‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO


Clapper Rail preening, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO

CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.

Clapper Rail stretching.Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley ("The Birds of Abaco" by Keith Salvesen, p80)

Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO.  By being  both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.

Clapper Rail rousing.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking,  picking their way through marginal  vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name. 

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Erik Gauger))

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.

COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY

When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.

OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION

“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.

Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).

Clapper Rail preening.Abaco Bahamas.3.12.Tom Sheley copy

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Yellow-headed Blackbird (R. Welker / Wiki)

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Alan Vernon / Wiki)

BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.

Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example  of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD

THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACOYellow-headed Blackbird, Little Harbour Abaco (Bernard Albury)

The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Tom Kerner / Wiki)

A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?

The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.

Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas. 

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Sibley)

BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?

The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh  there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.

Map: incidence of Yellow-winged Blackbirds in Bahamas

Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.

I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird

Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Dan Hackley Cornell / eBird)

Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’

Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong

Audubon's Blackbirds

CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.

Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library

Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto

Yellow-headed Blackbird (ALLABOUTBIRDS CORNELL© Brian Sullivan / Macaulay Library )

BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (1): PRAIRIE WARBLER


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. 

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

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. 

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

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)

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF


Abaco (Bahama) Parrot - Melissa Maura

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF

ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GO FUND ME BIRDS

For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.

Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.



‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed. 

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK.  Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through their DORIAN RELIEF FUND .

A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book.  Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.

Cuban Pewee, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)


The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays. 

The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.

Reddish Egret, breeding colours - Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.

Keith Salvesen

Rolling Harbour Abaco

Photo Credits: Melissa Maura – Abaco Parrot (1); Alex Hughes – Black-necked Stilt (2); Sally Salvesen – book jacket (3); Tom Sheley – Olive-capped Warbler (4); Keith Salvesen – Cuban Pewee; Reddish Egret in breeding plumage (5, 6)

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO


Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO

It’s often a hard decision whether to include a short piece of video footage in a post. By short, I mean less than a minute. On the one hand, there is usually a good reason for inclusion, even if only aesthetic. On the other, it simply takes up more time for busy people who may prefer to flick through an article and enjoy some nice images along the way. Today, you can have the best of both worlds.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Sanderlings are definitively ‘peeps’, a group name that embraces the smallest and squeakiest sandpiper species. They are the wave chasers, the tiny birds that scuttle along the beach, into the retreating tide for a snack from the sand, and back to the beach again as the waves creep in. Their little legs and feet move in a blur, and many people immediately think of wind-up clockwork toys as they watch the birds in action.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.

I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.

Waves and incoming tide getting a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Next to the migratory PIPING PLOVERS that favour Abaco as their winter home, the wave chasers are my favourite shorebirds. My keenness on them killed my camera. I went out into the incoming waves to get shots back at the beach with the sun behind me. Great idea until I lost my balance with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Lesson learnt – never turn your back on waves.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour taken on the beach at Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: UNWELCOME NEWS


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. These are Audubon’s Shearwaters, also known as Dusky Petrels. They are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco. Three others (Cory’s, Great and Sooty) are rare transients; and the last – the Manx – is a very rare off-course vagrant.

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. As in previous years, a few of the birds that succumb may be Great Shearwaters mixed in with the Audubon’s. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote two detailed posts about the situation. This bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from the mainland and the cays from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks, all duly mapped to get the overall picture. 

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. The prospects for recovery for birds that were captured and cared for were not good.

Audubon's shearwater - Kinlarak / wiki

Two years on, and the melancholy cycle is repeating itself. A few days ago, Melissa Maura, an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater, now being cared for by Melissa Maura

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looks to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). The cause is probably a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor fishing conditions out at sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay a couple of days ago
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds is not that good. They may have been carried a long way from open sea and they will be exhausted and starved. Those that are strong enough may recover naturally; but most will sadly die, being too weak and emaciated to survive. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds.
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this seems to be working, then carry on until the bird is strong enough to fly (this may be quite a commitment)
(5) do not reproach yourself if a bird you try to help dies. Many will be in such bad shape by the time they are washed up that they are unlikely to survive whatever steps you take
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of this year’s dieback, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me, DM, or FB.
Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this event over the last few days; Dominic Sherony (1); Melissa Maura (2, 5); Keith Kemp (3); Kinlarak / wiki (4); Rhonda Pearce (6); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell  (7); )Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO


Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO

One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed to BIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun. 

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

It is 5.30 pm. The sun is sinking in the early evening sky. The tide is on the rise at the north end of the Delphi beach where the reef joins the land. There is a small spit of sand that will be covered quite soon, but meanwhile two dozen sanderlings mixed in with assorted ruddy turnstones are doing their idiot feeding thing, rushing around on their tiny legs, stabbing in the sand, and generally behaving like clockwork toys on speed. Meanwhile a handful have found the fun to be had in the swirling tide as it pours round the head of the reef onto the sand spit. Yes, it’s sandpiper bath-time!

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand.  And so the tidal process repeats.

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

For the sanderlings, the best part of the day is when the tide is rising. At ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and as the water pours in around the end of the rocks, it froths like an overenthusiastic bubblebath. Right then is an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Substantial immersion is not out of the question…Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour