Black and orange seem to have become – perhaps always have been – the colours most associated with Halloween (“Holy Evening” at one time in its history). Black, I suppose, for witches, their cats, and the night; orange for fire and pumpkins. In nature, surprisingly few creatures and plants have an exclusively black and orange livery. Some birds. A salamander of two. A few fish and butterflies. The odd flower.
I decided for no reason at all to spend (waste?) a small amount of time discovering which birds found on Abaco are true Halloween species. I had to allow for some white markings, on the spurious basis that white is not a colour but rather an absence of colour… That left 3 species (and even then some troublemakers might argue that the precise borderline between yellow and orange is debatable…).
The Redstart Setophaga ruticilla is a species of warbler and a common winter resident on Abaco. They are mostly seen in the coppice and in gardens. The males are black with orange markings; the females have yellow markings instead of orange and were therefore ineligible for this post. Sorry.
These Orioles Icterus galbula are rather less common winter visitors. A couple have recently been reported. Many are completely black and orange apart from white wing bars. However, there’s no doubt that others are more of a yellowy-orange.
The handsome, colourful Spindalis zena is one of my favourite birds. The Spindalis is a common permanent resident, and I am determined to make it qualify as a Halloween bird even though (arguably) plenty of its surface area is neither black not orange. Apologies to purists.
No birds were hexed, vexed, tricked or even treated in the making of this post
Credits: Craig Nash, Gerlinde Taurer, Tom Sheley, Keith Salvesen, pinterest, wiki & an unknown Angry Bird pumpkin carver
Terns. They have voracious appetites for fish. One of the great birding sights is to watch a tern rise above the sea, and hover watchfully from a height before plunge-diving to smash into the sea and emerge in a cloud of spray with a silver prize. Here are some astounding photos by Danny Sauvageau of Royal Terns doing what they like to do best…
KNOW YOUR TERNS (WITH THE ADMIRABLE BIRDORABLE)
Credits: DANNY SAUVAGEAU, with thanks as always for use permission; BIRDORABLE, with thanks for their wit and amazingly effective highlighting of the essential distinguishing features of bird species
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.
Early reports and post-hurricane news for Abaco is fortunately encouraging, though I appreciate that the Island’s good fortune at the eleventh hour swerve by Matthew only meant that others came into the direct firing line. Plenty of environmental damage, of course, but in human terms the harm seems mercifully light.
It’s too early to determine the impact on the wildlife of Abaco. The migratory winter birds must be wondering why they bothered this year. Land birds are obviously put at risk by the trashing of their habitat in the violent winds. Shore birds, too, are vulnerable: some beaches on Abaco are open to big tidal surges in high winds. Massive waves have smashed their way up the beach at Delphi. Long Beach, where the largest concentrations of piping plovers congregate at certain times, is also very exposed to surges.
Time will tell how the birds have fared. Meanwhile, here are some cheerful pictures – some of my favourite species – to relieve the gloom.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
‘BRYTER LAYTER’ was the second album by a ‘troubled genius’, the supremely talented but sadly doomed Nick Drake. Released in 1971, it failed to convert the ripples caused by his debut ‘Five Leaves Left’ (1969) into a deserved wave of popularity, not least because Drake was already starting his gradual retreat from live performance, from social contact, and indeed from life. Here’s the title track, a pastoral instrumental with orchestral embellishments, and (unusually) without Drake’s distinctive, wistful voice.
Credits: NASA / ISS, News open sources, Peter Mantle, Keith Salvesen, Bruce Hallett, Tom Shelley
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…