The sounds are unmistakeable – a discordant chorus of soft chuckling noises like tongue-clicks as the RWTs flock into a bush, interrupted by harsh, metallic calls like rusty metal gate-hinges being forced open. Or maybe a lone bird mournfully repeating its eerie call from the mangroves far out on the Marls as the bonefishing skiffs slip silently along the shoreline. No other species sound quite like Agelaius phoeniceus.
The handsome males sport flashy epaulets, most clearly visible in flight or in display – for example to impress a prospective mate. Again, they are unlikely to be confused with another species.
The females, as is often the way, are less showy. I have just read that they are ‘nondescript’, which is unnecessarily harsh I reckon. Here are a couple of examples.
And the darker brown ones that are clearly not handsome black males? These are young males in their first season, before they move on to the full adult male plumage. Previously I had designated them females (as I had assumed) until very gently corrected by the legendary Bruce Hallett. Not only was Bruce an essential part in the production of the Birds of Abaco, he also keeps a benign eye on my posts and occasionally steps in to clarify IDs etc. I took the first male juvenile at Casuarina, when I also made the sound recording (below). The second was at Delphi – and with some ‘light’ issues, I notice…
Fledglings are kind of cute…
SO WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
You may need to turn up the volume a bit. You will also here a lot of dove noise and, in the background, the sound of waves lapping onto the shore.
Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 4, 5, 8); Alex Hughes (3); Keith Salvesen (6, 7, 9 & audio)
The Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii is similar to its slightly smaller cousin, the widespread Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottis. The range of Bahama Mockingbirds is not restricted to the Bahamas themselves, and includes areas of Cuba, Jamaica and TCI, so despite the name they are not an endemic species to the Bahamas. They are also occasional vagrants to the United States, especially – for reasons of proximity – southeastern Florida.
The Bahama Mockingbird is browner than the greyish Northern Mockingbird, and has distinctive streaking and spotting to its breast and undercarriage. This may extend to what you might describe as the bird’s ‘trouser legs’, though I’m sure there’s a more technically correct term.
Both mockingbird species are found on Abaco. The NMs are ubiquitous in towns, settlements, gardens, coppice and pine forest, whereas BMs are shyer and tend to be found in the pine forest and well away from humans and their operations. When we were putting together The Birds of Abaco, I went on a birding trip with Abaco birding legend Woody Bracey and Ohio bird photographer Tom Sheley. We took a truck into the pine forest down a logging track south of Delphi, and they were quick to locate a bird, not least because one was sitting prettily on a branch singing lustily and unmistakably. It was well within range of Tom’s massive lens; more of a struggle for my modest camera (below). Caught the cobwebs, though…
I was astounded by the beauty and variety of the song. It consisted of very varied notes and phrases, each repeated 3 or 4 times before moving on to the next sounds in the repertoire. Here is a short 18 second example I recorded, using my unpatented iPhone method, for which seeHERE.
For those with interest in birdsong, here is a longer 1:13 minute song from the same bird, with largely different sounds from the first recording made minutes earlier. There’s even a decent stab at imitation of a 1960s Trimphone™. Had we not had to move on to Sandy Point for an appointment with some cattle egrets and American kestrels, I could have stayed listening for far longer.
THE ‘SUBSPECIES’ THAT WASN’T…
More recently, on a trip in backcountry to find Kirtland’s warblers – we saw 4 – the slow-moving truck jolted to halt in the middle of nowhere. This was because a Bahama Mockingbird was right by the track. I fired off some quick shots out of the window into a rather difficult light, to find that we appeared to have found a new subspecies, the scarlet-faced mockingbird.
The reason was clear, however. The bird had been pigging out on some red berries, and had managed to collect plenty of the juice round the base of its beak.
SO WHAT DOES A NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD LOOK LIKE, THEN?
I photographed the Northern Mockingbird below in a garden at Casuarina. The species is far tamer than its cousin, and seen side-by-side they are clearly very different. The range maps show the stark contrast between the very limited range of the Bahama Mockingbird and the vast distribution of the Northern Mockingbird.
