SHEARWATER DIE-OFF ON ABACO: UPDATE


Great Shearwater (part of a die-back event on Abaco) - Dick Daniels

SHEARWATER DIE-OFF ON ABACO: UPDATE

A week ago I posted about the reports of dead and dying Audubon’s shearwaters being washed up on various beaches on the Abaco mainland in and around Cherokee Sound and down to Bahama Palm Shores. I included some advice about how to deal with these poor birds. You can find the post HERE.

Piping plover monitor Rhonda Pearce found a couple of struggling shearwaters in the seaAudubon's Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

The very next day, reports began to emerge of another species, great shearwaters, being found dead or in a distressed state just off-shore or washed up on beaches. Reports were fewer, but covered a wider area, including a bird in a very poor condition at Delphi. Great shearwaters were the ones involved in the die-back event 2 years ago. 

Audubon's Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

Keith Kemp, who made one of the earlier Audubon shearwater reports, found a young great shearwater in trouble in the sea while he was out in a kayak off Cherokee Point. He rescued it and took all sensible precautions to nourish it and make it comfortable but sadly it did not last the night. He has frozen the bird as a specimen in case analysis will help to explain this die-off event.

Great Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Keith Kemp)

As I wrote before, these birds of the open ocean may become weakened and exhausted if fishing conditions become adverse. They will drift weakly with the tide, dying at sea or washing up in a very poor state in the tideline or on beaches.  Their prospects of survival if rescued is sadly very slim – I have not yet heard of a success, though I would love to…

Great Shearwater (part of a die-back event on Abaco) - Dick Daniels

Thankfully, during the past week, reports have gradually diminished. I’ve not seen one for a couple of days. With any luck, the current die-off is now over and will not be repeated for several years. However, another one will certainly happen, I’m afraid – maybe in 5 to 10 years time, the usual gap. Twice in two years has made for very bleak, distressing news.

A more cheerful post will be next, I promise. Meanwhile, any further reports or comments would be welcome.

Photo credits: Dick Daniels (1, 5), Rhonda Pearce (2, 3); Keith Kemp (4)

AUDUBON’S SHEARWATER (DUSKY PETREL): SAD NEWS FROM ABACO


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

AUDUBON’S SHEARWATER (DUSKY PETREL): SAD NEWS FROM ABACO

Just 2 short years ago, Abaco experienced a shearwater die-off event, when during a period of a week or so numerous dead and dying Great Shearwaters were washed up on many of Abaco’s beaches. You can read about it HERE and a follow-up HERE. This map shows the affected area in 2015.

Now comes news of another such sad event, with a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches at Bahama Palm Shores, Casuarina, Winding Bay and doubtless elsewhere. Many are already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. 

Audubons Shearwater from Crossley ID Guide (Eastern Birds) - Richard Crossley : Crossley Guides CCL

SHEARWATER DIE-OFF
These upsetting beach finds seem to be a periodic phenomenon, and very likely result from climate conditions or shortage of food out in the ocean – or a combination. Although most will unavoidably have ingested plastics, that would not explain the simultaneous deaths. Poor fishing conditions – they eat fish and squid – will weaken and exhaust the birds as they try to find food. Woody Bracey thinks this the most likely cause, having noticed recent poor deep-sea fishing conditions and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of fish.
Pétrel de Barau - wiki .jpg
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds, sadly, 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. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds. 
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread – it’s very bad for birds…
(4) if it 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.
 
Audubon's Shearwater Stamp) OS
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
This poor shearwater was one of a number of dead birds found by Keith Kemp at Casuarina yesterday. I realise such images can be upsetting, so I am confining photos of the birds to just two so you will recognise one if you see it.
Audubon's Shearwater, Abaco (Keith Kemp)Audubon's Shearwater, Abaco (Keith Kemp)
 AUDUBON’S SHEARWATERS IN AN EGGSHELL
  • Belong to the petrel family
  • Named ‘Puffinus lherminieri’ after French naturalist Felix Louis L’Herminier
  • Also known as the Dusky-backed Shearwater – or by Audubon as the Dusky Petrel
  • Forages by diving out of flight or from the surface; or by surface-feeding
  • Colony breeders, nesting in rock crevices, in burrows, or under thick vegetation
  • Mated pairs spend much time together at nest site. They like rubbing bills together
  • Their ‘twittering calls and mewing’ are usually only heard at night 

Audubon’s ‘Dusky Petrel’

Audubon's Shearwater (Dusky Petrel) - Audubon.org

I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of the current event, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me  / PM on FB

Finally, for those who wonder how pioneer naturalists went about their work observing a species, collecting specimens and recording their findings, here is Audubon’s own account for the ‘Dusky Petrel’, Plate 299 in his magisterial work.

Dusky Petrel (Plate 299)

On the 26th of June, 1826, while becalmed on the Gulf of Mexico, off the western shores of Florida, I observed that the birds of this species, of which some had been seen daily since we left the mouth of the Mississippi, had become very numerous. The mate of the vessel killed four at one shot, and, at my request, brought them on board. From one of them I drew the figure which has been engraved (see above). The notes made at the time are now before me, and afford me the means of presenting you with a short account of the habits of this bird.

