The magnificent Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia is the world’s largest tern species, with an adult wingspan of about 5 feet. These birds are widely distributed throughout the world, though on Abaco and in the Bahamas generally they are classed as a very uncommon transient species, classified as T4 signifying a mere handful of reports. Ever.
However Keith Kemp, redoubtable beach monitor for piping plovers, recently saw 2 on Winding Bay beach, Abaco. Moreover he managed to photograph them in flight (see header and above image).
Keith’s are not the first Caspians to be photographed on Abaco. Bird wizard Woody Bracey managed to take one (below), which duly found its way into the ‘The Birds of Abaco‘. Sadly it could only be included in the single-bird supplement: we needed at least two images of a species for it to qualify for a spread in the main part.
Caspians have black legs, which usefully distinguish them from the tern species with orange or yellow legs. Note the heavy red / orange bill, which has a dark tip that is more noticeable in the breeding season. These large birds feed mainly on fish, and use their spectacular bills to good effect, hovering and then plunge-diving onto their prey.
Caspian terns are found on 5 continents. The transient birds that pause in the Bahamas are on their migration to the West Indies and Gulf. Or on their way back, of course.
In the late c18, a specimen bird was found on, in or beside the Caspian Sea and was promptly named after it. The distribution map above suggests they still breed in the area. How fortunate it wasn’t found by the Dead Sea…
WORRYING WIKI FACT OF THE DAY
In 2016, a nest of the Caspian tern was found in the Cape Krusenstern National Monument in northwestern Alaska, 1,000 miles further north than any previous sighting. This development was part of a general trend in Alaska of species moving to the north, a tendency ascribed to global warming.
Credits: Keith Kemp (1, 2); Dmitry Mikhirev (3); Woody Bracey (4, 7); Dick Daniels (5); J J Harrison (6); planetofbirds (range map)
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
I’d best make it clear at the outset that, in the very narrowest sense, the buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) is not strictly a new bird on Abaco. Tony White’s authoritative official checklist for Abaco, valid back to 1950 or so, does actually include the species. It is classified as a ‘V5’, which is to say a vagrant that is vanishingly rare – indeed may only have been sighted on Abaco once or perhaps twice before. Ever. The only category rarer than V5 is H for hypothetical, which essentially means that there is some unconfirmed report of a bird that it might not be outrageous to suppose might be blown onto Abaco. A penguin, therefore, would not qualify even for an H.
A few days ago, beyond a shadow of a doubt this small shorebird was seen on Abaco by Keith Kemp, and photographed by him too. He is having an excellent year with his birding: this may well be the jewel in the crown for him. So even if one of these little guys was once spotted on an Abaco twig in 1961, Keith is definitely the first person to get a photo!
UPDATE(next day!) Abaco birder-in-Chief Woody Bracey has solved the mystery of the previous sighting – it was he himself who saw a BBSP “years ago” at the less-than-glamorous yet excellent-for-birding Marsh Harbour ‘Dump’.
As it happens, some weeks ago a BBSP was also spotted at West End, Grand Bahama by Linda Barry-Cooper. I featured a guest post from her about the fall birds in that region HERE. Woody Bracey also says that he and Bruce Hallett saw 2 BBSPs at West End early this season. Erika Gates and Martha Cartwright saw one on the GB Reef golf course at the end of August. So these birds are around in the northern Bahamas, and perhaps it’s not such a surprise after all that one should have gone on a little expedition to Abaco to check out the undeniable joys of Winding Bay.
The buff-breasted sandpiper is a long-distance migrant, breeding mainly in the open arctic tundra of North America, and overwintering mostly in South America, especially Argentina. Its route takes it overland – the central flyway – rather than over coasts, but as it happens, as a species it is a bit of a wanderer. These birds a regularly found in Europe – including the UK – and although I am sure a sighting there must generate a great deal of excitement, they are not considered extremely rare. They have even been found, very occasionally, in South Asia and Australasia.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the odd one turns up on Abaco. Maybe they do so every year, but only the keenest eye will spot one. And after all, there are many remote beaches on Abaco that are only very occasionally – if ever – visited by humans. Perhaps that’s where the BBSPs congregate…
In the breeding season, males collect on display grounds, or “leks,” to attract females. This helpful description comes from Audubon: “The leks are spread out, each male defending an area of up to several acres. The male displays by raising one wing, showing off the white underside. If females approach, the male spreads both wings wide, points its bill up, and shakes its body. One male may mate with several females; the male takes no part in caring for the eggs or young.” Typical, huh?
