BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)
Polioptila caerulea PR|B|1
A delicate featherweight gnatcatcher that has characteristic full eye-rings. The long tail may be cocked when perching, often as a territorial assertion. They are capable of hovering briefly over shrubs to feed on insects, but mostly they ‘hawk’ for insects on the wing (“Birds of Abaco”).
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.
For the time being, while things are a bit crazy, I’ll be posting single / pairs of images that in my view are so excellent that they stand alone without needing any comment from me, annoying wordplay, or musical digressions. All have been taken on Abaco Bahamas. Only some will be my own – the bar is set at a DSLR height that exceeds my camera skills.
Black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus may be the most elegant shorebirds you will ever see. They are permanent residents on Abaco and not uncommon where they are found. It could be on a beach; more likely it will be in or around brackish ponds. It won’t be in the pine forest or coppice.
The rather disorganised stilt flying in the header image rather undercuts my claim for elegance, I realise. The image above of the bird at full stretch against a background of waves gives a much better idea of the beauty of this species.
Gilpin Pond is a good place to see stilts, and in summer they nest around the perimeter. A word of warning: they may be aggressive in the breeding season. I got too near a nest once and the female shouted at me then flew straight at my head. I hadn’t even realised there was a nest there until this happened, so her actions rather give the game away.
In common with some smaller shorebird species – for example, plovers and killdeer – the stilts have another defensive method to protect their young, a so-called ‘distraction display’. When their nest is under threat, one of the adults will pretend to have a damaged or broken wing and so be unable to fly. It will flutter feebly along the ground, moving further and further away from the nest, diverting attention from it. It’s an amazing sight to watch the tactic in action. Check out this video to see examples of this behaviour.
Credits: all photos by Alex Hughes, one of the photographic contributors to The Birds of Abaco; video Nat Bel
PIPING PLOVERS Charadrius melodus are specialist shorebirds on Abaco. For a start, they are very rare – the IUCN listing suggests a population of only 8000 mature birds in the world. They are both scarce numerically and limited geographically.
These tiny plovers breed only in a few defined areas of North America – areas that are rapidly reducing mostly for all the usual depressing human-derived causes, for example the exercise of man’s alienable right from time immemorial to drive vehicles all over the nesting sites in the breeding season. The birds are unsurprisingly IUCN listed as ‘near-threatened’.
Piping Plovers breed and nest in the north and produce their chicks. The chicks soon learn to be independent and to fly. From about mid-July, those adults and chicks that have avoided the wheels of the SUVs, the unleashed dogs in the areas set aside for nesting, and the more natural dangers from gulls, start to get the urge to fly south for the winter. The range of their winter grounds is shown in blue on the range map above. It includes the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular.
Q. WHY ARE THEY CALLED PIPING PLOVERS? A. BECAUSE OF THIS!
I will return soon to the significance of the safe, clean beaches of Abaco and the healthy habitat for the survival of this remarkable little bird. For now, I’ll simply say that loss of habitat, and an increase in the nature and / or extent of environmental threats at either end of the migration, may seriously damage the survival of the species. It follows that habitat degradation at both ends of the migration could see the IUCN listing progress rapidly to vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and… well, the next category is ‘extinct in the wild’.
If you are interested in shorebirds, in bird migration, in research into bird movements, and in the reason migratory birds are banded, you can find out more at ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH. This is the only season-long research project in the Bahamas, and involves Citizen Scientists on Abaco in the south working with partner Proper Scientists in the breeding grounds in the north. Early next month I will write a follow-up post on these topics.
The photographs in this post were taken a few days ago on the long crescent of beach at Winding Bay, Abaco by Lisa Davies. Her contribution is precious because the APPW project mentioned above was for many reasons in danger of stalling as the result of the devastating effects of Hurricane Dorian on almost every aspect of island life. Lisa’s discovery of a small flock of a dozen plovers in the sunshine has given impetus to the project – and has resulted in some superb photos.
Credits: All photos by Lisa Davies; audio call, Paul Turgeon / Xeno-Canto; range map from WIKI
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
Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank.
Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).
As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?
Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)
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).
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS
In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.
BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.
Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.
THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACO
The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.
A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?
The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.
Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas.
BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?
The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.
Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.
I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird
Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.
Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’
Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong
CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.
Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library
Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto
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
The unique and symbolic parrots of Abaco have become quite a focus of attention now that some kind of normality is returning to the devastated island. Utilities and supplies are being sorted out gradually (and with unavoidable setbacks). There are some signs of optimism in the air – and some parrots too.
SO, AFTER THE HURRICANE ARE THERE ANY PARROTS AROUND?
