SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: AN “IF ONLY” BIRD FOR ABACO
About 3 years ago, there was great excitement when a new bird species was recorded on Abaco. Not just recorded, but actually photographed too – the best of evidence. This was a fork-tailed flycatcher, and to no one’s great surprise another one has never been seen since. So sadly the STFC must go down in the records as a V5, a one-off vagrant. Until another one turns up, anyway. But there will never be another ‘first STFC ever‘ on Abaco. You can read about the new species HERE.
The sighting came quite soon after the publication of The Birds of Abaco, and instantly rendered the comprehensive checklist in the book out of date. In all, 6 new bird species have now been sighted on Abaco and in due course I need to amend the checklist to reflect the changes. And add ‘wild turkey’ to the also-ran column ‘Exotics Seen on Abaco.’
The scissor-tailed flycatcher is another so-called ‘tyrant flycatcher’ with long streaming tail forks. I had a look at the checklist to see if the species was recorded for Abaco, and sure enough it is included as a V4, which is to say a very rare vagrant with maybe half-a-dozen sightings over the years. I’m not aware of any photos of one taken on Abaco. However, birding and photography authority Danny Sauvageau occasionally encounters these magnificent birds in Florida. His recent photos of the scissor-tailed flycatcher are so beautiful that you just have to see them. How wonderful if this exotic creature could find its way to the northern Bahamas more often. Until it does, it will remain what I term an ‘if only’ bird – one that is regretfully absent…
All fantastic flycatcher fotos: Danny Sauvageau with many thanks – check online, you won’t see a better collection than this…; cartoon, Bordorable
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
Tony White, Keith Salvesen, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey
TONY WHITE: CHAMPION OF BAHAMAS BIRDS
Tony White passed away 2 days ago. The sad news has spread rapidly through the birding community and far beyond it. It is not my place to write a detailed appreciation of Tony’s life and achievements; others who have been his long-term friends, associates and birding companions are in a far better position to do so than I. However, I do have direct experience of Tony’s kindness, enthusiasm and pragmatism in connection with the compilation of The Delphi Club Book of the BIRDS OF ABACO.
Tony with Caroline Stahala Walker, erstwhile parrot supremo of Abaco
It took 16 months or so from the initial idea of the project to the finished 30-contributor book and a launch party at the Delphi Club in March 2014. During that time I had amazing support from the birding elite of the Bahamas. The proposed book might well have been treated as misconceived fantasy by amateur hicks from out of town. Instead, we received nothing but courtesy, kindness, cooperation, and a willingness that the project should succeed.
Tony with Bruce Hallett (author of Birds of the Bahamas and TCI)
Tony was one of the invaluable experts on whom I knew I could rely. His emails were invariably cordial, helpful and to the point. When I asked if he would undertake a complete revision of the checklist for Abaco that appears in his indispensable book for Bahamas birders (see link below), he agreed without hesitation. In due course, and in conjunction with Woody Bracey, a new checklist for all birds recorded for Abaco – however rare – from 1950 until the day of publication was completed.
Tony in the field (Lynne Gape, BNT)
When the book was launched Tony was there of course, his startlingly blue eyes bright with excitement. His friends Bruce Hallett and Woody Bracey, without whose help the book would never have been the avian showcase that it is, were also present. The contributions of all three were indispensable .
Tony after a Grand Bahama bird count (Erika Gates)
I have included some photos of Tony as we would all like to remember him, with thanks to Lynn Gape of the Bahamas National Trust and to Erika Gates, Grand Bahama.
Tony White, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey at “Birds of Abaco” launch; author aka RH (seated)
To read my original review of Tony’s magisterial book clickHERE
To see Tony and Woody’s complete Abaco bird checklist, up to date as at March 2014, clickCHECKLIST FV 06 table sun2Since then, 5 new species have been recorded on Abaco.
