HAWKSBILL TURTLES: ENJOY THEM WHILE YOU CAN


Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

HAWKSBILL TURTLES: ENJOY THEM WHILE YOU CAN

Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79) was one of the earliest naturalists, besides being a philosopher, author and military commander. He wrote Naturalis Historia (Natural History), a wide-ranging work that became a model for later scholarly works, including forms of Encyclopedia. And, as he so nearly wrote, ‘si non amas testudines, vacua anima tua est’ (he that loves not sea turtles, has an empty mind)*

Hawksbill turtle grazing while a French angelfish looks onHawksbill Turtle with French Angelfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

There can be few better ways to start the New Year than with some gorgeous Hawksbill Turtles  Eretmochelys imbricata, plus a sprinkling of turtle facts to give 2019 a good push into orbit. Fortunately still available in Bahamas waters, the continued existence of Hawksbills is under serious threat. Make the most of your opportunities.

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

  • Guesstimates of the world Hawksbill Turtle population suggest that there are 5 main groups in the oceans, with few enough individuals – especially breeding females – to warrant an IUCN listing of the species as critically endangered
  • I doubt that many will forget that the next IUCN category is… extinct (≠ ‘fun fact’)
  • The largest Hawksbill colony in the world nests on an island in Queensland Australia
  • Turtles leave the sea to lay eggs in a hole dug on the beach, before returning to the sea.
  • The eggs hatch after c60 days… the turtlings emerge and are then on their own
  • Hawksbills are omnivorous, mainly eating sponges (& immune from sponge toxins)
  • They also eat sea anemones, mollusks, and jellyfish
  • Their grazing lifestyle is an important component of a healthy coral reef ecosystem

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

  • Though their shells are hard, Hawksbills are prey for sharks, crocodiles, octopuses and the biggest predator of all, humans“.
  • Despite international Hawkbill protection and conservation measures, they continue to be illegally hunted – including, in some places, for food.
  • Their lovely shells – tortoiseshell – are illegally traded for use for ornaments and jewellery
  • Japan makes its own rules (as with whales) for traditional & no doubt research purposes
  • ‘Tortoiseshell’ is the illegal item most frequently confiscated by custom officials
  • Reef and beach degradation, development, light pollution (confuses the baby turtles trying to paddle to the sea), ocean pollution / marine debris, and illegal practices are among the greatest dangers to the survival of the species. All are caused, directly or indirectly, by you and indeed me

Hawksbill T ©Melinda Riger + G B Scuba copy.jpg

Credits: wonderful photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 5) & Adam Rees / Scuba Works (3, 4, 6); Widecast; Nature Conservancy; OneKind Planet

Hawksbill Turtle Bahamas (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

* Do not believe this – I invented it. The quote that props up the pretentious stuff, that is – all the rest is true…

BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION


Painted Bunting, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

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 BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION

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BUNTING  /ˈbʌntɪŋ/  (Noun)

[A Christmas gift of a puntastic avian / festive double-meaning]
  1. A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
  2. Flags and other colourful festive decorations

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PAINTED BUNTINGPainted Bunting, Abaco (Erik Gauger)

One of the Winterval traditions at Rolling Harbour HQ – that haven of unreliable natural science powered by lazy insouciance and characterised by a regrettably unserious approach – is to break the rule that (mostly) forbids reposting old material without good reason (which there occasionally is). This means marking the imminence of Christmas with bunting. And indeed buntings, those lovely birds beautifully painted by nature. Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ better than a flock of PABU!

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copyPainted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

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Painted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

It’s hard to imagine a more Christmassy little bird than the Painted Bunting. Bright blue, red, green primary colours straight from a child’s paintbox make for a spectacular bird to grace the festive season. These are migratory winter residents, and the first reports of the bright and beautiful males on Abaco started to appear in late October. Some will stay around until March.

