I was looking at the list of the dozens of Abaco bird species I have featured over the years, when I was struck by the complete omission of one of Abaco’s most significant small birds – the Bahama Warbler Setophaga flavescens. This warbler species is of the most important in the Bahamas for several reasons, any one of which should have prompted me to showcase this lovely bird before now.
A SPECIALITY BIRD
The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:
One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.
Until 2011, the BAWA was classified as a subspecies of the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER. The ornithological powers-that-be then recognised that the two species were distinct in both appearance and in vocalisation, and split them into separate species (this splitting / amalgamating process occurs annually and plays havoc with the precious ‘Life Lists’ kept with such rigour by ardent birders**.
The BAWA has such a confined range that even the extensive reach of the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not got as far as this bird. The info sections of the otherwise comprehensive website for Neotropical Birds are blank and waiting for someone to upload some details. Here are a few facts in one of a very good series of info-graphics produced by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST.
** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person
Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT
Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank.
Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).
As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?
Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS
In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.
BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.
Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.
THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACO
The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.
A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?
The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.
Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas.
BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?
The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.
Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.
I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird
Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.
Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’
Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong
CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.
Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library
Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto
I’m never quite sure how far it’s permissible to go beyond ‘really pissed off’ about a tech problem. Anything much stronger seems a bit indulgent both in itself and especially when measured against the far-reaching despair experienced by many in far more important areas of life.
I am just having a huge “Grrrrrrrrr” moment because my complex blog menu, with 3 rows of headings and carefully curated nests of drop-downs under each, has been scrubbed by persons or AI unknown. It’s several years of cumulative and (mostly) pleasurable organisational work up the spout.
As a Brit, may I be permitted to say ‘bother’. Or maybe ‘Dash it all?’ Or declare that I’m a mite cheesed orf? To which a fair response would be “it’s just a trivial inconvenience, get over it…”
For the moment, here are some nice pics to enjoy, all taken on Abaco. I’m happy to say that right now, 7 weeks since Dorian, there are promising signs that in some areas of Abaco, the birds are starting to show themselves – including a few winter warblers. See you the other side of rethinking my Menu…
Credits: Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Mary Kay Beach, Craig Nash, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO (western spindalis badge, moi)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, until 1 September 2019 when Dorian struck, Abaco was a prime birding location in the Bahamas archipelago, an island chain that stretches from the lower reaches of the temperate zone to the more exotic sub-tropical region. The judgement for ‘best birding location’ is both objective and subjective, and the criteria are flexible. However on any view Abaco scores highly in all avian categories: resident species, endemics, migratory birds, speciality species, vulnerable species, and extreme rarities.
We’ll have to wait some time before it is possible to tell what effects the devastating storm has had on the wildlife of the island and on its birding credentials…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Tom Sheley
The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project (now in new & expert hands) – was Peter Mantle. The book showcases the work of 30 photographers, including some outstanding contributions by islanders. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager (= Mrs RH, then of YUP) and from the top Bahamas bird experts – Woody Bracey, Tony White, Bruce Hallett, and Tony Hepburn, to name but 4. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.
Cuban Emerald (f) – Keith Salvesen
The book project was something of a gamble. When planning began, social media – and the facility to reach a wide audience – was significantly less active than it was soon to become. The book was launched at Delphi to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, but the extent of the interest (and sales) that might be generated more widely was unknown. We predicted it might be a slow-grower, so we were astonished by the immediate positive response to the guide. Perhaps it helped that there was a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco’s rich birdlife – we donated copies to all Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations for educational purposes. A significant percentage of the profits was set aside for local wildlife causes and duly distributed.
Moving on just 5 years to this summer, the limited edition of 500 had all but sold out; and around 100 free copies had been donated – or deposited (as required by UK Law) in specified institutions: British Library; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; and Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Brown Pelican – Tom Sheley
PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE?
Six weeks after Dorian, a semblance of normality is returning to the stricken island. Daily snippets of optimism are of great significance: a lost pet found after many days; a trashed plant defiantly putting out a flower; a pair of parrots screeching past; a boat recovered; a building slightly less damaged than feared. Recovered possessions from flooded houses have brought mixed emotions – heart-rending losses of precious items, yet also the unexpected recovery of possessions believed lost or destroyed. And in that context but far less emotionally, I have now had quite a few requests for replacement copies of “Birds of Abaco”.
Short-billed dowitchers – Bruce Hallett
SO, ARE THERE ANY REPLACEMENT BIRD BOOKS LEFT?
The position in a conch-shell is this:
There are now no copies still available on Abaco. Former HQ (and book storage / fulfilment facility) The Delphi Cub changed hands a year ago, and no longer carries a stock of the books.
In the UK, Peter Mantle and I have about a dozen between us that are, in one way or another, ring-fenced.
