Just over 3 years ago, THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published and launched at the Delphi Club. The book was intended to showcase the wonderful and varied bird life on Abaco – home to endemics, permanent residents, seasonal residents, and a wide variety of migrating transients. The book has been most generously received and supported – though I have to report that already its definitive checklist (dating from 1950) has become outdated with the recording of 6 additional species on Abaco, featured elsewhere in this blog.
Tom Sheley was one of the main photographic contributors to the book, and I had the good fortune to coincide with one of his trips to Abaco, when he was armed with significant photographic weaponry; and to accompany him on some of his photographic day trips (not including the early morning ones, in my case). This clapper rail is one of my favourites of his photo sequences of a bird being a bird – preening, stretching, calling – in its own habitat.
My one regret about my involvement in producing the book (it took 16 months) and more generally in the wildlife of Abaco is that I have entirely failed to progress to sophisticated (expensive) photographic equipment capable of producing images the quality of Tom’s. Yes, I’ve moved on from compacts (ha!) to bridge cameras (Panasonic Lumix + lens extender), and some results ‘make the cut’. But my move up to a Canon SLR was mainly disastrous, and when eventually I inadvertently drowned it (I overbalanced while photographing shorebirds from breaking waves. Total immersion. Total stupidity.) I felt an unexpected sense of relief. A blessing really – I never understood it, nor in my heart of hearts (if I’m honest) really wanted to… But my feeble struggle made me realise and appreciate the enormous skill of those like Tom who take ‘National Geographic’ quality photographs. It’s not just the equipment – it’s knowing exactly how to use it, and often in a split second…
Photos by Tom Sheley – with thanks for the adventures
Some birds are named for the sounds they make (bobwhite, chuck-will’s-widow, pewee, killdeer). Some are named for their appearance (yellow-rumped warbler, painted bunting). And some are named for what they do (shearwater, sapsucker – but definitely NOT killdeer). The ruddy turnstone Arenaria interpres is in the last two of these categories: it looks ruddy and it literally turns stones to get at the goodies underneath.
And they don’t just turn stones to look for food. Someone with a lot of patience has defined 6 specific methods by which a turnstone forages for food:
Turning stones by flicking them with its beak
Digging using its beak to flick away sand or earth (see video below)
Routing around in piles of seaweed to expose food under it
Surface pecking with short, shallow pecks for food just below the surface
Probing by simply sticking its beak deep into soft sand or ground
Hammer-probing to crack open a shell and get at the occupant
In these photos taken on a rather gloomy day on the Delphi beach, a combination of mainly digging and routing is going on. Note the sandy beak of the RUTU below, right up to the hilt.
This short video shows how effective the RUTU method is. It was fascinating to watch the team work their way through and around the piles of weed on the beach, flicking sand vigorously in their quest for sandflies or whatever. Watch the sand fly! Pity it wasn’t a sunny day – the photos might have looked a bit more cheerful…
To be honest, the header image is not the sort of ‘fruity’ I had in mind, which was intended to have an entirely dietary connotation. I’m not quite sure what these two are up to – not procreation, I think, in that precarious situation. It looks non-aggressive… so maybe just having fun and… er… hanging out together.
Here are some Abaco parrots doing what they love to do in between group squawking sessions: gorge themselves on fruit, and getting at it any which way.
Upside down is really just a different angle to get at fruit
Noshing on berries
One in the beak, next one ready in the claw
Tackling something more substantial
And eventually out on a limb…
All great parrot photos by Melissa Maura, with thanks as always for use permission
Lo, the tiny fluffy BLACK-WHISKERED VIREO fledgling, so innocent and coming close to aborbs (but for being frankly a little unkempt). Yet few would guess that beneath that delightfully virtuous exterior rages the appetite of a MONSTER…
Excuse me, I’m getting a little peckish…
That’s fine, son, I’ll go and get you a little snack…
Whaaaaa…. want MORE…
And another one… keep ’em coming
Whaaaaa… more… NO, son, you’ve had quite enough for one meal…
This one’s ALL for me…
All great photos by Charles Skinner, who must have had a fun time watching the entertainment. Although we intentionally featured very few juveniles in THE BIRDS OF ABACO, one of these shots insisted on being included…
In 2014 I wrote about finding myself – with others on a birding expedition – in the midst of dozens of nighthawks as they swooped and dived (dove?) while hawking for flies. “The birds were quite unperturbed by our presence, and from time to time would zoom past within inches of our heads, making a swooshing noise as they did so”. You can find the post at FAST FOOD ON THE WING.
