BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (1): PRAIRIE WARBLER
The increasing flow of reports of recent bird sightings on Abaco seems to confirm the theory that in times of crisis and of recovery from disaster, people gain strength from the natural world that surrounds them. The bright flash of a parrots wings; the hoarse squawk of a West Indian Woodpecker; the unmistakable cheery call of the thick-billed vireo; the ‘peep’ of a shore-bird – all these can bring comfort in troubled times.
Right now, social media on Abaco, and radiating far beyond, is alive with more encouraging news after the storm, not least about the gradual re-establishment of normality as utilities and services are restored, movement becomes more possible, and plans for repairing the past and designing the future can begin to be made.
This post features photos of Prairie warblers taken on Abaco by Gerlinde Taurer, contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. It is the start of a short series that will focus on a single species and feature gorgeous photos, all taken on Abaco. These bright little warblers are common winter residents and in normal times their Fall arrival would be well under way – along with some 30 other species of warbler that make Abaco – and the Bahamas generally – their winter home.
The rich diversity of the avian life of Abaco is truly astonishing: from residents to migratory species, from tiny to huge, from frequently encountered to very rare. Every bird (yes, even the reputedly ‘dull’ black-faced grassquits) has its own beauty and character. Even a small brown bird may have a lovely song. In non-storm circumstances, it would not be unusual for an amateur birder to encounter upwards of 40 species during half a day in the field – especially with binoculars. I hope that on a shattered island, appreciation of the lively and varied birdlife is already making a small yet positive contribution to the recovery.
Credits: All photos taken by Gerlinde Taurer on Abaco (my own are suppressed for being, frankly, dross in comparison)
KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS
I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…
I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.
The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27, was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.
AN EXCITING SIGHTING
On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.
KIWA CHIP CALL
Paul Driver / Xeno Canto
Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too.
I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?
Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species
Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species
There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable
In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least
Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once
Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)
It’s warbler time of year on Abaco, and a good time to take a look at the Black-throated blue warbler Setophaga caerulescens. This small warbler has very particular breeding and overwintering ranges. In the summer they are found in the forests and woods of eastern North America. As the Fall approaches, they start to migrate south to the Caribbean and Central America. Abaco is one of their winter homes, as well as a likely transit stop on their way further south. Right now sightings are being reported on the mainland and the Cays.
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
Males and females are quite different in appearance (‘sexually dimorphic’), and could even be mistaken for distinct species. Males are a deep slate-blue above (hence caerulescens) with a striking black face and throat, and white underparts. They are unmistakeable, and unlikely to be confused with any other warbler. Females are basically grayish-olive above and pale yellow underneath. For ID, look for a white stripe above the eye, a pale arc below it. In addition, both sexes have a diagnostic white patch on the the wing, that I have seen referred to as a ‘handkerchief‘.**
The legendary bird cartoon website Birdorable, featured often in these pages, as usual has a spot-on comparison of the sexes. TBH, this is a great resource for nailing a bird’s essential characteristics. You should check out its warblers in particular! Here’s their inimitably charming take on the BTBW gender comparison.
These pretty warblers can be seen in gardens, coppice, and woodland. Although mainly insect-eaters, sometimes catching them in flight, they also eat fruit and seeds especially in winter. BTBWs are territorial, and will defend their chosen space against all-comers, including their own species.
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
As I have mentioned before, I tend to find phonetic transcriptions of bird sounds rather baffling – and often not really how I hear them myself. This is especially with the ‘Oh-dear-oh-dear-I’ve-run-out-of-beer’ and ‘Have-a-little-Kalik-at-Pete’s’ kind. One source asserts:“The bird’s song can be described as a buzzed zee-zee-zeeee with an upward inflection. Its call is a flat ctuk”. You be the judge…
SONG Etienne Leroy / Xeno-Canto
CALL Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
BTBW SEX LIFE – ANY GOOD GOSS?
