“I’M WITH THE BAND…” PIPING PLOVER TUNA’S GUEST POST – revisited


 Tuna the Piping Plover: from New Jersey to Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

“I’M WITH THE BAND…” PIPING PLOVER TUNA’S GUEST POST 1

ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH was an amateur ‘citizen science’ conservation program to help investigate the winter season migrations of a tiny shore bird. It started in August 2015 as a winter-season supplement to the serious scientific research carried out annually in the summer breeding grounds and during winter trips by Conserve Wildlife Foundation New Jersey and related organisations. The data collected by APPW during the 2015-16 season turned out to be significant, so much so that the Watch continued for 5 years until Hurricane Dorian struck in September 2019. There were a few sightings after that, but the lasting changes for the island and its people precluded bird-watching.

TUNA was the first banded bird we found, a summer chick that had completed a 1000+ mile flight when aged about 3 months. During the season, Tuna’s life on Abaco was monitored, in particular by Rhonda Pearce who bonded with the little bird and took lots of photos. Tuna asked, in a whimsical way, if I would make space for a Guest Post. This was the first.

Hello, readers of Mr Harbour’s blog. My name is Tuna. This is the first part of my autobiography, and I’m only just 3 months old. I’ve already made a 1000-mile journey to Abaco for reasons I don’t quite understand. Maybe because it’s nice and warm here. This is my story so far.

I was born on June 10th in the Holgate Unit of the Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey. If I’d known then what  ‘beautiful’ was, this would have been it.

StationPhoto2

My dad is called Ross. My mum is called Paula. I had a brother but suddenly he stopped being there. We didn’t see him again, I never knew why. Anyway, the day after I was born a very kind lady called Michelle (Stantial, CWF-NJ) picked me up and sort of cuddled me in her fingers. I was weighed and measured. She also put coloured rings on my top bits of leg. I had blue & green on one leg and black & gray on the other. Very smart. A chic chick. It was very quick and it didn’t hurt at all. After that I never really thought about them again, they just were part of me. As I grew bigger they sort of grew with me.

It made for an exciting first full day of my life, June 11. Here are some pictures of Michelle doing this with other chicks from the same region so you can see how gentle she was. The chicks’ names were Meg, Joe and Nod. Mr Northside Jim watched them every day and took photos of them to record how they grew up. You can read about us and the other shorebirds, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons  of LBI NJ HERE

Meg being picked up for measuring and bandingpicking-up-piping-plover chick1 π Northside Jim LBI NJ

Banding Meg with a unique colour combo for IDpiping-plover-chick-banding-lbi π Northside Jim LBI NJ

Beak and leg measuringpiping-plover-chick-measurement π Northside Jim LBI NJ

I grew very quickly and my mum and dad showed me how to get food for myself. They looked after me in the nest and kept an eye on me when I went for a wander. Soon I was trying out my wings to see what would happen. Nothing. 

This isn’t me but was taken quite near my bit of beach. Can you see the other chick?Piping Plovers Conserve Wildlife Foundation NJ

It’s fun exploring the big world but it’s dangerous for little birds. I lost several friends along the way. That’s how my brother disappeared I think. As you grow bigger the world seems to get smaller. Which is weird.piping-plover-sit-in-dune π Northside Jim LBI NJmeg-beach-pea PIPL chick π Northside Jim LBI NJ

I got good at finding my own food, going further away from the nest and trying out the water. My wings seemed to be starting to work a bit. Quite soon I felt nearly ready to have a go at flying.Piping Plover (juv) CT (Danny Sauvageau)

On July 5 I managed to fly. Yup, I fledged and I flew. That was only 25 days after I cracked out. Mum and Dad had been talking about making a journey, a long one, and wondering when I would be ready for it. This was puzzling. I liked it where we were. But something was telling me I needed to fly somewhere else for some reason. Then one day I just took off and headed south…

_Piping_Plover_on_the_Fly (USFWS Mountain-Prairie wiki)

After several days of flying and landing in new places to rest and flying again, I reached a place that I knew was exactly right. I don’t know how, but something told me that it would be a good place to stay until I needed to move again. So I landed on a beach called Watching Bay on Abaco. I’d travelled 1000 miles from where I cracked out, and I wasn’t even 3 months old. Cool, huh?

EBF NWR to Cherokee Map jpg

There were some other birds on the beach, including one just like me except she didn’t have any coloured rings. Ha! There were very few humans apart from a few taking a walk. On Aug 28 one lady stopped and pointed something at me. I wonder why? She kept her distance so I wasn’t scared.