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A female & a male PABU feeding together, and a male with a pair of black-faced grassquitsPainted Buntings (M & F), Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Painted Bunting, Delphi, Abaco (Sandy Walker)

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The two wonderful photos below are by Tom Sheley, a major photographic contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. They were actually taken in Texas, but I include them because of Tom’s strong connection with the birdlife of Abaco; and also because they are fantastic shots…
Painted Bunting reflection, Laguna Seca.South TX Tom SheleyPainted Bunting dip reflection LR.Laguna Seca.South TX. 4.16.13.Tom Sheley

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This is my opportunity to wish a very Happy Christmas or [insert preferred seasonal appellation] to everyone who visits Rolling Harbour and especially those who, having done so, return for more! There could of course be anything from 600,000+ individuals who called in once, were put-off and never came back… to one sadly crazed person who has been pressing the ‘read’ button 600,000+ times over the last few years. If the former, thanks for trying, sorry to disappoint. If the latter, keep up the good work, buddy.

Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 7, 8), Erik Gauger (2), Tara Lavallee (3, 4), Keith Salvesen (5); Sandy Walker (6); Birdorable Cartoons

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Painted Bunting.Bahama Palm Shores.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

Still they keep arriving, the new birds that have never before graced the shores of Abaco Recently it was a Canada warbler, at the lower end of the size scale. The elegant sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is the 10th new species for Abaco since the publication of The Birds of Abaco in March 2014. If you are wondering why the bird is not called Grus canadensis any longer, it’s because the genus of the bird was reclassified by the ABA in 2016. Out with dreary old Grus and in with exciting Oedipus’s daughter (or was she his half-sister? They… erm… had the same mother… Discuss, using both sides of the exam paper) in Greek mythology…

As the crane’s canadensis suggests and as range map shows, these are birds of North America, breeding mainly in Canada. In winter they head south to the warmth, reaching Florida as winter migrants. As you can see, the northern part of Florida and also Cuba have small year-round breeding populations. Zero zilch zip nada in the Bahamas.

THE ABACO SIGHTINGS, DECEMBER 2018

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Kaderin Mills)

At 9.00 am on December 13, the bird above was photographed by Kaderin Mills (of the Bahamas National Trust) on Little Abaco, at the Fox Town Primary School, Crown Haven. The day before, the 12th, the school Principal Mrs Curry had seen the bird in the school grounds feeding on the grass. A couple of phone ‘sighting shots’ were taken before it flew off. Next day it returned, word spread and Kadie Mills recorded the bird officially and put it on eBird to give the newcomer some due publicity. By the early afternoon, Woody Bracey had been told about the bird, and went to take photos. He saw it in the same place the next day too.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

OK, FIRST FOR ABACO – AND THE BAHAMAS TOO?

The strict answer is, no. Many years ago, there was a single report of a Sandhill Crane on Andros. It’s not known if the sighting was officially confirmed, but according to expert Bruce Hallett there was a photograph, and the late Tony White, then ‘recorder’ for the Bahamas, saw it. There are no available records, but Tony’s authority on issues around Bahamas birds was (and remains) absolute.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

12 CAREFULLY SELECTED SANDHILL CRANE FACTS

  • These cranes are social birds, usually living in pairs or in family groups 
  • Their calls are loud and far-reaching, like a huge crows with a sore throat (below) 
  • Mated pairs engage in ‘unison calling’, standing close and duetting amorously
  • Hatchlings are fully-formed and can leave the nest within a day.
  • Juveniles are known as colts (whichever their gender, it seems)
  • They have an impressive wingspan as adults, from about 5′ to 7′ 6″
  • They are able to soar in flight, using thermals to obtain lift and stay aloft for hours
  • Flocks of cranes may be huge – sometimes estimated at over 10,000 individuals
  • Their ancestors are among the oldest fossils of any bird species, at around 2.5 M  years
  • Vagrants have been found as far off piste as Britain (1981, 1991 only), China and Japan
  • Many predators call them dinner; but they can kick and stab with their bills in defence
  • The sandhills of Cuba form the smallest breeding population, around 300   

(Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto)

On the map: Abaco’s first ever sandhill crane

Adult with its cutely ungainly, yellow-legged coltSnadhill Crane (birdphotos.com)

Credits: firstly, to School Principal Mrs Curry for a truly excellent spot; Kaderin Mills (2) – the 1st usable image; Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (1, 3, 4, 6); http://www.birdphotos.com / wiki (5); Cornell (range map); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon)

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

STAR ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

STAR ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) – aka Cemetery Bird – is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOO and the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. You can (it’s voluntary) find out more about them in an earlier article HERE. 

