The Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata is a “TR3” on Abaco. Which is to say, the species is classified as an uncommon transient in its migration, and as such it is rarely seen on Abaco. Apart from anything else the window of opportunity of seeing one in the Fall or in Spring is limited by the length of time they pause on Abaco to catch their breath. Also, they are small birds that do not draw attention to themselves. They hang around in the coppice foliage rather than parading out in the open; and their call is a tiny ‘tsip‘ sound (as with so many other small birds…).
Fortunately, on Abaco’s warbler magnet Man-o-War Cay, alert birder Charmaine Albury was out and about with her camera to record a sighting. I should say that during the writing of THE BIRDS OF ABACO, I never managed to obtain a single image – however poor – of a Blackpoll Warbler actually taken on Abaco (a qualification for inclusion) from any of the many sources I used. So sadly, this pretty warbler does not feature in the book.
The summer breeding area for blackpolls covers northern North America from Alaska through most of Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England. In the fall, they fly South to the Greater Antilles and the northeastern coasts of South America. The summer and winter areas are very distinct, as the distribution map shows:
Despite their diminutive size**, blackpoll warblers generally undertake their long-distance migration – often over open water – non-stop or with a single stopover. Their migration has been the subject of many scientific studies. One of the longest distance non-stop overwater flights ever recorded for a migratory songbird was made by a BLWA. Which all goes to explain why the species is so rarely seen along the migration route: unlike many migrating birds, they make few, if any, stops along the way.
Of the many stats I have read through, I chose one to demonstrate the stamina of these little birds. In one study, an number were fitted with tiny geolocators. These revealed an average migration journey of around 1600 miles, with the non-stop trip being completed in 3 days by at least one bird.
“Transoceanic migration by a 12 g songbird”
The maps above show blackpoll warbler migrations recorded for 5 birds in a study that indicates that, while a direct overwater route is preferred in the fall migration, the return journey in spring is more leisurely, and overland (it looks as though only 3 birds made it home).
The study quoted is by William V.DeLuca, Bradley K.Woodworth, Christopher C.Rimmer, Peter P.Marra, Philip D.Taylor, Kent P.McFarland, Stuart A.Mackenzie, D. RyanNorris (Published 1 April 2015. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.1045)
** I came across the statement that “The blackpoll warbler… attains the weight of a ball point pen”. I find this an unhelpful comparison. I know what is meant, but I find it hard to think of a ball of feathers in terms of a writing instrument. Maybe it’s just me? [Astute Reader: I’m afraid so…]
YOU MENTIONED THAT THEY GO ‘TSIP’. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN SOUND LIKE?
Credits: header image of a summer bird, Cephas; all other photos by Charmaine Albury, taken on Man-o-War Cay Abaco; birdsong Xeno-Canto / wikimedia commons
And one with a happy ending! There’s something very satisfying about an expert birder / photographer’s capture of a perfect sequence, as these fantastic photos show. It not something I’ve ever achieved, not having the skill, the equipment or (probably) the patience required to get a sequence of perfect shots. Instead – and as a guest post while we are having some downtime somewhere nice – it’s a pleasure to feature this reddish egret stalking its prey, photographed by Danny Sauvageau. #4 has it all – drama, movement, clarity and triumph captured in a fraction of a second.
All photos by ace Floridian birding photographer Danny Sauvageau (with thanks)
BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…
The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) is one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas and – like the similarly rareBAHAMA ORIOLEon Andros – it is confined to one island only, Grand Bahama. At best about 1000 – 1200 mature birds may inhabit the pine forests though current estimates vary, and that number may be optimistic. What is clear is that, for all the usual reasons (see below) the population is likely to be decreasing rather than growing.
Despite its scarcity and size – this little bird is one of the smallest in the nuthatch family – the BANU is subject to much scientific debate in bird circles. Until a dozen years ago, it was simply considered to be a brown-headed nuthatch, a familiar enough bird in south-eastern USA. Then a research paper was published, which led to the bird being awarded subspecies status as the Bahama nuthatch S. p. insularis. Some argue further, that it should be considered a fully separate species and split from its cousin (as, recently, with the Bahama and Inagua woodstars in 2015). Others write as though this has already happened but as far as I can make out, it has not – though it might possibly happen once further researches have been completed and submitted (polite correction on this point welcome…).
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TO JUSTIFY SEPARATE STATUS?
Close investigation of the Grand Bahama population showed a number of significant differences between the island and the US populations. Having read and digested all the relevant research (NOT! Abstracts, maybe…), I discovered that the main distinctions are:
A longer, heavier bill (compare the header image of a brown-headed nuthatch in South Carolina with the second one of a Bahama nuthatch).
