BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you 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. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’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…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

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.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

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 assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

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); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

ROLLING HARBOUR? TROLLING HARBOUR!


Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

ROLLING HARBOUR? TROLLING HARBOUR!

My troll friend is back! It’s been quite a long time since the last outbreak – congratulations on your growing self-control – but it’s good to know you still have it in you. In a way I consider your dogged trawls through my posts awarding coveted ‘One Star’ (= ‘Very Poor’) reviews, something of a plus. Your indiscriminate and equally low opinion of sequential blocks of posts suggests that you don’t actually read them, so I like to speculate what draws you here. You have the option of never visiting at all, of course, but that may not have occurred to you. Possibly you hate wildlife and / or conservation issues? Or have a phobia about nice photos. Or a lack of empathy for birds. Maybe you hold strong views that you feel are totally valid yet differ from the ones you perceive hereabouts. Possibly you need to see a counsellor?

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

You doubtless will be pleased to see this post (and keen to award it a single star) expecting me to mind your somewhat negative and persistent attentions. Presumably in some weird way you hope that you have got to me. I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years and I can assure you not. I could in fact have removed my star ratings at any time, but then I’d miss your badges of honour and you’d miss your fun. If I may make a personal comment, though,  right now the least important thing in the world you could be doing is to troll a wildlife blog. When you have a tranquil moment, would you like to try to find something better to do with your time? Maybe something positive for someone else?

Credits: all gorgeous black-necked stilt photos taken by Alex on Abaco.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: DIE-OFF 2020


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. Or you may have read about this online. These poor birds may be (a) Audubon’s Shearwaters (also known as Dusky Petrels), which are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco; (b) Cory’s, Great or Sooty, which are transients; (c) Manx, which is a rare ‘off-course’ vagrant.

JUNE 2020

At the moment there are plenty of posts and threads on social media about the current die-off. People are naturally upset and concerned, and want to know the cause of the phenomenon. I am recasting a post from last year to explain why this happens.

Exhausted shearwater beached on AbacoAudubons Shearwater Abaco Bahamas (Sharon Elliott)

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. It almost always happens in June. The pattern is much the same each time, though the mix of shearwater species that succumb may vary. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote about it then. That bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from mainland Abaco and the cays, stretching from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks.

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 were still alive, but in a very poor state. Their prospects for survival would have been very low. A few birds were captured and cared for, but even then the chances of recovery were not good.

Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Two years on, in 2019, the melancholy cycle repeated itself. Melissa Maura, well-known as 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 in the care of Melissa Maura (2019)Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A Cory’s shearwater in rehab with Melissa 2020Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looked to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). This year’s die-off makes it 2 years running, an obvious great concern. The cause is 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 fly increasing distances to try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or more often dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor Summer fishing conditions out to 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
Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Rhona Pearce))
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 on the shoreline 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 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. A few lucky birds will be found in a reasonable state, and be able to be nursed back to health. 
Melissa releasing a recent survivor from her careShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura) “Need Fish”
PRACTICAL ADVICE
(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 of attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
A spell in the paddling pool – plenty of rest and fresh waterShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Paul Harding))
Credits: thanks first to Melissa Maura for her tireless compassion in the care of damaged and diseased creatures of every kind; and to those on Abaco who have been reporting / commenting on this event over the last few days.
Photographers Dominic Sherony Wiki (1); Sharon Elliott (2); Melissa Maura (4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11); Keith Kemp (3); Rhonda Pearce (7); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell (8)
The perfect end to the careful rehabilitation of a very sick shearwater – June 2020
Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Treasure Cay Abaco (Becky Marvil)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)

Polioptila caerulea PR|B|1

A delicate featherweight gnatcatcher that has characteristic full eye-rings. The long tail may
be cocked when perching, often as a territorial assertion. They are capable of hovering briefly over shrubs to feed on insects, but mostly they ‘hawk’ for insects on the wing (“Birds of Abaco”).

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley) a

Credits: Becky Marvil (1); Tom Sheley (2, 3)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER


Kirtland's Warbler Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER

The rare Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is rightly prized both in its very specific breeding grounds and in its winter migration locations. Abaco is fortunate to be one of these, but they are extremely difficult to find, even with local knowledge. The latest IUCN Red List assessment of numbers of adult warblers (2018) gives a figure of 4,500 – 5,000. The species is categorised as ‘near-threatened’. Numbers are gradually increasing, thanks to a major recovery plan and intensive conservation measures in areas where they nest. 

WHERE THEY LIVE

SPRING & SUMMER Mostly, the KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. As numbers have increased, the range has expanded more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (©Vince Cavalieri)

FALL & WINTER the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.

Kirtland's Warbler Range Map wiki

THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES

  • Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival – of the species
  • Encroachment by development is a major concern (as with so many species everywhere)
  • KIWAs are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds in the breeding areas
  • Their winter habitat is mostly in remote or protected areas, but on Abaco a proposed development in the National Park where they live will probably wipe them out, if built   
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk to the species; at both ends, extinction could loom again

Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?

  • Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
  • Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
  • Females are paler and more streaked
  • Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
  • Frequent tail pumping and bobbing

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

Some say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found it claimed that they produce ‘a loud tchip, with song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). I’m not a big fan of phonetic spelling for bird sounds. Here’s a sample for you to assess:

 Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877) portrait

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)

Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician & amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler & also in a couple of snake species.

The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 5, 6); Vince Cavalieri (2); Tom Sheley (3); Tony Hepburn (4); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)


PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)

Painted Bunting, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Photo: Tom Sheley, taken at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco

This wonderful and mood-brightening photo was taken by Tom while we were compiling an archive for my book BIRDS OF ABACO  It is one of the most memorable images of the very large number of photographs featured. Every one of them was taken on Abaco (photos taken ‘off-island’ were ruthlessly excluded); and each one in natural surroundings (no seed-trails, recorded calls and so on). Sadly the edition sold out well before Hurricane Dorian so we have been unable to replace any of the many lost copies. However, I am contemplating producing a pdf version of the pre-print draft (a Covid displacement activity). If that goes ahead I will devise a way to distribute it simply, and possibly in return for a modest donation towards the work of Abaco wildlife organisations.

 

GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)


GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)

Green Heron, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

We saw this green heron (Butorides virescens) at Gilpin Pond, South Abaco. It’s an excellent location for waterbirds and waders, although in hot weather when the water level drops an algal bloom colours the water with a reddish tinge. The coppice around the pond is good for small birds; parrots pass through on their daily flights to and from the forest; and the beach the other side of the dunes can be excellent for shorebirds. 

We watched this heron fishing for some time. I took quite a few photos of the bird in action, including its successes in nabbing tiny fish. However there were two problems with getting the perfect action shot. First, the bird’s rapid darts forwards and downwards, the fish grabs, and the returns to perching position with its snack were incredibly quick. Secondly, my slow reactions and innate stupidity with camera settings militated against a sharp ‘in-motion’ image to be proud of. So I’m afraid you get the bird having just swallowed its catch.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)


KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)

Killdeer, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Birds of Abaco)

For the time being, while things are a bit crazy, I’ll be posting single / pairs of images that in my view are so excellent that they stand alone without needing any comment from me, annoying wordplay, or musical digressions. All have been taken on Abaco Bahamas. Only some will be my own – the bar is set at a DSLR height that exceeds my camera skills. 

Credit: Bruce Hallett

RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)


RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)

Ruddy Turnstone, the Marls, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

I very rarely – almost never –  publish single or pairs of images, not least because I enjoy the bits of research and writing that cover a topic more thoroughly. However, today I was going through the photographic archive from my book BIRDS OF ABACO and came across these RUTUs photographed on the Marls by contributor Tom Sheley.

TBH turnstones are among the easiest shorebirds to photograph. They are pleasingly tame, so you can get quite close to them without ruffling their feathers. They aren’t tiny and they are pretty and quite colourful. And they are fairly abundant and so not hard to locate… but they make it hard to get a really good bright, clear photo. Or is that just me…? Anyway, Tom definitely has the camera skills required.

Ruddy Turnstone, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS

Black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus may be the most elegant shorebirds you will ever see. They are permanent residents on Abaco and not uncommon where they are found. It could be on a beach; more likely it will be in or around brackish ponds. It won’t be in the pine forest or coppice.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The rather disorganised stilt flying in the header image rather undercuts my claim for elegance, I realise. The image above of the bird at full stretch against a background of waves gives a much better idea of the beauty of this species. 

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Gilpin Pond is a good place to see stilts, and in summer they nest around the perimeter. A word of warning: they may be aggressive in the breeding season. I got too near a nest once and the female shouted at me then flew straight at my head. I hadn’t even realised there was a nest there until this happened, so her actions rather give the game away.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

In common with some smaller shorebird species – for example, plovers and killdeer – the stilts have another defensive method to protect their young, a so-called ‘distraction display’. When their nest is under threat,  one of the adults will pretend to have a damaged or broken wing and so be unable to fly. It will flutter feebly along the ground, moving further and further away from the nest, diverting attention from it. It’s an amazing sight to watch the tactic in action. Check out this video to see examples of this behaviour.

Credits: all photos by Alex Hughes, one of the photographic contributors to The Birds of Abaco; video Nat Bel

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD


Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD

This post has little to do with Abaco, and only a tenuous connection with the Bahamas. It is about birds, though, so I’ll justify it that way. This is today’s news and these are photos I took this morning in a park that is less than 10 minutes walk from our house. The reason? I’d heard that goslings had been seen at the small lake there, remarkably early in the year for any bird.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Gosling (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

I had expected that this rumour related to the Canada geese that lord it over the smaller waterfowl (moorhens, coots, mallards, tufted ducks and so on). What I saw, as I got close to the lake, was a pair of Egyptian geese Alopochen aegyptiaca. And, true to the report, they had goslings with them. There were 10 in all and they were jointly and severally (as we lawyers say) totally adorbs and charmsy.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