I have returned to these engagingly gregarious birds and their raucous ways because Paul Harding has recently captured a sequence of  a small group of anis behaving so endearingly that they are irresistible. Not for them the oddly incompetent fluttering flight, nor the disorganised, unbalanced landing technique. It’s simply a matter of getting settled on a branch, and then making room for one more in the middle (or perhaps resisting it…).

‘A COMMOTION OF ANIS’

There were 4 on the branch…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Hey – make room for another one…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Budge up, guys, I mean C’mon…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Yay, I’m in… a bit squished but…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Um… guys, I can’t breathe…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

 That’s better… all settled now….Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Let the racket begin!

Credits: all terrific pics, Paul Harding; sound files, Xeno Canto

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS


Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS

I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…

I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27,  was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.

Kirtland's Warble, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Roger Neilson)

AN EXCITING SIGHTING

On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.

KIWA CHIP CALL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too. 

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.

WHAT ARE 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 of development is another threat, as with so many species
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once

Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION


Red-tailed Hawk, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-tailed Hawk

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION

It is axiomatic that people tend towards birding – if at all – in later life. Not the scientists, of course: they must commit themselves to the study of natural history at an early age, collecting qualifications by degrees (as it were), through Masters, Field Work, their first posts, PhDs and beyond.

American Redstart (m), Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

American Redstart (m)

I didn’t take a very active interest in birds until the first time I investigated Central Park NYC and saw a blue jay. Followed by a cardinal… a red-tailed hawk… chickadees… American robins (or ‘Mercan rubbins‘, as I was informed). These were alien species for a European, and they awoke my interest.

Brown Pelican, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Brown Pelican

On later trips to NYC I have always spent a day in CP, wandering from end to end, spending time in the hotspots like The Ramble, the JO Reservoir, and the pretty Loch trail to the north, and wondering at the huge and expensive birding hardware toted by those around me (while knowing I didn’t want it). And then a visit to Prospect Park Brooklyn too, if I have the time. More recently came Abaco, and a whole new world of wildlife that has captivated me…

Hermit Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hermit Thrush

This reminiscence by an oldster brings me to Chris Johnson, a young Bahamian man who will be familiar to many readers of this blog. I first encountered him when I was researching the Bahama Oriole and discovered that he, in his early teens, had found one on a trip to Andros and photographed it. It was a pleasure to be able to include the image in my article. 

Hooded Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hooded Warbler

Since then, Chris’s birding and photographic skills have rapidly developed and his reputation is growing too. This summer he was one of 12 students chosen to attend Cornell University Lab of Ornithology for their Young Birder’s Event in Ithaca NY, a great tribute to his accomplishments and a wonderful opportunity too. It is worth noting that Chris is the first Bahamian to be invited to attend this event.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Loggerhead Kingbird

Chris is also beginning to make his own presentations, as he did recently to the Bird Club of New Providence. It won’t be long before he is leading bird groups – in fact, he is probably doing this already.

Another impressive feature of Chris’s birding is his photography. I have watched the progression online with interest. The crispness of his images, the composition and the right ‘take’ to make the best of each bird is wonderful, and he has a great eye for a neat shot – for example in the header image I have chosen, with its awareness of the effective use of dark and light.