Black-throated blue warblers are – and I say this with considerable reservations – mainly a monogamous species. However it turns out that they have complex patterns of vocalisations and behaviours at breeding time, including very promising-sounding ‘extra-pair copulation’ involving ‘heterospecific cuckoldry’. However, despite all my efforts in researching this phenomenon more thoroughly, merely reading the intricacies quickly crossed my boredom threshold, and my own ‘call’ soon became a ‘sonoroussaw-like Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz‘. Anyway these birds don’t breed on Abaco so I’ll spare you the details and move on.
IS MANKIND MASHING UP THEIR HABITAT?
BTBWs are fairly common birds within their range, with a large population. The usual stuff is happening with them in terms of habitat destruction & co at both ends of their migration. For some already threatened species (e.g. Kirtland’s Warblers), habitat degradation at either end of the migration (let alone both) presages a downward spiral in population. With BTBWs, I have read both that the population is decreasing; and in another source, slightly increasing. For now, let’s regard the welfare of the species as being stable. However, the current causes of species decline will doubtless continue, and many regard increasingly evident climate change as being a determining factor for the well-being of migratory species. The birds are not yet out of the woods, so to speak… and maybe never will be.
**anyone remember those?
CREDITSPhotos: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 2); Becky Marvil (3); Bruce Hallett (4); Blaine Rothauser / CWFNJ (5); @daxroman / Birds Caribbean (7); Paul Reeves / Birds Caribbean (8). Range Map, Wiki; Cartoons, Birdorable; Video, Cornell Lab for Ornithology
Just like the Beach Boys who like to ‘Get Around…’, so do birds. It gives them excitations. Me too. We have ended up in France, not so much migratory as ‘occasional rare visitors’ and anyway not as vagrants. The habitat is wonderful, the foraging is excellent, but the wi-fi is a crockful of merde.
Images take an age to upload so I am taking emergency measures. Today, it’s going to be a quick look at 4 common winter warblers you can easily find on Abaco. Then I’m back to the vin.
If you’d like to know more about Abaco’s 37 warbler species (not including the very recent discovery of a Canada Warbler) click on this PDF and all shall be revealed.
The first Canada Warbler recorded for Abaco AND Bahamas (Christopher Johnson)
CANADA WARBLER: A NEW BIRD FOR ABACO & BAHAMAS
As reliable as seasonal clockwork, the migratory warblers are swarming south from their summer breeding grounds to warmer climes for the winter. In the case of Abaco, this amounts to 32 warbler species to add to the 5 resident breeding species (Bahama Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Olive-capped Warbler, Pine Warbler & Bahama Warbler. 37 warblers in total.
Well, now make that 38. On August 28th, young birder Christopher Johnson was out with well-known birding sage Woody Bracey when he saw something small and yellow hopping about in the coppice. On closer examination – and he took the photos to prove it – it was not just one of the many familiar yellowy winter warblers, but a completely new species recorded for Abaco and (more significantly) the entire Bahamas. It was a Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis (Linn. 1766) aka Wilsonia canadensis.
The photo above is one of 3 that Christopher managed to take. In many respects it is typical of a field photograph: a small bird, at a distance, zero’d into focus through a small gap in the leaves and branches of thick coppice. Sharp bird, blurry surroundings. The trick is not to end up with a wonderful clear shot of a green leaf on its twig, with a small yellow blur in the background. (I perfected this ill-advised technique with my only photo of a Kirtland’s warbler).
WHERE WAS THIS BIRD DISCOVERED?
One of the features of the excellent birding to be found on Abaco is that some of it can be carried out in unexpected places. Town dumps are a classic example, though photos have to be taken with care to avoid unsightly rubbish-based settings. The Abaco Big Bird Poultry Farm area is another. This little bird was found there.
SO WHERE WOULD IT NORMALLY BE FOUND?
In summer, roughly 80% of CAWAs live and breed in Canada; 20% in the northern US. They spend a relatively short summer there. In the early Fall they fly down to South America. From the range map below, it looks as though their flight path would naturally take them right over the Bahamas to get to their destination. In fact, their journey is quite different. Following the central ‘bend’ of the Americas, they fly at night along a southwesterly route to the Texas coast, then on to southern Mexico and beyond.
