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).
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).
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…
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 stilt
BLACK-NECKED STILT ALARM CALL
Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
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
This is a challenging topic that I have been (shamefully) putting off. My task is a full-scale facing-up to an extremely rare, very small, and rather adorable adversary, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). There are probably more dedicated KIWA experts out there than there are birds of this scarce species. Estimates of bird numbers vary wildly, but if I take a consensus of the mean of an approximate average of the median as ± 5000 individuals, I’d probably be in the ballpark named “Current Thinking“.
THAT SOUNDS QUITE RARE, RIGHT?
Around 50 years ago, the species was all but extinct – perhaps fewer than 500 birds in total, a barely sustainable population. In 1975, Brudenell-Bruce estimated 1000. I’ll mention some of the reasons later. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan was instituted with the twin objectives of protecting the vulnerable breeding habitat – basically large areas of jack pine; and of monitoring and management aimed at encouraging an increase in numbers. Around that time, they became IUCN listed as vulnerable, but more recently, population growth has resulted in a recategorisation to the more optimistic near-threatened category.
AND THEY LIVE WHERE, EXACTLY?
In spring and summer almost the entire KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. There are signs that the range has expanded slightly in Michigan and more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio as the numbers have increased.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)
In the fall and 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.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio
SO THEY ARE REALLY FOUND ON ABACO?
Yes – but they are notoriously hard to find. To give you an idea, I checked the eBird stats for Abaco sightings over the last 10 years: 9 successful trips reported, with 18 birds seen in all**. There were 3 groups comprising 6, 4, and 2 birds; and the rest were single birds. Abaco ornithologist and guide Woody Bracey is the go-to man for finding these little birds. Two years ago we were in his party that saw 4 in the space of a couple of hours. I was supposedly the photographer, but unaccountably found myself in completely the wrong place for the first 3. The 4th flew off a branch and straight at my head as I raised the camera… I felt the wind as it passed on its way deep into the coppice. I’m not proud of my effort; the fuzzy lemon item beyond the twigs and leaves is a KIWA (you’ll have to take my word for it…).
HAVE ANY BEEN SEEN ON ABACO THIS YEAR?
Last week, Woody took another party to the main hotspot in the Abaco National Park, a protected area at the southern end of the island. The park is huge, covering more than 20,000 acres of (mostly) pine forest. These birds are tiny, about 14 cms long and weighing 14 gms. Despite which they found a female and then a male KIWA in their favoured habitat beyond the pine forest. Those are the only 2 I’ve heard about this winter season.
Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas, 12 April 2018
WHAT DO I 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 (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond)
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
Some would say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found they produce ‘a loud tchip, song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). You be the judge!
Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto
WHAT ARE 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 of development is another threat, as with so many species.
There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable.
In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least.
Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again.
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)
Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician and 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; and also in a couple of snake species.
The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps
**I realise eBird is not the be-all and end-all for sighting reports. It hasn’t been in existence for as long as 10 years, and not everyone uses it anyway. And awareness of the Bahamas as the winter home for KIWAs is a surprisingly recent development (as with piping plovers). As awareness increases, so do birder interest, habitat knowledge, and consequently reports of sightings.
Another example of the ‘twigs in the way’ problem for photographers
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Tom Sheley (5); Unattributable (me, in fact) 6; Woody Bracey (7, 9); Tony Hepburn (8); Lionel Levene (10); 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.
My favourite bird book, in a fairly large collection, is my treasured 1947 ‘first printing’ edition of James Bond’s Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies. It is not especially rare, and one can still be had for under $200. The price is rising – about 5 years ago mine cost $80, in excellent condition, with intact dust jacket and protective cover.
This renowned reference book has since had many subsequent incarnations – if you are interested, you can find the whole story including how Ian Fleming chose to name his Double-O hero after an ornithologist HERE. I have several later versions, including 1960 and 1985, where the source material forms the basis. However the latest book of the same name, by Norman Arlott published in 2010, is a completely new offering with a wealth of useful detail. It is good – but it isn’t Bond!
The 1947 Bond is commonly described as the First Edition, and sold as such. But as some will know, it is in truth the second edition of Bond’s famous book, which was originally published in 1936. This was made clear in the copyright info to the 1947 edition; but seems to be rather less prominent in later editions.
