PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Ani, TCGC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOOand the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. Anis range from Florida and the Bahamas in the north, down through the Caribbean to South America, where they are widespread.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 2a

Unlike their shy and retiring cuckoo cousins, anis are extrovert shouty birds that like to hang out in noisy gangs and family groups. They can often be found in low scrub, bickering and squawking, and fluttering around. You’ll probably hear them from some way off, sounding like this:

Smooth-billed Anis_Abaco - Tony Hepburn

Anis have advanced social, parenting and chick-rearing skills. They build a communal nest for the group, and all share in egg incubation and chick-feeding duties They may raise up to three broods in a season, which keeps the numbers up. Rather touchingly, the young of earlier broods help to feed more recent chicks.

It follows from this that unlike many other cuckoo species, the ani is not a brood parasite. So the species does not lay its eggs in the nests of other, smaller birds which then unwittingly rear the interloper(s), who in turn push the legitimate hatchlings out of the nest and get all the food and attention.

Smooth-billed Anis Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer d

I have tried to discover why an ani’s beak is as it is, without much success. Very often beak shape relates directly to the feeding habits and preferences of a species, but it is hard to see how a diet consisting mainly of insects and small reptiles such as lizards would account for such a prominently protuberant proboscis. Here is a close-up of the item in question.
On Abaco (and indeed elsewhere) Anis are sometimes known as ‘Cemetery Birds’, no doubt because of their all-black appearance (though their raucous tendencies would be quite inappropriate for a graveyard). However although at a distance these birds may look completely black, catch one in the sun at the right angle, and you’ll find that the plumage is far more varied, and with some intricate patterning.

Smooth-billed Ani. Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley

Look for Anis in low scrubland and coppice, cultivated areas, perched in unsteady noisy rows on utility lines, or foraging on the ground.

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco. Gerlinde Taurer c

The appearance and flying abilities of Anis are wonders to behold. As I wrote in The Birds of Abaco, “Their curious heavy beaks, their clumsy flight and their untidy take-off and landing routines suggest a design fault”.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 1a

“One… is the loneliest number…” Oh, hang on a moment…Smooth-billed Ani Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer a

…”two of us…standing solo in the sun…”Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer) b

The Philatelic Bureau of the Bahamas Postal Service is commendably committed to featuring the natural history of the Bahamas. Although probably not in the top-ten of anyone’s bird list, the ani nevertheless got its own stamp in a 1991 bird issue.

As far as I know, there is not yet a collective noun for a group of anis. There should be. Any suggestions welcome. Meanwhile I put forward A Commotion of Anis”

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

Credits (all photos taken on Abaco): Becky Marvil, Nina Henry, Tony Hepburn, Gerlinde Taurer, Roselyn Pierce, Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Keith Salvesen; sound files from Xeno Canto and FMNH; range map from IUCN; hat tip to the always excellent Aimee Mann.

This post is a revised, corrected and expanded version of one I wrote nearly 4 years ago.

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

NORTHERN PARULAS: ON THEIR WAY TO ABACO


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.

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, ABACO, BAHAMAS


red-winged-blackbird-male-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley.jpg

I’m away for a few days on the Emerald Isle, leaving my trusty computer many miles away (on purpose, I mean). I’ve just got my iPhone, but writing posts and inserting images on such a small screen / keyboard is a fool’s errand. So I’ve pre-loaded a couple of beautiful bird images to post this week. Here is a wonderful red-winged blackbird male taken by photographer Tom Sheley while we were getting together some images for The Birds of Abaco deep in Abaco backcountry.

Photo credit: Tom Sheley

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (11): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER & NORTHERN CLOUDYWING


Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (11): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER                        & NORTHERN CLOUDYWING

Two butterflies caught my attention on the same afternoon. The first was a Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus proteus, a species I have featured before. The other was new to me – the Northern Cloudywing Thorybes pylades. New to me in the sense that I have never managed to get near one that stayed still enough to photograph. You know how butterflies are – they use their antennae to detect when there’s a camera about, and redouble their skittishness and wing speed.

LONG-TAILED SKIPPER

Long-tailed skipper have… long tails, and a pretty bluish bodyLong-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

NORTHERN CLOUDYWING

Northern Cloudywing Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Northern Cloudywing Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Northern Cloudywing Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Northern Cloudywing Butterfly, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES


Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES

Goodness, is it the end of the month already? So much going on, 3 half-written posts but running short of time. So here’s something (even) more interesting than the stuff I write – actual photos of actual birds with no words. Great photos (not mine) of Abaco’s 3 cuckoo species to compare and contrast. Until next month… when there’ll be stilts, hutias and a whole lot more.

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (and header image)

Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

MANGROVE CUCKOO

Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SMOOTH-BILLED ANI

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley, Tony Hepburn, Alex Hughes, Gerlinde Taurer, Nina Henry

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO

Abaco is home to 4 main so-called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae): the loggerhead kingbird, the gray kingbird, the La Sagra’s flycatcher and the Cuban pewee. All are common permanent residents except the gray kingbird, which is a summer resident only. Several other flycatcher species are found on Abaco, but they are very uncommon winter residents, rare transients, or vagrants.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The loggerhead featured here in several poses is a watchful sentinel at Delphi. His preferred perches are in the edge of the coppice round the pool or at the edge of the main drive. From time to time he will leave his perch to catch a passing insect by ‘hawking’, returning to the same place to eat it.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead and gray kingbirds can be quite easy to confuse. A couple of years ago I wrote about how to distinguish them, and with gray kingbirds in residence now this is probably a good time to set out the distinctions again.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD Tyrannus caudifasciatus vs GRAY Tyrannus dominicensis 

DIFFERENCES and SIMILARITIES

TOP TIP ANY KINGBIRD SEEN IN WINTER WILL BE A LOGGERHEAD

  • Kingbirds seen between (say) October & March are Loggerheads. Grays are strictly summer visitors
  • Both are medium size birds and roughly the same size as adults (around 23 cms)
  • Loggerheads have dark brown to near-black heads, grays have lighter, slate-coloured heads
  • Loggerheads have a ‘squared’ tip to the tail; grays have a notched tip
  • Loggerheads may have a whitish fringe at the tip of the tail; grays not so
  • Loggerheads have yellowish tinges to their white undersides & forewings; grays less so or not at all
  • Grays have a dark or black ‘mask’ through the eyes, often clear but not always easy to see
  • Loggerheads allegedly have inconspicuous orange head crests; grays are red. I’ve never seen either!
  • [*RH personal opinion alert*] Grays have larger, heavier beaks than loggerheads
  • Grays are territorially aggressive; when they turn up, the loggerheads tend to retreat to the forest

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Here is how David Sibley shows the differences

 6323_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1 3069_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1-1

Illustrations: David Allen Sibley

GRAY KINGBIRD FOR COMPARISONGray_Kingbird (Dick Daniels Wiki)

MEMORABLE FACT TO DEPLOY IN CONVERSATION

The collective names for a group of kingbirds are: a Court, a Coronation, or a Tyranny

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: All loggerheads, Keith Salvesen at Delphi;  gray kingbird by Dick Daniels; Illustrations David Sibley