Photos Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Peter Mantle (2); Charlie Skinner (3); Keith Salvesen (4, 7, 8, 9); Alex Hughes (5); Susan Daughtrey (10). Range maps eBird & wiki.
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon we are closely related toDarwin’s finches(so, we are “common”, huh?).Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…
How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.
6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS
Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
Both sexes build the nest together
Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)
Monday was International Pigeon Appreciation Day 2016, apparently. I’m not a huge fan of limitless species being accorded their own special day each year: “Celebrate International Plankton Day – Be Kind to your Favourite Protozoa!” or “Global Millipede Day: Take an Arthropod for a Walk!”.
White-crowned Pigeon (& header image)
I’m not sure where pigeons come in all this. In many cities feral pigeons are considered vermin – yet people love to feed them, even the ones with rotted feet and one eye. Especially those ones. Pigeons may be pests in crop fields, yetHEROESin wartime. They may be decorative, yet are, regrettably, good sport and delicious.
I’ve decided to take a broad view with pigeons and doves (there’s no significant difference), and not to be sniffy about Columba and their special day. They are pretty birds and they deserve it. So I’m featuring some Abaco pigeons and doves to enjoy, representing every species found on Abaco – and a bonus dove from New Providence at the end.
Eurasian Collared Dove
The Columbidae of Abaco: all permanent breeding residents
Common Ground Dove (Tobacco Dove)
PROTECTED SPECIES From a sporting and culinary point of view, the following pigeons and doves are protected by law at all times: Common Ground (Tobacco) Dove; Keywest Quail-Dove
SHOOTING IN SEASON The following have open season from roughly mid-September until March: Zenaida Dove; White-crowned Pigeon; Eurasian Collared Dove; Mourning Dove
UNPROTECTED – NO DESIGNATED CLOSED SEASON White-winged Dove (but why? they are fairly uncommon on Abaco); Rock Pigeon.
Key West Quail-Dove
The second bird of this pair was recently photographed by Milton Harris at the north end of Elbow Cay. More details HERE
The birds shown above represent the 8 species found on Abaco. However, not far away in New Providence, there is a beautiful pigeon that has not yet made its way over to Abaco and has yet to be introduced there. I am ambivalent about the deliberate introduction of alien species, because of the frequently very real risks to native species in terms of territory, habitat, food sources and so forth. But where there is no detectable threat to the local species, perhaps there is no great harm. I’d certainly like to see these lovely birds flying around – if possible, as a protected species…
Pied Imperial Pigeon (Nassau)
Photo credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1); Alex Hughes (2); Tom Sheley (3, 7, 13); Tony Hepburn (4); Keith Salvesen (5, 8, 14); Bruce Hallett (6, 9, 10); Woody Bracey (11, 16, 17); Milton Harris (12); Charles Skinner (15)
Delphi is an excellent place for woodpeckers. The Lodge itself has its own resident WEST INDIAN WOODPECKERS, who generally raise two broods a year in the nest boxes under the eaves. The coppice and pinewoods along the one-mile drives are home to the smaller Hairy Woodpeckers Picoides villosus, where they too nest annually. There’s a particular tall dead tree on the guest drive that is used every year, and from early March it is the first place I check for signs of occupation. If evident, I take it as a sign of good luck (and hope it extends to my fishing).
I can’t believe I haven’t featured a hairy woodpecker for more than 2 years. As we prepare for our forthcoming trip to Abaco HQ and the consequent plethora of photos (95% of which will be deleted), here is a small gallery of males (red caps) and females, some of them taken at Delphi. Check out those huge claws of the one below at her nest on the dead tree mentioned above.
I photographed this female last year in a tree near the swimming pool. I watched it for some time, but it must have been camera shy, because although quite unconcerned by my presence, it never came right out into the open.
MUSICAL DIGRESSION (OPTIONAL)
“Knock on Wood”, the 1966 hit for Eddie Floyd, was co-written with the amazing Steve Cropper (‘house guitarist’ for Stax). It has been much-covered over the years, none more unexpectedly than by David Bowie on his 1974 Live album (also released as a single). Here is the originator, in a live performance.
Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 7), Alex Hughes, Bruce Hallett, Peter Mantle, Tom Sheley (5, 6), Tony Hepburn, Keith Salvesen
WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD: ABACO’S MOST ELEGANT BIRD
A competition to decide the most elegant bird found on Abaco (of 350+ recorded species) is a simpler task than it sounds. Colourfulness doesn’t come into (sorry, painted bunting, Abaco parrot & co). Nor cuteness, rarity, popularity and so on. Some birds don’t make the starting line at all (but we love you, ungainly limpkins and raucous clumsy-flying Anis). Best to judge from a different viewpoint: is there one bird that in flight is invariably beautiful to watch, in a way that can make you catch your breath…?
The caribbean white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) is one of six types of tropicbird found worldwide. It is named after pioneering naturalist MARK CATESBY, who predated John James Audubon. Click the link to find out more about him. Catesby’s depiction (below) of a ‘Phaeton’ must be one of the earliest.
In the Bahamas, tropicbirds are summer resident only and breed on the islands. Abaco is fortunate to have several breeding colonies, not all in remote or inaccessible places. Female tropicbirds lay a single egg directly onto the ground or on rocky ledges and in rocky holes. One might suppose that such limited egg production with a somewhat high-risk nesting policy, coupled with modern problems such as habitat destruction, might affect numbers. However, these fine birds seem to be doing well, and are IUCN-listed ‘Least Concern’.
This tropicbird on Abaco has found a safe place to nest in a rocky hole
Tropicbirds have a variety of local names in the Caribbean, for example ‘longtail’ and ‘bosun bird’ (after their screeching call). They plunge-dive for fish, but are inexpert swimmers. This is a factor I am prepared to overlook in the elegance contest. They were born to fly high, not to paddle about.
THE STORY OF TB THE TROPICBIRD
A couple of years ago, a tropicbird chick was rescued by a dive boat and given to Melissa Maura, well-known for her animal magic, to care for. She nurtured ‘TB’, giving him a soft bed and providing him with a swimming pool. To begin with, it looked as though he might not be able to fly at all, but as he became stronger he started to flap his wings.
Then it was time to go to the beach, get acquainted with sand and sea, and practise flying. I have some pathetic photos of an exhausted TB lying flat out on the sand after his initial attempts to fly. But Melissa and TB persevered with the flying practice and in due course TB began to get the hang of it. Finally, the great day arrived. Melissa and a friend took TB down to the beach and launched him into the air. He took off, flying strongly away, never to return. A moment of triumph mixed with poignance.
You are very welcome to propose a rival in the elegance stakes in the comment box!
Credits: Main photos Alex Hughes; TB images Melissa Maura
The gull-billed tern Gelochelidon nilotica had a name upgrade from Sterna nilotica some years ago, and was awarded the honour of its own genus. Let’s be clear at the outset: there’s no such thing as a tern-billed gull. Which slightly lessens the scope for species confusion.
For those (me) who need a reminder about the whole family / genus / species taxonomic maze, here is a reminder. The example used is man. Or stickman, anyway.
There are 12 species of tern recorded for Abaco. Only one, the royal tern, is a permanent resident. There is one winter resident, the Forster’s tern and there a 6 summer resident terns of varying degrees of commonness. The other four are transient or vagrant, and probably not worth making a special trip to Abaco to find. The GBT is designated SB3, a summer breeding resident that is generally uncommon, though might be more common in particular areas.
TERN TABLE****I know! Too tempting…
The bird gets its name from it short, thick gull-like bill. It’s quite large in tern terms, with a wingspan that may reach 3 foot. They lose their smart black caps in winter.
There are 6 species of GBT worldwide, and it is found in every continent. While many terns plunge-dive for fish, the GBT mostly feeds on insects in flight, and will also go after birds eggs and chicks. Small mammals and amphibians are also on the menu. The header image shows a GBT with a small crab. I imagine they must eat fish. Surely they do?But I have looked at dozens of images online to find one noshing on a fish, with no success. Does anyone have a ‘caught-in-the-act’ photo?
All photos were taken by Alex Hughes, a contributor to “THE BIRDS OF ABACO”, when he spent some time on Abaco a while back in connection with the conservation of the Abaco Parrot and the preservation of the habitat integrity of their nesting area in the Abaco National Park