‘CARRION SCAVENGING’ (2): TURKEY VULTURES ON ABACO


Turkey Vulture, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

‘CARRION SCAVENGING’: TURKEY VULTURES ON ABACO

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are causing some comment on FB at the moment, in particular about why they like to stand on utility posts with their wings spread out wide. So, bending my flexible rule against reposts, I am updating a very old TUVU post with lots of new images and facts about this fascinating bird, which manages to be simultaneously majestic, hideous, revolting and socially vital, all packed into a single species…

turkey-vulture

The TUVU is a familiar sight flying over Abaco, wheeling effortlessly overhead on thermals or gliding with the wind in singles, pairs or flocks. Statistically, 83% of all photographs of turkey vultures are taken from below and look like this: 

Turkey Vulture, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Of those, 57% are taken in unhelpful light, and look like the one below. On the positive side, this picture show the extreme delicacy of the wing-tip feathering that enables these birds to adjust their direction and speed (this is not the bird above; it was taken by someone else at a different time. But 100% of TUVU in-flight photos are indistinguishable).

Turkey Vulture Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

TUVUs have a wide range in the Americas and the Caribbean, and can prosper in almost any type of habitat. This is probably because these large birds are almost exclusively carrion feeders, and carrion is everywhere. They spend their days scavenging, or thinking about scavenging. They do not generally kill live creatures.turkey-vulture

The word ‘vulture’ derives from the latin word ‘vulturus‘ meaning ‘ripper’, ‘shredder’, or in more recent times, ‘very loud Metallica song*‘. TUVUs have very good eyesight, and an acute sense of smell that enables them to detect the scent of decay (and consequent release of the chemical ethyl mercaptan) from some distance. A breeding pair will raise two chicks, which revoltingly are fed by the regurgitation of all the rank… excuse me a moment while I… I feel a little bit… ~~~~~~~~~~~ …alright, OK again now.

Turkey Vulture Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

When they are not flying, feeding, breeding or feeding young, TUVUs like best to perch on a vantage point – a utility post is ideal. But unusually for a bird, you won’t ever hear them sing or call. They lack a SYRINX (the avian equivalent of a larynx), and their vocalisation is confined to grunting or hissing sounds. Here’s a hiss (at 10 / 15 secs).

These vultures are often seen in a spread-winged stance, which is believed to serve multiple functions that include drying the wings, warming the body, and baking bacteria. Possibly it also reduces the miasma of rotting meat that may surround them after a good meal.

Turkey Vulture Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Equally happy to spread their wings on the ground – a debris-strewn shoreline being idealTurkey Vulture, Abaco Bahamas (Clare Latimer)

10 SCAVENGED TURKEY VULTURE FACTS FOR YOU TO PICK OVER

  • One local name for TVs is ‘John Crow’
  • An adult  has a wingspan of  up to 6 feet
  • Sexes are identical in appearance, although the female is slightly larger
  • The eye has a single row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two on the lower lid
  • TVs live about 20 years. One named Nero had a confirmed age of 37 
  • LEUCISTIC (pale, often mistakenly called “albino”) variants are sometimes seen

Leucistic (white) Turkey Vulture, Florida Keys (amy-at-poweredbybirds)

  • The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups
  • The Turkey Vulture has few natural predators
  • Though elegant in flight, they are ungainly on the ground and in take-off
  • The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but are perforated; from the side one can see through the beak [some humans also suffer from MSS (missing septum syndrome). They tend to ‘sniff’ a lot]

Turkey Vulture headshot Wiki

REVOLTING CORNER / DEPT OF ‘WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION’ 

SQUEAMISH? THEN LOOK AWAY NOW

UNATTRACTIVE HABITS The Turkey Vulture “often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known as UROHIDROSIS. This cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered tarsi and feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs”. The droppings produced by Turkey Vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Maybe don’t park your nice car under one of their perching posts…

Turkey Vulture with carrion (wiki)

HORRIBLE DEFENCES The main form of defence is “regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator”

Turkey Vulture in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Charlie Skinner)

DIETARY NOTES TUVUs tend to prefer recently dead creatures, avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. They will occasionally resort to vegetable matter – plants and fruit (you could view this as their side-salad). They rarely, if ever, kill prey – vehicles do this for them, and you’ll often see them on roadsides feeding on roadkill. They also hang around water, feeding on dead fish or fish stranded in shallow water. 

ECO-USES If you did not have birds like this, your world would be a great deal smellier and less pleasant place, with higher chance of diseases from polluted water and bacterial spread. TUVUs kept the highways clear and work their way round the town dumps recycling noisome items. 

turkey-vulture

FORAGING TUVUs forage by smell, which is uncommon in birds. They fly low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals. Their olfactory lobe in the brain is particularly large compared to that of other animals.

SEX TIPS Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In humans, similar occasions are called ‘Dances’. A pair will fly, with the female closely following the male while they flap & dive… then they land somewhere private and we draw the veil…

Turkey Vulture Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

turkey_vulture2

My favourite graphic of all time

Credits: Nina Henry (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 5, 11); Clare Latimer (4, 6); amy-at-poweredbybirds (7);  Wiki, small pics 8, 9); Charlie Skinner (10); Craig Nash (12); Xeno-Canto / Alvaric (sound file); Info, magpie pickings; Birdorable (cartoon); RH (Keep Calm…); depressingnature.com (puking TUVU)

*As Metallica so appropriately wrote and sweatily sang (luckily there’s no verse referencing urination, defecation and puking). ALERT don’t actually play the video – the song hasn’t aged well! In fact… it’s terrible. Woe woe indeed…

The vultures come
See the vultures come for me
Fly around the sun
But now too late for me
Just sit and stare
Wait ’til I hit the ground
Little vultures tear
Little vultures tear at flesh

Warts and all… the gorgeous, hygienic, roadkill-ridding vulture, with a few dirty habitsTurkey Vulture Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION


Painted Bunting, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

 BUNTING(S) FOR AN ABACO CHRISTMAS: AN OLD TRADITION

painted-bunting copy

BUNTING  /ˈbʌntɪŋ/  (Noun)

[A Christmas gift of a puntastic avian / festive double-meaning]
  1. A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
  2. Flags and other colourful festive decorations

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copy

PAINTED BUNTINGPainted Bunting, Abaco (Erik Gauger)

One of the Winterval traditions at Rolling Harbour HQ – that haven of unreliable natural science powered by lazy insouciance and characterised by a regrettably unserious approach – is to break the rule that (mostly) forbids reposting old material without good reason (which there occasionally is). This means marking the imminence of Christmas with bunting. And indeed buntings, those lovely birds beautifully painted by nature. Nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ better than a flock of PABU!

painted-buntingimagesimagesimagespainted-bunting copyPainted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

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Painted Bunting, Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

It’s hard to imagine a more Christmassy little bird than the Painted Bunting. Bright blue, red, green primary colours straight from a child’s paintbox make for a spectacular bird to grace the festive season. These are migratory winter residents, and the first reports of the bright and beautiful males on Abaco started to appear in late October. Some will stay around until March.

                                                           painted-buntingimagespainted-bunting copy

A female & a male PABU feeding together, and a male with a pair of black-faced grassquitsPainted Buntings (M & F), Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Painted Bunting, Delphi, Abaco (Sandy Walker)

                                                        painted-buntingimagespainted-bunting copy

The two wonderful photos below are by Tom Sheley, a major photographic contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. They were actually taken in Texas, but I include them because of Tom’s strong connection with the birdlife of Abaco; and also because they are fantastic shots…
Painted Bunting reflection, Laguna Seca.South TX Tom SheleyPainted Bunting dip reflection LR.Laguna Seca.South TX. 4.16.13.Tom Sheley

painted-bunting copy

This is my opportunity to wish a very Happy Christmas or [insert preferred seasonal appellation] to everyone who visits Rolling Harbour and especially those who, having done so, return for more! There could of course be anything from 600,000+ individuals who called in once, were put-off and never came back… to one sadly crazed person who has been pressing the ‘read’ button 600,000+ times over the last few years. If the former, thanks for trying, sorry to disappoint. If the latter, keep up the good work, buddy.

Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 7, 8), Erik Gauger (2), Tara Lavallee (3, 4), Keith Salvesen (5); Sandy Walker (6); Birdorable Cartoons

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Painted Bunting.Bahama Palm Shores.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

STAR ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

STAR ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) – aka Cemetery Bird – is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOO and the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. You can (it’s voluntary) find out more about them in an earlier article HERE. 

I have returned to these engagingly gregarious birds and their raucous ways because Paul Harding has recently captured a sequence of  a small group of anis behaving so endearingly that they are irresistible. Not for them the oddly incompetent fluttering flight, nor the disorganised, unbalanced landing technique. It’s simply a matter of getting settled on a branch, and then making room for one more in the middle (or perhaps resisting it…).

‘A COMMOTION OF ANIS’

There were 4 on the branch…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Hey – make room for another one…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Budge up, guys, I mean C’mon…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Yay, I’m in… a bit squished but…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Um… guys, I can’t breathe…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

 That’s better… all settled now….Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Let the racket begin!

Credits: all terrific pics, Paul Harding; sound files, Xeno Canto

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION


Red-tailed Hawk, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-tailed Hawk

BAHAMAS BIRDS FOR A NEW GENERATION

It is axiomatic that people tend towards birding – if at all – in later life. Not the scientists, of course: they must commit themselves to the study of natural history at an early age, collecting qualifications by degrees (as it were), through Masters, Field Work, their first posts, PhDs and beyond.

American Redstart (m), Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

American Redstart (m)

I didn’t take a very active interest in birds until the first time I investigated Central Park NYC and saw a blue jay. Followed by a cardinal… a red-tailed hawk… chickadees… American robins (or ‘Mercan rubbins‘, as I was informed). These were alien species for a European, and they awoke my interest.

Brown Pelican, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Brown Pelican

On later trips to NYC I have always spent a day in CP, wandering from end to end, spending time in the hotspots like The Ramble, the JO Reservoir, and the pretty Loch trail to the north, and wondering at the huge and expensive birding hardware toted by those around me (while knowing I didn’t want it). And then a visit to Prospect Park Brooklyn too, if I have the time. More recently came Abaco, and a whole new world of wildlife that has captivated me…

Hermit Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hermit Thrush

This reminiscence by an oldster brings me to Chris Johnson, a young Bahamian man who will be familiar to many readers of this blog. I first encountered him when I was researching the Bahama Oriole and discovered that he, in his early teens, had found one on a trip to Andros and photographed it. It was a pleasure to be able to include the image in my article. 

Hooded Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Hooded Warbler

Since then, Chris’s birding and photographic skills have rapidly developed and his reputation is growing too. This summer he was one of 12 students chosen to attend Cornell University Lab of Ornithology for their Young Birder’s Event in Ithaca NY, a great tribute to his accomplishments and a wonderful opportunity too. It is worth noting that Chris is the first Bahamian to be invited to attend this event.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Loggerhead Kingbird

Chris is also beginning to make his own presentations, as he did recently to the Bird Club of New Providence. It won’t be long before he is leading bird groups – in fact, he is probably doing this already.

Another impressive feature of Chris’s birding is his photography. I have watched the progression online with interest. The crispness of his images, the composition and the right ‘take’ to make the best of each bird is wonderful, and he has a great eye for a neat shot – for example in the header image I have chosen, with its awareness of the effective use of dark and light.

Black-and-white Warbler, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Black-and-white Warbler

I should say that I have never met Chris, although we have occasionally been in touch. I am featuring him because I believe he and other young people of his age – Chris is 17 – are the future for birding, for wildlife, for species protection and for habitat conservation. The older generation will move on and the ‘middles’ may begin to take an interest in the birds around them. But Chris’s generation are the ones who can make a difference in the future. As things stand right now, they may have to. It’s a huge responsibility for them, but it’s one our generation is in the process of transferring to them.

Red-legged Thrush, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

Red-legged Thrush

I hope you have enjoyed the small gallery of Chris’s photographs displayed here. If you are interested in the birds of the Bahamas, keep an eye on him and others like him. They need all the encouragement we can give them.

All photos: Chris Johnson, with thanks for use permission. Please do not ‘borrow’ any of these images without asking first. That would only be fair.