Distinctively different vocalisations
IUCN RED LIST STATUS
Whether the BANU is a sub-species of brown-headed nuthatch or a fully separate species, the bird is incredibly rare. The population may be unsustainable without intervention (as implemented to save the Abaco parrots) – and the threat of extinction looms even as the bird begins to attract international interest. In 2016 the IUCN listed the BANU as ENDANGERED, meaning essentially that it faces extinction. ‘Critically endangered’ is the only higher category. The main reasons given for the listing were the small population, found on only one island, and likely to continue declining as a result of habitat loss & invasive species
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES, I MEAN SUBSPECIES?
Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
Competition from other bird species in a limited area
HOW DO THESE BIRDS BEHAVE?
A few years back, Erika Gates, well-known Grand Bahama birder and guide, wrote an excellent article in her ‘Bird Talk’ column published in the Bahamas Weekly. It includes this description:
The Bahama Nuthatch exhibits several highly unusual and endearing behaviors. It is one of the very few bird species that conducts co-operative breeding, in which young males assist with nest construction, nest sanitation as well as feeding of the female sitting on the eggs, nestlings and fledglings. It is also one of the few birds known to utilize a tool. On occasion, it uses a bark chip, held in its bill, to pry off bark portions during foraging for insects and grub.
SO IF I’M IN THE PINE FOREST ON G B, WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Sadly, there are no available recordings of a BANU. As their vocalisation is one of the factors that differentiates them from the brown-headed nuthatch, it’s clearly not very helpful to illustrate what the latter sound like. But I am going to anyway, because they can’t be that different. It’s probably just a Bahamian accent. I have read somewhere that it sounds a bit like a squeezed rubber duck toy.
Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
WHY MIGHT THESE BIRDS TURN UP ON ABACO?
Well, I’m being a bit romantic and optimistic here. But let’s look at the official distribution map from Birdlife International. Not so very far for even a small bird to travel. There are even some small cays as stepping stones. And just think of the thousands of acres of pine forest on Abaco, much of it remote and completely undisturbed. Maybe… if a breeding pair could just… you catch my drift?
Here is another instructive map, this time from eBird. These are the only BANU sightings ever recorded, and all since 2010. These birds are tiny. There are very few of them, spread over a wide area. They live in pine trees, and are to an extent camouflaged against them. You’d be very very fortunate to find one at all, let alone get a decent photo of it… Let’s hope you can spot one while they are still around.
ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?
I have written elsewhere (in fact, HERE) about the ornithologist James Bond and his connection with Ian Fleming’s hero. The very rare first edition** of Bond’s seminal Birds of the West Indies was published in 1936. In it, he described the BANU and suggested it was a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch. A man way ahead of his time.
PLEASE STOP NOW. ANY LAST WORDS?
“The species may become extinct unless Bahamians are willing to take action to save it. As the rarest bird in the Bahamas, and one of the rarest birds in the world, the nuthatch will become a high-profile symbol of conservation efforts (or their failure) in the Bahamas”.RESEARCHGATE
Photo credits: David Hill (BHNU) 1; Birdlife.org (BANU) 2; Bruce Purdy (BANU) 3; Robert Norton (BANU) 4; Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (BANU) 5; Matt Tillett (BHNU) 6, 8; Dick Daniels (BHNU) 7
Sound: Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
Research credits: Birdlife International /Birdlife.org; Birding Community E-Bulletin, Nov 2008; Research Gate; IUCN; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)
**The edition of James Bond usually described as the first edition (indeed in the book itself) was published in 1947. You might pick one up for $100 or so (try Abe.com). Don’t get one without a dust-jacket. It’s a treasure, and an affordable slice of avian history. A 1936 edition will probably be well north of $2000…
One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed toBIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun.
Well, join me at Sanderling Bath Time on the Delphi Beach. We are the north end, where the exposed rocks of the reef curve round towards the beach. At low tide, there’s a sandbar bridge from beach to rocks. It is a perfect feeding area for shore birds. Sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, least sandpipers, Wilson’s plovers and the prized piping plovers forage happily together here.
Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand. And so the tidal process repeats. But ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and become frothier as the water pours in. And it’s an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…
Substantial immersion is not out of the question…
These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…
THE COLOUR OF CHRISTMAS: PAINTED BUNTINGS ON ABACO
It’s a statistical fact that 99% of people “love” or “adore” painted buntings. The 1% were rather standoffish “Don’t Nose”, preferring to keep their views to themselves. PABU are winter residents on Abaco, not especially common but drawn irresistibly to feeders. To me they are the colour of Christmas, magically decorated with the favourite pigments from a child’s paintbox. So before I get stuck into the imminent festivities, I’ll leave you with a few of these gorgeous creatures to enjoy…
A male and female painted bunting sharing on of the Delphi Club feeders
Wishing all friends and followers of Rolling Harbour a wonderful Christmas and a very happy New Year. See you when I have been safely discharged from the festive recovery ward…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 5), Erik Gauger (2), Tara Lavallee (3, 4), Keith Salvesen (6)
The Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor is one of 6 heron species found on Abaco, and is a permanent breeding resident. To which can be added 4 sorts of egret to complete a line up of expert fishers, all equally at home hunting in the water or from the shore, or surveying the scene from nearby vantage points like bushes and trees.
