Healthy happy hungry birds ‘in the pink’. Always a pleasure to see. And when there is a group of them, how often one reaches for the correct collective noun: a murder of crows, an exultation of larks, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of owls and so forth. Many are historical terms, dating back to medieval times in Europe, and often linked to hunting and falconry. As a rule of thumb, the more recent the term, the more likely to have been invented – especially if there is a comedy undertone.
The trouble with spoonies is that there is no historic or traditional name for a group of them. In such circumstances, using the term ‘flock’ is generally the safest bet. A quick glance online suggests that modern suggestions are mainly jocularly cutlery-based: a canteen, a measurement, a service, and… a ‘runcible’ (a neat nod to Lewis Carroll). That’s the one I prefer.**
One thing is beyond dispute: Phil Lanoue takes some of the best bird action shots around, and I’m proud to be permitted to showcase them from time to time. Spoonbills are rare enough these days in the northern Bahamas, so it is good to know that they are thriving not so very far away to the west. Abaco still has occasional spoonbills dropping in – you can see the latest one, found at Gilpin Pond, HERE.
What are you guys looking at?
Got to get every feather just right…
**The slightly ill-tempered-sounding baldmonkeyseenabird suggests ‘a repugnance of spoonbills’ but I think he / she may have been having a difficult day…
In the past I have occasionally offered a Kalik™ (half in jest) for a ‘right answer’ or a nugget of info. Anyone who didn’t get their beer can still claim it, of course [no, no, not all at once please…]. But now I’m getting serious. World Shorebird day is on September 6th, and this weekend sees a global shorebird count in which, it is hoped, large numbers of people will scan their shorelines and post the results on the great and good resource that is eBird.
But you don’t need to go to those lengths. Here’s the deal. Is there a bit of beach near you (hint: on Abaco you’ll never be far from a beach or shoreline except in the National Park)? If the answer is yes, then can you spare an hour (or two?) to take a walk on the beach over the weekend? Or Monday and Tuesday? If so, can you look for a particular rare bird that makes its home on Abaco for the winter? Great. You’re in the competition, then. And there’ll even be a PIPL-related prize…
THE (SOMEWHAT FLEXIBLE) RULES
go for a beach walk, taking a notebook, pen, a camera or even just a phone. Binoculars would be good.
look for tiny shorebirds that look like the birds in this post
count how many you see at a time (watch out, they move quite fast). Maybe 1 or 2. A dozen is the likely max.
check their legs for coloured flags or bands and if possible note the colours and any numbers / letters
if possible, take photos of the bird(s), showing legs if banded. Don’t worry too much about quality – enhancement is possible
tell me about what you found and send me any photos (see below)
HOW WILL I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR?
Size – very small (6″ – 7″) and usually busy
Legs – orange
Beak – black, possibly with a hint of orange at the base
Eyes – black and beady, with a streak of white above
Front – white / very pale
Underside – ditto
Back – greyish / brownish-tinged
Head – ditto
Tail – darker feathers at the end
Neck ring – a greyish hint of a partial one (they are black in summer)
WHERE WILL I FIND ONE?
On a beach or maybe a rocky shoreline
Out in the open on the sand, anywhere from back of the beach to the shoreline
Foraging in the tide margins
Rushing round in a seemingly random way
Taking a dip in a sea-pool (see above)
On a rock near the sea
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?
In an ideal world, all the details below. But I’d be really pleased just to find that you had seen a piping plover on your chosen beach. Even the knowledge that a particular part of the shoreline is favoured by the birds is valuable for their conservation. The most useful info is:
Date, name of beach, approx location (‘north end’). Time would be good too, and whether tide high, mid or low
Number of piping plovers seen (if any) and how many banded / flagged (if any).
Impression of bands if unclear: ‘I think it was… a green flag / an orange ring / a metal ring’ or if visible…
‘One was green flag 2AN on it’ / ‘one had bands – left leg upper leg orange, right upper leg light blue…’
Take a photo. This will help eliminate other species of shorebird from the ID, and enable a close-up look
WHAT’S THE POINT OF BANDING & TRACKING THEM?
Marking a plover with coloured bands or flags (or a combo) gives a unique ID to each bird. Usually it will be done on the beach where they hatched, within a day or two. These adornments weigh nothing, do not impede the birds in foraging or in flight (or when mating…) and expand as they grow. The scientists who carry out the banding will have weighed and measured the hatchling and made a detailed record of the data collected. They need to get as much information as possible about the habits of each bird to help with conservation initiatives at both ends of the migrations.