Black-and-white Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Black-and-white Warbler

I should say that I have never met Chris, although we have occasionally been in touch. I am featuring him because I believe he and other young people of his age – Chris is 17 – are the future for birding, for wildlife, for species protection and for habitat conservation. The older generation will move on and the ‘middles’ may begin to take an interest in the birds around them. But Chris’s generation are the ones who can make a difference in the future. As things stand right now, they may have to. It’s a huge responsibility for them, but it’s one our generation is in the process of transferring to them.

Red-legged Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-legged Thrush

I hope you have enjoyed the small gallery of Chris’s photographs displayed here. If you are interested in the birds of the Bahamas, keep an eye on him and others like him. They need all the encouragement we can give them.

All photos: Chris Johnson, with thanks for use permission. Please do not ‘borrow’ any of these images without asking first. That would only be fair.

Antillean Nighthawk Chick (one of my favourites)Antillean Nighthawk chick, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)


Bald Eagle Juvenile (Audubon)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)

I absolutely knew this would happen. In a sense, I rather wanted it to happen. And now it has, and I have got my comeuppance. Bigly. Hugely. No sooner had I pressed ‘send‘ on my post 2 days ago bemoaning the absence of bald eagles in 2018 than corrections began to come in.

  • Harsh Judgemental Reader: “Do you mean you were wrong?”
    • Contrite Writer: “Yes.”
  • HJR: “Did you check eBird before you fired off your intemperate post?”
    • CW (in a small apologetic voice): “No.”
  • HJR: Well then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
    • CW (*hangs head*): I’m very sorry, everyone. I’ll try to do better this time. Here goes:”

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S) OF 2018: IN NO WAY AWOL!

SIGHTING ONE

On October 25th legendary Bahamas birder Elwood Bracey and a party of 4 were looking out over the Marls from Sunset Ridge when they saw 4 birds flying high. Two were unmistakably turkey vultures; one was a magnificent frigatebird (ie totally non-eagle-ish); and the fourth was much larger, looking like a juvenile bald eagle. Any remaining doubts were dispelled when it dropped into a steep dive and smashed into the water, catching a fish in its talons, much like an osprey. There’s no room for confusion here: Woody has vast experience on Abaco and beyond – and besides, he had a powerful spotting scope and 4 birding witnesses. The ID is, as they say, solid. And it was posted on eBird. Which I should have checked. But didn’t. As Julia Roberts (qua Vivian Ward) actually did say, “Big Mistake. Huge!

Bald Eagle Juvenile (Wiki)

The problem here – you are ahead of me, aren’t you – is that a juvenile bald eagle does not resemble an adult. Rather than the familiar and symbolic look, they are dark brown with white flecks and mottling that changes as they grow older. A juvenile won’t even begin to look like a bald-headed adult until it is around 4 years old. Here are two comparisons of the confusing ages and stages.

SIGHTING 2

Within the last couple of weeks, a resident of Man-o-War Cay saw a huge brown bird – not an osprey, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk – hunting chickens in the area. He told his family and identified the bird from looking at a photo of a juvenile bald eagle. I received this report – the first in time – from Charmaine Albury. Her brother was the sharp-eyed spotter. Had that been the only report, in the absence of a photo I might have had at least some doubt. Then Woody’s report arrived, a definite juvenile bald eagle only 3 weeks before, over the Marls. From there, with its spectacular eyesight it could practically have seen the individual chickens on Man-o-War. So it’s a good fit for ID.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

I’d say that right now on Abaco we have a single juvenile bald eagle. It’s a vagrant, away from its usual hunting ground but unchallenged in the skies where it has ended up. There has been the usual autumn extreme weather (though Abaco has dodged the worst of it) to throw a young bird of course in the last couple of months. So, rather late in the day, we really do have an Abaco Bald Eagle for 2018.

A juvenile bald eagle – not at all like its parents to look at

Credits: Woody and Char for the sighting reports; header image (1), Audubon; (2) wiki; (3) Allaboutbirds.com; comparative drawing, Birdwatchers’ Digest; (4) FB, source unknown (and a credit or take-down as you wish if it’s yours); cute cartoon, the most excellent Birdorable