The olive-capped warbler is one of Abaco’s 5 permanent resident warblers, out of 37 warbler species recorded for Abaco. The other PRs are: Bahama Warbler, Bahama Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler and Yellow Warbler. (Photo: Tom Sheley)
BROWN PELICANS ON ABACO & BEYOND
Six more sleeps. That’s all. Suddenly, a trip that seemed ages away is rushing towards us. Or, to put it more plausibly science-wise, we are rushing towards it. Abaco beckons, with bonefish, rays, sharks, reef fishes, whales, dolphins, birds and butterflies to investigate. Plus Kaliks to consume.
Idly thinking along those lines and vaguely plotting the first few days, took me to Sandy Point, home of the BMMRO (Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation) and of course the legendary Nancy’s, the restaurant at the end of the road. From where it is a short step to the dock on which the pelicans gather and use as a launch pad for their fishing dives.
I recently read somewhere that the brown pelican is (or has become) quite uncommon in the Bahamas. On Abaco it is a permanent resident breeding species, so a drop in numbers equals fewer nests, fewer chicks and… fewer numbers. It’s a classic cycle towards serious population decline and all that is implied. Has anyone noticed an apparent reduction in numbers, I wonder? Comments welcome.
The pelicans above were all photographed on Abaco. The two below were not, but are both by exceptional photographers. One, Phil Lanoue, specialises in dramatic sequences, and his work features elsewhere in this blog. The final image was sportingly uploaded by Alan Schmierer from Flickr into the ‘public domain’.
While we are on Abaco, I plan to keep posting as and when, subject to connectivity (always a proviso in the Bahamas). My big hope is that the piping plovers that were on the beach last year and returned this season, will have resisted the increasingly insistent call to fly north to the breeding grounds. If they could just hang on for just a few more days…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Tony Hepburn (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 6); Woody Bracey (5); Phil Lanoue (7); Alan Schmierer (8); Birdorable (cartoon)
BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO: AN UPGRADE
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon we are closely related to Darwin’s finches (so, we are “common”, huh?). Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…
How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.
6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS
- Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
- Both sexes build the nest together
- Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
- Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
- They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
- Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)
AMERICAN REDSTARTS ON ABACO: MALES IN FOCUS
Time to rectify an omission and to feature the striking orange and black male American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla. A while ago I posted about the equally distinctive yellow and black females HERE (the dissimilar colouring between the sexes of these little warblers is due to differing carotin levels in each). These unmistakeable winter residents are common on Abaco. They are an easy warbler for new birders look out for, being unlike any other small warblerish-looking bird. All the birds here were photographed on Abaco.
- The Latin name means moth-eating red-tail (‘start’ is an archaic word for tail)
- AMRE are among the most common New World warblers
- Occasionally they are found as far afield as Europe
- They are almost entirely insect-eaters, with occasional berries or seeds for variety
- Males are late developers, tending to skew the sex ratio: too many of them
- They are inclined to monogamy, but only to an extent. Two-or-more-timing goes on
- The most aggressive males get the pick of the habitats
- This all begins to sound like human behaviour (not strictly a fact, so it doesn’t count)
- Their fanned tails are for display, and maybe to surprise insects into breaking cover
- Redstarts suffer badly from predators, especially in the breeding season
- They are popular with coffee farmers for keeping insect numbers down
AMERICAN KESTRELS ON ABACO: ‘LET US PREY…’
To be honest, I haven’t done these fine birds justice. Barely a mention of them for 3 years. Too much else on the land and in the water to choose from. I posted some of my photos from an outing to Sandy Point HERE. And the kestrel kinsman MERLIN got some attention a while later. Time to make amends with some more AMKE.
As many or most of the images show, utility wires (also posts) are a favourite perch for kestrels. They get an unimpeded view of the only thing that really matters in their lives – outside the breeding season, of course – PREY.
In my experience it’s quite rare to see AMKEs on the ground – unless they are in the act of ripping up some hapless rodent pinned to the earth. I was with photographer Tom Sheley when he captured this fine bird in the grass.
Treasure Cay and its surrounding area makes for a good day’s birding. Although South Abaco, below Marsh Harbour, is the go-to location, TC has plenty of scope for a great variety of species from shore birds to songbirds – including the occasional Kirtland’s warbler. The golf course pond at hole #11 is well worth checking out (with permission at the club house, rarely declined unless there’s an event of some sort). So is the large brackish lake system where you may well find herons and egrets. There’s been a rare (for Abaco) pearly-eyed thrasher there recently. And you may find yourself being watched by a kestrel from a vantage point.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
One of Leonard Cohen’s standards, and a song covered by almost everyone from Johnny Cash to Heathen Gonads*, Bird on the Wire was on the album Songs from a Room (1969). It was a favourite of Cohen’s, who once said “I always begin my concert with this song”. Covers range from the excellent via good, interesting, and strange to outright bizarre. Joe Bonamassa’s take on it (as Bird on a Wire) on Black Rock, is certainly… unusual**.