At Bahama Palm Shores, the most ‘parroty’ of all the communities in south Abaco, Tara Lavallee was the first to see – and photograph – a pair on Sep 25th, nearly 4 weeks after Dorian struck. Over the next 10 days, and thanks to Janene Roessler’s work, I compiled a record of reports and sightings and mapped them. There were 12 in all, from Crossing Rocks in the south to Winding Bay in the north (25 – 30 miles as the parrot flies).
THE FIRST POST-DORIAN PARROTS
ABACO PARROT SIGHTINGS MAP BETWEEN SEP 25 AND OCT 4
The interactive map works like this (in theory at least). You can expand the map using the cursor, double clicks, or 2 fingers until you have enlarged the target area sufficiently to click on the individual coloured parrots. For each one, the sighting details are given with as much information as was available. The colour key is this:
Maroon – First sighting
Blue – sighting with some details (eg numbers)
Yellow – sighting with little detail
Purple – flocks of 10 +
IS ANYONE LOOKING AFTER OUR PARROTS?
By the turn of the century the parrot population had become unsustainable, having fallen below 1000, and their extinction was imminent. Since then, many organisations (eg BNT) and people have been involved in the reversal of the decline through intensive anti-predation and conservation measures. All this work continues so that the future of the parrots is assured. The rough estimate pre-Dorian was of c4000 birds.
WHAT ABOUT NOW, AFTER THE STORM?
As I mentioned in a previous post, a survey team including Abaco’s former parrot scientist Caroline Stahala Walker (now with Audubon) were planning a trip to Abaco once access became possible. They have just arrived on-island, and will be assessing the effect of Dorian both on the wildlife and on the habitat. This will include the parrots, and other ‘signal’ birds too. I expect these will include the endemics, the speciality birds (eg the woodpeckers), and some shorebirds including (I hope) piping plovers. They will also bring feed and feeders and give advice about care of the birds.
Caroline wrote “I wanted to let everyone know we have a team going to Abaco for surveys and setting up feeders starting tomorrow. The logistics were tough enough to piece together but it certainly would not have happened without all of your help. I will post pictures and update after the trip, not sure what internet situation will be like while there. Thanks everyone! You made this happen.”
CAROLINE’S GO FUND ME PAGE: CLICK THE LOGO
Some years ago Caroline and I put together a tiny booklet about the parrots, mainly for the benefit of guests and visitors at the Delphi Club. We asked for $5 – 10 donations for the birds. There were 2 editions. Later, I turned it into an ‘moving booklet’ with added music (that you can turn off!). Some people may have seen this elsewhere online recently. The middle section on the parrot nests in the National park, the chick-care, and the associated breeding research may be of particular interest. The pics are cute!
Thanks to all who contacted me to say there was an issue with the version of this booklet originally posted – a ‘privacy settings’ problem, as it turned out. I’ve exchanged it for a different format version, which is also a bit clearer…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Erik Gauger (2); Tara Lavallee (3); Craig Nash (4); Peter Mantle (5, 7)
BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (1): PRAIRIE WARBLER
The increasing flow of reports of recent bird sightings on Abaco seems to confirm the theory that in times of crisis and of recovery from disaster, people gain strength from the natural world that surrounds them. The bright flash of a parrots wings; the hoarse squawk of a West Indian Woodpecker; the unmistakable cheery call of the thick-billed vireo; the ‘peep’ of a shore-bird – all these can bring comfort in troubled times.
Right now, social media on Abaco, and radiating far beyond, is alive with more encouraging news after the storm, not least about the gradual re-establishment of normality as utilities and services are restored, movement becomes more possible, and plans for repairing the past and designing the future can begin to be made.
This post features photos of Prairie warblers taken on Abaco by Gerlinde Taurer, contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. It is the start of a short series that will focus on a single species and feature gorgeous photos, all taken on Abaco. These bright little warblers are common winter residents and in normal times their Fall arrival would be well under way – along with some 30 other species of warbler that make Abaco – and the Bahamas generally – their winter home.
The rich diversity of the avian life of Abaco is truly astonishing: from residents to migratory species, from tiny to huge, from frequently encountered to very rare. Every bird (yes, even the reputedly ‘dull’ black-faced grassquits) has its own beauty and character. Even a small brown bird may have a lovely song. In non-storm circumstances, it would not be unusual for an amateur birder to encounter upwards of 40 species during half a day in the field – especially with binoculars. I hope that on a shattered island, appreciation of the lively and varied birdlife is already making a small yet positive contribution to the recovery.
Credits: All photos taken by Gerlinde Taurer on Abaco (my own are suppressed for being, frankly, dross in comparison)
ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.
For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.
Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.
‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed.
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK. Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through theirDORIAN RELIEF FUND .
A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book. Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.
The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays.
The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.
It’s often a hard decision whether to include a short piece of video footage in a post. By short, I mean less than a minute. On the one hand, there is usually a good reason for inclusion, even if only aesthetic. On the other, it simply takes up more time for busy people who may prefer to flick through an article and enjoy some nice images along the way. Today, you can have the best of both worlds.
