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)

NORTHERN PARULAS: ON THEIR WAY TO ABACO


The Northern Parula is one of 37 warbler species recorded for Abaco. The vast majority of these species are migratory, arriving in the Fall and leaving in the Spring to fly north to the breeding grounds. When I’m back at HQ from my computer-free break, I’ll be writing more about these little birds. Meanwhile, this post is a reminder that the influx will begin very soon. The Northern Parula, with the distinctive green patch on its back, is sure to be among them.

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, ABACO, BAHAMAS


red-winged-blackbird-male-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley.jpg

I’m away for a few days on the Emerald Isle, leaving my trusty computer many miles away (on purpose, I mean). I’ve just got my iPhone, but writing posts and inserting images on such a small screen / keyboard is a fool’s errand. So I’ve pre-loaded a couple of beautiful bird images to post this week. Here is a wonderful red-winged blackbird male taken by photographer Tom Sheley while we were getting together some images for The Birds of Abaco deep in Abaco backcountry.

Photo credit: Tom Sheley

‘CASTING ABOUT’: A TRICOLORED HERON HUNTING


Tri-colored heron fishing (Phil Lanoue)

‘CASTING ABOUT’: A TRICOLORED HERON HUNTING

‘Casting’ is one of those words with multiple meanings, some archaic but most in use today. You can probably think of half-a-dozen straight off *. ‘Casting about’ is one of the specific usages and derives from hunting, eg hounds casting about for a scent. By extension, it has come to mean something like searching intently or thoroughly for something you need, or want, or are having difficulty in finding. Which is where this tricolored heron comes into the picture.

Tri-colored heron fishing (Phil Lanoue)

It’s always entertaining to watch a heron or egret fishing. Their methods range from standing stock still and suddenly stabbing downwards to slowly wading to the crazy dash that reddish egrets sometimes do on the edge of the mangroves. This one is hooding its wings, sometimes called ‘canopy feeding’. The theory is that this attracts small fish by providing shade. I also wonder if this method is used to reduce glare from the surface of the water.

Tri-colored heron fishing (Phil Lanoue)

The bird in this sequence is a juvenile, and not yet the  lethal hunter that it will soon become. It has seen a fish moving but has temporarily lost it (fishermen will be familiar with the mild feeling of annoyance when this happens). So it is casting about, slowly zig-zagging through the water, looking from a height, crouching down, trying to get a good view of its elusive snack. I can’t say that this little episode ended in success. Sometimes, the fish you sight and then lose has gone for good. But as fishermen often say when they lose one (and by extension the phrase is now applied to other areas of human life), there are always plenty more fish in the sea.

Tri-colored heron fishing (Phil Lanoue)

* Even without considering Mr Weinstein and his allegedly unusual casting methods

Photo credit: Phil Lanoue, a photographer who specialises in patiently taking sequences of bird activity

THE TALE OF ‘BIG BIRD’ THE RESCUE HERON


Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

THE TALE OF ‘BIG BIRD’ THE RESCUE HERON

Admiring birds, photographing them, and counting them for surveys – all these are excellent pastimes. But for a real and meaningful interaction, there can surely be nothing more rewarding than animal rescue. Melissa Maura, known I’m sure to many readers of this blog, is an expert at caring for damaged or orphaned creatures. And at the beginning of June, she took a small dishevelled YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT HERON into her care for rehabilitation. He was named Big Bird.

June 4  Big Bird has arrived…. For some rehab and perhaps a salon appointment…Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

To start with, Big Bird was little enough to fit into a smallish space while the process of feeding and nurturing commenced. He was clearly quite a character.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

Very soon, Big Bird was becoming less straggly and more herony – even his startling hairstyle started to grow out. By this stage, he was eating almost a bag a day of bait shrimp.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

The next step in the rehab process came with the move from a small indoor cage and promotion to a big outside cage. This provided more room for Big Bird, and helped him learn to stretch his growing wings and learn to be independent.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa MauraYellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

Big Bird’s wings became increasingly strong, and his early crazy hairstyle settled into something rather more crown-like.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa MauraYellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

A mere 6 weeks or so after Melissa started to look after Big Bird, he was nearly ready for the final stage of rehab – freedom. The specially selected location was an area where there were already a number of juvenile herons, companions for Big Bird to grow up with.

Big Boy (foreground)Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

As Melissa wrote: “It comes down to this moment, after all those hours of feeding, caging and keeping a watchful eye to then see that flight to freedom!”

Preparing to fly freeYellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

And then, suddenly, the heart-stopping moment of the launch… Inelegant, but inevitableYellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

Melissa’s posts about Big Bird unsurprisingly inspired many fans (including me, of course) who followed the story over the weeks of Big Bird’s rehab. As Melissa wrote online of the release:

“Yesterday morning Big Bird was placed lovingly into his custom-made box and transported by ferry to his new residence – the wilds of Blue Lagoon Island where upon arrival at a chosen spot, we were met by no less than 13 other juvenile Night Herons exactly his age! They all gathered nearby as we released our baby and watched him take his first steps in sand and tackle longer flights. It was such a relief to see him appear so comfy in his new home and he blended into his surrounds perfectly, sporting his best hair-do. Heartfelt thanks to Kelly Meister, John McSweeney and the island crew for helping us put Big Bird in the best possible wild situation…”

And so it goes – another bird rescued, cared for, released, and set free to live and to breed in the wild. In a turbulent world of dissent and discord, I hope people will find a grain of joy and optimism in the tale of Big Bird the Heron.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Rescue Bird 'Big Boy) - Melissa Maura

Credits: All photos by Melissa, quotes as shown in maroon. Go safely, Big Bird… 

BANANAQUITS: SMART BIRDS ON ABACO


 Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

BANANAQUITS: SMART BIRDS ON ABACO

Bananaquits are smart. They look smart, of course, and they act smart too. Their diet consists  mainly of nectar and fruit, so you’ll find them where there are flowering or fruiting trees and shrubs. Their sharp little beak curves slightly, enabling them to get right into where the good things are, as shown in this sequence of not-especially-good-so-I’ll-call-them-illustrative photos. And that beak gives then another method of reaching nectar – they can pierce the base of a flower and use the beak as a sort of probe to get at the nectar that way. And soft fruit? Easy!

Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen) Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen) Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen) Bananaquits, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Header, Craig Nash; the rest, Keith Salvesen – all at Delphi, Abaco Bahamas

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before.