BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’s finches. So, we are “common”, huh? Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS

  • Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
  • Both sexes build the nest together
  • Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
  • Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
  • They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
  • Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: DIE-OFF 2020


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. Or you may have read about this online. These poor birds may be (a) Audubon’s Shearwaters (also known as Dusky Petrels), which are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco; (b) Cory’s, Great or Sooty, which are transients; (c) Manx, which is a rare ‘off-course’ vagrant.

JUNE 2020

At the moment there are plenty of posts and threads on social media about the current die-off. People are naturally upset and concerned, and want to know the cause of the phenomenon. I am recasting a post from last year to explain why this happens.

Exhausted shearwater beached on AbacoAudubons Shearwater Abaco Bahamas (Sharon Elliott)

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. It almost always happens in June. The pattern is much the same each time, though the mix of shearwater species that succumb may vary. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote about it then. That bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from mainland Abaco and the cays, stretching from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks.

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 were still alive, but in a very poor state. Their prospects for survival would have been very low. A few birds were captured and cared for, but even then the chances of recovery were not good.

Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Two years on, in 2019, the melancholy cycle repeated itself. Melissa Maura, well-known as 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 in the care of Melissa Maura (2019)Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A Cory’s shearwater in rehab with Melissa 2020Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looked to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). This year’s die-off makes it 2 years running, an obvious great concern. The cause is 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 fly increasing distances to try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or more often dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor Summer fishing conditions out to 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
Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Rhona Pearce))
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 on the shoreline 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 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. A few lucky birds will be found in a reasonable state, and be able to be nursed back to health. 
Melissa releasing a recent survivor from her careShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura) “Need Fish”
PRACTICAL ADVICE
(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 of attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
A spell in the paddling pool – plenty of rest and fresh waterShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Paul Harding))
Credits: thanks first to Melissa Maura for her tireless compassion in the care of damaged and diseased creatures of every kind; and to those on Abaco who have been reporting / commenting on this event over the last few days.
Photographers Dominic Sherony Wiki (1); Sharon Elliott (2); Melissa Maura (4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11); Keith Kemp (3); Rhonda Pearce (7); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell (8)
The perfect end to the careful rehabilitation of a very sick shearwater – June 2020
Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Treasure Cay Abaco (Becky Marvil)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)

Polioptila caerulea PR|B|1

A delicate featherweight gnatcatcher that has characteristic full eye-rings. The long tail may
be cocked when perching, often as a territorial assertion. They are capable of hovering briefly over shrubs to feed on insects, but mostly they ‘hawk’ for insects on the wing (“Birds of Abaco”).

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley) a

Credits: Becky Marvil (1); Tom Sheley (2, 3)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER


Kirtland's Warbler Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER

The rare Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is rightly prized both in its very specific breeding grounds and in its winter migration locations. Abaco is fortunate to be one of these, but they are extremely difficult to find, even with local knowledge. The latest IUCN Red List assessment of numbers of adult warblers (2018) gives a figure of 4,500 – 5,000. The species is categorised as ‘near-threatened’. Numbers are gradually increasing, thanks to a major recovery plan and intensive conservation measures in areas where they nest. 

WHERE THEY LIVE

SPRING & SUMMER Mostly, the KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. As numbers have increased, the range has expanded more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (©Vince Cavalieri)

FALL & WINTER the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.

Kirtland's Warbler Range Map wiki

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 by development is a major concern (as with so many species everywhere)
  • KIWAs are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds in the breeding areas
  • Their winter habitat is mostly in remote or protected areas, but on Abaco a proposed development in the National Park where they live will probably wipe them out, if built   
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk to the species; at both ends, extinction could loom again

Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?

  • Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
  • Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
  • Females are paler and more streaked
  • Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
  • Frequent tail pumping and bobbing

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

Some say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found it claimed that they produce ‘a loud tchip, with song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). I’m not a big fan of phonetic spelling for bird sounds. Here’s a sample for you to assess:

 Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877) portrait

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)

Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician & amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler & also in a couple of snake species.

The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 5, 6); Vince Cavalieri (2); Tom Sheley (3); Tony Hepburn (4); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)

May 15th is – was – Endangered Species Day worldwide. I missed it, of course I did. Typical. So, belatedly, here’s the first of a short series highlighting the Endangered Species of Abaco, Bahamas. It will include a couple of species formerly found on Abaco but now extirpated and hanging on in tiny numbers in specific habitats in the wider Bahamas archipelago. Regrettably, much of the endangerment has been caused, or substantially contributed to, by a dominant species that tends to prize self-interest over broader considerations.