Each fall the plovers travel south between 1000 and 2000 miles south from their summer breeding grounds. Tracking individual birds to where they overwinter enables scientists to build up a picture of the type and location of fragile habitat that these little birds prefer, and to compare the annual data for each banded bird. For example
A particular beach does not seem to attract piping plovers at all (there may be several good reasons for this)
A particular beach has single or small groups of piping plovers who come and go but don’t settle there
A particular beach usually has at least one or a few birds on it who show ‘beach fidelity’, eg Winding Bay
If birds are found in groups – more than 10, say – in a particular location, it means the beach suits the breed especially well. It is sheltered, has plenty of scope for good foraging, few predators, and has not been spoilt by humans. Long Beach (Island Homes) is a good example. Last December, groups of more than 60 were found there. It’s a *hotspot*!
GIVE US AN EXAMPLE, PLEASE
Last season a bird called Tuna (see photo above) arrived at Watching Bay (Cherokee) in at the end of August. He moved from time to time to the Cherokee mud flats and Winding Bay, but mostly he remained at Watching Bay until April. His unique banding colours and their positioning led to the following information
The precise coordinates of location of the nest where he hatched in New Jersey
The date of hatching, banding, fledging and the last date he was seen there before migrating to Abaco
The name of the banders, plus his weight and the length of his body, wings, legs and beak
Even the names of Tuna’s parents. In fact, mother Paula headed to the Bahamas too – she was resighted on Joulter Cays, Andros last winter.
Tuna was not reported over this summer – he didn’t return to his ‘birth beach’ – but we believe Tuna is now back at Watching Bay The distant photos were not clear enough to make a positive and definite ID. On the next visit we may know for sure, and all because of the bands. And we’ll know that he likes Abaco enough to fly back 1200+ miles to the same beach as last year. We can conclude that Watching Bay provides a suitable and safe habitat for Piping Plovers.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
Potential ‘fun for all the family (nb best leave the dog at home for this adventure…)
Exercise in a lovely beach setting
Seeing a rare and vulnerable bird in its natural setting
Wonderment that such a tiny bird should fly many miles & choose Abaco to overwinter
Assisting in logging the beach presence of the birds so that researchers know where to look
Helping count the birds so that year-on-year comparisons of the population can be monitored
Getting appreciation and thanks
Being described as a ‘Citizen Scientist’
Winning a prize if your are the most successful finder of banded birds, as verified by photos
I’ll post details of sightings onABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCHwith credited photos. Later I’ll follow up with aROLLING HARBOURpost summarising the results, listing the participants and their scores of both unbanded and banded birds, and naming the winner of the PIPL-themed prize to mark their glory…
Contact me via APPW, DM me on my FB page, or email me at rollingharbour.delphi [at] gmail.com
Credits: Danny Sauvageau, Charmaine Albury, Bruce Hallett, Keith Salvesen, Rhonda Pearce, Linda Barry-Cooper, Gyorgy Szimuly (WSD logo)
HUNGRY MOUTHS TO FEED: W.I. WOODPECKER CHICKS (PT 2)
In just a few days, the West Indian WOODPECKER CHICKS have become bigger, noisier and much hungrier. Their heads are now tinged with red. They have started to compete for food: the first chick to push its way to the entrance hole gets the most food. Often there will be a smaller or weaker chick that gets rather left out in the frantic rush for grub (make that ‘grubs’ – see header image). But I suspect quite a lot of food shrapnel gets dropped and spread around inside the nest, so that in the end all the chicks are well sustained.
Rhonda Pearce has been taking photos of this growing family over the last few days, and if you saw my post last week, you will notice that the size of the chicks and the size of the food morsels jammed down their eager gullets has increased considerably…
A lizard hangs on tightly to the parent’s beak… but sadly it is doomed to be dinner…
Mmmmmmm. It’s so tasty, little one…. and even if it isn’t, it’s going in
Hey, kids, who wants a bug with wriggly legs and feelers?
HUNGRY MOUTHS TO FEED: WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER CHICKS
West Indian Woodpeckers are special. So special that Abaco even has its own subspecies Melanerpes superciliaris blakei. They are joyful and noisy. They noisily share parenting duties in an admirably modern way. And did I mention they are noisy?
