NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO


Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO

By the end of day 2 during my recent stay at Sandy Point, I thought that I had had just about enough of the laughing gulls Leucophaeus atricilla. They are delightful of course, and (in small doses) a joy to listen to. But their incessant outbursts of humour were getting beyond a joke.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The next day, on the nearby jetty, the gulls were in full cry. A lone brown pelican stood on top of a piling, looking out to sea. A few Royal Terns turned their faces, characteristically, into the light wind. I wandered over and slowly walked down the jetty. This generated some laughter, but the birds were quite content to watch me edge slowly towards them.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Probably, the gulls feel safety in numbers. Maybe they hope the din will send you away. Or perhaps, if approached very carefully, they are simply curious. I got close to the birds, and one in particular caught my eye. It was plainly having a bad-feather day. I took it to be a non-breeding adult, but it lacked the white spots on the tail-feathers (primaries). Maybe it was a first winter juvenile. Whichever, it was happy to pose for me.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I realised, of course, that the jetty belonged to the birds, including the ruddy turnstones that had just joined the gang at the end of the jetty. I was the intruder in their world, and I had willingly visited their territory. So their racket was entirely their business, and absolutely none of mine**.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHAT DO LAUGHING GULLS SOUND LIKE? ARE YOU OVERSENSITIVE?

I made a couple of short recordings of the gulls in full humour mode. If you have never heard them before, you might want to listen to the full 30 seconds. For anyone else there’s a convenient lull at around 15 secs before they kick off again.

Breeding adult (Birdorable)

**In the UK there’s a thing where someone buys an attractive cottage next to the c15 village church. Then they discover that the clock chimes. And the bell-ringers practise their art on Monday and Thursday evenings. And on Sunday all hell breaks loose, especially if there is Sunday cricket on the village green in the mix. And the occasional ball being hit into the flowerbed. So, complaints are made to the Council, noise abatement orders are sought, legal letters fly round the Parish. And everyone hates the newcomers. Adopting village life with no research? Way to go!

All photos + audio clip: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO

I’m just back from Abaco. Mostly, it was about Marine Mammals (i.e. whales, dolphins, manatees) and the biennial Retreat for the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). There was still time for some birding in Sandy Point, though. It’s a good place at any time for bird-watching BUT the settlement is rather remote. Specifically it is the terminus of the single 120-mile Highway that stretches south from Little Abaco in the north. Then the tarmac abruptly runs out and gives way at once to white sand. If that doesn’t halt you, you’ll wish your vehicle was amphibious… 

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead kingbirds, with their hooky flycatcher beaks, cresty hair and dashing yellowish undersides, are intriguing companions. If they get interested in you (or maybe your camera bleep, as I have discovered), they will accompany you on a walk, flying ahead until you catch up, then doing it again. And if they are ‘hawking’ for flies from a favourite perch, they are fun to watch and… a big bonus… they won’t stop because you are spectating.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Like all the Bahamas flycatchers, from the little cuban pewee upwards, the Kingbirds have a charming way of cocking their head to one side or dropping it down towards their chest. Slightly posey, always endearing.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION

‘Bird on the Wire’ was originally sung by Judy Collins, though written by Leonard Cohen. His own definitive version from 1968’s ‘Songs from a Room‘ is arguable the best known recording and preceded several hundred later cover versions. LC is a really “difficult” artist, however. Many will agree with his expressed view that the song is ‘a prayer and an anthem’. Others might say that it is simply growly dirge-like maundering. The (then-modish) mouth-harp twangling in the background may also be an opinion-divider. Since I have shoehorned Cohen’s song title into my blog title, you might as well have the song too, for contemplation. Is it a life-affirming ‘upper’ or a funereal ‘downer’? You be the judge!

Photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Sandy point, Abaco.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO


Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO

I’ve been checking out jetties at Sandy Point, of which there are several. They look a bit rickety but are in fact sound except for having to step rounds piles of (empty) conch shells and occasional evidence on the timbers of recent fish-cleaning. This is a time of Laughing Gulls, and I have been recording their raucous hilarity. I may add a couple of sound files when I’ve downloaded them.

Sharing a jokeLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Right now, ruddy turnstones and laughing gulls seems to have formed a team of jetty birds, with a few royal terns in the mix and (as here) a random sanderling. The turnstones like to lie down in the hot sun on the jetty, possibly because it’s a bit breezier than on the burning sand of the beach.

Exhausted from turning stones

Random sanderlingRuddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

These jokers are wild…Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The jetties also attract pelicans, which use them to sun themselves and also to fish from. I will post about these remarkable birds another time. The largest flock of them I have seen so far is 5, one with a gold ‘breeding crown’.

Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The gulls also spend time on the beach, and flock on the sandbars that emerge at low tideLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

 

GREEN HERON FISHING: GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS


GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Keith Salvesen Photography)

GREEN HERON FISHING

GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS

The brackish pond at Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks is generally a reliable place to find waterbirds. For those birding on South Abaco (in many respects, one big hotspot) Gilpin is definitely worth a visit at almost any time. Bear in mind it is (a) a longish private road (we got a puncture down there once…**) and (b) it is private land. However, the owner Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who bring only enthusiasm and take only pictures. Plus he very kindly changed our wheel!

We found this small Green Heron quite easily. We’d watched it fly onto a stump in the pond near the jetty, then fly closer to the shoreline. By tiptoeing onto the jetty, we could see the bird perched close to the water, inspecting it with a fierce and predatory eye. Both eyes, in fact. 

GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Keith Salvesen Photography)

The hunting technique is deceptively simple. Note the long sharp stabbing beak. Note the large feet and claws for gripping securely Here’s how it is done. As a fish is sighted, so the heron leans gradually forwards, beak dipping closer to the water, the body more streamlined to look at. The procedure is beginning in the image above.

The stance means ‘small fish – 5 feet off – moving left and closing – prepare to strike‘. As the prey unwittingly approaches, the bird slowly tilts further forward unless its beak almost touches the water, the quicker and closer to strike.

GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Keith Salvesen Photography)

The actual strike is so rapid that it is barely possible to see with the naked eye, let alone to photograph it clearly (not on my type of camera anyway). But the end result is rarely in doubt, with a small fish struggling but securely held in that long, clamping beak. It will be down the heron’s gullet in a matter of seconds.

GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Keith Salvesen Photography)

I left the heron as it settled slowly back into ‘scanning the water mode’ while I went to watch some lesser yellowlegs nearby. Some minutes later, the heron was still contentedly fishing from its vantage point. 

GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Keith Salvesen Photography)

ROUGH GILPIN CHECKLIST

Species we have found on and around the pond include black-necked stilts, little blue heron, great blue heron, tricolored heron, snowy egret, reddish egret, yellow-crowned night heron, the relatively rare and very shy sora, hordes of white-cheeked pintails, northern pintails, lesser yellowlegs, belted kingfisher, turkey vulture, smooth-billed ani, American kestrel, Bahama woodstar, Cuban emerald, Mucovy duck (Perry’ pet!) – and the green heron of course.

As a bonus, Gilpin has become an increasingly regular stop for raucous flocks of Abaco parrots. Rarer species found there include American flamingo (rare vagrant), brown pelican, double-crested cormorants, and limpkins. On the beach 5 minutes walk away, there are usually shorebirds including rare piping plovers, Wilson’s plovers, turnstones; gull and tern species; and passing tropicbirds & magnificent frigatebirds flying high over the water.

FOR MORE ABOUT GREEN HERONS: SHARP-EYED SHARP BILLED

** I realise that strictly I should be saying ‘flat’ here, but that might be confusing for Euro-readers, who would understand that to mean that we had rented (or purchased) an apartment in a larger dwelling house containing similar accommodation. 

All photos, Keith Salvesen except the cute chick, Charlie Skinner; and the cute cartoon GH, Birdorable…

GREEN HERON FISHING, GILPIN POND, ABACO, BAHAMAS (Charles Skinner)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS: EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE


White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS: EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE

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.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

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.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

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”.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

TROPICAL TOPICS

  • 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
  • Pre-mating behaviour involves courtship displays (as here)
  • A pair will fly together, one above the other then…
  • …the higher bird bends its tail down to touch tail of lower bird and [veil drawn]
  • They nest in crevices, holes in rock, on ledges, on the ground under vegetation
  • Chicks are fed by both parents using regurgitation
  • The same site may be re-used for several years by the same pair

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Credits: All photos, Sally Chisholm except the fantastic nest shot, Melissa Maura (many thanks to both for use permission – I’ve never got a decent photo of one); Audubon NA

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

CUBAN PEWEE: ‘NATURE’S LEAST SCARY TYRANT’


Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

CUBAN PEWEE: ‘NATURE’S LEAST SCARY TYRANT’

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 FLYCATCHERthe still larger LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD and (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD (this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

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.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

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.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

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. 

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

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 a PAINTED BUNTING or startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD does not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’.  I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

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]

All photos: Keith Salvesen; Range Map, Cornell

Cuban Pewee, Contopus caribaeus bahamensis, Casuarina Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen Photography)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…


Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: DESERVING PHILATLEY…

As I have mentioned before, the BAHAMAS POSTAL SERVICE has 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 oneKirtland's Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

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 CaysKirtland's Warbler, Elbow Cay Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

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:

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

KIWA ON GREEN TURTLE CAY: A FIRST FOR ABACO

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.

Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)

Here are a couple more ‘summer birds’ to admire

Kirtland's Warbler (kiwa-jeol-trick-fwsh-snowmanradio-wiki) Kirtland's Warbler (Andrew C, Ohio wiki)

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)