August 28 Watching Bay, Cherokee, Abaco. Rhonda Pearce’s photos led to provisional ID of Tuna
#10 Aug 28. Watching Bay, Cherokee Abaco. 1 bird. Banded. Rhonda Pearce 2#10 Aug 28. Watching Bay, Cherokee, Abaco. 1 bird. Banded. Rhonda Pearce 1

There was plenty to eat on the beach, and it was quite sheltered from the wind. It seemed safe. I liked it a lot and decided to stay there

Watching Bay, Cherokee, Abaco jpg

On Sep 16 I saw the same lady again, and she saw me. She was very careful not to get me worried, and she pointed that thing at me again. Then she walked away. I hope she comes back. She seems nice.

Sept 16 Watching Bay, Cherokee, Abaco. Rhonda’s new photos led to confirmed ID of Tuna

Tuna the Piping Plover: from New Jersey to Abaco (Rhonda Pearce) Tuna the Piping Plover: from New Jersey to Abaco (Rhonda Pearce) Tuna the Piping Plover: from New Jersey to Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)  #19 PIPL Bands close-up jpg

I’m planning to stay on this beach for now. More news from me soon. Cheeps from Tuna.

PIPL Watching Bay, Cherokee, Abaco. 1 bird. Banded. Rhonda Pearce 2 copy copy

TUNA’S FIRST THREE MONTHS

  • JUN 10     Hatched
  • JUN 11      Banded & measured
  • JUL 05       Fledged
  • AUG 28     First sighted on Abaco – preliminary ID
  • SEP 16       Seen again on the same beach – ID confirmed
  • SEP 22       Last sighting before Hurricane Joaquin
  • OCT 03      Back on the beach again after Hurricane Joaquin

STOP PRESS Tuna’s mother Paula was re-sighted on Sep 28 on Joulter Cays, Andros

NOTE If you ever wondered why birds are banded and what on earth use it is, the answer is in this story. Banding & tagging enables detailed research at both ends of the migration which in turn enables protection of the species and conservation of threatened habitats. There are only 8000 PIPL left. Degradation of the breeding grounds or the overwintering grounds – let alone both – may result in extinction. This seems to have been a good summer for the piping plover; let’s hope the winter treats them well so that this summer’s chicks like Tuna will be able to breed safely next year.

For details of all this season’s PIPL sightings, check out

ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH 

EDWIN B FORSYTHE NWR

CONSERVE WILDLIFE FOUNDATION of NJ

Credits: huge thanks for info and fab photos to Michelle Stantial, Northside Jim, Danny Sauvageau and Rhonda Pearce for the strands to weave this (slightly creative) tale; to USFWS Mountain-Prairie for the PIPL in flight; as always Xeno-Canto for bird sound recordings non pareil; oh, and Meg, Joe & Nod

images

THREE ‘HALLOWEEN-COLOURED’ BIRDS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


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THREE ‘HALLOWEEN-COLOURED’ BIRDS ON ABACO

Black and orange seem to have become – perhaps always have been – the colours most associated with Halloween. At one time in its history this annual fright-fest was simply ‘Holy Evening’, the one that preceded All Saints’ Day. It was once one of the most significant festivals in the religious calendar. Now it is all broomsticks, spiders, cobwebs, huge grinning fruit, and tiny sweets for small children.

As for the colour-scheme, I suppose black is for the witches, their cats, bats and the night; and orange for fire and pumpkins. Ghosts, being invisible, are beyond the scope of this post. In nature, surprisingly few creatures and plants have a predominantly black and orange livery. Some birds. A salamander of two. A few flowers.  The odd fish. And of course the monarch butterfly.

I spent a small amount of time checking which birds found on Abaco are true Halloween species, though obviously none of my go-to bird books had a ‘scare factor 50’ species entry in the index. I had to allow for some white markings, reasoning that white is not a colour but rather an absence of colour… That left 3 qualifying species (and even then some troublemakers might argue that the precise borderline between orange and yellow is debatable…) and one failed candidate, included only because of the spectacular photograph.

AMERICAN REDSTART

The Redstart Setophaga ruticilla is a species of warbler and a common winter resident on Abaco. They are mostly seen in the coppice and in gardens. They’ll be around right now – watch out for them fanning their tails. The males are black with orange markings; the females have yellow markings instead of orange and are therefore ineligible for this post. Sorry.

