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)

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)

ABACO PARROT ACROBATICS


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Melissa Maura)

ABACO PARROT ACROBATICS

Melissa Maura is well-known to many in the Bahamas, not least because of the wonderful work she does with injured or orphaned creatures. Thanks to the skills and compassion of Melissa and those who work with her, animals and birds of all kinds are saved from death or incapacitating injury. In the saddest cases, they are gently cared for until the inevitable occurs.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Melissa Maura)

Melissa also takes terrific bird photographs, some of which I have featured in the past. Indeed my blog headline photograph is one of her parrots. I used to change the header from time to time, but this one is so cheerful that I decided to keep it in place. It always makes me smile.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Melissa Maura)

Parrots are acrobatic creatures, happy to eat at all angles including completely upside down. Not just eat, though. Also bicker, flirt, play-fight, and see off rivals via inverted aggression. With the Abaco parrots, one of the benefits for the bystander is that the balancing act and consequent fluttering often reveals the spectacular blue of the birds’ wings. 

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Melissa Maura)

In a row, it’s not unusual to see a parrot taking up a dominant position on a branch, leaving its opponent hanging on in an uncomfortably precarious position…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Keith Salvesen))

People often ask where on Abaco they are most likely to see the parrots. First, there are no parrots north of Marsh Harbour – they are all in South Abaco. Secondly, although they live and nest in the National Park at the southern end of the island, in practice it covers a very large area, much of it inaccessible and with the only ‘road’ something of a challenge for an ordinary vehicle (described HERE). I’d say that the single most reliable place to see the parrots is at Bahama Palm Shores. Simple turn into the north entrance, drive straight down to the end with the windows down, park up – and listen. If they are there, you’ll hear them for sure!

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Acrobatics (Melissa Maura)

All photos Melissa Maura except #5, Keith Salvesen (also the sound file of parrots at BPS)

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO


Ruff, Grand Bahama, Bahamas (2015) Duncan Mullis

THE FIRST RUFF IN THE BAHAMAS

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO

The list of new bird species recorded for the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular continues to grow longer. At the end of August it was a CANADA WARBLER (now also recently seen on Grand Bahama and possibly New Providence). Now, a mere 4 weeks later, it’s a Ruff (Calidris pugnax), a mid-sized Eurasian shorebird that, it seems, has a tendency to ‘vagrate’ across the Atlantic from time to time.

Ruffs: the normal range

Ruff, (N. America) Dick Daniels

You have to take new birds as you find them, of course. First, you may not have a camera with you to record the sighting for posterity. Secondly, the bird may not be perched prettily on a twig or a small rock. In this instance the legendary Woody Bracey found his Ruff in the prosaic and arguably unattractive setting of the Treasure Cay dump. He didn’t have a camera, and when he next went back with a camera to check for the bird the ruff had gone…

Ruff (m, non-breeding) J.M.Garg

Woody’s bird, a female (known as a Reeve), was standing next to a Lesser Yellowlegs. They are much the same height, but there the similarity ends – Ruffs are unmistakably plumper and with a shorter bill. Woody has good reason to recognise these rare and occasional transatlantic visitors, having often seen Ruffs both during his time living in the UK, and also in Africa. I’ve seen the appearance described as “like a gravy-boat”, which is well up there with the least useful descriptions of a bird’s appearance I have come across. Looked at another way, we have a couple of gravy boats that have an occasional outing. Neither looks remotely like a ruff.

Ruff (Old Print) nederlandsche_vogelen wiki

IS THE ABACO RUFF A NEW SPECIES FOR THE WHOLE BAHAMAS?

Very nearly… but not quite. Only two previous Ruff sightings are recorded, in 2015 and 2018, and both in the same area on Grand Bahama, towards West End. And the only photo is from birder Duncan Mullis, who in 2015 took the first and maybe only one of a Reeve with a bunch of much smaller sanderlings (see also header image close-up).

The first ruff in the BahamasRuff - Grand Bahama, Bahamas (Duncan Mullis 2015)

WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT RUFFS?

In the breeding season in particular, male ruffs are very different from the smaller reeves. They acquire a spectacular colourful plumage that includes a sort of ornamental collar (hence the name). They enhance their courtship rituals with elaborate displays designed to impress the reeves. These occur in chosen areas known as leks, places where strutting, preening and general competitive showing off occur to attract a mate. Such arenas are also created by a few other bird species – grouse, blackcock and peafowl, for example. The ruff’s lekking behaviour has some complex variations – including same-sex ‘copulation’ and polyandry – but sadly this isn’t the place to explore them in detail.

WHAT DOES A LEK LOOK LIKE?