The BBSP is another bird that has been hit badly by the passage of time. By which I mean, of course, by mankind. At one time they were deemed ‘abundant’. Around 100 years ago a serious decline set in, not least because people were shooting them during their migration. Nonetheless, in 1988 the IUCN assessment was ‘lower Risk/least concern’. Then another slide began. By 2000 it was ‘lower Risk/near threatened’. Since 2004 it has been ‘near threatened’. Why? Largely because the habitat for migrating and wintering birds has been destroyed or degraded.
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Xeno-Canto / Bernabe Lopez-Lanus
The BBSP page from the excellent Crossley ID guides (available via WikiMedia Commons)
Credits: Tim Lenz, Keith Kemp, Magnus Manski, Linda Barry-Cooper, Cornell Lab (range map), Mario Porras, Crossley Guides, Bernabe Lopez-Lanus @ Xeno-Canto, Audubon, Wiki.
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) breeds in eastern North America in summer, and winters in Central America and the West Indies. On Abaco they are classed as WR3, ‘uncommon winter residents’. The range map below reveals one strange aspect of their habitat. It looks as though they choose not to live in Florida either in summer or winter. I’m sure they must be found there as transients; and there must presumably be some small breeding or wintering populations in Florida. Or both. But it’s hard to understand why Florida does not seem to suit them.
ABACO WARBLER HOTSPOT
On Abaco, I have only ever had reports of Hooded Warblers from Man-o-War Cay, which seems to be a warbler hotspot every season. There are 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco. FIVE WARBLER SPECIESare year-round residents. Of the migratory 32, at least two dozen seem to favour Man-o-War for their winter break in the sun. MoW resident Charmaine Albury, who took the main photos in this post, has already counted 14 different warbler species before the end of September. She has found up to 5 species in a tree at the same time.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There are periodic upheavals in Birdland which, following research, lead to an official reclassification of a particular bird species or genus. In 2011, many warblers that were cheerfully going about their business under the classification Dendroica found themselves merged into the older ‘priority’ genus Setophaga (Greek for ‘moth eating’).The Hooded Warbler, formerly Wilsonia, has found itself similarly merged into Setophaga – a kick in the teeth for the naturalistALEXANDER WILSON, for whom the bird was named (along with many others – his plover being a well-known example on Abaco).
WHY ‘CITRINA”? (FUN FACT!)
The word relates to lemons – citrus fruits – and their colour, and is undoubtedly apt for the hooded warbler. However the semi-precious calcite gem, ‘Citrine’ (same word origin) is not lemon coloured but (disappointingly) brownish.
This little warbler has a plain olive / greeny-brown back, and a bright yellow face and underparts. There are white feathers on the outsides of their under-tail (I’m sure there’s a more technical word for this…) – see header image. Only males have the black hoods and bibs; females have an olive-green cap.
Hoodies forage for insects in low vegetation and dense undergrowth, or catch them byHAWKINGfrom a branch or twig. Sadly, they are one of the species that are targeted by brown-headed cowbirds, the cruel exponents ofbrood parasitism. These birds are rarely found transients on Abaco at present, but they are a robust species and there is evidence that their range is increasing. In some areas there are controlled (euphemism for… er… dispensed with). I’d favour that approach for Abaco, should they show signs of inflicting their evil ways on the resident breeding population of small birds.
Hooded Warbler in Audubon’s Birds of America
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
I am often at sea with the attempts to turn birdsong into to memorable words of phrases. Yes, a Bobwhite sounds a bit like a quizzical ‘Bob… White?‘. But I rarely ‘get’ the “I’d-like-a-Kalik-with-my-Conch” and suchlike. For what it is worth, I learn that for the Hooded Warbler “the song is a series of musical notes which sound like: wheeta wheeta whee-tee-oh, for which a common mnemonic is “The red, the red T-shirt” or “Come to the woods or you won’t see me“. See what I mean? Anyway, we can all agree that “the call of these birds is a loud chip.” As with so many species!
So here’s what to listen out for (recording: FLMNH). Suggestions for a suitable phrase welcome!
If you come across a bird that looks like a hooded warbler, but is motionless and makes no sound unless you squeeze it, you may have found the subspecies Audubonus stuffii, which is found mainly in the Amazon and E. Bay regions.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIVERSION
I haven’t had time to musically divert for a while. My title refers, of course, to the ‘psychedelic pop’ song by Donovan, released in the US in 1966 and the UK in early 1967. The theory is that the song relates to the supposed (but mythical) hallucinogenic high to be had from smoking dried banana skins. There are an explicit interpretation for the ‘electical banana’ which we need not go into in a family blog. There was a rumour, now discredited, that Paul McCartney supplied the “quite rightly” in the chorus. Anyway, to chime in with the mood of the time, one of the first ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam was called Mellow Yellow.
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?