I am interrupting my intended sequence of posts (I try to plan ahead a bit…) to bring you some gorgeous white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) seen within the last week near the Low Place on Man-o-War Cay. There were 6 in the group, flying high, flying low, circling, dipping down, flirting – all of this taking place just offshore.
Sally Chisholm, Abaco birder and photographer, was with Todd Pover of CWFNJ, engaged in the final piping plover count of the season before the birds return to their summer breeding grounds [check out ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH if you are interested]. Sally and Todd were distracted from the matter in hand as the group of tropicbirds glided and swooped through the air. It was a free demonstration of beautiful flying skills that can be matched by few other species.
It became obvious that courtship was involved. As Sally vividly describes it, “The birds were observed for more than 15 minutes making wide circles, at times flying out of sight across towards Great Abaco and coming back flying low over the same area on MOW. Two birds would interact with a lot of “keck-keck-keck”, and then one of the pair flew down to land several times in the same crevice of the iron shore. It first appeared that the bird was landing for food but none of the photos showed anything carried. The display looked to be one of courtship and was amazing to watch”.
WTTR plunge-dive for fish and squid, sometimes submerging completely
Or they swoop and skim their prey from the surface
Another technique to take flying fish in the air (I’d love to see that…)
WTTR have no fixed breeding season, and may nest year-round
Nesting is colonial or in pairs in a particular area, or even in isolation
The small bird featured here is a CUBAN PEWEE Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the Crescent-eyed Pewee – see image for why this is so). It is without a doubt a tyrant. At barely 6″ long, it is the smallest tyrant you are likely to encounter in the Bahamas or indeed anywhere else. However it does happen to be a member of the family Tyranidae. These are the flycatchers, and on Abaco they include the larger LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, the still largerLOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDand (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD(this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).
The Cuban Pewee is permanently resident on Abaco, and can be found in both pine woods and coppice. When returning to its perch after a fly-catching sortie – ‘hawking’ on the wing – this wee bird gives a characteristic flick of the tail. The bird featured here was in the rough scrub behind the beach of the beautiful bay at Casuarina. It became a favourite of mine simply by being completely unafraid of me, and accepting my extremely slow approach (3 inches at a time) with apparent interest mixed in with an endearing willingness to pose, even when I could almost have reached out and touched it.
Unlike many creatures, it did not seem concerned by eye-contact. It responded when I made a faint clicking sound by rather sweetly putting its head on one side. However, as I got as close to it as I dared, it began to fidget slightly (possibly feeling camera-shy). So I shuffled slowly back, so as not to disturb it in its own territory, where it was the resident and I was the intruder.
These close-ups clearly show the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which (as in other tyrant species) relates to the business of catching flies. Also like other flycatchers, the Cuban Pewee has very distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. In fact, these are not whiskers as such – not hairs so much as feathers that have modified into bristles. These act as ‘tactile sensors’ to assist the detection and targeting of aerial insects as the bird darts from a perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel.
The range of the Cuban Pewee is limited almost entirely to Cuba and the Bahamas, so it is very region specific. And how lucky we are to have these cute little specimens on Abaco. I note that the Audubon site calls them drab, which I think is a little unfair. Merely because a bird is not decked out like aPAINTED BUNTINGor startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDdoes not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’. I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.
It is sometimes tempting to anthropomorphise such close encounters in terms of imputed human / creature empathy. It is probably best to try to resist that attitude (‘inter-species condescension’, as you might term it). But as I withdrew, leaving this little bird undisturbed on its branch, I did experience a strange feeling of mutual understanding and… [I must interrupt myself here. I’m a lawyer, so that’s quite enough of that sort of emotive nonsense]
As I have mentioned before, theBAHAMAS POSTAL SERVICEhas an exceptionally good record for producing wonderful, colourful stamps showcasing the abundant wealth of natural history in the archipelago. Birds, reef fish, turtles, marine mammals, butterflies, plants and flowers – all these and more have featured on the stamps of the Bahamas for many years. There’s quite a collection of them on a display page of their own HERE.
Quite by chance I recently came across a significant philatelic tribute to one of the rarest Bahamas winter visitors, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii): a complete commemorative sheet of stamps. Reader I bought it (= ‘won’ it on eBay – $2.75!). Produced in conjunction with the WWF, it is a model of conservationist sensitivity.
The sheet of 16 stamps depicts 4 x 4 KIWA variations: a female at the nest; a singing male; a female feeding young; and a juvenile feeding in the Jack pines of its summer habitat, prior to its long Fall migration to Abaco and the Bahamas.
Kirtland’s Warbler in the Abaco National Park: you need to know where to look to find one
I am not a stamp collector, but I do appreciate it when countries take the trouble to showcase their flora and fauna among the notable people, sporting heroes, modes of transport and Harry Potter characters. As I say, the Bahamas is very good in this respect.
A Kirtland’s Warbler on Green Turtle Cay: the first recorded sighting on one of the Cays
You can find out more about these rare and vulnerable little warblers, including the first ever recorded on a Cay in Abaco, using these links:
In the breeding grounds in very limited areas of Michigan and Ohio, the KIWAs are carefully monitored. Vince Cavalieri is a bird expert in those parts, and his bird below was photographed in the heartland of their preferred summer habitat. Vince wrote the following caption:
In 1987 the Kirtland’s Warbler was a hair’s breadth from extinction. A century of fire suppression and encroachment into their habitat by the brown-headed cowbird had reduced its already small population to a tiny number of birds in just a few Michigan counties. A prescribed fire that got out of control may have saved them, creating enough habitat that it gave conservationists enough time to figure out how to save them (highly prescriptive habitat creation and cowbird control). Today their comeback has been so successful that they have been proposed for removal from the endangered species list. They still remain the stuff of birding legend. A tiny range mostly restricted to north central Michigan, a big beautiful warbler with a loud and cheerful song, easy to see and confiding once found. A bird worthy of long travel to check off your list.
