AUDUBON’S SHEARWATER (DUSKY PETREL): SAD NEWS FROM ABACO


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

AUDUBON’S SHEARWATER (DUSKY PETREL): SAD NEWS FROM ABACO

Just 2 short years ago, Abaco experienced a shearwater die-off event, when during a period of a week or so numerous dead and dying Great Shearwaters were washed up on many of Abaco’s beaches. You can read about it HERE and a follow-up HERE. This map shows the affected area in 2015.

Now comes news of another such sad event, with a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches at Bahama Palm Shores, Casuarina, Winding Bay and doubtless elsewhere. Many are already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. 

Audubons Shearwater from Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds) - Richard Crossley : Crossley Guides CCL

SHEARWATER DIE-OFF
These upsetting beach finds seem to be a periodic phenomenon, and very likely result from climate conditions or shortage of food out in the ocean – or a combination. Although most will unavoidably have ingested plastics, that would not explain the simultaneous deaths. Poor fishing conditions – they eat fish and squid – will weaken and exhaust the birds as they try to find food. Woody Bracey thinks this the most likely cause, having noticed recent poor deep-sea fishing conditions and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of fish.
Pétrel de Barau - wiki .jpg
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds, sadly, 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. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds. 
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread – it’s very bad for birds…
(4) if it 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.
 
Audubon's Shearwater Stamp) OS
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
This poor shearwater was one of a number of dead birds found by Keith Kemp at Casuarina yesterday. I realise such images can be upsetting, so I am confining photos of the birds to just two so you will recognise one if you see it.
Audubon's Shearwater, Abaco (Keith Kemp)Audubon's Shearwater, Abaco (Keith Kemp)
 AUDUBON’S SHEARWATERS IN AN EGGSHELL
  • Belong to the petrel family
  • Named ‘Puffinus lherminieri’ after French naturalist Felix Louis L’Herminier
  • Also known as the Dusky-backed Shearwater – or by Audubon as the Dusky Petrel
  • Forages by diving out of flight or from the surface; or by surface-feeding
  • Colony breeders, nesting in rock crevices, in burrows, or under thick vegetation
  • Mated pairs spend much time together at nest site. They like rubbing bills together
  • Their ‘twittering calls and mewing’ are usually only heard at night 

Audubon’s ‘Dusky Petrel’

Audubon's Shearwater (Dusky Petrel) - Audubon.org

I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of the current event, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me  / PM on FB

Finally, for those who wonder how pioneer naturalists went about their work observing a species, collecting specimens and recording their findings, here is Audubon’s own account for the ‘Dusky Petrel’, Plate 299 in his magisterial work.

Dusky Petrel (Plate 299)

On the 26th of June, 1826, while becalmed on the Gulf of Mexico, off the western shores of Florida, I observed that the birds of this species, of which some had been seen daily since we left the mouth of the Mississippi, had become very numerous. The mate of the vessel killed four at one shot, and, at my request, brought them on board. From one of them I drew the figure which has been engraved (see above). The notes made at the time are now before me, and afford me the means of presenting you with a short account of the habits of this bird.

They skim very low over the sea in search of the floating bunches of marine plants, usually called the gulf weed, so abundant here as sometimes to occupy a space of half an acre or more. In proceeding, they flap their wings six or seven times in succession, and then sail for three or four seconds with great ease, having their tail much spread, and their long wings extended at right angles with the body. On approaching a mass of weeds, they raise their wings obliquely, drop their legs and feet, run as it were on the water, and at length alight on the sea, where they swim with as much ease as Ducks, and dive freely, at times passing several feet under the surface in pursuit of the fishes, which, on perceiving their enemy, swim off, but are frequently seized with great agility. Four or five, sometimes fifteen or twenty of these birds, will thus alight, and, during their stay about the weeds, dive, flutter, and swim, with all the gaiety of a flock of Ducks newly alighted on a pond. Many Gulls of different kinds hover over the spot, vociferating their anger and disappointment at not being so well qualified for supplying themselves with the same delicate fare. No sooner have all the fishes disappeared than the Petrels rise, disperse, and extend their flight in search of more, returning perhaps in awhile to the same spot. I heard no sound or note from any of them, although many came within twenty yards of the ship and alighted there. Whenever an individual settled in a spot, many others flew up directly and joined it. At times, as if by way of resting themselves, they alighted, swam lightly, and dipped their bills frequently in the water, in the manner of Mergansers.