Antillean Nighthawk Chick (one of my favourites)Antillean Nighthawk chick, Bahamas (Chris Johnson)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)


Bald Eagle Juvenile (Audubon)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)

I absolutely knew this would happen. In a sense, I rather wanted it to happen. And now it has, and I have got my comeuppance. Bigly. Hugely. No sooner had I pressed ‘send‘ on my post 2 days ago bemoaning the absence of bald eagles in 2018 than corrections began to come in.

  • Harsh Judgemental Reader: “Do you mean you were wrong?”
    • Contrite Writer: “Yes.”
  • HJR: “Did you check eBird before you fired off your intemperate post?”
    • CW (in a small apologetic voice): “No.”
  • HJR: Well then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
    • CW (*hangs head*): I’m very sorry, everyone. I’ll try to do better this time. Here goes:”

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S) OF 2018: IN NO WAY AWOL!

SIGHTING ONE

On October 25th legendary Bahamas birder Elwood Bracey and a party of 4 were looking out over the Marls from Sunset Ridge when they saw 4 birds flying high. Two were unmistakably turkey vultures; one was a magnificent frigatebird (ie totally non-eagle-ish); and the fourth was much larger, looking like a juvenile bald eagle. Any remaining doubts were dispelled when it dropped into a steep dive and smashed into the water, catching a fish in its talons, much like an osprey. There’s no room for confusion here: Woody has vast experience on Abaco and beyond – and besides, he had a powerful spotting scope and 4 birding witnesses. The ID is, as they say, solid. And it was posted on eBird. Which I should have checked. But didn’t. As Julia Roberts (qua Vivian Ward) actually did say, “Big Mistake. Huge!

Bald Eagle Juvenile (Wiki)

The problem here – you are ahead of me, aren’t you – is that a juvenile bald eagle does not resemble an adult. Rather than the familiar and symbolic look, they are dark brown with white flecks and mottling that changes as they grow older. A juvenile won’t even begin to look like a bald-headed adult until it is around 4 years old. Here are two comparisons of the confusing ages and stages.

SIGHTING 2

Within the last couple of weeks, a resident of Man-o-War Cay saw a huge brown bird – not an osprey, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk – hunting chickens in the area. He told his family and identified the bird from looking at a photo of a juvenile bald eagle. I received this report – the first in time – from Charmaine Albury. Her brother was the sharp-eyed spotter. Had that been the only report, in the absence of a photo I might have had at least some doubt. Then Woody’s report arrived, a definite juvenile bald eagle only 3 weeks before, over the Marls. From there, with its spectacular eyesight it could practically have seen the individual chickens on Man-o-War. So it’s a good fit for ID.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

I’d say that right now on Abaco we have a single juvenile bald eagle. It’s a vagrant, away from its usual hunting ground but unchallenged in the skies where it has ended up. There has been the usual autumn extreme weather (though Abaco has dodged the worst of it) to throw a young bird of course in the last couple of months. So, rather late in the day, we really do have an Abaco Bald Eagle for 2018.

A juvenile bald eagle – not at all like its parents to look at

Credits: Woody and Char for the sighting reports; header image (1), Audubon; (2) wiki; (3) Allaboutbirds.com; comparative drawing, Birdwatchers’ Digest; (4) FB, source unknown (and a credit or take-down as you wish if it’s yours); cute cartoon, the most excellent Birdorable

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018


Bald Eagle in flight (Phil Lanoue)

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018

It is a year since I last wrote about the Abaco Bald Eagle(s) of 2017. The bracketed ‘s’ signifies the absence of firm evidence that there was just the one. Equally, there was no indication that there were ever two. All reported sightings were of a single bird, seen at a distance. The likelihood is that it was a lone visitor. The bald eagle is classified as a very rare vagrant on Abaco, and I gathered together as many reports since 2000 as I could find (see below). Not many, in summary, and never two.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

Last year, a bald eagle was sighted around to coast of Abaco over a period of several months. There were 8 sightings in all, and I had hoped that the bird might stay around for 2018. Sadly, not so. The photos featured here come from a sequence by photographer Phil Lanoue. They were not taken on Abaco of course, so don’t be confused. But they illustrate the magnificence of this iconic bird as it prepares for its landing in a pine tree. We do have wonderful ospreys of course, but the occasional eagle makes for a rare treat.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

As I said last year, the 2017 sightings were most likely all of the same lone bird that had somehow strayed over to Abaco and found the available prey good, and the location congenial. As undisputed king of the skies, its daily hunting range was a wide one which would explain the varied sighting locations.  I ended: “I’m sticking with this theory unless and until 2 eagles are seen together”. 

BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)

Here is the list of sightings. They start in 2000, because there are no known reports for Abaco prior to that from when they started to be kept in the 1950s. If anyone has others, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

  • 2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
  • 2001  December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
  • 2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
  • 2004 Autumn – south of Lynard Cay (after hurricane) – Cheryl Noice
  • 2014  Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
  • ===================================
  • 2017  March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
  • 2017  Early May – Power plant area – LC
  • 2017  May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
  • 2017  May  – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’
  • 2017  September – Cross Harbour – Carol Rivard Roberts (with photo)
  • 2017  November – Cherokee Road – Howard Pitts
  • 2017 November – Bahama Palm Shores / 8-mile beach – Steve Roessler
  • 2017 November – Tilloo Bank – Laurie Schreiner (with photo)

Italics = report in comments on Danny Sawyer’s FB page; Blue = added reports to me

The first-ever bald eagle photo on Abaco Sept 2017

Carol Rivard Roberts

The last bald eagle photo on Abaco Nov 2017

Laurie Schreiner

Credits: all brilliant ‘eagle landing’ photos, Phil Lanoue with many thanks for use permission; Abaco eagles by Carol Rivard Roberts and Laurie Schreiner; amusing cartoon, Birdorable; thanks to all spotters and reporters.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

ROYAL TERNS ON THE LONG DOCK, CHEROKEE


Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

ROYAL TERNS ON THE LONG DOCK, CHEROKEE

Royal terns Thalasseus maximus seem to have a great liking – quite rightly – for the charms of Cherokee, Abaco. Of the 12 tern species recorded for Abaco, ROTEs are the only permanent residents. Most of the others are summer visitors; a couple are winter visitors; and the rest pass through as migrating ‘transients’, stopping to rest and refuel on their long journeys. So ROTEs are undoubtedly the most commonly found terns on Abaco, and some might say the finest. And Cherokee Long Dock is one place to find them.

Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The historic LONG DOCK at Cherokee stretches far out into the sea to accommodate the varying tide levels of the area – click the link for more information and photos. It is a memorable feature for visitors, and much loved by locals. Also by the royal terns. 

Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The dock provides an ideal safe platform for ROTEs to congregate and hang out. They have a perfect view of the small fishes that make up their diet as they swim in the clear turquoise waters a few feet below. Watching these birds diving off the dock after a fish is nearly as entertaining as watching brown pelicans dive off the jetty at Sandy Point.

Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

There are buoys in the bay as well, and individual birds will fly from the dock to perch on a buoy and check out the fishing round it, before returning to the dock – hopefully with a fish in its beak. And the juveniles, with their endearing beginner ‘hair’styles (see #3) can learn the ropes from their elders and betters.

Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

People often stroll the length of the dock, or pause on it to pass the time of day and watch the optimistic bonefishers casting hopefully at their silver prizes. These fish are often easier to see from the dock than from wading level – people sometimes shout helpful encouragement: “There… going left…look!… 20 feet in front of you… no, THERE…” and so on. The terns take little notice of all this. A group of people, especially with a dog, might persuade the birds to take flight, but they return as soon as they can; or simple move along the dock and settle in a different place.

Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The plaque for the long dock shows its importance to the community

The dock is so long that it tapers to a vanishing point on the horizon

KNOW YOUR TERNS (WITH THE ADMIRABLE BIRDORABLE)

Abaco has these species plus three moreBirdorable: Tern Species

Credits: Keith Salvesen Photography; BIRDORABLE, with thanks for their wit and amazingly effective highlighting of the essential distinguishing features of bird species

Springboard…Royal Tern, Long Dock Cherokee Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)