American Redstart (m) Abaco (Craig Nash) American Redstart (m) Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer) American Redstart (m) Abaco (Tom Sheley)

BALTIMORE ORIOLE

These Orioles Icterus galbula are rather less common winter visitors. A few are reported most years, but you’d probably only come across one by accident. Many are completely black and orange apart from white wing bars. However, there’s no doubt that others are more of a yellowy-orange.

Baltimore Oriole (pinterest) copyBaltimore Oriole (mdf-wiki)Baltimore Oriole (Brezinski-wiki)

WESTERN SPINDALIS

The handsome, colourful Spindalis zena is one of my favourite birds. Top five. The spindalis is a common permanent resident, and I am determined to make it qualify as a Halloween bird even though (arguably) plenty of its surface area is neither black nor orange. Apologies to purists.

Western Spindalis, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Western Spindalis (m) Abaco (Craig Nash) Western Spindalis (m) Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

BOBOLINK (disallowed)

A possible Halloween candidate is the bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus. which is a transient species found from time to time on Abaco as they migrate from north to south (fall) and back again (spring).  Disqualified because it spends so little time in Abaco; and because even my rather lax approach to categorisation recognises that the ‘orange’ is not very orange; and there’s not a great deal of it. Special credit mention, however, to Jim Carroll / Cornell Lab / Macaulay Library for this outstanding image)

No birds were hexed, vexed, tricked or even treated in the making of this post 

Credits: Craig Nash (1, 5), Gerlinde Taurer (2, 6), Tom Sheley (3), Keith Salvesen (4), pinterest, wiki (MDF, Brezinski), Jim Carroll / Cornell / Macaulay, Charmaine Albury (monarch butterfly), Birdorable (cartoon) & an unknown Angry Bird pumpkin carver

PIPING PLOVERS: BAHAMAS RARE WINTER RESIDENTS


Piping Plover Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Keith Salvesen)

PIPING PLOVERS: BAHAMAS RARE WINTER RESIDENTS

‘ON A BEACH NEAR YOU’

PIPING PLOVERS Charadrius melodus are specialist shorebirds in the Bahamas, and on Abaco in particular. 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.

September is the month when shorebirds get good publicity. World Shorebirds Day, Plover Appreciation Day, Migratory Birds Celebration Day, Ruddy Turnstone Tuesday and the like. Piping plovers are my particular pigeon, so I’m posting a revised article about them and their close migratory relationship with the Bahamas.

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

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 and their friends, 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.

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

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

Paul Turgeon

I will return at some stage 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 PIPL research project in the Bahamas, and involves Citizen Scientists on Abaco in the south working with partner Proper Scientists (in particular Conserve Wildlife Foundation New Jersey) in the breeding grounds in the north (see note below re the end of this 5-year project).

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

The photographs in this post were taken in January 2020 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)

ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH: A POSTSCRIPT

This piece was posted in early January 2020, when no one could have predicted the current worldwide crisis. By then, Abaco Piping Plover Watch had basically ended on Sept 1 when Dorian wrought its havoc on Abaco with maximum force early in the season. By the end of the season, the Watch had been in action for 5 years and collected plenty of valuable migration data in conjunction with the breeding grounds. My own connection with Abaco had already lessened. Covid spread. It became clear, sadly, that the time was right to end the project.

Felicia FB – one of several loyal 4-year returners

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

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

PINE WARBLERS ON ABACO: ‘PINUS ENVY’


Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

PINE WARBLERS ON ABACO: ‘PINUS ENVY’

The Pine Warbler Setophaga pinus is one of 5 year-round resident warblers on Abaco. You can see all 5 HERE. All are to be admired of course, and the pine warbler is to be envied for several reasons.

  • Like most setophagae, they are bright, lively and attractive birds
  • They live in the Bahamas all year round without needing to undertake a long exhausting flight twice a year, unlike the rest of their warbler compadres. And indeed, unlike many of the human inhabitants of Abaco
  • Abaco has vast areas of their preferred pine forest habitat
  • They are plentiful – the population is largely untroubled by usual habitat concerns
  • They are one of the few seed-eating warbler species, so feeders are a bonus

The other 33 warbler species found on Abaco (including the recently recorded CANADA WARBLER) are migratory and spend roughly half the year in their summer breeding grounds. Some of these are very rare. The co-resident year-round warblers are the 2 endemics Bahama warbler and Bahama Yellowthroat, plus the olive-capped warbler and the yellow warbler. 