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 10); Charles Skinner (2); Peter Mantle (3, 9); Tom Sheley 4, 5, 6); Nina Henry (7); Tom Reed (8)
*not really . **shows originality & ingenuity -vs- dents his purist bluesman credentials
“HARRY POTTER & THE MAGIC BAND” REVISITED
THE LEGEND LIVES ON
by ROWLING HARBOUR
It was a bright sunny morning and the sand on the beach was warm under Harry Potter’s bare feet. Although by now an experienced flyer, his recent adventures during his epic 1000-mile journey had left him very tired. All his friends that had undertaken the same long flight were tired too. Now they were enjoying a quiet, peaceful time away from all the dangers they had somehow survived during their scary expedition (see Harry Potter and the Migration of Fear). It would be a long time, Harry said to himself – maybe as long as 6 months – before he wanted to have another adventure like that. He wondered when Ron Peeplo and Hermione Plover would arrive…
But the little group on a remote shoreline on Abaco were not as safe as they thought. Unknown to the happy, sleepy plovers on the beach, they were already being stalked by two creatures. This determined pair had one sole aim – to find plovers, to catch them and to carry out scientific experiments on them. That’s three aims, in fact. The editor would surely fix that error later (No – ed.). Would Harry and his friends soon find themselves in mortal peril from these formidable adversaries, these beasts with huge brains, armed with the latest technology? What magical powers would be needed to combat the imminent danger creeping stealthily towards them? The male definitely had a spine-chilling look about him; the female appeared less daunting – but might therefore be all the more dangerous…
Suddenly, Harry felt a terrible foreboding. Fear ruffled his neck feathers and his little left foot started drumming impatiently on the sand. He’d felt like this several times before, like that time a Dark Lord had driven a SUV straight at him on that nesting beach many miles away, the one where he cracked out (see Harry Potter and the Vehicle of Dread). And when the massive dog came and sniffed round the nest when he was a tiny chick (see Harry Potter and the Hound of Horror). Instinctively, he grabbed a magic meat-string from the damp sand, ate it, and took to the air… only to be caught up in some sort of fearsome spider’s web (a mist net – ed.). He was trapped. He struggled bravely, piping out his anger at this cruel trick. But it was no good – he was caught fast, and wriggling only seemed to make it even worse. The massive creatures were running towards him fast, shouting in triumph – they had got Harry exactly where they wanted him – at their mercy…
Just as Harry had started to believe that his last moment had arrived, an amazing thing happened. Instead of dispatching him with a swift blow to head, as a Dark Lord might have done, he was gently removed from the net and softly held in the female’s hands. His instant fear that she might crush him to a horrible mangled pulp rapidly lessened. Why, she was even talking to him. And those voices. They sounded not so much fearsome as friendly. But were they lulling him into false sense of security, only to wreak an evil vengeance upon him? (*Spoiler Alert* No – ed.).
Then suddenly things got worse. Much worse. Harry was slowly wrapped in a large white blanket and laid on something that wasn’t sand. Something hard. What were they planning to do with him now. He heard the male – Harry had now concluded that he must be dealing with the Avian Overlord himself, the infamous Todd of Pover, first cousin of Severus Snipe – mutter an incantation: “54 grams. Pretty good. 54 grams. Have you got that”. Yes, they’d taken his dignity and his weight but there had been no pain. Yet. Harry began to relax a little.
Meanwhile, Steph the Egger was making a strange rattling sound. As Harry was unwound from his shroud he suddenly saw a box filled to the brim with exotic jewels of the most opulent colours glistening in the sunlight. At once, he knew he had to have one of them. A beautiful pink one. One to wear on his leg. One that he could keep for ever. One that would always mean ‘Harry Potter’. That very one on the top. Just there. With the magic number 22 on it in black writing. And Harry started to breathe a special silent Piping Spell: ‘Please pick me up… in your hand… and fit the Magic Two-Two Band…’
Then despite an awful wound from an earlier battle, the Todd of Pover made sure the band was secure and would never come off. It would be there forever – the Harry Potter ID band. By this time Harry didn’t even mind the indignity of being turned upside down.
Finally, it was done. Really, the jewel was more like a flag than a band. But Harry knew instinctively that it would take a massive effort for his story to be rewritten to make this clear from the start, so he decided to let it pass. Band. Flag. What did it matter. It was his prize, gloriously his.
And then he was passed to Steph the Egger. Harry presumed she got her name for her ability to find nesting birds in that other place he had flown South from. And now, here she was, holding him tenderly, talking to him and telling him how cool he looked. Even her bright red claws did not seem so frightening now. Except… WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO HIM NOW?
Suddenly, Steph the Egger stood up and Harry found himself several feet above the safe warm sand. Steph held him out in front of her and then, in an instant, he was free… Free to fly away with his beautiful pink jewel band, his special number, and an intuition that wherever he might be, and whoever saw him, they would always know that he was Harry Potter for as long as he lived. Against all odds he had gained… THE MAGIC BAND.