GILPIN POINT, ABACO: A ‘2 HOURS, 40 SPECIES’ BIRDING HOTSPOT
Got a spare couple of hours? Reluctant to go birding on the bird-reliable yet ambience-lite town dumps, where careful cropping will be needed to avoid including post-apocalyptic scenery in your hard-won photos of a Little Mulligatawny Owl? Then read on. I have mentioned Gilpin Point before as a great place for birding, and listed many of the species to be found there. It benefits from a large pond, a pristine shoreline, and a coppice environment with some pine forest thrown in. All the makings of an excellent birding location, with suitable habitat for a wide variety of species.
On November 21st Reg Patterson, well-known Abaco birder and guide, was up early, and by 07.00 he was at Gilpin Pond where he spent a couple of hours . He recorded 40 species in that time, from very large to very small. His checklist reveals a great cross-section of the birdlife to be found on Abaco. There might easily have been parrots there too, since Gilpin has become one of their daily chattering spots for a frank exchange of news and views. Sadly it seems that the beautiful and (now) rare SPOONBILL recorded there in early October has moved on.
Here is Reg’s checklist, which I have illustrated with a variety of photos of the species he found, all taken on Abaco and many actually taken at Gilpin Point. There are plenty of other species that might easily have been seen there then – or perhaps later in the day (e.g. snowy egret, yellowlegs, kestrel, turkey vulture, red-legged thrush, cuban emerald, not to mention shorebirds and seabirds if some time was spent on the shore).
Blue-winged Teal (16) (see above)
White-cheeked Pintail (20)
Green-winged Teal (1)
Great Blue Heron (1)
Great Egret (1)
Little Blue Heron (2)
Tricolored Heron (2)
Green Heron (2)
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (1)
Turkey Vulture (7)
Common Gallinule (1)
Black-necked Stilt (1) (and header)
Spotted Sandpiper (1)
Willett (1) (see above)
Common Ground-Dove (1)
Smooth-billed Ani (8)
Bahama Woodstar (1)
Belted Kingfisher (1)
West Indian Woodpecker (7)
Hairy Woodpecker (1)
Peregrine Falcon (1)
Loggerhead Kingbird (4)
Thick-billed Vireo (7)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1)
Red-legged Thrush (1)
Gray Catbird (4)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
Northern Waterthrush (6)
Bahama Yellowthroat (1)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
Cape May Warbler (3)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (1)
Palm Warbler (2)
Prairie Warbler (2)
Black-faced Grassquit (6)
Greater Antillean Bullfinch (4)
Western Spindalis (7)
Red-winged Blackbird (X)
Credits: Alex Hughes (1 / header); Keith Salvesen (2, 4, 6, 7, 11, 12, 15 , 16); TBC (3, 5); Bruce Hallett (8, 14); Tony Hepburn (9); Tom Reed (10); Charles Skinner (13)
ABACO’S BIRDING HOTSPOTS (42 OF THE BAHAMAS TOP 100)
Right now, I’m doing daily checks on the indispensable EBIRD CARIBBEAN in relation to the ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH project (and incidentally if you encounter one or more on a beach near you, details would be very welcome – below is what to look out for!).
It occurred to me to check out the contention that Abaco is Numero Uno birding destination in the Bahamas (though sadly lacking the flamingoes, except for vagrants; and the Bahama oriole, now extirpated and confined to select areas of Andros). Sure enough, Abaco has 42 out of the top 100 birding hotspots. In the map below, gray pointers indicate a few observations, blue means 50+ and green represents 100+. Nowhere has yet achieved the flame-red pointer – the ultimate hotspot accolade…
People often ask where best to go for quality birding on Abaco. The answer depends of course on the season and on what they are after – for example shorebirds or warblers; parrots or absence of parrots and so on. The Abaco 42 are listed below. There are a couple points to make about the hotspot list:
There is a degree of duplication, eg Gorda Cay / Castaway Cay being shown as separate entries, as is Angelfish Point / Angel Fish Point
Also, the data gathered by eBird is entirely dependent on regular uploads of checklists. Inevitably the birders will mostly be regulars, with their own preferred beats or perhaps with an interest limited to the area where they live. Some records show long gaps – sometimes a couple of years – between reports. So the eBird data can only give an overview, not a precise record of actual observations or birding effort and success.