Here are two males with very different breeding plumages, giving it their all at the lek… When Carl Linnaeus described the ruff in his Systema Naturae, he gave it the binomial name Tringa pugnax, the latter word meaning  ‘aggressive’ – the lek can also become a combat zone between competing males.

Ruff Lek (Arjan Haverkamp) wiki

This male has decided to vogue it and ‘strike the pose’ as it preensRuff - male preening (B.S.Thurner-hof, wiki)

Writing in The Spruce, a new multi-interest resource I discovered in researching this article, Melissa Mayntz describes succinctly some of the common behaviour seen at leks. This includes some (or all) of the following (baby-boomers and dad-dancers may recognise some of these moves):

  • Bowing, dipping, or bending
  • Head bobbing or quick turns and nods
  • Strutting, stomping, kicks, or similar footwork
  • Exaggerated wing postures, such as fluttering, drooping, or spreading wings
  • Tails fanned, flared, cocked, or spread
  • Chests puffed out, often to reveal air sacs or distinct plumage
  • Calling, songs, drumming, or booming sounds
  • Dance-like sequences with multiple movements, possibly coordinated between partners after a female shows an interest in a specific mate

To which I’d add aggressive male territorial rivalry within the lek, leading to physical attacks with beak, claws and wings. Meanwhile the females watch from the edge to assess their chosen mates. The illustration below shows this rather charmingly.

Illustration of a lek by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857)Ruff Lek - Johannes Naumann

There’s a lot to be described about how ruff’s moult, but it’s not especially interesting for anyone but a moult specialist, so instead you can have a reminder of Ogden Nash’s last word on the topic: ‘The song of canaries / Never varies / And when they are moulting / They are pretty revolting…’ And we’ll leave migration as well, since basically that factor is N/A for our particular part of the world.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
JUST OUT OF CURIOSITY, CAN YOU EAT RUFFS / REEVES?
In former times ruffs were considered a delicacy and were eaten in large numbers. Often they would be fattened in pens in preparation for the table. I’ll finish with an old description: 
…if expedition is required, sugar is added, which will make them in a fortnight’s time a lump of fat: they then sell for two shillings or half-a-crown a piece… The method of killing them is by cutting off their head with a pair of ‘scissars’, the quantity of blood that issues is very great, considering the size of the bird. They are dressed like the Woodcock, with their intestines; and, when killed at the critical time, say the Epicures, are reckoned the most delicious of all morsels. Not a 21st century culinary trend I hope…

Ruffs in India (J. M. Garg)

Credits: Woody Bracey (sighting smarts); Duncan Mullis (1, 5); Dick Daniels (2); J.M.Garg (3, 9); Open Source / Wiki, prints (4, 8);  Arjan Haverkamp (6); B.S.Thurner-hof (7); Melissa Mayntz / The Spruce re Leks; debt to Wiki (and other O/S) for source material, photos, range map etc

GREAT EGRETS: NOBLE (YET MISNAMED) HERONS


Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

GREAT EGRETS: NOBLE (YET MISNAMED) HERONS

The Great Egret is actually a heron rather than an egret. It’s a Great Heron. All egrets are members of the heron family Ardeidae, but the converse is not true. As long ago as 1758, Linnaeus awarded the bird the binomial name Ardea alba i.e. ‘Heron white‘. Why it should have been so hard to stick to that authoritative nomenclature, I can’t imagine. Perhaps in time all heron and egret species became so hopelessly confusing for people that it ceased to matter much what they were called.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Maybe it was that type of carelessness that led to people from the mid-c19 onwards eyeing up GREGs as a source of hat feathers and other decorative necessities. As with flamingos and many other beautiful avian species, mankind’s millinery and other fashion needs were satisfied at the expense of gorgeous plumage. Actually, at the cost of the birds’ lives: they were simply shot in huge numbers. 

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Healthy populations were decimated; for some species they never recovered. For others, the great egret among them, the passage of time and the passing of fashions – backed in many cases with conservation programs – have successfully restored the populations. In 1953 the National Audubon Society, which was formed at least in part to discourage the killing of birds for their feathers, took a decisive step in the cause of the great egret by making the bird the emblem of the organisation.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credit: Nina Henry photographed all the egrets in this post. Her wonderful images made a significant contribution to the “BIRDS OF ABACO” project.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

A HAIRY WOODPECKER ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Hairy Woodpecker, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

It’s Friday. I’ve just nixed for wild brown trout on the River Frome in the rain. I need a beer and I’ve run out of week. You can read more about the attractive little Hairy Woodpecker – Abaco’s small counterpart to the larger and noisier West-Indian Woodpecker – HERE. Have a good weekend!

Photo Credit: Tom Sheley

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)