I preserved the skins of the four specimens procured. One of them I sent to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, by Captain JOHN R. BUTLER, of the ship Thalia, then bound from Havana to Minorca. Two others were presented to my excellent friend Dr. TRAILL, on my first becoming acquainted with him at Liverpool.

I found the wings of this species strong and muscular for its size, this structure being essentially requisite for birds that traverse such large expanses of water, and are liable to be overtaken by heavy squalls. The stomach resembles a leather purse, four inches in length, and was much distended with fishes of various kinds, partially digested or entire. The oesophagus is capable of being greatly expanded. Some of the fishes were two and a half inches in length, and one in depth. The flesh of this Petrel was fat, but tough, with a strong smell, and unfit for food; for, on tasting it, as is my practice, I found it to resemble that of the porpoises. No difference is perceptible in the sexes.

While on board the United States revenue cutter Marion, and in the waters of the Gulf Stream opposite Cape Florida, I saw a flock of these birds, which, on our sailing among them, would scarcely swim off from our bows, they being apparently gorged with food. As we were running at the rate of about ten knots, we procured none of them. I have also seen this species off Sandy Hook.

Audubon’s Range Map for the species
Audubon's-Shearwater_map (audubon.org)

Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this sad event over the last few days, and to Woody Bracey for his views; Dominic Sherony (wiki) for the header image; Keith Kemp for photos from Casuarina; Audubon.org for images, quote & range map; Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture; Audubon, wiki and random pickings for info about these birds

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER: SMALL TYRANTS ON ABACO


La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER: SMALL TYRANTS ON ABACO

The LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus sagrae) is a common resident breeding species of flycatcher on Abaco, and these very pretty small birds can be seen in many habitats – pine forest, scrubland, coppice and gardens, for example. They are insectivores, as the name suggests, but they also eat seeds and berries. 

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Tom Reed

As a ‘tyrant flycatcher’, this little bird is a member of the large passerine order that includes kingbirds, pewees and phoebes, with which they are sometimes confused. I last wrote about LSFs in the infancy of this blog, illustrated with my own rather… ahem… ‘simple’** photos. Time to revisit them and to do them justice with some new, improved images.

‘Simple’ photo from a less complex era, taken with a 2mp ‘Cheepo’™ cameraLa Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

Magnificent photo by Gelinde Taurer that you can actually enlarge (click pic see?)La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer

Unlike many bird species, adult LSFs are very similar in appearance in both sexes. Whatever the gender, they are sometimes confused with their cousins the Cuban Pewees, but those have a very distinctive eye-crescent.

Cuban Pewee – note eye-crescent, absent in the LSFCuban Pewee, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

Both species have a tiny hook at the end of the (upper) beak – to help trap insects, I assumeLa Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Tom Reed

Another thing to notice about LSFs is the amount of rufous brown in their plumage, particularly on the wings and tail – and even at the base of the beak. This coloration is absent from their larger cousin kingbirds, the loggerhead and the gray.La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Charles SkinnerLa Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Charles Skinner

WHAT SHOULD I LISTEN OUT FOR?

“A high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’... ” Or it might be ‘bip‘. Or ‘weep‘. Or (on one recording I listened to, complete with sonograph) it sounded like ‘chi-chitty chew‘. But it may have been a misID.

 Hans Matheve @ Xeno-Canto

A hint of a crest is visible in this photoLa Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Peter Mantle

ANY IDEA WHAT LA SAGRA CHICKS LOOK LIKE?

Well, as it happens, yes. By good fortune Abaco photographer and piping plover monitor Rhonda Pearce happens to have had a nest at hand this very season. So, happy to oblige… La Sagra's Flycatcher chicks in nest, Abaco - Rhonda Pearce

WHO OR WHAT IS A ‘LA SAGRA’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME?