A true first edition – very rarely on the market – now comes in well north of $2000, unless in poor condition and without the all-important dust jacket (with rare books, the “DJ” seems to be almost as important as the book itself, especially if in “VGC”).
My edition of Bond’s book has a strange quirk in the title. It’s not exactly a misprint, more of a variation that was probably unintentional. The jacket proclaims it to be a field guide of birds of the West Indies, as does the book’s front cover and frontispiece. However the book’s spine and the page preceding the Introduction state that it is a field guide to birds of the West Indies.
One of the great charms of ‘Bond’, besides the elegance of his writing, is that he includes the Caribbean-wide local names for the birds he features. Thus the mangrove cuckoo is variously known as a rain bird, rain crow, four o’clock bird, and coffin bird. The black-faced grassquit might be a blue-black, a see-see, or a johnny-jump-up. And a flamingo could be a flamenco, a flamant – or a fillymingo.
These reflections on one of the great bird books of the 20th century were prompted by a request I received from someone wanting a good image of a Bahamas flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber (the National Bird)to illustrate what is effectively a research paper about Bahamas natural history. Often with such inquiries – I get quite a few – I can supply images from my own archive. Other times I am able to source images from generous people who give use permission (non-commercial) in return for a credit.
For the flamingos, I only had images of a single vagrant bird that turned up at Gilpin Pond, Abaco a few years ago (Birds of Abaco p25). It looks rather sad and lonesome in the photos; within a matter of weeks it was gone.
None has been reported on Abaco since, though once they were plentiful. Before this lone specimen, there was an attempt to reintroduce the species on the brackish ponds at the fishing lodge ‘Different of Abaco’, Casuarina. The lodge is long-since defunct, as are the flamingos (thePEACOCKSare flourishing however).
Luckily I knew who to turn to for flamingo pictures: Nassau resident Melissa Maura, a person deeply involved with the wildlife of the Bahamas and far beyond. Melissa has spent time with the flamingos of Inagua which has one of the world’s largest breeding colonies – well over 50,000 – of these gorgeous birds in its National Park, overseen by the Bahamas National Trust.
The flamingos of Inagua now thankfully receive the protection that was sadly lacking in c19 Bahamas, when their vast numbers were radically reduced by mankind, leading to extirpation on many islands where they had been plentiful. Hunted for meat and for ornamental feathers; taken for trading, for collections, for zoos: there were no limits. CHARLES CORYnoted at the end of c19 that masses of chicks were being killed before they even fledged; and that large numbers were sold to passing ships, on which they were simply left to die.
Melissa has been fortunate enough to be on Inagua during the breeding season when banding takes place. So besides the adult birds in their orange-pink finery, she has been able to photograph the strange ‘mini-volcano’ nests (above) and the sweet, awkward-looking grey chicks. And with her kind permission, Melissa’s superb ‘fillymingo’ photos adorn this article. I believe the real James Bond would have been delighted to admire them; I hope that goes for you too.
All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura, with many thanks
The header image is of a Bahama mockingbird recently photographed by keen-eyed Abaco birder Keith Kemp. It is a thing of wonder and beauty, exceptionally rare and possibly unique. I can find no other example of a leucistic bird of this species online.
This is not Keith’s first leucistic bird discovery on Abaco either – a while back he found a leucistic Western spindalis. You can read more about leucism and its distinction from albinism, and see a number of other examples of leucism including a white turkey vultureHERE
Even more astonishingly, Keith managed to get a photo of the ‘white’ bird and a ‘normal’ bird together (above). The difference is startling. Below is a fine photo by Peter Mantle of a Bahama mockingbird, as you would expect to see one – basically brown with a pale, flecked front / underside.
LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?
I’ll recap what I wrote in the earlier post linked above. First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. For example:
Albino Fwuffy Bwunny Wabbit
WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?
Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused by pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally pale or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected – so, not pink. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.
KK’s leucistic Western spindalis, an example of partial or ‘pied’ leucism
So there you have it: another extreme rarity for Abaco, and a further example of how rewarding – and surprising – birding on Abaco can be. To repeat the link to the more detailed article on leucism in birds, you can find with (*distraction alert*) some music and inappositely comedic material thrown inHERE
All photos Keith Kemp except the ‘normal’ bird, Peter Mantle
LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERMyiarchus sagrae is one of 3 permanent resident ‘tyrant’ flycatchers found on Abaco, the others being theCUBAN PEWEE and the LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD. In the summer, they are joined by another commonly-found species, theGRAY KINGBIRD. There are other flycatchers, but they are seasonal, transient or vagrant, and far less common.
Two classic LSF poses: ‘head-on-one-side’ & ‘watching-for-insects’
I have just been watching one of these frankly rather very cute little birds as it patiently watched me watching it. I wasn’t very close, and I kept my distance because it seemed a little wary and I didn’t want to blow the chance of a couple of photos – the familiar ‘bird-flies-off-just-as-shutter-pressed’ syndrome.
Sized between the little cuban pewee, with its diagnostic crescent eyes, and the larger loggerhead kingbird (see below), the LSF shares with them the ability to raise its crest. I was luckily able to catch this on camera – and also some singing.
As the name suggests, the species is primarily insectivore, fly-catching in the undergrowth and low scrub or ‘hawking’ from branches. However these birds also eat berries and seeds. Their call is a high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’. Here’s a Bahamian example.
Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto
The LSF’s natural habitat is coppice and rough scrubland. It builds its nest in a tree cavity or similar natural hole, and usually lays a clutch of two to four eggs. And this morning by coincidence, Abaco birder Rhonda Pearce posted a photo of a LSF nest with its eggs.
Here are the two flycatcher species, mentioned above, that might cause confusion:
Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris (1798–1871)
For those who may be wondering who – or what – a ‘La Sagra’ is, the answer is: a multi-talented Spanish botanist. He was also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). At one time 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 an oxymoron…)
[I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, or a small comet – all of which meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…]
To continue with the occasional PHILATELIC theme of this blog, here are stamps from the Cayman Islands and Cuba featuring the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. The Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the man who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the LSF. The colouring is… somewhat unrealistic!
Credits: All photos Keith Salvesen except nest (Rhonda Pearce) and loggerhead kingbird (Mrs RH); recording by Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto; stamps O/S
Mmmmm… gumbo limbo berries at Bahama Palm Shores. My favourite evening snack as we parrots head south to the National Park in the evening.
There’s a flock of about 60 of us tonight. I hope I’m left alone to get stuck in – there are plenty of trees to choose from here…
Uh oh! That was never going to happen. We are a noisy rowdy gang, and no one gets to eat alone for long…
This is really bad news… this guy’s hungry, and he’s swooped in higher up the branch, so he’s got an advantage.
Time to take a stand. I’m getting on a level with him. I was here first – these are MY berries… But he’s getting shouty. And there’s aggro in the air…
Right, I’m backing off here. I never did much like gumbo limbo berries, now I come to think of it… And he looks mean as hell. But wait – I’m not just going to back down. Let’s give him a little surprise to remember me by.
Least Sandpipers Calidris Minutilla are the smallest ‘peeps’ to be found on Abaco. There are plenty of other sandpiper species, but none so tiny as these. Take a look at the image above. See them? All 3 of them? Just look at their size in comparison with the mangrove stems.
I took these photos from the sharp end of a skiff a few days ago, way out on the Marls and with a fishing rod tucked under one arm. We were on a drift along the shoreline, and these little guys were foraging on the water’s edge as we silently floated past.
They were quite unperturbed by our presence, being far too busy feeding to be bothered with us. I have usually seen these little birds on the beach, busy in the wrack-line rootling out goodies. There, they look very small – but not nearly as tiny as when foraging among the mangrove stems.
I debated whether to do some cropping to magnify the details on the page, so to speak, but then I decided that these very sweet creatures deserved their own space without the indignity of close inspection. Context is all.
These mini-sandpipers may be Least by name, but they are very far from last in my personal list of favourite peeps. There are some down on the beach right now, but there’s some cloud cover today… I’ll wait for the sun to catch them in the best light.