A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
Flags and other colourful festive decorations
Few birds radiate Yuletide vibes better than Painted Buntings, with their perfect festive colours. Here is a seasonal flock of them to enjoy. A very happy Christmas to those who kindly continue to visit Rolling Harbour, despite the unavoidable absence from the Bahamas of the Harbourmaster.
There are twelve species of tern – ‘swallows of the sea’ – that to a greater or lesser extent may be found on Abaco. Whether they will actually be visible at any given time is less certain, though. For a start, the only resident species is the lovely Royal Tern, available at many locations on Abaco and the cays throughout the year. The rest are migratory or just passing through.
ROYAL TERNS Thalasseus maximus PR1
MIGRATORY TERNS: SUMMER
In the slightly less commonly-found category are the summer migrant terns that, by definition, are only in residence for around half the year. Four of these are fairly common in certain areas, and actually breed on Abaco; these include arguably the prettiest of all, the bridled tern. The other two tern species (gull-billed and sandwich) are more rare and as far as I can make out do not breed locally; or perhaps only rarely.
LEAST TERN Sternula antillarum SR B 1
BRIDLED TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2
ROSEATE TERN Sterna Dougallii SR B 2
SOOTY TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2
GULL-BILLED TERN Gelochelidon nilotica SR 3
SANDWICH TERN Thalasseus sandvicensis SR 4
MIGRATORY TERNS: WINTER
There is one very rare winter resident migratory tern species, with few records of sightings for Bahamas and until early 2019, no photographic record for Abaco until Sally Chisholm saw one at Treasure Cay and managed to capture it for posterity.
FORSTER’S TERN Sterna forsteri WR 4
OCCASIONAL & RARE VISITORS
A further four tern species are very much occasionals that drop by. Three of them pass over the Bahamas on their longer migration, but may make a pit-stop around Abaco to take on fuel. Likelihood of sighting one? Slender but not impossible… the Caspian tern below was photographed on Abaco. The fourth, the Arctic Tern, is a very rare vagrant, a bird well away from its usual home or migration route as the result of storms or faulty satnav or sheer happenstance. Don’t travel to the Bahamas intent on seeing one.
CASPIAN TERN Hydroprogne caspia TR 4
The remaining species are the transient black tern and common tern; and the vanishingly rare vagrant Arctic tern. No photos of any of these I’m afraid. Here’s a handy checklist of all the tern species.
ELECTIVE MUSICAL DIGRESSION
Written by Pete Seeger, Turn x 3 was released in 1965, the title track on the second album by The Byrds. At a rather febrile time in US history (Vietnam, draft riots, civil rightists v cops and so on), this unusually palliative and thoughtful song with its religious connotations to some extent stood for peace and hope in a time of turmoil.
PS the somewhat laboured title of this post shoehorns in the name of another Byrds album, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’
Photo credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2, 3, 5, 18); Tony Hepburn (4); Alex Hughes (10, 11); Bruce Hallett (6, 7, 12); Woody Bracey (8, 13, 16); Duncan Wright (9); Dick Daniels (14); Sally Chisholm (15); Keith Kemp (17)
‘CARRION SCAVENGING’: TURKEY VULTURES IN ABACO BAHAMAS
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) manage to be simultaneously majestic, hideous, revolting and socially vital, all packed into a single species… Right now there is a slew of online excitement about them, although it can’t be because it is ‘International Turkey Vulture Appreciation Day, which is on September 4th. Anyway, it’s always a good time to join a flock of admirers.
The word ‘vulture’ derives from the latin word ‘vulturus‘ meaning ‘ripper’, ‘shredder’, or ‘very loud Metallica song*‘.
TUVUs have very good eyesight, and an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect the scent of decay (from the release of the chemical ethyl mercaptan) from a distance. A breeding pair will raise two chicks, which revoltingly are fed by the regurgitation of all the rank… oh, you fill in the rest…
These vultures are often seen in a spread-winged stance, which is believed to serve multiple functions that include drying the wings, warming the body, and baking bacteria. Possibly it also reduces the miasma of rotting meat that may surround them after a good meal.
TUVUs like best to perch on a vantage point – utility posts or wires are ideal.
You won’t ever hear them sing or call. They lack aSYRINX(the avian equivalent of a larynx), and their vocalisation is confined to grunting or hissing sounds. Here’s a hiss (at 10 / 15 secs).