POSTSCRIPT & UPDATE FEB 2017
Harry returned to Abaco on his magic Quidditch stick (no he jolly didn’t, he just flew. OK? Do stop now please – ed.) for his 3rd winter on Long Beach Abaco. He was sighted as follows:
- 23 Nov Long Beach, with Pf #36 & Pf #50, also 3rd year returners, & several other banded returners. Keith Kemp
- 06 Dec Still in the same group, except Pf #50 absent. Todd Pover
- 23 Jan In the same group, Pf #50 still absent. Todd Pover
Harry was banded Pf #22 on February 7th 2015 at Long Beach, Abaco, towards the end of his 1st winter there. No one knows where he spent his has spent his summers. He has not been reported anywhere other than Abaco – i.e. along his migration route. All that can be said with certainty is that every 12 months he turns up on the same beach, Long Beach Abaco, in the same place (it is a very Long Beach). 5 other PIPL were originally pink-banded with Harry by a joint National Audubon, Virginia Tech, BNT, and CWFNJ team (pink being the colour used for Bahamas birds). Of those 6, 3 have returned to the same beach twice, and the other 2 once. Some of them have also been tracked to their breeding grounds and on their migrations. And somehow they have all found their way back to the same place on Abaco to overwinter together again for the 2016-17 season.
In fact it isn’t clear if HP is male or female (see below). He might be Harriet Potter. But I have played safe and stuck with the gender implied by his given name…
STEPH THE EGGER EXPLAINS THE NAME, NUMBER & QUIDDITCH PIC
“I helped band this piping plover, and called him “Harry Potter.” I know 22 isn’t Harry’s quidditch number (07), but 22 is for my birthday when I mostly seem to be down in Abaco.”
DISCLAIMER RE HEADER IMAGE I don’t suggest making silly photos of all “named” birds as this is an endangered species that we should certainly take very seriously. That said, I do think that names help people connect to the species and it also aids the researchers in ID’ing (my personal opinion)”.
Credits: Stephanie the Egger, The Todd of Pover, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey & co-banding teams, Keith Kemp, USFWS Mountain-Prairie (PIPL in flight), Birdorable, Rowling Harbour, and star of the show Harry Potter Pf 22 UR. Apologies to JKR for feeble pastiche.
“THE DIET OF WORMS”: WORM-EATING WARBLERS ON ABACO
The little worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) is unique. Not because of its worm-eating propensities or its warbler-ishness (or the combination), but because it is the only species currently classified in the genus Helmitheros. The Swainson’s warbler was once in the same genus, but the WEWA saw off the competition.
SO WHAT IS A HELMITHEROS THEN, IF IT’S SO SPECIAL?
The word is Greek, meaning something like ‘grub-hunter’. And the Latin-derived vermivorum reflects the diet of a VERMIVORE – an eater of worms. But this description is, like a worm, somewhat elastic. It includes caterpillars, larvae, grubs, spiders and similar creatures. But whereas there are other warbler vermivores there is only one Helmitheros.
SOME WORM-EATING FACTS TO DIGEST
- WEWAs are sexually monomorphic. Males & females are indistinguishable for most of the year
- They can only be reliably sexed at the height of the breeding season
- Don’t ask. OK, a magnifying glass may be needed
- These birds are believed to eat earthworms only rarely. Moth larvae are their best treat
- They are ground-nesting birds, one of only 5 new-world warblers to do this
- Like some shore-birds, adults may feign injury to lure predators away from the nest
- They are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds** & feral cats
- Fires, deforestation, habitat change & diminished food resources are also threats to the species
- As are pesticides, which destroy the primary food source and are in any case potentially toxic
**cowbirds are luckily very uncommon on Abaco but are spreading their range at an alarming rate and pose a potential threat to many Bahamas bird species
DISTRIBUTION & CONSERVATION STATUS
The breeding range of the worm-eating warbler covers much of the eastern half of the US as far south as the Gulf Coast. It winters in the West Indies, Central America and southeastern Mexico. There is no overlap between summer and winter habitat. Because of the vulnerability of this ground-nesting species to a number of threats (see FACTS above), they are now IUCN listed as ‘Special Concern’ in New Jersey.
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
In this case the song and call, as transposed into human, really does sound like the bird itself. The song is a rapid squeaky trill; and the calls for once do actually sound like ‘chip’ or ‘tseet’. See what you think.
Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
THE (ORIGINAL) DIET OF WORMS – A DIGRESSION
Studied European history? Had a laugh over The Diet of Worms in 1521? This was an assembly (or ‘diet’) of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in the City of Worms. There had already been several. This one resulted in an edict concerning Martin Luther and protestant reformation, with the consequence that… [sorry, nearly nodded of there. Just as I did at this stage at school I expect]
It is always instructive to look at Audubon’s fine depictions from the early c19. Here is his WEWA. Notice that it is here called Sylvia vermivora. So he had the worm-eating part, but the first part of the name rather strangely relates to a group of old-world warblers. No, I’ve no idea why.
Credits: Photos – Tom Sheley (1); Charmaine Albury (2, 4, 6); Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (3, 7); Tom Friedel (5). Research material – CWFNJ / Michael J Davenport; Tom Fegely / The Morning Call; assorted magpie pickings & open source