ABACO PARROT

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

These gorgeous and beloved parrots nest uniquely in limestone ground burrows in the island’s protected National Park in the south of the island, a vast area of pine forest. They are the big success story of Abaco conservation. I was fortunate enough to become tangentially involved with the parrots just as years of patient research and intensive fieldwork were beginning to impact positively on a dwindling and barely sustainable population (fewer than 1000 birds). Adults and particularly the chicks in breeding season were very vulnerable to the attentions of feral cats, non-native racoons and rats. Nests were protected, cameras were deployed, and predators eradicated.  

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Nest & Chick, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala)

The work of scientists such as Caroline Stahala was (and still is) supported by local organisations such as Bahamas National Trust and Friends of the Environment Abaco. Local communities lent valuable encouragement and enthusiasm to the project. No one can fail to be uplifted by the sight of a flock of these parrots flying overhead, flaunting their bright green, red and blue feathers that flash in the sunlight. Even the sound of a flock squabbling in the trees like noisy children just let out of school is a joy. Here’s a sample, recorded at Bahama Palm Shores: see if you agree…

Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

10 years on, these gorgeous, raucous and intriguing birds have made a comeback, and the pleasure of their continuing visual and audible presence is hopefully secure. 

Credits: Nina Henry (1, 2); Caroline Stahala (3); Keith Salvesen (4) and audio clip

 

CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)


CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)

Cuban Pewee, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

The Cuban pewee Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the crescent-eyed pewee) is the smallest of the four so-called ‘tyrant’ species found on Abaco. These flycatchers are tiny compared with their kingbird cousins. You can clearly see the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which helps to trap caught insects.

Like other flycatchers, the Cuban pewee has distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. These are in fact feathers that have modified into bristles. They act as tactile sensors that help detect and target aerial insects. The pewee will then dart from its perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel (known sometimes as ‘hawking’), returning to the branch to swallow the snack.

Of all small unassuming brownish birds – and there are a great many – I consider the pewee to be one of the prettiest. It is also rewarding to photograph, being inquisitive by nature and as likely to pose for the camera as to fly away.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

 

BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (10)


Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT

The Bahama Yellowthroat Geothlypis rostrata  is one of 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas. Three other endemics found on Abaco are the Bahama Woodstar, Bahama Warbler and Bahama Swallow. The fifth is the endangered Bahama Oriole, now only found in very small numbers on Andros. They once lived on Abaco, but are unrecorded there since the 1990s and are considered extirpated. You can find out more about all these endemic birds together in a nest HERE.

Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

I’m fond of these birds with their striking Zorro masks. It is one of the few species that I am able to imitate with sufficient accuracy to draw one out of the coppice. Their call is usually described as a ‘wichety-wichety‘. I realise that the talent to mimic it has no other use in life. Here’s a short recording I made – the Yellowthroat is the first and last call of the sample, with other species in between.

Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 2); Bruce Hallett (3,); sound recording Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco, Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

 

PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)


PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)

Painted Bunting, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Photo: Tom Sheley, taken at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco

This wonderful and mood-brightening photo was taken by Tom while we were compiling an archive for my book BIRDS OF ABACO  It is one of the most memorable images of the very large number of photographs featured. Every one of them was taken on Abaco (photos taken ‘off-island’ were ruthlessly excluded); and each one in natural surroundings (no seed-trails, recorded calls and so on). Sadly the edition sold out well before Hurricane Dorian so we have been unable to replace any of the many lost copies. However, I am contemplating producing a pdf version of the pre-print draft (a Covid displacement activity). If that goes ahead I will devise a way to distribute it simply, and possibly in return for a modest donation towards the work of Abaco wildlife organisations.

 

GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)


GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)

Green Heron, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

We saw this green heron (Butorides virescens) at Gilpin Pond, South Abaco. It’s an excellent location for waterbirds and waders, although in hot weather when the water level drops an algal bloom colours the water with a reddish tinge. The coppice around the pond is good for small birds; parrots pass through on their daily flights to and from the forest; and the beach the other side of the dunes can be excellent for shorebirds. 

