SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: AN “IF ONLY” BIRD FOR ABACO
About 3 years ago, there was great excitement when a new bird species was recorded on Abaco. Not just recorded, but actually photographed too – the best of evidence. This was a fork-tailed flycatcher, and to no one’s great surprise another one has never been seen since. So sadly the STFC must go down in the records as a V5, a one-off vagrant. Until another one turns up, anyway. But there will never be another ‘first STFC ever‘ on Abaco. You can read about the new species HERE.
The sighting came quite soon after the publication of The Birds of Abaco, and instantly rendered the comprehensive checklist in the book out of date. In all, 6 new bird species have now been sighted on Abaco and in due course I need to amend the checklist to reflect the changes. And add ‘wild turkey’ to the also-ran column ‘Exotics Seen on Abaco.’
The scissor-tailed flycatcher is another so-called ‘tyrant flycatcher’ with long streaming tail forks. I had a look at the checklist to see if the species was recorded for Abaco, and sure enough it is included as a V4, which is to say a very rare vagrant with maybe half-a-dozen sightings over the years. I’m not aware of any photos of one taken on Abaco. However, birding and photography authority Danny Sauvageau occasionally encounters these magnificent birds in Florida. His recent photos of the scissor-tailed flycatcher are so beautiful that you just have to see them. How wonderful if this exotic creature could find its way to the northern Bahamas more often. Until it does, it will remain what I term an ‘if only’ bird – one that is regretfully absent…
All fantastic flycatcher fotos: Danny Sauvageau with many thanks – check online, you won’t see a better collection than this…; cartoon, Bordorable
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
Published 2014 ~ 128pp ~ $20, available from the BNT
A fine new book on the birds of the Bahamas has recently been published by theBAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUSTandBIRDSCARIBBEAN. Compiled and edited by well-known Bahamas bird guideCAROLYN WARDLE with the BNT’s Lynn Gape and Predensa Moore, this slim book is packed with valuable information. It doesn’t set out to be an exhaustive field guide, a task already fully covered by Bruce Hallett’s indispensable Birds of the Bahamas and the TCI. Nor is it anything like my own photographic tome ‘Birds of Abaco’, differing in scope and intention, and weighing a mere 225 gms as opposed to 2 kilos! Beautiful Bahama Birds is eminently a book for the pocket, day bag or backback, to be carried along with your Hallett.
I have illustrated this review with photos of sample pages of the book, invariably the best way to give a clear impression of this kind of publication. Apologies that some of my images are a bit wonky, my copy being new and individual pages being hard to keep flat…
The photographs throughout the book are mainly the work of Linda Huber and the late Tony Hepburn. I was fortunate enough to be able to use some of Tony’s photographs for my own book, given with unreserved generosity; it is a fitting tribute to him that his images have now been published in Beautiful Bahama Birds, and that it is dedicated to him.
An idea of the broad scope and of the book and its usefulness to the birder can be gained from the contents pages, which I reproduce here. Click to enlarge them. The book is arranged in 3 parts: Let’s Go Birding; Field Guide to 60 Common Birds; and Conservation Now.
PART 1 offers plenty of useful information and practical advice about birding in general (I wish I could have read this before I started my own book!). Anyone who loves birds will benefit from this whole section, even if they would not call themselves a birder – especially Chapter 3 ‘Getting Closer to Bird Life’.
PART 2 All 5 Bahama endemics are featured in the main section, which is handily divided very broadly into ‘waterbirds’ and ‘land birds’. Some birds are commonly found on most islands; some have more limited range: for example the Bahama Oriole is now found only on Andros; and breeding populations of the Cuban Parrot are found only on Abaco and Inagua (the increasing number of sightings on New Providence give some hope for a breeding population there too). I’ve chosen the parrot because the underground-nesting subspecies on Abaco is so special; and the Flamingo and Bahama Oriole, both very sadly extirpated from Abaco in recent memory.
The illustrations by Tracy Pederson and Kristin Willams are clear and highlight well the identifiers for each species. Where necessary, species variations are shown, for example between sexes, breeding / non-breeding plumage and adult / immature. This can be a confusing and even fraught area (as I constantly find), which this book usefully addresses. Some birds in flight are also shown to aid ID.
PART 3 covers the National Parks, important birding areas of the Bahamas, conservation matters, and a charming section on birds in Bahamian culture. Appendices include lists of Bahamas native plants and their importance for wildlife; National Parks and Protected Areas; important birding areas of the Bahamas; a Checklist; a Bibliography; and a user-friendly Index (not all are…).
A good Checklist is a vital ingredient for any birder, whether visitor or local. Here, all the species occurring on the islands are shown on the left and their residential status and range throughout the islands across the top. Thus at a glance you can tell whether a given species is found on a particular island and when it may be found there. You would know not to look for Turkey Vultures on Eleuthera at any time; and that the black-bellied plover is a winter resident throughout the region and not to be seen during your trip in June… I also like the tick-boxes on the left for species collectors.
Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this small book and unreservedly recommend it. It does not replace Hallett, but it complements it. Furthermore, I’m sure the straightforward style and presentation will appeal to bird-loving non-birders and also to younger birders – it may even encourage some out into the field! On p.20 the recommended reading list includes books that would appeal to young readers and links to appropriate websites, a thoughtful touch. I have learnt, or been reminded of, much from reading this book a couple of times. It is a welcome addition to the relatively sparse avian literature for the Bahamas, a prime birding region that is home to an astonishingly wide variety of birds including rare, threatened and vulnerable species like the Parrots, the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Piping Plover.