BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)


Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)

There’s something wrong in the picture above (no, I don’t mean about the photograph itself). Count up how many pink legs you can see. No, not including the reflections. Give up? It’s three. Between two birds. I assumed of course that  ‘Oner’ had a perfectly good serviceable leg tucked up into its undercarriage. I admired the balancing skills involved in resting one leg while nonchalantly standing on the other.

We were watching this pair of black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus at the pond at Gilpin Point, which at certain times can be ‘Stilt Central’. These birds are permanent breeders on Abaco and are without a doubt the most beautiful of all the waders (avocets, being extremely uncommon winter visitors, are disqualified from consideration for lack of presence). 

Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
It gradually dawned on me that Oner really did only have one stilt to stand on. After 10 minutes observing them and the other birds around them, there was no question about it – the right leg was completely and utterly missing. This unipedal deficit had no obvious ill-effects on the bird – nor on its ability to throw a good pose (above). Or to preen (below).
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
I’m in danger of losing sight of Twoer here, a bipedal bird that deserves its own place in the story, not just a wade-on part in Oner’s story.
Twoer as Ringmaster…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
BNSs are territorial and in particular can become ‘proactive’ (ie aggressive) in protecting the area near a nest. I once mistakenly got close to a nest, not even knowing it was there. I soon learnt – a parent BNS came wading towards me, zigzagging in the water, shouting and carrying on in a way that immediately said ‘my nest is nearby’. And when I meanly stood my ground it suddenly took off and flew straight at my head…
A shouty stiltBlack-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
On reflection…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (and, if anyone noticed, sorry about some formatting issues which I can’t get rid of…); Audio file Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING


Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING

The narrowest point on Abaco is just north of Crossing Rocks. The 120-mile long highway that splits the Island down the middle passes over a narrow strip of land. On the west side, there are mangrove swamps, an inlet of sea, and a small jetty used by bonefishers to reach the productive waters further out. On the east side? Well, there’s more mangrove swamp, giving way to thick jungly coppice before reching the top end of Crossing Rocks beach – and not much else. Except for a long thin brackish pond by the road, that is. 

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you are interested in birds – maybe on your way to the pond at Gilpin Point for Bahama Duck and waders, or returning from a Bahama mockingbird hunt in the National Park – it’s worth pulling over at the pond. Or preferably on the other side of the road so you can approach it stealthily. There’s plenty of roadside cover for birder discretion. Chances are, you’ll encounter one or more of the several heron or egret species found on Abaco – and that they’ll be fishing.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

You can see how clear the water can be. It’s no wonder that this reddish egret has ‘hunched up’ to get that cruel beak closer to the surface to stab down on a small silver snack. In the short time we watched, he had no success (hence ‘Where’s the Catch?’ – there was none). But I’ve seen reddish egrets including the white morph successfully snacking at the pond; and a tricolored heron. A couple of years ago we had a great scoop in late March – a male reddish egret fishing in his wonderful breeding colours. Compare the ‘routine’ plumage of the bird above with this gorgeous creature.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

And to show I am not making up the fishing part, a shot of this bird actually making a catch…Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES


Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES

Goodness, is it the end of the month already? So much going on, 3 half-written posts but running short of time. So here’s something (even) more interesting than the stuff I write – actual photos of actual birds with no words. Great photos (not mine) of Abaco’s 3 cuckoo species to compare and contrast. Until next month… when there’ll be stilts, hutias and a whole lot more.

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (and header image)

Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

MANGROVE CUCKOO

Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SMOOTH-BILLED ANI

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley, Tony Hepburn, Alex Hughes, Gerlinde Taurer, Nina Henry

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO

Abaco is home to 4 main so-called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae): the loggerhead kingbird, the gray kingbird, the La Sagra’s flycatcher and the Cuban pewee. All are common permanent residents except the gray kingbird, which is a summer resident only. Several other flycatcher species are found on Abaco, but they are very uncommon winter residents, rare transients, or vagrants.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The loggerhead featured here in several poses is a watchful sentinel at Delphi. His preferred perches are in the edge of the coppice round the pool or at the edge of the main drive. From time to time he will leave his perch to catch a passing insect by ‘hawking’, returning to the same place to eat it.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead and gray kingbirds can be quite easy to confuse. A couple of years ago I wrote about how to distinguish them, and with gray kingbirds in residence now this is probably a good time to set out the distinctions again.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD Tyrannus caudifasciatus vs GRAY Tyrannus dominicensis 