10 SCAVENGED TURKEY VULTURE FACTS FOR YOU TO PICK OVER
One local name for TUVUs is ‘John Crow’
An adult has a wingspan of up to 6 feet
Sexes are identical in appearance, although the female is slightly larger
The eye has a single row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two on the lower lid
TVs live about 20 years. One named Nero had a confirmed age of 37
LEUCISTIC (pale, often mistakenly called “albino”) variants are sometimes seen
TUVUs are gregarious and roost in large community groups
They have few natural predators (perhaps for reasons of their hygiene deficiency)
Though elegant in flight, and users of thermals, they are ungainly on the ground and in take-off
The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but are perforated; from the side one can see through the beak
REVOLTING CORNER / DEPT OF ‘WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION’
SQUEAMISH? THEN LOOK AWAY NOW
UNATTRACTIVE HABITS The Turkey Vulture“often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known asUROHIDROSIS.This cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs”. The droppings produced by Turkey Vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Maybe don’t park your nice car under one of their perching posts…
HORRIBLE DEFENCES The main form of defence is“regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator”
DIETARY NOTES TUVUs tend to prefer recently dead creatures, avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. They will occasionally resort to vegetable matter – plants and fruit (you could view this as their side-salad). They rarely, if ever, kill prey – vehicles do this for them, and you’ll often see them on roadsides feeding on roadkill. They also hang around water, feeding on dead fish or fish stranded in shallow water.
ECO-USES If you did not have birds like this, your world would be a great deal smellier and less pleasant place, with higher chance of diseases from polluted water and bacterial spread. TUVUs kept the highways clear and work their way round the town dumps recycling noisome items. Humans need them although, conversely, they don’t need humans.
FORAGING TUVUs forage by smell, which is uncommon in birds. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, the gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals. Their olfactory lobe in the brain is particularly large compared to that of other animals.
SEX TIPS Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In humans, similar occasions are called ‘Dances’. A pair will fly, with the female closely following the male while they flap & dive… then they land somewhere private and we draw the veil…
Credits: Craig Nash (1); Keith Salvesen (2); Nina Henry (3, 5, 6); amy-at-poweredbybirds (4); Charlie Skinner (7); Xeno-Canto / Alvaric (sound file); Birdorable (TUVU cartoon); depressingnature.com (puking TUVU); Source material OS & magpie pickings. Adapted and updated from a previous version written a while back
*As Metallica so appropriately wrote and sweatily sang (luckily there’s no verse referencing urination, defecation and puking). ALERT don’t actually play the video – the song hasn’t aged well! In fact… it’s terrible. Woe woe indeed…
The vultures come See the vultures come for me Fly around the sun But now too late for me Just sit and stare Wait ’til I hit the ground Little vultures tear Little vultures tear at flesh
The Great Egret is actually a heron rather than an egret. It’s a Great Heron. All egrets are members of the heron family Ardeidae, but the converse is not true. As long ago as 1758,Linnaeus awarded the bird the binomial name Ardea alba i.e. ‘Heron white‘. Why it should have been so hard to stick to that authoritative nomenclature, I can’t imagine. Perhaps in time all heron and egret species became so hopelessly confusing for people that it ceased to matter much what they were called.
Maybe it was that type of carelessness that led to people from the mid-c19 onwards eyeing up GREGs as a source of hat feathers and other decorative necessities. As with flamingos and many other beautiful avian species, mankind’s millinery and other fashion needs were satisfied at the expense of gorgeous plumage. Actually, at the cost of the birds’ lives: they were simply shot in huge numbers.
Healthy populations were decimated; for some species they never recovered. For others, the great egret among them, the passage of time and the passing of fashions – backed in many cases with conservation programs – have successfully restored the populations. In 1953 theNational Audubon Society, which was formed at least in part to discourage the killing of birds for their feathers, took a decisive step in the cause of the great egret by making the bird the emblem of the organisation.
Photo Credit: Nina Henry photographed all the egrets in this post. Her wonderful images of this magnificent egret heron made a significant contribution to the “BIRDS OF ABACO” project.
The white-cheeked (‘Bahama’) pintail Anas bahamensis (aka ‘Bahama duck’) is everyone’s favourite dabbling duck. Or at least it ought to be. And when there are ducklings swimming with the adults, there is no emoticon yet devised that will convey the extremes of cuteness achieved.
Credits: all absolutely adorbs photos are by Tom Sheley & Charles Skinner
The Bahama warbler Setophaga flavescens is a significant species in the Bahamas, not least because of their very confined range. These are speciality birds on Abaco, taking their place alongside just 4 other year-round resident warblers. In contrast, there are 33 recorded migratory or transient warbler species which begin to arrive in early spring and are mostly gone by October.
I have just been asked about image rights for a Yellow-bellied sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius featured in BIRDS OF ABACO so I have gone back to the archive. The photograph below was taken by Gerlinde Taurer, a significant contributor to the book. On Abaco the sapsucker is the only migratory woodpecker species, a fairly common winter resident. The two other woodpecker species – West Indian and Hairy – are year-round residents. Like its woodpecker cousins, the sapsucker drills holes in trees. The dual purpose is to release the sap (which it eats); and so to attract insects (which it also eats). A two-course meal, if you like. They’ll also eat insects on an undrilled tree, and even ‘hawk’ for them in flight. They sensibly balance their diet with fruit and berries. This is without doubt the best image of a YBS I have come across.