Mr La Sagra was a multi-talented Spanish botanist. Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris (1798–1871) 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 more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, ‘anarchist circles’ must be a contradiction in terms… that should be ‘anarchist disorganised squiggles’)

I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, and a small comet… All these meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Tom Sheley

Continuing this blog’s philatelic natural history theme, 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 this bird. And Gundlach’s name lives on in the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii…La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

** ‘Simple’, as in ‘not completely disastrous for an amateur effort but frankly not the sort of standard we have come expect around here’.

Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 4); Tom Reed (2, 6); Keith Salvesen (3 [!], 5, 12); Charles Skinner (7, 8); Peter Mantle (9); Rhonda Pearce (chicks) 10; Tom Sheley (11); Ramon and stamps, open source

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)


Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)

Four years ago a young English friend of ours, Oscar Ward, was lucky enough to be offered an internship with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). At the time, he was post-school, and waiting to start a degree course in marine biology at university. He had no practical experience at all, so he had to progress from the menial tasks (scraping barnacles off the bottom of the research boat) to the more adventurous (whale poop-scooping) to the scholarly (collection and analysis of samples and data, including audio file matching of whale calls for identification). The need for hard work, concentration and accuracy were made clear from the outset… and as you will see, Oscar’s short internship has stood him in very good stead during his university course.

Oscar weekending at Gilpin Point – self-sufficientBMMRO Internship - weekend off (Oscar Ward)

From a promising start on Abaco, and with 2 year’s study behind him, Oscar is currently spending the 3rd year of his 4-year course in Australia, working with The Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has been involved in a number of complex projects focussed on corals and reef life – as we all know, a matter of huge concern – and the projections for the future of the reef systems in a time of warming seas and raised acid levels. Oscar also assists PhD students, for example examining the damaging effects of parasitic worms on coral; and the effect of changing light conditions on corals.

Nurse Sharks, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Much of Oscar’s time has been spent doing fieldwork. Often he is at sea, monitoring and collecting samples in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, diving two or three times a day. This work is often carried out in restricted or preservation zones, and with ever-present manta rays, sharks and sea turtles around him.

Manta Ray, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Right now Oscar is involved with the investigations into the recent bleaching events, work that is at the forefront of serious concern for the GBR and far beyond. I have recently corresponded with him – he has definitely not forgotten that his grounding for the fieldwork and studies that he is engaged in – and very likely his career – came from his time on Abaco and the lessons he learned during his time with the BMMRO at Sandy Point.  (In part 2: another good intern, currently at Sandy Point)

Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR


Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR

Last summer, the big motion picture sensation for the bird world was, of course, Pixar’s ineffably adorable creation, Piper – the ultimate ‘Chick Flick’. This little ball of cartoon fluff was not, as some thought, based on a piping plover but on a sanderling – a type of sandpiper (clue in name). This 6 minute ‘short’ preceded the main event, the hugely popular Finding Dory. You can read all about the film Piper and the birding aspects of the film HERE

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Finding Dory is not about a fish of the dory species, of course. Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, Dory is in fact a species of surgeonfish Paracanthurus, the familiar blue tang found on the reefs of the Bahamas. To see these fish in Abaco waters, Fowl Cays National Park is always a good bet.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Dory can be identified as a maturing juvenile: blue, with a yellow tail. In due course – in time for the sequel film – she will become blue all over, with perhaps the odd flash of yellow (see photos above).

In real life, a baby blue tang is in fact entirely yellow, except for blue rings around the eyes. In Pixarland, however, Dory is just an adorbs miniature version of her youthful self.

Blue Tang juvenile, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Blue Tang are lovely to watch as they cruise round the reefs, sometimes in large groups. Their colouring ranges from pale to dark blue. However, these are fish that are best looked at and not touched – their caudal spines are very sharp. When the fish feels in threatened, the spine is raised and can cause deep cuts, with a risk of infection.  