They skim very low over the sea in search of the floating bunches of marine plants, usually called the gulf weed, so abundant here as sometimes to occupy a space of half an acre or more. In proceeding, they flap their wings six or seven times in succession, and then sail for three or four seconds with great ease, having their tail much spread, and their long wings extended at right angles with the body. On approaching a mass of weeds, they raise their wings obliquely, drop their legs and feet, run as it were on the water, and at length alight on the sea, where they swim with as much ease as Ducks, and dive freely, at times passing several feet under the surface in pursuit of the fishes, which, on perceiving their enemy, swim off, but are frequently seized with great agility. Four or five, sometimes fifteen or twenty of these birds, will thus alight, and, during their stay about the weeds, dive, flutter, and swim, with all the gaiety of a flock of Ducks newly alighted on a pond. Many Gulls of different kinds hover over the spot, vociferating their anger and disappointment at not being so well qualified for supplying themselves with the same delicate fare. No sooner have all the fishes disappeared than the Petrels rise, disperse, and extend their flight in search of more, returning perhaps in awhile to the same spot. I heard no sound or note from any of them, although many came within twenty yards of the ship and alighted there. Whenever an individual settled in a spot, many others flew up directly and joined it. At times, as if by way of resting themselves, they alighted, swam lightly, and dipped their bills frequently in the water, in the manner of Mergansers.

I preserved the skins of the four specimens procured. One of them I sent to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, by Captain JOHN R. BUTLER, of the ship Thalia, then bound from Havana to Minorca. Two others were presented to my excellent friend Dr. TRAILL, on my first becoming acquainted with him at Liverpool.

I found the wings of this species strong and muscular for its size, this structure being essentially requisite for birds that traverse such large expanses of water, and are liable to be overtaken by heavy squalls. The stomach resembles a leather purse, four inches in length, and was much distended with fishes of various kinds, partially digested or entire. The oesophagus is capable of being greatly expanded. Some of the fishes were two and a half inches in length, and one in depth. The flesh of this Petrel was fat, but tough, with a strong smell, and unfit for food; for, on tasting it, as is my practice, I found it to resemble that of the porpoises. No difference is perceptible in the sexes.

While on board the United States revenue cutter Marion, and in the waters of the Gulf Stream opposite Cape Florida, I saw a flock of these birds, which, on our sailing among them, would scarcely swim off from our bows, they being apparently gorged with food. As we were running at the rate of about ten knots, we procured none of them. I have also seen this species off Sandy Hook.

Audubon’s Range Map for the species
Audubon's-Shearwater_map (audubon.org)

Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this sad event over the last few days, and to Woody Bracey for his views; Dominic Sherony (wiki) for the header image; Keith Kemp for photos from Casuarina; Audubon.org for images, quote & range map; Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture; Audubon, wiki and random pickings for info about these birds

THICK-BILLED VIREO ‘ON VOCALS’: A CHIRPY JUVENILE ON ABACO


Thick-billed Vireo (juv), Abaco - Charles Skinner

THICK-BILLED VIREO ‘ON VOCALS’: A CHIRPY JUVENILE ON ABACO

I’m not sure that TBVs would rank as anyone’s all-time favourite bird. Probably not in the top 10. Or 20. But we have a particular affection for them. When we first arrive at Delphi, that cheerful call is invariably the first birdsong we hear. And when we leave, it’s often the last. These small birds inhabit the coppice on either side of the drive, and are often found right by the the Lodge.

Thick-billed Vireo (juv), Abaco - Charles Skinner

The strange thing about them is that despite their ubiquity and their uninhibited advertising of their presence, they are surprisingly hard to see, let alone get a clear photograph of. A singing TBV often seems to be at least 2 rows of bush further back than it sounds, concealed by intervening branches, leaves, and twigs.

Thick-billed Vireo (juv), Abaco - Charles Skinner

Maybe growing juveniles are less cautious. This little guy is right out in the open, and singing away happily. He’s still cutely fluffy, but his plumage already starting to turn yellow. He has the diagnostic yellow marking in front of and around the eyes. However at the base of his characteristically plump beak there’s still a hint of baby bird mouth.

Thick-billed Vireo (juv), Abaco - Charles Skinner

Here’s a recording of an adult TBV I took from the Delphi drive (you may need to turn up the volume a bit). And no, I couldn’t actually see the bird, though I knew exactly where it was from the slight movements of foliage. All-in-all, the TBV is a most engaging little bird and well-deserving of affection if not perhaps a high placing in the Avian Popularity Charts…  

Thick-billed Vireo (juv), Abaco - Charles Skinner

All photos by Charles Skinner (a significant contributor to The Birds Of Abaco)

‘EAGLE EYES’: NEW BALD EAGLE SIGHTING(S) ON ABACO


Bald Eagle - Poquoson, Virginia - Brian Lockwood

‘EAGLE EYES’: NEW BALD EAGLE SIGHTING(S) ON ABACO

In March, I posted about a bald eagle spotted by a Delphi fisherman out on the Marls near Big Pine Point. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a very rare sighting of this magnificent raptor. The bird is classified for Abaco as a V4, which is to say an extremely unusual vagrant (but not quite a ‘one-off’ V5). 

