for recycling images that pinners have themselves borrowed in the first place?
Credits: unknown Wiki benefactor (3); R. Siegel / Stanford.edu (4); moi (1, 2, 5)
FAIRY BASSLET (‘MIND YOUR GRAMMA’): BAHAMAS REEF FISH (33)
The Fairy Basslet is a tiny brightly-coloured fish with a pretentious alternative name. It is otherwise known as the Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto). These fish are found in the coral reefs of the (sub)tropical western Atlantic. They are also found in aquariums anywhere you like, being small, bright, placid and generally good-natured.
Conveniently, the basslet is unlikely to be confused with any other species. Its striking two-tone colour scheme of purple and yellow is hard to miss. The purple front half (which is presumably where the ‘royal’ comes from, being a regal or imperial colour) may also be violet or even blue in some fish and / or in some light conditions. Another identification pointer is a black spot on the dorsal fin.
You’ll notice that the basslet above appears to be upside down. Which is because it is – this isn’t an inadvertent photo-flip. These little fish tend to orientate themselves to be parallel with the closest surface. This leads to them happily swimming upside down, or aligning vertically. As one article I read says severely, “this behaviour is not to be mistaken for illness”.
Fairy basslets / royal grammas are also CLEANER FISH. They pick parasites and dead skin off larger fish that visit so-called cleaning stations to be attended to by tiny fish and cleaner shrimps, and in some instances to have their gills and even their teeth cleaned. The deal is that, in return, the large fish do not eat the cleaners. Even snack-sized ones rootling around inside their mouths.
WHAT ABOUT BREEDING?
I really can’t improve on this rather touching description from Wiki: “The male will build the nest among rocks using pieces of algae.The male will then lead the female to the nest, where she will deposit 20-100 eggs in the nest. During the breeding period, this behaviour is repeated almost every day for a month or longer (my italics). The eggs are equipped with small protuberances over the surface with tiny threads extending from them which hold onto the algae of the nest and keep the eggs in place. The eggs will hatch in five to seven days, normally in the evening…”
HOW COME THE NAME ‘GRAMMA LORETO’?
This official name became a brainworm with me after I started this post. I had to check it out. The ‘Gramma’ part is unrelated to the fond name for a grandmother; rather, it simple denotes a member of the genus of fishes in the family Grammatidae.
The Loreto part is more mysterious. It is an an ancient town in Italy; and the name of several British schools, including – almost too good to be true – a school called Loreto Grammar. In a nutshell, the link between the town and places of education is that the Sisters of Loreto, founded in the c17 and named for a shrine in the Italian village, are dedicated to education in their Ministry.
How that ties in with a tiny Caribbean reef fish, I have yet to find out. I probably never will… Here’s a short video to alleviate the disappointment.
I failed to be able to resist finding out whether any country of the world has a purple and yellow flag. The answer is, no. However I am delighted to be able to report that the flag of the Independent Party of Uruguay is basslet-coloured.
Credits: all fantastic photos by Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; magpie pickings of an unacademic sort for facts and speculation
I have no idea if there is a collective noun for a large group of silversides. ‘Frenzy’ would cover it, but that is reminiscent of ‘feeding freezing’ which has a specialist meaning – and anyway, silversides are crazy even when they aren’t feeding. 24/7/12/365 as far as I can make out. I think ‘a panic of silversides’ might be the answer. They are just… all over the place at high speed. Sometimes swirling around pointlessly, other times moving in unison and suddenly all changing direction simultaneously, like a single creature made of tiny shards of silver.
There are quite a few silverside species around the world. The ones in the Bahamas are Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), also known in the north east of the United States as ‘spearing’. They seem to exist for two purposes. The main one is to be breakfast, lunch or dinner for larger fish, sea birds and shore birds. The other is for their usefulness in scientific research because of their sensitivity to environmental changes.
In one sense they are easy prey for predators. A determined fish will always manage a snack by swimming into the middle of a panic and (probably) simply by opening its mouth wide. On the other hand, their sheer numbers coupled with the speed and randomness of movement mean that a single may find a degree of safety in numbers. It’s hard for a predator to target any individual fish in the general melee and confusion. Silversides also favour seagrass beds, which give some shelter and protection – and a reasonably safe place to spawn. Or, as some of these photos show, they will hang around wrecks or squeeze into rocky spaces in the reef.
A panic of silversides apparently pouring like a waterfall down through a gap in the reef
WHAT DOES A STATIONARY ATLANTIC SILVERSIDE LOOK LIKE?
Some time ago we used to go to the reef at Fowl Cay Marine Preserve with Kay Politano, and I would snorkel with a small and very basic lo-res underwater camera. I was hampered by being a disgracefully feeble swimmer; by not having snorkelled for a length of time calculable in decades; and by being a complete novice at underwater photography. Despite these not inconsiderable disadvantages I managed to cobble together a few short movies on my computer (I was new to that too). Here’s one that nearly works, in that it gives an idea of what happens if you ‘swim with silversides’. I know you scuba guys all swim with sharks, but cut me some slack here please…
Photo Credits: Main photos Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; Silverside Waterfall by Kay Politano; motionless silversides byFISHBASE.ORG. Music: Goldon Giltrap, ‘Fast Approaching’
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) breeds in eastern North America in summer, and winters in Central America and the West Indies. On Abaco they are classed as WR3, ‘uncommon winter residents’. The range map below reveals one strange aspect of their habitat. It looks as though they choose not to live in Florida either in summer or winter. I’m sure they must be found there as transients; and there must presumably be some small breeding or wintering populations in Florida. Or both. But it’s hard to understand why Florida does not seem to suit them.