Here are a couple more ‘summer birds’ to admire
Credits: Woody Bracey (1, 2); Sally Chisholm (3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Joel Trick FWSH (5); Andrew C (Wiki) (6); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS and eBay (KIWA stamps)
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are causing some comment on FB at the moment, in particular about why they like to stand on utility posts with their wings spread out wide. So, bending my flexible rule against reposts, I am updating a very old TUVU post with lots of new images and facts about this fascinating bird, which manages to be simultaneously majestic, hideous, revolting and socially vital, all packed into a single species…
The TUVU is a familiar sight flying over Abaco, wheeling effortlessly overhead on thermals or gliding with the wind in singles, pairs or flocks. Statistically, 83% of all photographs of turkey vultures are taken from below and look like this:
Of those, 57% are taken in unhelpful light, and look like the one below. On the positive side, this picture show the extreme delicacy of the wing-tip feathering that enables these birds to adjust their direction and speed (this is not the bird above; it was taken by someone else at a different time. But 100% of TUVU in-flight photos are indistinguishable).
TUVUs have a wide range in the Americas and the Caribbean, and can prosper in almost any type of habitat. This is probably because these large birds are almost exclusively carrion feeders, and carrion is everywhere. They spend their days scavenging, or thinking about scavenging. They do not generally kill live creatures.
The word ‘vulture’ derives from the latin word ‘vulturus‘ meaning ‘ripper’, ‘shredder’, or in more recent times, ‘very loud Metallica song*‘. TUVUs have very good eyesight, and an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect the scent of decay (and consequent release of the chemical ethyl mercaptan) from some distance. A breeding pair will raise two chicks, which revoltingly are fed by the regurgitation of all the rank… excuse me a moment while I… I feel a little bit… ~~~~~~~~~~~ …alright, OK again now.
When they are not flying, feeding, breeding or feeding young, TUVUs like best to perch on a vantage point – a utility post is ideal. But unusually for a bird, 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).
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.
Equally happy to spread their wings on the ground – a debris-strewn shoreline being ideal
10 SCAVENGED TURKEY VULTURE FACTS FOR YOU TO PICK OVER
One local name for TVs 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
The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups
The Turkey Vulture has few natural predators
Though elegant in flight, 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 [some humans also suffer from MSS (missing septum syndrome). They tend to ‘sniff’ a lot]
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.
FORAGING TUVUs forage by smell, which is uncommon in birds. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a 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…
My favourite graphic of all time
Credits: Nina Henry (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 5, 11); Clare Latimer (4, 6); amy-at-poweredbybirds (7); Wiki, small pics 8, 9); Charlie Skinner (10); Craig Nash (12); Xeno-Canto / Alvaric (sound file); Info, magpie pickings; Birdorable (cartoon); RH (Keep Calm…); depressingnature.com (puking TUVU)
*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
Warts and all… the gorgeous, hygienic, roadkill-ridding vulture, with a few dirty habits
BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION
BUNTING /ˈbʌntɪŋ/ (Noun)
[A Christmas gift of a puntastic avian / festive double-meaning]
A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
Flags and other colourful festive decorations
One of the Winterval traditions at Rolling Harbour HQ – that haven of unreliable natural science powered by lazy insouciance and characterised by a regrettably unserious approach – is to break the rule that (mostly) forbids reposting old material without good reason (which there occasionally is). This means marking the imminence of Christmas with bunting. And indeed buntings, those lovely birds beautifully painted by nature. Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ better than a flock of PABU!
It’s hard to imagine a more Christmassy little bird than the Painted Bunting. Bright blue, red, green primary colours straight from a child’s paintbox make for a spectacular bird to grace the festive season. These are migratory winter residents, and the first reports of the bright and beautiful males on Abaco started to appear in late October. Some will stay around until March.
A female & a male PABU feeding together, and a male with a pair of black-faced grassquits
The two wonderful photos below are by Tom Sheley, a major photographic contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. They were actually taken in Texas, but I include them because of Tom’s strong connection with the birdlife of Abaco; and also because they are fantastic shots…
This is my opportunity to wish a very Happy Christmas or [insert preferred seasonal appellation] to everyone who visits Rolling Harbour and especially those who, having done so, return for more! There could of course be anything from 600,000+ individuals who called in once, were put-off and never came back… to one sadly crazed person who has been pressing the ‘read’ button 600,000+ times over the last few years. If the former, thanks for trying, sorry to disappoint. If the latter, keep up the good work, buddy.
Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 7, 8), Erik Gauger (2), Tara Lavallee (3, 4), Keith Salvesen (5); Sandy Walker (6); Birdorable Cartoons
The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) – aka Cemetery Bird – is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOOand theYELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. You can (it’s voluntary) find out more about them in an earlier articleHERE.
I have returned to these engagingly gregarious birds and their raucous ways because Paul Harding has recently captured a sequence of a small group of anis behaving so endearingly that they are irresistible. Not for them the oddly incompetent fluttering flight, nor the disorganised, unbalanced landing technique. It’s simply a matter of getting settled on a branch, and then making room for one more in the middle (or perhaps resisting it…).
‘A COMMOTION OF ANIS’
There were 4 on the branch…
Hey – make room for another one…
Budge up, guys, I mean C’mon…
Yay, I’m in… a bit squished but…
Um… guys, I can’t breathe…
That’s better… all settled now….
Let the racket begin!
Credits: all terrific pics, Paul Harding; sound files, Xeno Canto
KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS
I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…
I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.
The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27, was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.
AN EXCITING SIGHTING
On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.
KIWA CHIP CALL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto
Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too.
I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.
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. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once
Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)