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GUIDE TO ABACO’S 38 WARBLER SPECIES

As the winter warbler migrants return to the Bahamas in increasing numbers, I will soon be posting a handy illustrated ‘cut-out ‘n’ keep’ (= ‘save’) warbler. You’ll see which ones are easy to find; quite easy if you look; hard to locate; extremely rare.

‘Pine Creeping Warbler’ Audubon

As the name strongly hints, the pine warbler is primarily a bird of the pine forests, of which Abaco has an abundance. The tall, straight trees of Abaco were once a vital local source of timber (SAWMILL SINK q.v.). As a historical note, felled pines were also exported to the UK to be made into the strong pit-props needed for coal-mines. 

Pine Warbler (immature), Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Immature

Q. WHAT IS THE NORMAL RANGE OF THIS BIRD? A. THIS IS!

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Reed)

Pine warblers have a broad diet and forage methodically. Pine cones are a fertile source for food,  and those robust, stabby, slightly down-curved beaks are ideal for getting the seeds out of the cones. Equally, these warblers use their beaks to prise out insects from the rough pine trunks and branches.

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

WHAT OF THEIR NIDIFICATION?

The pine forest is obviously the preferred nesting habitat for these birds. On Abaco there are plentiful pine forests for them – the protected National Park in the south covers more than 20,000 acres. The warblers also nest in the smaller groups of pines found (for example) in or near some of the settlements; or around the edges of former sugar cane fields and the like. One nesting habit is slightly unusual – pine warblers tend to build their nests near the end of branches rather than near the trunk, a position that seems far less secure. Milton Harris has helpfully pointed out: “One theory on pine warbler nest location is that they are safer from predators by building at the end of a small branch.  Some other birds do the same.”

Pine Warbler (immature), Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

One source states that “The song of this bird is a musical trill. Their calls are slurred chips. I think we’ve all been there at some time, possibly when lunching at Pete’s Pub.

MUSICAL TRILL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

SLURRED CHIP Don Jones / Xeno-Canto

Photo Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 3, 6); Alex Hughes (2); Tom Reed (4); Tom Sheley (5); Dick Daniels (7); Wiki (range map); Nat Geo (species drawings); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto – call; Don Jones / Xeno Canto – chips

Pine Warbler (Dick Daniels wiki)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES


Osprey, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES

I have featured bird comparatives from time to time, not least because scope for confusion meant that I needed to investigate for my own peace of mind. These included the tyrant flycatchers; a number of superficially similar warbler species (mostly with yellow bits); varid vireos; all those heron-y / egret-y types and their disconcerting morphs (hello, white reddish egret).

Osprey P.h.carolinensis (CWFNJ)

And so to the magnificent osprey Pandion haliaetus. This time, the comparison is between two subspecies, broadly the North American P. h. carolinensis and the Caribbean P.h. ridgwayi. There is some overlap in Florida, and some evidence of interbreeding. In the northern Bahamas in particular there is also an overlap, so an osprey seen on Abaco could be either variety. You’ll probably be too excited watching it to care much which type it is, but this article will help you if you do…

The two ospreys shown below were photographed at Spanish Wells, Eleuthera by Barbara Crouchley. This is a ‘bingo’ photographic scoop, because each type of bird was found in the same region; now we can check out the differences between the two birds. 

The first is a North American bird. Note in particular its distinctive eye mask, and the clearly marked upper breast – more so in the female than the male (which may even be white). The overall impression of the upper-parts is dark brown. They are slightly larger than their cousins in the south.

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. carolinensis

In this Caribbean bird, below, with its trophy fish, the eye-mask is absent and the facial / nape markings are less pronounced. Furthermore, the breast and under-parts are white in both sexes (though slight marking may be apparent in some birds). And  the impression is of lighter upper-parts, even allowing for variable lighting and distance when the photos were taken. Conveniently, there’s not much detectable difference between male and females in the respective populations.

Osprey P.h. Ridgwayi, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi

EXAMPLES OF P. h. carolinensis

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)

EXAMPLES OF P. h. ridgwayi

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Grand Bahama (Linda Barry Cooper)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Jim Todd)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

THE EYES HAVE IT?