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 recordedCANADA 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.
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 SINKq.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.
Q. WHAT IS THE NORMAL RANGE OF THIS BIRD? A. THIS IS!
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.
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.”
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
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).
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
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
EXAMPLES OF P. h. carolinensis
EXAMPLES OF P. h. ridgwayi
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 toDarwin’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…
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.
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)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
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)
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)
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.
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
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
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
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ABACOIt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Bahamas
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, until 1 September 2019 when Dorian struck, Abaco was a prime birding location in the Bahamas archipelago, an island chain that stretches from the lower reaches of the temperate zone to the more exotic sub-tropical region. The judgement for ‘best birding location’ is both objective and subjective, and the criteria are flexible. However on any view Abaco scores highly in all avian categories: resident species, endemics, migratory birds, speciality species, vulnerable species, and extreme rarities.
We’ll have to wait some time before it is possible to tell what effects the devastating storm has had on the wildlife of the island and on its birding credentials…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Tom Sheley
The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project (now in new & expert hands) – was Peter Mantle. The book showcases the work of 30 photographers, including some outstanding contributions by islanders. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager (= Mrs RH, then of YUP) and from the top Bahamas bird experts – Woody Bracey, Tony White, Bruce Hallett, and Tony Hepburn, to name but 4. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.
Cuban Emerald (f) – Keith Salvesen
The book project was something of a gamble. When planning began, social media – and the facility to reach a wide audience – was significantly less active than it was soon to become. The book was launched at Delphi to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, but the extent of the interest (and sales) that might be generated more widely was unknown. We predicted it might be a slow-grower, so we were astonished by the immediate positive response to the guide. Perhaps it helped that there was a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco’s rich birdlife – we donated copies to all Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations for educational purposes. A significant percentage of the profits was set aside for local wildlife causes and duly distributed.
Moving on just 5 years to this summer, the limited edition of 500 had all but sold out; and around 100 free copies had been donated – or deposited (as required by UK Law) in specified institutions: British Library; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; and Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Brown Pelican – Tom Sheley
PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE?
Six weeks after Dorian, a semblance of normality is returning to the stricken island. Daily snippets of optimism are of great significance: a lost pet found after many days; a trashed plant defiantly putting out a flower; a pair of parrots screeching past; a boat recovered; a building slightly less damaged than feared. Recovered possessions from flooded houses have brought mixed emotions – heart-rending losses of precious items, yet also the unexpected recovery of possessions believed lost or destroyed. And in that context but far less emotionally, I have now had quite a few requests for replacement copies of “Birds of Abaco”.
Short-billed dowitchers – Bruce Hallett
SO, ARE THERE ANY REPLACEMENT BIRD BOOKS LEFT?
The position in a conch-shell is this:
There are now no copies still available on Abaco. Former HQ (and book storage / fulfilment facility) The Delphi Cub changed hands a year ago, and no longer carries a stock of the books.
In the UK, Peter Mantle and I have about a dozen between us that are, in one way or another, ring-fenced.
That’s it, I’m afraid.
Bridled Tern – Bruce Hallett
ARE YOU PLANNING TO REPRINT?
For several reasons, no – it’s not a viable proposition. Specifically:
the size & print-costs of such a large heavy (2 kgs) book
the specialist printing (eg in Italy) needed to retain the quality; and the associated shipping costs
the lack of any viable storage and / or fulfilment facilities on Abaco, or anywhere else suitable
the lack of a prominent ornithologically-minded literary-leaning benefactor with a kind smile & deep pockets
Black-throated blue warbler – Gerlinde Taurer
CAN I STILL GET THE BOOK IN SOME OTHER FORM?
Yes! I hope. We are kicking around the following ideas in a general and inchoate way:
first, avoiding any system requiring storage or fulfilment (so, not a physical reprint)
using existing production material to create a Print-on-Demand book
turning the guide into an eBook (may be difficult / impossible with non-standard format)
most likely producing a full PDF (or similar) version for download and possibly printing
selecting sections – eg the definitive checklist – as individual downloads
considering other suggestions!
At the moment this is in the basket marked ‘non-urgent’, but the alternatives will be under active consideration.
Clapper Rail – Tom Sheley
The original flyer for the book
Painted Bunting Tom Sheley
Photos: Alex Hughes (1); Tom Sheley (2, 4, 9, 10); Keith Salvesen (3, 11); Bruce Hallett (5, 7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Charmaine Albury, para-breakers