That’s it, I’m afraid.
Bridled Tern – Bruce Hallett
ARE YOU PLANNING TO REPRINT?
For several reasons, no – it’s not a viable proposition. Specifically:
the size & print-costs of such a large heavy (2 kgs) book
the specialist printing (eg in Italy) needed to retain the quality; and the associated shipping costs
the lack of any viable storage and / or fulfilment facilities on Abaco, or anywhere else suitable
the lack of a prominent ornithologically-minded literary-leaning benefactor with a kind smile & deep pockets
Black-throated blue warbler – Gerlinde Taurer
CAN I STILL GET THE BOOK IN SOME OTHER FORM?
Yes! I hope. We are kicking around the following ideas in a general and inchoate way:
first, avoiding any system requiring storage or fulfilment (so, not a physical reprint)
using existing production material to create a Print-on-Demand book
turning the guide into an eBook (may be difficult / impossible with non-standard format)
most likely producing a full PDF (or similar) version for download and possibly printing
selecting sections – eg the definitive checklist – as individual downloads
considering other suggestions!
At the moment this is in the basket marked ‘non-urgent’, but the alternatives will be under active consideration.
Clapper Rail – Tom Sheley
The original flyer for the book
Painted Bunting Tom Sheley
Photos: Alex Hughes (1); Tom Sheley (2, 4, 9, 10); Keith Salvesen (3, 11); Bruce Hallett (5, 7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Charmaine Albury, para-breakers
The unique and symbolic parrots of Abaco have become quite a focus of attention now that some kind of normality is returning to the devastated island. Utilities and supplies are being sorted out gradually (and with unavoidable setbacks). There are some signs of optimism in the air – and some parrots too.
SO, AFTER THE HURRICANE ARE THERE ANY PARROTS AROUND?
At Bahama Palm Shores, the most ‘parroty’ of all the communities in south Abaco, Tara Lavallee was the first to see – and photograph – a pair on Sep 25th, nearly 4 weeks after Dorian struck. Over the next 10 days, and thanks to Janene Roessler’s work, I compiled a record of reports and sightings and mapped them. There were 12 in all, from Crossing Rocks in the south to Winding Bay in the north (25 – 30 miles as the parrot flies).
THE FIRST POST-DORIAN PARROTS
ABACO PARROT SIGHTINGS MAP BETWEEN SEP 25 AND OCT 4
The interactive map works like this (in theory at least). You can expand the map using the cursor, double clicks, or 2 fingers until you have enlarged the target area sufficiently to click on the individual coloured parrots. For each one, the sighting details are given with as much information as was available. The colour key is this:
Maroon – First sighting
Blue – sighting with some details (eg numbers)
Yellow – sighting with little detail
Purple – flocks of 10 +
IS ANYONE LOOKING AFTER OUR PARROTS?
By the turn of the century the parrot population had become unsustainable, having fallen below 1000, and their extinction was imminent. Since then, many organisations (eg BNT) and people have been involved in the reversal of the decline through intensive anti-predation and conservation measures. All this work continues so that the future of the parrots is assured. The rough estimate pre-Dorian was of c4000 birds.
WHAT ABOUT NOW, AFTER THE STORM?
As I mentioned in a previous post, a survey team including Abaco’s former parrot scientist Caroline Stahala Walker (now with Audubon) were planning a trip to Abaco once access became possible. They have just arrived on-island, and will be assessing the effect of Dorian both on the wildlife and on the habitat. This will include the parrots, and other ‘signal’ birds too. I expect these will include the endemics, the speciality birds (eg the woodpeckers), and some shorebirds including (I hope) piping plovers. They will also bring feed and feeders and give advice about care of the birds.
Caroline wrote “I wanted to let everyone know we have a team going to Abaco for surveys and setting up feeders starting tomorrow. The logistics were tough enough to piece together but it certainly would not have happened without all of your help. I will post pictures and update after the trip, not sure what internet situation will be like while there. Thanks everyone! You made this happen.”
CAROLINE’S GO FUND ME PAGE: CLICK THE LOGO
Some years ago Caroline and I put together a tiny booklet about the parrots, mainly for the benefit of guests and visitors at the Delphi Club. We asked for $5 – 10 donations for the birds. There were 2 editions. Later, I turned it into an ‘moving booklet’ with added music (that you can turn off!). Some people may have seen this elsewhere online recently. The middle section on the parrot nests in the National park, the chick-care, and the associated breeding research may be of particular interest. The pics are cute!
Thanks to all who contacted me to say there was an issue with the version of this booklet originally posted – a ‘privacy settings’ problem, as it turned out. I’ve exchanged it for a different format version, which is also a bit clearer…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Erik Gauger (2); Tara Lavallee (3); Craig Nash (4); Peter Mantle (5, 7)