Bald Eagle - Poquoson, Virginia - Brian Lockwood

You can read all the details HERE, but to summarise, the only previous Abaco sightings were 3 years running over 2000 – 2002, at the end of each year. The annual visits over such a short time-span suggest that this may have been the same bird each time. So this March’s report is possibly the second bald eagle ever seen on Abaco… and on any view, the fourth.

Bald Eagle - Poquoson, Virginia - Brian Lockwood

Now comes the news of another bald eagle sighting in the last couple of days on the Marls, this time by Danny Sawyer while out fishing. The bird was sighted approx 1.5 miles west of the airport / 2 miles south of Bustic Point. Danny’s FB post has unsurprisingly attracted quite a number of comments – and even some more sighting reports. Here’s the list so far…

BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)

  • 2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
  • 2001  December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
  • 2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
  • 2014  Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
  • 2017  March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
  • 2017  Early May – Power plant area – LC
  • 2017  May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
  • 2017  May  – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’

Italics indicate a report in comments on Danny’s FB page

Bald Eagle - Poquoson, Virginia - Brian Lockwood

So far, however, there has been no photograph of an ‘Abaco’ bald eagle. It’s fair to say that the official verification of a sighting generally requires a photograph – more especially where there is a risk of confusion with a native bird (eg some warblers). But there really is no mistaking a bald eagle. For obvious reasons it is surely one of the most recognisable raptors of all. And the only Abaco candidates for confusion would be a turkey vulture or an osprey. A quick look shows very little scope for confusion with either:

Bald eagle in flight. Note: dark brown, head & tail bright white, huge yellow beak and feet Bald Eagle In Flight By Carole Robertson (Wiki)

Turkey vulture & Osprey for comparison. No comparison, in fact

Turkey Vulture, Abaco - Bruce Hallett  

 ABACO BALD EAGLE CHALLENGE

How about being the first person to capture an Abaco bald eagle on film digital media? The kudos! The traditional Rolling Harbour bottle of Kalik is already on ice in the expectation of a usable image, together with the accurate location… Failing that, all reports welcome anyway.

Bald Eagle - Poquoson, Virginia - Brian Lockwood

Credits: all brilliant eagle photos by very kind permission of Brian Lockwood, taken in his backyard in Poquoson, Va. except eagle in flight, Carol Robertson (wiki); TUVU (Bruce Hallett); Osprey (Craig Nash); Amusing Cartoon, Birdorable

WATCHFUL TYRANT: A LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WATCHFUL TYRANT: A LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO

The Delphi Club on Abaco has a number of permanent residents (or by now – let’s be realistic – maybe their descendants). There’s the huge curly tail lizard that lives under the large stones by the outside staircase. There are the West Indian Woodpeckers that noisily nest in a box under the eaves of the verandah and produce 2 batches of shouty chicks each summer. And there is the silent sentinel – a loggerhead kingbird that spends much of its time in the trees and bushes at the far side of the pool.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

It’s a good place to chose. The bird uses the tree branches and shrubs to ‘hawk’ for passing insects, suddenly leaving its perch to pounce, before returning to just the same place to eat its snack – classic flycatcher behaviour. I call it the ‘watchful tyrant’ because the kingbird is nearly always there. Somewhere. If you look carefully and wait patiently. He stays in the shade, so he’s not bright with sunlight (or P/shop) in these photos. This is just the way he is.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Kingbirds are of the family Tyrannidae and the genus Tyrannus. The ‘tyrant’ group includes a number of flycatcher species commonly found on Abaco: the KINGBIRDS (loggerhead and gray), the CUBAN PEWEE and the LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER being the most familiar. Note the hook at the end of the beak; and the yellowish tinge to the undertail area.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

With the exception of the gray kingbird, the flycatchers named above are very common permanent breeders on Abaco. There’s probably one of them within 20 feet of your house right now. The gray, however, is a summer breeding resident. This is most helpful of it: if you see a kingbird between October and April, it will be a loggerhead. This gives you a 6-month window for near-certain ID.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

IT’S SUMMER – SO HOW DO I TELL A LOGGERHEAD FROM A GRAY?

EASY. CLICK HERE

All photos: Keith Salvesen; Cartoon by the legendary Birdorable

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: AN “IF ONLY” BIRD FOR ABACO


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Danny Sauvageau

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.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Danny Sauvageau

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.’

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Danny Sauvageau

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…

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Danny Sauvageau

All fantastic flycatcher fotos: Danny Sauvageau with many thanks – check online, you won’t see a better collection than this…; cartoon, Bordorable

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRDS ON ABACO: GOOD IMPRESSIONS


Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Tom Sheley

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRDS ON ABACO: GOOD IMPRESSIONS

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.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Peter Mantle

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.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Charlie Skinner

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…

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

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 see HERE.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Alex Hughes

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.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Tom Sheley

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.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

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. Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Keith Salvesen

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.

220px-Northern_Mockingbird-rangemap

Northern Mockingbird, Abaco 1

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.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco - Susan Daughtry