After I had looked into the noted distinctions I wrote “I’m going to stick my neck out here – I’ve not seen this mentioned anywhere, and I need to do some more comparative research”. When I saw Barbara’s pair of photos, I noticed that the eyes of the P.h.r were much paler compared with the bright orangey-yellow of P.h.c. This distinction is found in all the comparative photos above. The P.h.cs were photographed in Florida and further north and have the strikingly vivid eyes. The P.h.rs were photographed on Abaco and Grand Bahama at different times by different people. All have noticeably paler irises, more a light greeny-yellow.  

I haven’t seen this commented on since my original piece, but if anyone has a view it would be welcome.

UNDERWING DIFFERENCES

There’s a further comparison that can be made with the two subspecies in flight. Without going into technical and linguistic detail, the underwings of the P.h.cs are much darker than the Bahamas birds, whereas P.h.rs are notably paler and in some cases mostly white.  As an example, below is a distance shot I took when bonefishing out on the Abaco Marls, using a small pocket camera. This is definitely a local bird! Compare with the dramatic image below it, where the strong darker markings are all too evident. It’s a great shot with which to bring the lesson to an end.

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco Marls (Keith Salvesen)

Osprey in flight with fish (Northside Jim)

Photo credits: Tom Sheley (1); CWFNJ (2); Barbara Crouchley (3, 4); Danny Sauvageau (5, 6, 7); Jim Todd (8); Linda Barry Cooper (9); Woody Bracey (10); Keith Salvesen (11); the inimitable Northside Jim (12). Thanks for all use permissions – also to Steve Connett for the idea!

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS


Wilson's Plover & Chick - Sandy Walker, Abaco Bahamas

Wilson’s Plover & Chick, Abaco, Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS

WHO’S WHO? POTTED BIOGRAPHIES!

Who were all the people – all men, I’m afraid – who are immortalised in the names of birds they first discovered or recorded or collected specimens of or wrote about? In various previous bird posts I gave brief bios of the specific naturalist for whom the particular species under consideration was named. In due course I decided to bring all those who relate to the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular, together in one place. 

John James Audubon (Am Mus Of Nat Hist)

John James Audubon with his specimen gathering kit

This is an interesting moment to be revisiting and revising the earlier collection. There is a groundswell of demand for reappraisal of the many people whose endeavours and achievements in former times were honoured in paint, in stone, on paper, or by associative naming. However, ‘the past is a foreign country, they did things differently then’, to adapt L. P. Hartley. Suffice it to say that already, naturalists are under scrutiny for views and behaviours that were of their time and are now considered debatable or unacceptable. Audubon (above) – he of the shearwater, warbler and oriole – is one ornithologist whose scientific methods and wider perspectives are now in question. As far as I know, this applies to none of the others featured below.

ALEXANDER WILSON 1766 – 1813

Wilson’s plover, warbler, phalarope,snipe, storm-petrel

Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson, the ‘father of ornithology’, was a scottish poet and writer. He specialised in ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. The latter got him into trouble when he overstepped the mark by making a vicious written attack on one mill owner. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to burn the work in public (fair enough, perhaps) and imprisoned (somewhat harsh). After his release, he sensibly emigrated to America in 1794.

Wilson's Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson’s Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson became a teacher in Pennsylvania, and developed his interests in ornithology and painting. His ambitious plan was to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America. He travelled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions to fund a nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated, 26 had never previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord. Wilson predated John James Audubon (though not by many years) and  is generally acknowledged to be the founder of American ornithology. It appears that Audubon himself may have thought otherwise…

For examples of Wilson’s American Birds, check out the excellent Virginia University records HERE 

Wilson's Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

Wilson’s Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

 

CHARLES LUCIEN BONAPARTE 1803 – 1853

Bonaparte, Charles Lucien (1803-1857)Bonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino and Musignano was a French biologist and ornithologist. He was nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson (see above).

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Bonaparte’s Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Bonaparte studied the ornithology of the United States, and updated Wilson’s American Ornithology. His revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. He was a keen supporter of a (then little-known) ornithologist John James Audubon. Rather sweetly, he created the genus Zenaida named after his wife, and applied it to the White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica, Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. He himself was later honoured in the name ‘Bonaparte’s Gull’.

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

RAMON LA SAGRA (1798 -1871)

Mr La Sagra La Sagra’s Flycatcher

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris was a multi-talented man, being a Spanish botanist and also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). He lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be a contradiction in terms…).