Nighthawks catch flying insects on the wing, and mostly forage at dawn and dusk – or (more romantically) at night in a full moon.
Besides aerial feeding displays, nighthawks may also be seen on the ground, where they nest. I say ‘nest’, but actually they hardy bother to make an actual nest, but just lay their eggs on bare ground. And, more riskily, this may well be out in the open rather than concealed. The eggs – usually 2 – hatch after 3 weeks or so, and after another 3 weeks the chicks fledge.
Fortunately their colouring enables them to blend in with the landscape – a good example of bird camouflage in natural surroundings.
The photos above are from Sandy Walker (header), Stephen Connett – to whom special thanks for use permission for his great nighthawk and egg images – and the last one by bird legend and author of the locus classicus The Birds of the Bahamas (without which no trip to the Bahamas is complete), Bruce Hallett.
Antillean Nighthawk Chordeiles gundlachii, is a species of nightjar. These birds have local names such as ‘killa-ka-dick’, ‘pi-di-mi-dix’, ‘pity-pat-pit’, or variations on the theme, presumably onomatopoeic. Pikadik-(dik) will do for me. See what you reckon from these recordings (excuse the thick-billed vireo – I think – in the background):
Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto
I have read in several sources that no one knows where these migratory birds spend winter; or else that winter season data is ‘scarce’. So no sensible range maps exist, for example. If you read this, and have antillean nighthawks (as opposed to common nighthawks) all round you in winter, please tell someone – you may hold the key to an ornithological mystery…
As so often, the Bahamas Philatelic Bureau leads the way with natural history stamps. The 15c Antillean Nighthawk above featured in a 2001 bird set. You can see dozens more very excellent Bahamas bird, butterfly, fish, flower and other wildlife stamps HERE.
Find out about Juan Gundlach, Cuban Natural Historian (he of the Antillean Nighthawk and the Bahama Mockingbird for example) HERE
Credits: Sandy Walker (1); Stephen Connett (2, 3, 4, 5); Bruce Hallett (6); Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto (audio files); Audubon (7); Sibley / Audubon (8)
The Limpkin has a special status: it is in a Class of its own. Actually, it is in a Family of its own in terms of strict Linnean classification. It is in the Class ‘bird’ and the Order ‘crane and rail’. But there is no other creature in its Family or Genus. So it’s on its own, bird-wise. None like it anywhere. It is ‘monotypic’.
These snail eaters are said to be named for their somewhat lame walking method on their long legs. Their long downcurved bills are shaped to act rather like tweezers when feeding on snails. I’ve never managed to get very close to one – they seem to be quite secretive. But boy, can you hear them when they decide to go for it. If you ever hear this sound – quite possibly at night – now you’ll know what creature is making it…
Jerome Fischer / Xeno-Canto
TEN LIMPID LIMPKIN FACTS TO ENTHRAL YOUR FRIENDS
The Limpkin has its own ‘monotypic’ family – a one-off species of bird
They eat snails and molluscs (also insects, worms & frogs), using their beaks to snatch them
They may leave piles of discarded shells in their favourite feeding sites
The birds are ungainly and awkward: ‘limpkin’ probably derives from their limping gait
Males and females have the same plumage (males being slightly larger)
The beak acts like tweezers – slightly open and closing at the tip – for tweaking snails etc
Territory is defended aggressively, with ‘ritualized charging and wing-flapping’ at intruders
Sex lives: they are monogamous; or polyandrous (a male and more than one female. Tsk.)
They use ‘courtship feeding’ – males will catch and shell a snail and then feed it to a female
They are also known as the ‘Crying Bird’ for their bizarre shrieking call, as used in films**
** Specifically, as a generic jungle noise in Tarzan films; and apparently for the hippogriff in one of the Harry Potter films.
Credits: All main photos, Michael Vaughn taken in Florida – with thanks for use permission; teaching resource Schmoop for the Linnean infographic; audio file Jerome Fischer / Xeno-Canto