Still from a crummy video taken at Fowl Cays some years back to illustrate a group of blue tangBlue Tangs, Fowl Cays Nature Park, Abaco Bahamas (KS)

Blue tangs are inedible, they apparently smell unpleasant, and they can cause ciguatera. However they are popular in the aquarium trade. This is a distinct downside of highly successful films such as Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. In defiance of the well-meant and broadly ecological message of both films, the trade in clown fish and to a lesser extent blue tang was boosted by their on-screen portrayal as adorbs creatures desirable for the entertainment of mankind… ‘Nuff said.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Credits: All excellent photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; one pathetically bad still from a low res video, me; cartoons purloined from an online aquarium somewhere or other

“HARRY POTTER & THE MAGIC BAND” REVISITED: THE LEGEND LIVES ON


PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

“HARRY POTTER & THE MAGIC BAND” REVISITED

THE LEGEND LIVES ON

by ROWLING HARBOUR

It was a bright sunny morning and the sand on the beach was warm under Harry Potter’s bare feet. Although by now an experienced flyer, his recent adventures during his epic 1000-mile journey had left him very tired. All his friends that had undertaken the same long flight were tired too. Now they were enjoying a quiet, peaceful time away from all the dangers they had somehow survived during their scary expedition (see Harry Potter and the Migration of Fear). It would be a long time, Harry said to himself – maybe as long as 6 months – before he wanted to have another adventure like that. He wondered when Ron Peeplo and Hermione Plover would arrive… 

_Piping_Plover_on_the_Fly (USFWS Mountain-Prairie wiki)

But the little group on a remote shoreline on Abaco were not as safe as they thought. Unknown to the happy, sleepy plovers on the beach, they were already being stalked by two creatures. This determined pair had one sole aim – to find plovers, to catch them and to carry out scientific experiments on them. That’s three aims, in fact. The editor would surely fix that error later (No – ed.). Would Harry and his friends soon find themselves in mortal peril from these formidable adversaries, these beasts with huge brains, armed with the latest technology? What magical powers would be needed to combat the imminent danger creeping stealthily towards them? The male definitely had a spine-chilling look about him; the female appeared less daunting – but might therefore be all the more dangerous…

TOPO & STEG PIC JPG   piping-plover

Suddenly, Harry felt a terrible foreboding. Fear ruffled his neck feathers and his little left foot started drumming impatiently on the sand. He’d felt like this several times before, like that time a Dark Lord had driven a SUV straight at him on that nesting beach many miles away, the one where he cracked out (see Harry Potter and the Vehicle of Dread). And when the massive dog came and sniffed round the nest when he was a tiny chick (see Harry Potter and the Hound of Horror). Instinctively, he grabbed a magic meat-string from the damp sand, ate it, and took to the air… only to be caught up in some sort of fearsome spider’s web (a mist net – ed.). He was trapped. He struggled bravely, piping out his anger at this cruel trick. But it was no good – he was caught fast, and wriggling only seemed to make it even worse. The massive creatures were running towards him fast, shouting in triumph – they had got Harry exactly where they wanted him – at their mercy…

A Mist Net (if unsuccessful, A Missed Net)Mist Net jpg

Just as Harry had started to believe that his last moment had arrived, an amazing thing happened. Instead of dispatching him with a swift blow to head, as a Dark Lord might have done, he was gently removed from the net and softly held in the female’s hands. His instant fear that she might crush him to a horrible mangled pulp rapidly lessened. Why, she was even talking to him. And those voices. They sounded not so much fearsome as friendly. But were they lulling him into  false sense of security, only to wreak an evil vengeance upon him? (*Spoiler Alert* No – ed.).

Steph the Egger with captive Harry Potter, & wearing the cap of the mysterious ‘Delphi Club’PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

Then suddenly things got worse. Much worse. Harry was slowly wrapped in a large white blanket and laid on something that wasn’t sand. Something hard. What were they planning to do with him now. He heard the male – Harry had now concluded that he must be dealing with the Avian Overlord himself, the infamous Todd of Pover, first cousin of Severus Snipe – mutter an incantation: “54 grams. Pretty good. 54 grams. Have you got that”. Yes, they’d taken his dignity and his weight but there had been no pain. Yet. Harry began to relax a little.

PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

Meanwhile, Steph the Egger was making a strange rattling sound. As Harry was unwound from his shroud he suddenly saw a box filled to the brim with exotic jewels of the most opulent colours glistening in the sunlight. At once, he knew he had to have one of them. A beautiful pink one. One to wear on his leg. One that he could keep for ever. One that would always mean ‘Harry Potter’. That very one on the top. Just there. With the magic number 22 on it in black writing. And Harry started to breathe a special silent Piping Spell: ‘Please pick me up… in your hand… and fit the Magic Two-Two Band…’ 

PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

And, miraculously, the spell began to work. First, Harry was gently held as the Magic Band was put round his right leg. At the top, just where he wanted it. Harry shut one eye and repeated the spell.PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

Then despite an awful wound from an earlier battle, the Todd of Pover made sure the band was secure and would never come off. It would be there forever – the Harry Potter ID band. By this time Harry didn’t even mind the indignity of being turned upside down.PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

Finally, it was done. Really, the jewel was more like a flag than a band. But Harry knew instinctively that it would take a massive effort for his story to be rewritten to make this clear from the start, so he decided to let it pass. Band. Flag. What did it matter. It was his prize, gloriously his. 

And then he was passed to Steph the Egger. Harry presumed she got her name for her ability to find nesting birds in that other place he had flown South from. And now, here she was, holding him tenderly, talking to him and telling him how cool he looked. Even her bright red claws did not seem so frightening now. Except… WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO HIM NOW?

PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

Suddenly, Steph the Egger stood up and Harry found himself several feet above the safe warm sand. Steph held him out in front of her and then, in an instant, he was free… Free to fly away with his beautiful pink jewel band, his special number, and an intuition that wherever he might be, and whoever saw him, they would always know that he was Harry Potter for as long as he lived. Against all odds he had gained… THE MAGIC BAND.

PIPL PINK22 Harry Potter π Stehanie Egger copy

piping-plover

POSTSCRIPT & UPDATE FEB 2017

Harry returned to Abaco on his magic Quidditch stick (no he jolly didn’t, he just flew. OK? Do stop now please – ed.) for his 3rd winter on Long Beach Abaco. He was sighted as follows:

  • 23 Nov  Long Beach, with Pf #36 & Pf #50, also 3rd year returners, & several other banded returners. Keith Kemp
  • 06 Dec  Still in the same group, except Pf #50 absent. Todd Pover
  • 23 Jan  In the same group, Pf #50 still absent. Todd Pover

Harry-Potter-pf22-Long Beach, Abaco, Keith Kemp 19-11-16

PREVIOUS HISTORY

Harry was banded Pf #22 on February 7th 2015 at Long Beach, Abaco, towards the end of his 1st winter there. No one knows where he spent his has spent his summers. He has not been reported anywhere other than Abaco – i.e. along his migration route. All that can be said with certainty is that every 12 months he turns up on the same beach, Long Beach Abaco, in the same place (it is a very Long Beach). 5 other PIPL were originally pink-banded with Harry by a joint National Audubon, Virginia Tech, BNT, and CWFNJ team (pink being the colour used for Bahamas birds). Of those 6, 3 have returned to the same beach twice, and the other 2 once. Some of them have also been tracked to their breeding grounds and on their migrations. And somehow they have all found their way back to the same place on Abaco to overwinter together again for the 2016-17 season.

GENDER NOTE

In fact it isn’t clear if HP is male or female (see below). He might be Harriet Potter. But I have played safe and stuck with the gender implied by his given name…

Harry Potter Pf #22 on Long Beach Abaco, 3 Dec 2015, a year after (s)he was banded there PIPL PINK22 Dec 3 2015 Long Beach Abaco 2 (Stephanie Egger) copy

STEPH THE EGGER EXPLAINS THE NAME, NUMBER & QUIDDITCH PIC

“I helped band this piping plover, and called him “Harry Potter.” I know 22 isn’t Harry’s quidditch number (07), but 22 is for my birthday when I mostly seem to be down in Abaco.”