In very general terms, and assuming a broad birding interest, I would recommend the Treasure Cay area; in and around Marsh Harbour; the stretch east of the Highway that takes in Bahama Palm Shores, the Abaco Neem Farm, Delphi, Crossing Rocks & Gilpin Point; the National Park; and Sandy Point. I’m sure there will be other views, but I am thinking primarily of the visitor who has but a single day to spare from a packed schedule of fishing, swimming, sunbathing, eating and drinking… [nb as a soi-disant photographer I’m not so keen on the dumps and landfill. Yes, the birding can be good. No, I don’t want to feature rubbish in my already rubbish photos…]
Here’s the eBird list, omitting all the non-Abaconian hotspots. Clicking on the links will take you straight to the relevant location’s latest reports and show some of the species seen there. I haven’t checked every link, but spot-checks suggest they work ok…
THE CARIBBEAN ENDEMIC BIRD FESTIVAL (CEBF) is a Caribbean-wide festival that aims to heighten awareness for birds generally in the region. It is sponsored by the excellent BIRDS CARIBBEANorganisation – click the link to see what it is all about. Birds, obviously, but from the points of view both of promoting and of preserving the rich avian variety throughout the Caribbean.
As part of the CEBF celebrations this month, a birding group from New Providence came to Abaco to explore the birdlife. The expedition group included several well-known local bird experts, all the better for locating and identifying species and ensuring a comprehensive checklist could be compiled. Also in the group was photographer Linda Huber, whose photos you will undoubtedly have seen in Bahamas publications, including the recently published small guideBEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS(click to see my review and further details – highly recommended for any birder from novice up). Here are a few of Linda’s photos of some of the birds seen during the expedition, a gallery that shows the extraordinary diversity of species to found in a short time on Abaco.
Apologies to those who received a ‘false start’ draft of this post. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, I pressed ‘Save Draft’… or thought I had. Why is the ‘Publish’ button so close? Oh. Right. I see. It’s not its fault, it’s mine…
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena Abaco Parrot Amazona leucocephala bahamensis
2 or 3 introduced or domestic species (if that Muscovy Duck was at Gilpin Point it’s a pet!)
The debatable ‘Caribbean Coot’, about which it has been written** The American Coot is familiar to all, but controversy surrounds the Caribbean Coot with its all-white frontal shield. Some authorities say it is a separate species; others say it is a true subspecies of the American Coot; some claim it is simply a local variant. Bond (1947) treats them as distinct species. The image below shows the two species together. They coexist contentedly and are indifferent to the debate.
The group on a Logging Track in the Abaco National Park
The New Providence Birding Group Expedition to Abaco
CREDITS All photos Linda Huber (with many thanks for use permission) except the pair of coots (Tony Hepburn) and the singing Bahama Yellowthroat in the BNT Flyer (Bruce Hallett)
“Audubon’s priority bird species are birds of significant conservation need, for which our actions, over time, can lead to measurable improvements in status. Eighteen are Red WatchList species, 23 are Yellow WatchList species, and eight are Vulnerable Common Birds. The breadth of this list reflects the dramatic loss of habitat and the pervasive threats that confront birds and wildlife.” Audubon Birds
PRIORITY BIRDS ON ABACO
Of the total of 49 species listed by Audubon, an astonishing 31 are recorded for Abaco. Such a statistic underlines the importance of the island and its cays as a major birding location with habitat suitable for these ‘Priority Birds’ . Some of them birds may be rare ‘vagrants’, or occasional ‘transient’ visitors but all are considered threatened or vulnerable. I have marked in red the ones that may easily or with reasonable diligence and luck be found on Abaco. These are either Permanent Resident (PR) species; or Migratory species resident in Winter (WR) or Summer (SR); or TRansients that are seen annually or at least are regularly reported. For all practical bird-spotting purposes, the remainder can be set aside, and with no disrespect to them I have reduced their image & entry sizes… That leaves 21 species selected by Audubon for special protection that may be quite readily found on Abaco – and that will be adversely affected by significant habitat change. Birds to treasure, in fact.