We watched this heron fishing for some time. I took quite a few photos of the bird in action, including its successes in nabbing tiny fish. However there were two problems with getting the perfect action shot. First, the bird’s rapid darts forwards and downwards, the fish grabs, and the returns to perching position with its snack were incredibly quick. Secondly, my slow reactions and innate stupidity with camera settings militated against a sharp ‘in-motion’ image to be proud of. So I’m afraid you get the bird having just swallowed its catch.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)


CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)

I spent a wonderful 15 minutes with this little Cuban Emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii), which I found perched on a stick in a small clearing in the coppice at Delphi. I was several feet away when I first noticed it, so I spent some time inching forward towards it. Even from a distance, the metallic sheen of the feathers glinted in the bright sunlight. The bird watched me, tame and unruffled, as I approached. I took photos as I moved closer so that if it flew off at least I’d have something to remember it by. In the end it let me get so close that I could almost have touched it. When I’d taken some close-ups, I backed very slowly away. The little beady black eyes followed my retreat with interest. The bird was still happily perched on the stick when I lost eye-contact with it. In the end I was more moved (in one sense) than it was (in another).

Credit: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)


KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)

Killdeer, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Birds of Abaco)

For the time being, while things are a bit crazy, I’ll be posting single / pairs of images that in my view are so excellent that they stand alone without needing any comment from me, annoying wordplay, or musical digressions. All have been taken on Abaco Bahamas. Only some will be my own – the bar is set at a DSLR height that exceeds my camera skills. 

Credit: Bruce Hallett

RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)


RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)

Ruddy Turnstone, the Marls, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

I very rarely – almost never –  publish single or pairs of images, not least because I enjoy the bits of research and writing that cover a topic more thoroughly. However, today I was going through the photographic archive from my book BIRDS OF ABACO and came across these RUTUs photographed on the Marls by contributor Tom Sheley.

TBH turnstones are among the easiest shorebirds to photograph. They are pleasingly tame, so you can get quite close to them without ruffling their feathers. They aren’t tiny and they are pretty and quite colourful. And they are fairly abundant and so not hard to locate… but they make it hard to get a really good bright, clear photo. Or is that just me…? Anyway, Tom definitely has the camera skills required.

Ruddy Turnstone, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS

Black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus may be the most elegant shorebirds you will ever see. They are permanent residents on Abaco and not uncommon where they are found. It could be on a beach; more likely it will be in or around brackish ponds. It won’t be in the pine forest or coppice.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The rather disorganised stilt flying in the header image rather undercuts my claim for elegance, I realise. The image above of the bird at full stretch against a background of waves gives a much better idea of the beauty of this species. 

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Gilpin Pond is a good place to see stilts, and in summer they nest around the perimeter. A word of warning: they may be aggressive in the breeding season. I got too near a nest once and the female shouted at me then flew straight at my head. I hadn’t even realised there was a nest there until this happened, so her actions rather give the game away.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

In common with some smaller shorebird species – for example, plovers and killdeer – the stilts have another defensive method to protect their young, a so-called ‘distraction display’. When their nest is under threat,  one of the adults will pretend to have a damaged or broken wing and so be unable to fly. It will flutter feebly along the ground, moving further and further away from the nest, diverting attention from it. It’s an amazing sight to watch the tactic in action. Check out this video to see examples of this behaviour.

Credits: all photos by Alex Hughes, one of the photographic contributors to The Birds of Abaco; video Nat Bel

BANANAQUITS: AHEAD OF THE CURVE?


Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

BANANAQUITS: AHEAD OF THE CURVE?

Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) are small, colourful, and delightful birds of the coppice and garden. Besides their obvious attractiveness, the birds have in recent years enjoyed an uniquity: the status of being the sole species in the family Coerebidae.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

However this singular status has really been a kind of avian parking place due to past, present (and doubtless future) uncertainty of the right category for these birds. Like so many avian species these days, they are subject to the rigours and vagaries of continual reclassification by the ornithological powers-that-be.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

Bananaquits are, broadly speaking, passerines – essentially birds that perch. The nominal ‘passer’ was specifically awarded to sparrows by BRISSON, a contemporary of Linnaeus. Recently, bananaquits have suffered mysterious migrations of their classification ranging from the generalised ‘passerine‘ to the vague incertae sedis (=uncertain group‘) to uncomfortable inclusion with tanagers / emberizids. 