I suspect that, as with many migratory birds, the occasional specimen takes a wrong turn on its route south, or is blown off-course by a storm. Maybe a few such vagrants pass through further east – even over the Bahamas perhaps – each year, as ‘vagrants’. But in reality their tiny size in the dense foliage of the land masses means that only a fluke sighting could result. So Christopher’s sighting will be recorded as a V5 – a vanishingly rare vagrant with only a single sighting (cf Abaco’s BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS).
Q. DO MALES & FEMALES LOOK MUCH THE SAME? A. NO
Based on the Macaulay Library pictures below, the Abaco CAWA must be a female or an immature male. In comparing photos of this species (which I had never come across before) I have noticed one thing. The yellow lore (the area between the base of the beak and the eye) extends to include the top of the bird’s otherwise white eye-ring. This is found in both the male and the female. Now I need to check other eye-ringed species to see if this feature is a unique identifier or not…
WHAT DO I LISTEN FOR (JUST IN CASE…)?
The two sounds to listen for are the chirpy scrap of song and the ‘chip’ call.
WHAT IS THE CAWA’S CONSERVATION STATUS?
The CAWA is IUCN-listed as being of ‘least concern’. That of course is very far from saying it is of no concern at all. Surveys are already showing a gradual population decline in the breeding grounds. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the CAWA as ‘threatened’. Dull as it is to keep repeating the point, this species like most others faces all the usual threats to its existence, mostly man-made and during my lifetime…
Deforestation, habitat destruction and intrusion, development etc etc
Problems arising from acid rain and pollution
The uncontrolled spread of the tree-destroying woolly adelgid, an import from Asia
Oh, and all those damn deer browsing the understory a bit. Blame them!
ARE THERE ANY FUN FACTS ABOUT THIS BIRD?
Well, confusion about its name, maybe, though that’s more ‘interesting’ than ‘fun’, I think. In 1760, a French zoologist named Brisson gave a name to a warbler specimen from Canada. It was “Le gobe-mouche cendré de Canada”, ie ‘The Canadian Ash-gray Flycatcher’. Because he needed a conventional Latin name for the bird, he put together the name Muscicapa Canadensis Cinerea. This did not fit in with the binomial system of taxonomy (nor was it a very good description of the bird), and the name was accordingly rejected by the wonderfully named International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Linnaeus (to cut a longer story short) sorted it all out in his next edition of Systema Naturae in 1766, with the binomial name Muscicapa canadensis. In due course the genus Muscicapa was changed to Cardellina.
THAT WASN’T A WHOLE LOT OF FUN. IS THERE MORE?
Well, there were more naming shenanigans when John James Audubon illustrated a female Canada warbler in Birds of America nearly a century later. Plate 73 (below) was entitled “Bonaparte’s Flycatching-Warbler—Muscicapa bonapartii.” He’d slipped in the name of ornithologist (and nephew of the more famous Emperor) CHARLES BONAPARTE,he of the BONAPARTE’S GULL. This version did not stick. However the CAWA acquired another ‘tribute’ name, an alternative that is still in use: Wilsonia canadensis. This tip of the hat is to another ornithologist ALEXANDER WILSON, of Wilson’s Plover fame.
Photo Credits: Christopher Johnson (1, 2, 3); Emmet Hume / Wiki (4); Male / Female CAWAs, David Turgeon & Bob Edelen, Macaulay Library; Audubon Plate 73, OS; William H Majoros / Wiki. Sound Files, Ian Davies & Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto; Abaco Resident Warbler Chart, Keith Salvesen;, Cartoon by Birdorable; Range Map, Cornell U.
The Northern Parula is one of 37 warbler species recorded for Abaco. The vast majority of these species are migratory, arriving in the Fall and leaving in the Spring to fly north to the breeding grounds. When I’m back at HQ from my computer-free break, I’ll be writing more about these little birds. Meanwhile, this post is a reminder that the influx will begin very soon. The Northern Parula, with the distinctive green patch on its back, is sure to be among them.
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)