The parents set up home together, with both partners taking their turns to choose the furnishings and fit out the nest. They share duties on the nest once the eggs have hatched. And they take turns to feed the nestlings as they grow into increasingly hungry and raucous fledglings.
This feeding sequence was taken by Rhonda Pearce whose ravenous chick in the header photo is one of the best I have come across. I have never managed to get such a clear shot of desperate chick hunger…
Here’s how a nest can sound when the chicks are young – a weird sort of insistent purring sound. As the chicks get larger – and more competitive – so the volume level increases.
Get this down your throat, you pesky little rascal…
SANDWICH TERNS: NO LINK TO BREAD SLICES, SAY SCIENTISTS
Have you noticed how newspapers and periodicals increasingly seize every opportunity for a headline ending “…say Scientists”. It lends a spurious authority to any tenuous assertion, like “astronauts unlikely to find cheese on moon, say Scientists” (suggesting at least the faint possibility of some mature cheddar lodged in a crater). Or “Frooty-pops cereal may protect against ingrown toenails, say Scientists”. To which the proper response is: “research reference please”. But it seems 37.9% of people are actually prepared to believe this tendencious stuff… say Scientists.
But I digress. To the business in hand. The Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) is a smart-looking medium-sized tern. Its clearest ID signifier among terns is a sharp black beak with a yellow tip. Also, its black legs helpfully distinguish it from other tern species that have orange legs.
The origin of the name for this species is an unexpected one. The Thaleasseus (formerly Sterna) simply refers to the sea (Gk). The Sandwich part is more complicated. It’s certainly nothing to do with a tasty filling for a sliced bread snack **. Other bird species such as Branta sandvicensis, an endemic Hawaiian goose, have the name because Hawaii was historically known as the Sandwich Islands. But Sandwich terns are not found there. In fact, the name comes from the town name of Sandwich, Kent UK (sand wic OE – ‘trading post by the sea’). The ornithologist who first described the bird in 1787, John Latham, just happened to live there. (And how fortunate for ornithology that he did not come from Pratts Bottom, also in Kent).
Sandwich terns have a wide range around the world. As the range map below show, the most significant breeding area is Great Britain and northern Europe. On Abaco, the birds are uncommon summer residents. Both images above were taken on the main island, the top one at Sandy Point on the jetty (an excellent place for birdwatching, incidentally).
Like all the Thalasseus terns, the Sandwich tern plunge-dives for fish. I love the sight of diving terns. They hang high in the air as they scope out the water for fish, only to break free from the sky and smash down into the sea, often emerging with a silver prize. Here’s a wonderful photo of one that missed its meal – and one that succeeded.
An endearing characteristic of these terns can be seen during their courtship display. The male will catch a fish, then offer it to the female. Her acceptance of the gift signals her readiness to approve the male as a suitable mate.
Of the 12 tern species recorded for Abaco most are summer residents, some of which breed on Abaco. The royals are the only permanent residents; and the Forster’s are the only winter residents. The other 4 species are transient in migration, or vagrant (arctic tern).
As I have mentioned before, a very good source for easy ID to distinguish between different birds of the same family is to head off to BIRDORABLE. The drawings (cartoons!) may not be scientific, but they do highlight the most notable distinctions. Invaluable as a last resort. Or first resort, even! For similar-looking birds, compare the beaks and the legs. The composite below shows how simple it is.
Noisy neighbours? Put this short recording of a sandwich tern colony in the breeding season on a continous loop, and you have the makings of a powerful retaliatory weapon. They’ll be out within a fortnight…
Alex Lees / Xeno-Canto
** The food we call a sandwich was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He found eating while playing cards inconvenient, so asked his valet for two slices of bread, requesting “and squash a tern between them, if you’d be so very kind…” The Sandwich Islands were also named after his Lordship by Captain James Cook, as a compliment for financially supporting an expedition there, say Historians…
Credits: Danny Sauvageau (1, 4, 5); Bruce Hallet (2); Woody Bracey (3); Ken Billington (6); Alex Lees @ Xeno-Canto, Birdorable, wiki for range map & info, other magpie pickings of glistening facts
“ON THEIR WAY”: THE PIPING PLOVER MIGRATION HAS BEGUN…
The last piping plover known to have left Abaco for the summer breeding grounds was the renowned ‘Tuna’, in early April. We can’t say where he ended up – there are no reported sighting of him this summer from the NJ beach where he was born, raised and banded – or from anywhere else. The unbanded Delphi contingent had left the beach by the end of March.