DISCLAIMER RE HEADER IMAGE I don’t suggest making silly photos of all “named” birds as this is an endangered species that we should certainly take very seriously. That said, I do think that names help people connect to the species and it also aids the researchers in ID’ing (my personal opinion)”.

piping-plover

Credits: Stephanie the Egger, The Todd of Pover, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey & co-banding teams, Keith Kemp, USFWS Mountain-Prairie (PIPL in flight), Birdorable, Rowling Harbour, and star of the show Harry Potter Pf 22 UR. Apologies to JKR for feeble pastiche.

BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…


brown-headed_nuthatch-david-hill-sc

BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…

The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) is one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas and – like the similarly rare BAHAMA ORIOLE on Andros – it is confined to one island only, Grand Bahama.  At best about 1000 – 1200 mature birds may inhabit the pine forests though current estimates vary, and that number may be optimistic. What is clear is that, for all the usual reasons (see below) the population is likely to be decreasing rather than growing.

bahamas_nuthatch-birdlife-org

Despite its  scarcity and size – this little bird is one of the smallest in the nuthatch family – the BANU is subject to much scientific debate in bird circles. Until a dozen years ago, it was simply considered to be a brown-headed nuthatch, a familiar enough bird in south-eastern USA. Then a research paper was published, which led to the bird being awarded subspecies status as the Bahama nuthatch S. p. insularis. Some argue further, that it should be considered a fully separate species and split from its cousin (as, recently, with the Bahama and Inagua woodstars in 2015). Others write as though this has already happened but as far as I can make out, it has not – though it might possibly happen once further researches have been completed and submitted (polite correction on this point welcome…).

bahama-nuthatch-owl-hole-rd-grand-bahama-bruce-purdy

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TO JUSTIFY SEPARATE STATUS?

Close investigation of the Grand Bahama population showed a number of significant differences between the island and the US populations. Having read and digested all the relevant research (NOT! Abstracts, maybe…), I discovered that the main distinctions are:

  • A longer, heavier bill (compare the header image of a brown-headed nuthatch in South Carolina with the second one of a Bahama nuthatch).
  • Shorter wings
  • Whiter belly
  • Distinctively different vocalisations

bahama-nuthatch-grand-bahama-robert-norton

IUCN RED LIST STATUS

Whether the BANU is a sub-species of brown-headed nuthatch or a fully separate species, the bird is incredibly rare. The population may be unsustainable without intervention (as implemented to save the Abaco parrots) – and the threat of extinction looms even as the bird begins to attract international interest. In 2016 the IUCN listed the BANU as ENDANGERED, meaning essentially that it faces extinction. ‘Critically endangered’ is the only higher category. The main reasons given for the listing were the small population, found on only one island, and likely to continue declining as a result of habitat loss & invasive species

brown-headed-nuthatch-erika-gates-bahamas-weekly-article

 WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES, I MEAN SUBSPECIES?

  • Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
  • Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
  • Competition from other bird species in a limited area

brown-headed_nuthatch-matt-tillett-md_

HOW DO THESE BIRDS BEHAVE?

A few years back, Erika Gates, well-known Grand Bahama birder and guide, wrote an excellent article in her ‘Bird Talk’ column published in the Bahamas Weekly. It includes this description:

The Bahama Nuthatch exhibits several highly unusual and endearing behaviors. It is one of the very few bird species that conducts co-operative breeding, in which young males assist with nest construction, nest sanitation as well as feeding of the female sitting on the eggs, nestlings and fledglings. It is also one of the few birds known to utilize a tool. On occasion, it uses a bark chip, held in its bill, to pry off bark portions during foraging for insects and grub.

brown-headed_nuthatch-dick-daniels-nc-wiki

SO IF I’M IN THE PINE FOREST ON G B, WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?

Sadly, there are no available recordings of a BANU. As their vocalisation is one of the factors that differentiates them from the brown-headed nuthatch, it’s clearly not very helpful to illustrate what the latter sound like. But I am going to anyway, because they can’t be that different. It’s probably just a Bahamian accent. I have read somewhere that it sounds a bit like a squeezed rubber duck toy.

Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

brown-headed_nuthatch-matt-tillett-md_5

WHY MIGHT THESE BIRDS TURN UP ON ABACO?

Well, I’m being a bit romantic and optimistic here. But let’s look at the official distribution map from Birdlife International. Not so very far for even a small bird to travel. There are even some small cays as stepping stones. And just think of the thousands of acres of pine forest on Abaco, much of it remote and completely undisturbed. Maybe… if a breeding pair could just… you catch my drift? 

bahama-nuthatch-distribution-birdlife-org

Here is another instructive map, this time from eBird. These are the only BANU sightings ever recorded, and all since 2010. These birds are tiny. There are very few of them, spread over a wide area. They live in pine trees, and are to an extent camouflaged against them. You’d be very very fortunate to find one at all, let alone get a decent photo of it… Let’s hope you can spot one while they are still around.

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ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?

I have written elsewhere (in fact, HERE) about the ornithologist James Bond and his connection with Ian Fleming’s hero. The very rare first edition** of Bond’s seminal Birds of the West Indies was published in 1936. In it, he described the BANU and suggested it was a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch. A man way ahead of his time. 

PLEASE STOP NOW. ANY LAST WORDS?

“The species may become extinct unless Bahamians are willing to take action to save it. As the rarest bird in the Bahamas, and one of the rarest birds in the world, the nuthatch will become a high-profile symbol of conservation efforts (or their failure) in the Bahamas”. RESEARCHGATE

Photo credits: David Hill (BHNU) 1; Birdlife.org (BANU) 2; Bruce Purdy (BANU) 3; Robert Norton (BANU) 4; Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (BANU) 5; Matt Tillett (BHNU) 6, 8; Dick Daniels (BHNU) 7

Sound: Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

Research credits: Birdlife International /Birdlife.org; Birding Community E-Bulletin, Nov 2008; Research Gate; IUCN; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)

**The edition of James Bond usually described as the first edition (indeed in the book itself) was published in 1947. You might pick one up for $100 or so (try Abe.com). Don’t get one without a dust-jacket. It’s a treasure, and an affordable slice of avian history. A 1936 edition will probably be well north of $2000… 

PIGGYVILLE: HOME OF THE SWIMMING PIGS OF ABACO


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PIGGYVILLE: HOME OF THE SWIMMING PIGS OF ABACO

No Name Cay has a name. Which is ‘No Name’. Which is a logical paradox.  Since I last wrote about it, the Cay has acquired a new nickname in honour of its only permanent residents: Piggyville. You can find swimming pigs on Exuma, of course – they are a famous and well-promoted tourist attraction. Abaco’s own population of feral swimming pigs is much less well-known, even now.

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When I first posted about the pigs a couple of years ago, several people – including locals – contacted me in surprise and wonderment. And people still get in touch to ask (1) if there are really swimming pigs on Abaco and (2) “how do I get to see them?” (a short boat ride from Green Turtle Cay). Now the word is spreading, and indeed the piggies even have their own FB page HERE.

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Recently, a reliable replenishable water supply system was introduced to No Name Cay to ensure enough fresh water for the denizens. You’ll find more about nutrition and other vital porcine matters in Amanda Diedrick’s excellent post on LITTLE HOUSE BY THE FERRY, a wonderfully informative blog for Abaco in general and Green Turtle Cay in particular.

swimming-pigs-of-no-name-cay-abaco-claire-towningSwimming Pigs, No Name Cay, Abaco (Craig Russell)

WHERE IS NO NAME CAY WHEN IT’S AT HOME?no-name-cay-copy

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Craig Russell, Pig Guardian of No Name CayCraig Russell, Abaco Swimming Pig Whisperer on No Name Cay

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Credits: Adam Rees / Scuba Works (1); Craig Russell / FB (2, 7, 8,9, 10); Tim Mantle (3); Patricia Labarta Douglas (4); Barefoot Sailor (5); Claire Towning (6); Lynn Collins (11); Samantha Regan (12); Ruth Albury / Destination Abaco for Piggy PDF [link removed]