Sanderlings are definitively ‘peeps’, a group name that embraces the smallest and squeakiest sandpiper species. They are the wave chasers, the tiny birds that scuttle along the beach, into the retreating tide for a snack from the sand, and back to the beach again as the waves creep in. Their little legs and feet move in a blur, and many people immediately think of wind-up clockwork toys as they watch the birds in action.
One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.
I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.
Waves and incoming tide getting a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…
Next to the migratory PIPING PLOVERS that favour Abaco as their winter home, the wave chasers are my favourite shorebirds. My keenness on them killed my camera. I went out into the incoming waves to get shots back at the beach with the sun behind me. Great idea until I lost my balance with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Lesson learnt – never turn your back on waves.
Birds never cease to astonish and delight. Baby birds contain additional magic ingredients such as adorbium and cuteite. Ten days ago, a whole new level of spectator infatuation was effortlessly induced in the piping plover conservation team at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
The episode took a grand total of 35 seconds… For that is the time it took for three tiny piping plover chicks to get from one side of a small stretch of water to the other. By swimming! They had been spotted doing this the previous day, so the team were prepared. This was no one-off water-based miracle.
WATCH THIS CLIP AND BE UTTERLY ASTOUNDED AND ENCHANTED…
WHY DID THE PLOVER CHICKS CROSS THE WATER?
Alicia Pensarosa, amazed conservationist and photographer, later posted her video captioned “Mom and Dad plover fly to the other side first and then pipe at them to swim over. I think they do this to get to a better foraging area and to be less disturbed from beach crowds. They have been making their trek over in the morning and then come back in the afternoon (both on busy and quiet beach days)“.
WHY THE BIG SURPRISE ABOUT SWIMMING SHORE BIRDS?
Because as it turns out, very very few people have seen this behaviour before with the tiniest shorebirds. Alicia’s post on FB unsurprisingly has racked up loads of Likes, Loves, WOWs, OMGs and other enthusiastic emoticons. Plus plenty of shares. Plus a whole lot of comments and replies. In the interests of research I have examined these. One person once saw snowy plover chicks take a dip. Only two people had seen PIPL chicks do so. I’m pretty sure Michelle Stantial, pre-eminent PIPL scientist, has seen this phenomenon too. But overwhelmingly the responses can be summarised by the words ‘Who Knew?’
And now, assuming you watched the video (and if not, why not? and please scroll back and do so forthwith), you know it too. Here’s my current favourite chick to end with.
Keith, son of Squid and Sophie, sibling of Abaco and Cherokee (for which, see HERE)
CREDITS: Alicia Pensarosa for the report, the great video and her work with PIPL; Illustrative chicks courtesy of ace PIPL photographer Northside Jim Verhagen of LBI; and Todd Pover / Conserve Wildlife Foundation New Jersey
If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. These are Audubon’s Shearwaters, also known as Dusky Petrels. They are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco. Three others (Cory’s, Great and Sooty) are rare transients; and the last – the Manx – is a very rare off-course vagrant.
Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. As in previous years, a few of the birds that succumb may be Great Shearwaters mixed in with the Audubon’s. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote two detailed posts about the situation. This bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from the mainland and the cays from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks, all duly mapped to get the overall picture.
There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. The prospects for recovery for birds that were captured and cared for were not good.
Two years on, and the melancholy cycle is repeating itself. A few days ago, Melissa Maura, an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:
A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…
An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater, now being cared for by Melissa Maura
WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looks to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). The cause is probably a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor fishing conditions out at sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay a couple of days ago
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic. However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only.
WHAT ELSE 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 is not that 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 clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this 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
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of this year’s dieback, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me, DM, or FB.
Credits: thanks to those on Abaco who have been reporting this event over the last few days; Dominic Sherony (1); Melissa Maura (2, 5); Keith Kemp (3); Kinlarak / wiki (4); Rhonda Pearce (6); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell (7); )Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture
One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed toBIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun.
It is 5.30 pm. The sun is sinking in the early evening sky. The tide is on the rise at the north end of the Delphi beach where the reef joins the land. There is a small spit of sand that will be covered quite soon, but meanwhile two dozen sanderlings mixed in with assorted ruddy turnstones are doing their idiot feeding thing, rushing around on their tiny legs, stabbing in the sand, and generally behaving like clockwork toys on speed. Meanwhile a handful have found the fun to be had in the swirling tide as it pours round the head of the reef onto the sand spit. Yes, it’s sandpiper bath-time!
Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand. And so the tidal process repeats.
For the sanderlings, the best part of the day is when the tide is rising. At ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and as the water pours in around the end of the rocks, it froths like an overenthusiastic bubblebath. Right then is an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…
Substantial immersion is not out of the question…
These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…