Besides Tuna, of the named banded birds resighted on Abaco beaches last season (e.g. Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Jonesy, Bahama Mama, Benny, Bess), only the most distant visitor Bahama Mama returned to her original beach in Muskegon State Park. Her mate from last year (‘Little Guy’) had already shacked up with another bird, so BM did likewise. Carol Cooper reports that all birds had left the beach by July 23.
Bahamas Pink Band 52
As for Bahamas ‘Pink Bands’ – winter-banded birds – the BAHAMAS SHOREBIRD CONSERVATION INITIATIVE has posted a wonderful interactive map produced by Audubon which shows the astonishing extent of the migration undertaken by these little birds. Unfortunately none of last winter’s Abaco ‘pink numbers’ are shown as resighted. You can reach this great resource by clicking the image below. This will take you to the original – I am trying to work out how best to embed the map in my sidebar.
Reports of migrating PIPL are beginning to come in and will accelerate over the next few weeks. First with a Bahamas report is Linda Barry-Cooper (West End Ecology Tours), who spotted 3 at Sandy Cay, West End, Grand Bahama on July 21 (‘10.00 a.m., high water’). With a modest fanfare of greeting, here are those first Bahamas birds of the season.
ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH
Last season was an important one for having a bird count on Abaco, with the four-yearly census taking place in January. I started The Watch rather nonchalantly, but it quickly picked up enthusiasm and momentum and in the end it was of significant use for the official bird count. Here are the compressed stats for the from the end of July 2105 to January 2016. You will see – possibly with some surprise – that in only 5 months 3.83% of the total presumed piping plover population in the world was found on Abaco. And of course that’s only a total from sightings on certain beaches, mostly easily accessible, by a relatively small number of monitors. How many more were there on the all the unexplored expanses of beach, or indeed out on the Marls?
The question is whether to continue the watch this coming season. If so, best to get it sorted before the first birds arrive any day now. I have decided to carry on, but – since it isn’t a census year – with a lighter touch this time (it’s a time-consuming process and there’s other stuff going on in my life.) Accordingly I would welcome reports of all Abaco sightings. If you are in doubt whether what you are seeing is a piping plover or some other shorebird, a photo or even a phone pic for ID would be great. The most helpful information to give is:
Date and time
Single bird or number of birds (if countable) or an estimate
Whether banded or not
If so, details of the banding: band or flag, colours, visible numbers etc
If at all possible, photos of the bird and its legs… I am able to enhance apparently dim or fuzzy pictures to some extent, so don’t worry if you don’t get a perfect shot.
If possible, state of tide – high, low, half-way, coming in, going out
Also, what the bird is doing – foraging, sleeping, rushing round in circles etc
Finally, location as accurately as possible. Area, name of beach, whereabouts (middle, east end, south end etc)
If you are one of the volunteer beach monitors from last year, I will be emailing you. If you’d like to monitor your own or a favourite beach, I’d love to hear from you.
“TUVU” (TURKEY VULTURE) ON LUBBERS QUARTERS, ABACO
Lubbers Quarters is a Cay off the southern tip of Elbow Cay, and home to the excellent Cracker P’s restaurant. Also, home to Larry Towning, who takes terrific sunrise and sunset photos, among other subjects that include birds. He recently happened upon a Turkey Vulture sitting on a POISONWOOD stump (do not rush to try that – you may not sit down again for weeks). I like the immediacy of these. Most TUVU shots – by me, anyway – are (a) flying – usually coming out as silhouettes; or (b) atop a utility post with wires in the way, or (c) on the ground scavenging something revolting in the way of carrion. This bird is only dreaming about doing that.
“WARTS AND ALL…”
The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but are perforated; from the side one can right see through (and as I have previously noted, some humans also suffer from MSS – missing septum syndrome. They tend to sniff a lot)
LUBBERS QUARTER CAY
NOT SAD… JUST THINKING ABOUT DEAD DECAYING THINGS TO EAT
To read much more about Turkey Vultures, find a bundle of interesting facts and learn about their sex lives and frankly disgusting habits with urine and vomit, check out‘CARRION SCAVENGING‘.
Photo credit: Larry Towning; Tropicat (Poisonwood link)