These are birds of Africa, but – like Canada geese – have spread far and wide mainly as the result of introduction by man. The Egyptians considered them sacred and featured them in hieroglyphs. Modern man has deemed them ornamental (cf peafowl) and removed them from their home to pastures new. Geese are robust, so they adapted in their new environment with relative ease. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

As with many other transferred species, birds inevitably escaped from their ‘owners’ and feral populations soon became established. In Abaco terms, this is exactly what happened with the peafowl that were brought to the ‘Different of Abaco’ fishing lodge. The birds survived its demise, lived and bred in the increasingly wild grounds, and are now many generations on.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

At some stage, the Egyptian goose was introduced in Florida, where it thrived. Nowadays it is not a particularly unusual bird there.  It remains one of the birds of south-east US that has never made the relatively short journey to Abaco. There are however a handful of reports from Grand Bahama, New Providence and Eleuthera, so northern Bahamas is in range.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

It’s probably only a matter of time before these geese turn up on Abaco. Five years ago, the first BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS were found, a flock of 6 seen several times as they progressed from Crossing Rocks north to the airport. There are still the occasional sightings of these ducks, the last about 2 weeks ago north of Marsh Harbour. The Egyptian goose is a fine bird and part of me (the part that doesn’t disapprove of avian introductions) hopes that they do occasionally undertake the journey from the flocks in Florida. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

That’s all, folksEgyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA


ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Fabulous in-flight shot by Nina Henry (contributor to ‘Birds of Abaco’)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS


White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS

The white-cheeked (‘Bahama’) pintail Anas bahamensis (aka ‘Bahama duck’) is everyone’s favourite dabbling duck. Or at least it ought to be. And when there are ducklings swimming with the adults, there is no emoticon yet devised that will convey the extremes of cuteness achieved.

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)      White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)  White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

Credits: all absolutely adorbs  photos are by Tom Sheley & Charles Skinner

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT


CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT

A VERY HAPPY TO ALL FOLLOWERS OF ROLLING HARBOUR…

…AND TO EACH AND EVERY RANDOM DROP-BY TOO!

SEE YOU NEXT DECADE!

Abaco Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Nina Henry, photographed on Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

 

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING


PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credit: Tom Sheley, photographed at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

 

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT


Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes) BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT

I was looking at the list of the dozens of Abaco bird species I have featured over the years, when I was struck by the complete omission of one of Abaco’s most significant small birds – the Bahama Warbler Setophaga flavescens. This warbler species is of the most important in the Bahamas for several reasons, any one of which should have prompted me to showcase this lovely bird before now.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

A SPECIALITY BIRD

The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:

  • Found only on Abaco and Grand Bahama
  • One of only 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas
  • One of only 2 endemic warbler species on Abaco (with the BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT)
  • One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.

Bahama Warbler Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Until 2011, the BAWA was classified as a subspecies of the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER. The ornithological powers-that-be then recognised that the two species were distinct in both appearance and in vocalisation, and split them into separate species (this splitting / amalgamating process occurs annually and plays havoc with the precious ‘Life Lists’ kept with such rigour by ardent birders**.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The BAWA has such a confined range that even the extensive reach of the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not got as far as this bird. The info sections of the otherwise comprehensive website for Neotropical Birds are blank and waiting for someone to upload some details. Here are a few facts in one of a very good series of info-graphics produced by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST.

BNT infographic Bahama Warbler

** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?


BAHAMA WOODSTAR (F) ABACO - TARA LAVALLEE

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?

SIGHTINGS POST-DORIAN

Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank. 

BAHAMA WOODSTAR (M) ABACO - BRUCE HALLETT

Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).

CUBAN EMERALD (M) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?

CUBAN EMERALD (F) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)

‘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 )

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE… WHILE TECHIES LABOUR


Ring-billed Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE…

WHILE TECHIES LABOUR

Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I’m never quite sure how far it’s permissible to go beyond ‘really pissed off’ about a tech problem. Anything much stronger seems a bit indulgent both in itself and especially when measured against the far-reaching despair experienced by many in far more important areas of life.

Northern Parula Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

I am just having a huge “Grrrrrrrrr” moment because my complex blog menu, with 3 rows of headings and carefully curated nests of drop-downs under each, has been scrubbed by persons or AI unknown. It’s several years of cumulative and (mostly) pleasurable organisational work up the spout.

As a Brit, may I be permitted to say ‘bother’. Or maybe ‘Dash it all?’ Or declare that I’m a mite cheesed orf? To which a fair response would be “it’s just a trivial inconvenience, get over it…”

Abaco Parrot (Craig Nash)

For the moment, here are some nice pics to enjoy, all taken on Abaco. I’m happy to say that right now, 7 weeks since Dorian, there are promising signs that in some areas of Abaco, the birds are starting to show themselves – including a few winter warblers. See you the other side of rethinking my Menu…

Conch shell, Schooner Bay Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Mary Kay Beach, Craig Nash, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO (western spindalis badge, moi)

Humpback Whale tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)