A distance shot… and it was 20′ up, above the pond
The heron and egret species of Abaco
A long neck, a long bill and long legs make this heron species ideally adapted for wading. Like other herons and egrets, it will stand stock-still waiting for the perfect fish to swim into range. However they are also active hunters, and will stalk prey or chase it by striding quickly through the water in pursuit. They eat fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and insects.
On a mission…
The tricolor has a wide resident breeding range, shown in green on the map
Coming in to land…
Breeding plumage: smart blue bill and a fish to put in it
Abaco, like the rest of the Bahama Islands, is strangely short of native land mammals. The last of the wild ABACO BARBS – descendants of Spanish Colonial horses of high pedigree – died very recently. The proud Barbs are no more. But they, of course, were an introduced species. There are the hard-breeding, hard-hunted hogs. And feral potcakes, unowned or disowned. Many feral cats. Maybe a few rabbit escapees. And bats: several of the dozen (or so) Bahamas species are found on Abaco. At one time there was the shy nocturnal HUTIA that had the distinction of being – or having been – endemic to many of the islands. Not on Abaco, sadly – its own subspecies the Great Abaco Hutia had become extinct by the c17. You’ll have to go to the Exumas to see a hutia.
HEY! THERE ARE RACCOONS, AREN’T THERE?
This endearing-looking creature was photographed on Abaco by Charmaine Albury
Raccoons are a non-native species, probably introduced in the Bahamas many decades – perhaps a couple of centuries – ago. They are thought to have been brought to New Providence originally. More recently they arrived on Abaco – possibly as pets in the first place, which were then released or escaped. And they are spreading: as recently as April 2012 an excellent article in the Bahamas edition of COASTAL ANGLER MAGAZINE introduced “Eleuthera’s Newest Mammal”.
Cuddly, furry, cute-looking, quite high on the well-known scientifically-based ‘ADORBS’ scale (Animals Deemed Outrageously, Ridiculously, Breathtakingly Strokeable)
Comfortingly familiar despite being wild animals (NB potentially aggressive)
Don’t have the same drawbacks as skunks
Have valuable fur
Pelts can be used for Davy Crockett hats
Considered to be “one of the world’s most omnivorous animals”
Known to wreak havoc with certain crops, eg watermelons
Canny and adept hunters, including at night; good climbers to treetop level
Suspected of predation of land crabs (depriving ‘natural’ predators of the pleasure)
Compete with birds for fruit, berries and nectar
Relish birds’ eggs. Low and ground-nesting birds are particularly at risk throughout season
On Abaco, a major conservation program has been needed to protect the nests of the Abaco parrots in the limestone caverns of the national park from raccoons, feral cats and rodents
Eat small birds, curly tail lizards, anoles and suchlike
Can be aggressive to humans – note the handy claws clearly shown in the photo above
A shy raccoon in a tree, Treasure Cay (Becky Marvil)
LIVE AND LET LIVE?
“The authors of the study Taxonomic status and conservation relevance of the raccoons of the West Indies (2003) hold that the Bahamian raccoon is an invasive specieswhich itself poses a threat to the insularecosystem.The Government of the Bahamas has this species listed as up for eradication on the islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama”.
So the official line favours eradication of a potentially harmful non-native species – failing which, presumably containment of numbers. Trapping is one way to achieve this – and there are both humane as well as cruel ways to do so. However, trapping in one place, only to release somewhere else is clearly not an option. But it would provide the opportunity to neuter / spay the animals and slow or prevent the reproductive spread of the creatures. Hunting raccoons is another method. It’s not currently a significant sport, but neither are raccoons protected. Their fur has a value, and some say they could provide a source of somewhat gamey meat.
Or they could be just left as they are, as attractive creatures now well-established, despite the inevitable risks to native species such as the reviving population of Abaco parrots, now at sustainable numbers. On Abaco, reduced to its basics the $64k question might be: which would you prefer in the future? More raccoons or fewer parrots (or indeed, no parrots at all)?
Raccoons exhibited in the Garden of the Groves, Freeport, Grand Bahama (neutered /spayed)
I wouldn’t wish to run the risk of influencing the delicately balanced arguments about the raccoons of the Bahamas, but will you just take a look at this? The perfect fit for the acronymic descriptor A.D.O.R.B.S!
Coastal Angler magazine, BNT / Erika Gates, Bahamas Weekly, Charmaine & Becky for the Abaco photos, plus Wiki / open source, Buzzfeed / YouTube & don’t get stuck into the rest of the cutesy viddys… Stop Press: added above the pros & cons – a great recent photo by Cheryl Wile Ferguson (nb not taken on Abaco)
At least as far as stamps are concerned, the raccoon gets equal billing with the hutia (and the bat)