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

The debate over the appropriate classification for this pretty little bird (of which there are many subspecies in the broad Caribbean region) – rumbles on. A new way to confuse the issue is the suggestion that the bananaquit should be split into 3 species. In some areas, I believe this has happened at least informally.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Elsewhere there are doubters, sceptics, and champions of other group inclusions. The most obvious beneficiaries of all this will be dedicated birders, who may end up with two extra species to add to their ‘Lifer’ lists. Personally I’d like to think that the birds themselves will stay ahead of the curve in their own category, maintaining the mystery of their precise status while humans argue about what to call them. 

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Erik Gauger)

CREDITS: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1); Gerlinde Taurer (2); Craig Nash (3, 7); Tom Sheley (4, 5); Erik Gauger (6). All birds photographed on Abaco, Bahamas

Bananaquit perched on yellow elder, the National flower of the BahamasBananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

 

PIPING PLOVERS: ABACO’S RARE WINTER RESIDENTS


Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

PIPING PLOVERS: ABACO’S RARE WINTER RESIDENTS

PIPING PLOVERS Charadrius melodus are specialist shorebirds on Abaco. For a start, they are very rare – the IUCN listing suggests a population of only 8000 mature birds in the world. They are both scarce numerically and limited geographically.

These tiny plovers breed only in a few defined areas of North America – areas that are rapidly reducing mostly for all the usual depressing human-derived causes, for example the exercise of man’s alienable right from time immemorial to drive vehicles all over the nesting sites in the breeding season. The birds are unsurprisingly IUCN listed as ‘near-threatened’. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

Piping Plovers breed and nest in the north and produce their chicks. The chicks soon learn to be independent and to fly. From about mid-July, those adults and chicks that have avoided the wheels of the SUVs, the unleashed  dogs in the areas set aside for nesting, and the more natural dangers from gulls, start to get the urge to fly south for the winter. The range of their winter grounds is shown in blue on the range map above. It includes the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular.

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

Q. WHY ARE THEY CALLED PIPING PLOVERS? A. BECAUSE OF THIS!

Paul Turgeon

I will return soon to the significance of the safe, clean beaches of Abaco and the healthy habitat for the survival of this remarkable little bird. For now, I’ll simply say that loss of habitat, and an increase in the nature and / or extent of environmental threats at either end of the migration, may seriously damage the survival of the species. It follows that habitat degradation at both ends of the migration could see the IUCN listing progress rapidly to vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and… well, the next category is ‘extinct in the wild’. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

If you are interested in shorebirds, in bird migration, in research into bird movements, and in the reason migratory birds are banded, you can find out more at ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH. This is the only season-long research project in the Bahamas, and involves Citizen Scientists on Abaco in the south working with partner Proper Scientists in the breeding grounds in the north. Early next month I will write a follow-up post on these topics. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

The photographs in this post were taken a few days ago on the long crescent of beach at Winding Bay, Abaco by Lisa Davies. Her contribution is precious because the APPW project mentioned above was for many reasons in danger of stalling as the result of the devastating effects of Hurricane Dorian on almost every aspect of island life. Lisa’s discovery of a small flock of a dozen plovers in the sunshine has given impetus to the project – and has resulted in some superb photos.

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

Credits: All photos by Lisa Davies; audio call, Paul Turgeon / Xeno-Canto; range map from WIKI

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA


ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Fabulous in-flight shot by Nina Henry (contributor to ‘Birds of Abaco’)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS


White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS

The white-cheeked (‘Bahama’) pintail Anas bahamensis (aka ‘Bahama duck’) is everyone’s favourite dabbling duck. Or at least it ought to be. And when there are ducklings swimming with the adults, there is no emoticon yet devised that will convey the extremes of cuteness achieved.

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)      White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)  White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

Credits: all absolutely adorbs  photos are by Tom Sheley & Charles Skinner

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT


CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT

A VERY HAPPY TO ALL FOLLOWERS OF ROLLING HARBOUR…

…AND TO EACH AND EVERY RANDOM DROP-BY TOO!

SEE YOU NEXT DECADE!

Abaco Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Nina Henry, photographed on Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

 

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING


PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credit: Tom Sheley, photographed at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

 

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT


Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes) BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT

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.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

A SPECIALITY BIRD

The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:

  • Found only on Abaco and Grand Bahama
  • One of only 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas
  • One of only 2 endemic warbler species on Abaco (with the BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT)
  • One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.

Bahama Warbler Abaco (Woody Bracey)

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**.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

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.

BNT infographic Bahama Warbler

** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)