ABACO WARBLER HOTSPOT
On Abaco, I have only ever had reports of Hooded Warblers from Man-o-War Cay, which seems to be a warbler hotspot every season. There are 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco. FIVE WARBLER SPECIESare year-round residents. Of the migratory 32, at least two dozen seem to favour Man-o-War for their winter break in the sun. MoW resident Charmaine Albury, who took the main photos in this post, has already counted 14 different warbler species before the end of September. She has found up to 5 species in a tree at the same time.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There are periodic upheavals in Birdland which, following research, lead to an official reclassification of a particular bird species or genus. In 2011, many warblers that were cheerfully going about their business under the classification Dendroica found themselves merged into the older ‘priority’ genus Setophaga (Greek for ‘moth eating’).The Hooded Warbler, formerly Wilsonia, has found itself similarly merged into Setophaga – a kick in the teeth for the naturalistALEXANDER WILSON, for whom the bird was named (along with many others – his plover being a well-known example on Abaco).
WHY ‘CITRINA”? (FUN FACT!)
The word relates to lemons – citrus fruits – and their colour, and is undoubtedly apt for the hooded warbler. However the semi-precious calcite gem, ‘Citrine’ (same word origin) is not lemon coloured but (disappointingly) brownish.
This little warbler has a plain olive / greeny-brown back, and a bright yellow face and underparts. There are white feathers on the outsides of their under-tail (I’m sure there’s a more technical word for this…) – see header image. Only males have the black hoods and bibs; females have an olive-green cap.
Hoodies forage for insects in low vegetation and dense undergrowth, or catch them byHAWKINGfrom a branch or twig. Sadly, they are one of the species that are targeted by brown-headed cowbirds, the cruel exponents ofbrood parasitism. These birds are rarely found transients on Abaco at present, but they are a robust species and there is evidence that their range is increasing. In some areas there are controlled (euphemism for… er… dispensed with). I’d favour that approach for Abaco, should they show signs of inflicting their evil ways on the resident breeding population of small birds.
Hooded Warbler in Audubon’s Birds of America
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
I am often at sea with the attempts to turn birdsong into to memorable words of phrases. Yes, a Bobwhite sounds a bit like a quizzical ‘Bob… White?‘. But I rarely ‘get’ the “I’d-like-a-Kalik-with-my-Conch” and suchlike. For what it is worth, I learn that for the Hooded Warbler “the song is a series of musical notes which sound like: wheeta wheeta whee-tee-oh, for which a common mnemonic is “The red, the red T-shirt” or “Come to the woods or you won’t see me“. See what I mean? Anyway, we can all agree that “the call of these birds is a loud chip.” As with so many species!
So here’s what to listen out for (recording: FLMNH). Suggestions for a suitable phrase welcome!
If you come across a bird that looks like a hooded warbler, but is motionless and makes no sound unless you squeeze it, you may have found the subspecies Audubonus stuffii, which is found mainly in the Amazon and E. Bay regions.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIVERSION
I haven’t had time to musically divert for a while. My title refers, of course, to the ‘psychedelic pop’ song by Donovan, released in the US in 1966 and the UK in early 1967. The theory is that the song relates to the supposed (but mythical) hallucinogenic high to be had from smoking dried banana skins. There are an explicit interpretation for the ‘electical banana’ which we need not go into in a family blog. There was a rumour, now discredited, that Paul McCartney supplied the “quite rightly” in the chorus. Anyway, to chime in with the mood of the time, one of the first ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam was called Mellow Yellow.
Of all the words that have been devalued and diminished by overuse over the last decade, ‘AWESOME!!!’ must rank high in the top 10. Maybe it’s even made it to number 1. Awesome! Even in the wildest reaches of hyperbole, the offer of a Kalik can never truly be awesome. Nor can a kind and delightful gift. There’s no need to add more examples, because the photos that follow show something that really is awesome in it’s true meaning: the giant hammerhead shark at close – and very close – quarters. Grant Johnson takes astounding wildlife photos in Bimini and far beyond. Take the time to have a look at his page ’60 POUND BULLET’. Now let’s move on to ‘awesomely awesome…’
And yes, there are Hammerheads in Abaco waters. I have occasionally seen small- to medium-sized ones while fishing out on the Marls. In several of the images above, you can see those strange creatures, Remoras, that attach themselves to sharks by suction and hitch a ride. You can read more about them and learn why they do such a foolish thing HERE.
Credits: All photos, Grant Johnson / 60 Pound Bullet, with many thanks for use permission