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the naturalist who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the flycatcher, and who himself is honoured in the name of the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii 

Cuba Stamp La Sagra's Flycatcher

 

WILLIAM JOHN SWAINSON (1789 – 1855)

Mr SwainsonSwainson’s Hawk, Thrush & Warbler

Swainson was an English ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, natural historian, and a gifted illustrator of the natural world. He was a pioneer of the new lithographic technology, which enabled quicker reproduction of his work than engraving. Swainson lent his name to a number of avian species, three of which may be found on Abaco – the Swainson’s Hawk, Thrush and Warbler. The hawk is a rare visitor; the thrush is a transient, passing through the Bahamas during migration; and the warbler is a hard-to-find winter resident. Below is the only known Swainson’s Hawk to be photographed on Abaco.

Swainson's Hawk, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Swainson’s Hawk, Abaco, Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

JOHN ISIAH NORTHROP (1861 – 91)

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)

John Isiah Northrop, for whom the endemic BAHAMA ORIOLE Icterus northropi is named, entailed a bit more research. The link above will take you to my post about this very beautiful species that is sadly on the brink of extinction. Until recently it was found only on Abaco and Andros, but is now extirpated from Abaco and exists only in certain enclaves on Andros.

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

I can do no better than regurgitate the info provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine  illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies:

The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist)”.

 

JARED POTTER KIRTLAND 1793 –1877

260px-Jared_Potter_Kirtland_1793-1877Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)

Jared Potter Kirtland was a naturalist, malacologist and politician, most active in Ohio where he served as a probate judge and in the Ohio House of Representatives. He was also a physician and co-founder of a University Medical School. Kirtland became one of America’s leading naturalists, with a particular interest in horticulture and sea shells. He published numerous natural history articles, and was a founder and president of the Kirtland Society of Natural History and the Cleveland Academy of Natural Science.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Somewhere in amongst all this, he discovered or at least studied the warbler that was named after him. This rare ‘at risk’ bird breeds in small numbers only in certain areas of Michigan and Ohio, favouring jack-pine territory. The warblers overwinter in the Bahamas, including on Abaco. They a very hard to find – and to photograph, in my limited experience. We once made an expedition into remote backcountry scrubland and found 4 KIWAs within a couple of hours. My only photo to come out was of a small lemon obscured by twigs.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

If you want to fixate on a warbler species, this is the one. Wiki, very good on this sort of thing, has an excellent entry that will tell you all you need to know and far more besides: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirtland%27s_warbler

Kirtland's Warbler (Tom Sheley)

Kirtland’s Warbler (Tom Sheley)

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785 – 1851)

Audubon's Shearwater, Warbler, OrioleAudubon’s Shearwater, Warbler, Oriole

John James Audubon never went to Abaco. The nearest he got was probably in 1820, when he made a field trip to the southern states, including Florida; or in the 1830s when he made at least one trip to Key West. One technique that set him apart from contemporaries was his method of producing naturalistic (as opposed to ‘stuffed bird’) drawings. It involved killing birds using very fine shot, and then using wires to pose them naturally, according to his field sketches. This contrasted with the usual technique of using a stuffed specimen as a model.

Audubon's Shearwater (Dominic Sherony Wiki)

Audubon’s Shearwater (Dominic Sherony)

In my original post I stated that no birds found on Abaco were specifically named for Audubon but that ‘it is almost impossible to dip a toe into ornithological history without immediately stubbing it on Audubon’s name’. As it turns out, the shearwater has raised its profile for the northern Bahamas, but in the saddest of circumstances. Every 2 years or so, there is a phenomenon called ‘die-back’ that seems to affect the pelagic shearwaters, and large numbers are washed up on the shorelines, either dying or already dead. A few can be rescued; few of those survive. The causes are complex: I wrote about this season’s die-back HERE if you want to know more.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Since the last outing, I have found another more tenuous avian link between Abaco and Audubon / his namesake birds. The yellowed-rumped warbler, a summer migrant to Abaco, is considered to be a close cousin of the myrtle warbler and Audubon’s warbler.

Audubon’s master-work was his renowned Birds of America, arguably the most famous bird tome ever. There are about 120 sets of the original book still in existence. They were incredibly expensive to produce in contemporary terms; and in modern times a set sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s London in 2010, setting the unbeaten record for the world’s most expensive book sale. Recently there was great excitement over the sale of another set at Christie’s New York, but the sale price was far lower, a mere $7,922,500… 

Audubon Birds of America.jpg

Credits: Bird pictures as shown; Encyclopaedia of Cleveland History, American Museum of Natural History, Britannica, University of Glasgow Library, The Auk, Audubon Society, Wiki, Magpie pickings

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)