DIFFERENCES and SIMILARITIES

TOP TIP ANY KINGBIRD SEEN IN WINTER WILL BE A LOGGERHEAD

  • Kingbirds seen between (say) October & March are Loggerheads. Grays are strictly summer visitors
  • Both are medium size birds and roughly the same size as adults (around 23 cms)
  • Loggerheads have dark brown to near-black heads, grays have lighter, slate-coloured heads
  • Loggerheads have a ‘squared’ tip to the tail; grays have a notched tip
  • Loggerheads may have a whitish fringe at the tip of the tail; grays not so
  • Loggerheads have yellowish tinges to their white undersides & forewings; grays less so or not at all
  • Grays have a dark or black ‘mask’ through the eyes, often clear but not always easy to see
  • Loggerheads allegedly have inconspicuous orange head crests; grays are red. I’ve never seen either!
  • [*RH personal opinion alert*] Grays have larger, heavier beaks than loggerheads
  • Grays are territorially aggressive; when they turn up, the loggerheads tend to retreat to the forest

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Here is how David Sibley shows the differences

 6323_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1 3069_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1-1

Illustrations: David Allen Sibley

GRAY KINGBIRD FOR COMPARISONGray_Kingbird (Dick Daniels Wiki)

MEMORABLE FACT TO DEPLOY IN CONVERSATION

The collective names for a group of kingbirds are: a Court, a Coronation, or a Tyranny

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: All loggerheads, Keith Salvesen at Delphi;  gray kingbird by Dick Daniels; Illustrations David Sibley

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”


Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”

“Nidification” was one of the new words I learned from the wonderful book Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (a different one – for the full story behind the name click HERE). It means, essentially, the nesting process of a bird. It sounds pleasingly technical for a straightforward concept: nest-building.

Soft furnishings being addedThick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I spotted this TBV making its nest on the edge of the drive at Delphi. I usually think of these cheerful chirpy birds as ‘lurkers’, hanging back in the coppice and not making themselves easily visible. But this nest was right out in the open – possibly not the wisest place for nidification.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you look up TBV’s in bird books, you may find a reference to nest building in the fork of shrubs or bushes – exactly what was going on here. It quite a messy nest, but then again it looks comfortable and firmly wedged in.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Although I only saw one of the pair actively engaged in the building, another TBV was ‘vocalising’ (there’s another technical term, = singing) nearby, presumably the mate. In a way that humans have been slow to adopt, both birds will be actively involved in raising their family, from incubating the eggs to chick care – feeding, cleaning out the nest and so on. 

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE WHEN THEY VOCALISE?

Let’s hope for a successful outcome to the nidification…

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos Keith Salvesen, also the sound recording (made at Delphi)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO


American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO

I don’t usually hold back from using (my) bad photos if there’s a reasonable excuse to do so. There’s a reason here. So here are a few bad photos. This sequence of mating kestrels was taken at a considerable distance, after I’d seen a bird fly into a pine tree out of the corner of my eye**. I couldn’t make out what species it was with the naked eye or through the viewfinder, so I took an ‘ID shot’ to enlarge later on. The image below is it – and a clear enough blur to say AMKE. Then I carried on taking pictures.

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

The header image came next as I realised there was another bird flying in from the right. Then the sequence below: the male mating with the female at once, dispensing with preliminaries; the male moving off along the branch; the female following a short way up the branch; then the male eventually flying away. 

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

And that was that: all over in no time at all; all captured on camera; all finding its way onto the internet before you can say K@rd@shi@n tape. Let hope some good comes of it. Some baby kestrels would be good…

These photos were taken at Bahama Palm Shores, one of the go-to hotspots on Abaco for great birding including the gorgeous parrots. A new local initiative has seen the building of a tall platform overlooking a secluded lake that offers birders a great view of the birdlife there. But that’s a topic for another day.

All photos: Keith Salvesen

**This is badly written, I do realise – no, it didn’t literally fly out of the corner of my eye, that’s just how I happened to see it.