RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO


Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO

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.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)

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.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

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…

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Fledglings are kind of cute…Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley))

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.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 4, 5, 8); Alex Hughes (3); Keith Salvesen (6, 7, 9 & audio)

 

REDDISH EGRET HUNTING ON THE MARLS, ABACO


REDDISH EGRET HUNTING ON THE MARLS, ABACO

The trouble with reddish egrets is simple: they come in two colourways. There’s the conventional one which is indeed reddish, as one might hope and expect. Then there’s the snow white type (or ‘morph’). That’s the one featured here (with the other dark variety below, for comparison).

Both types are common breeding residents on Abaco. There are theories about which kind outnumbers the other; on balance I’m not sure the difference is very significant. Maybe reddish are a rather more frequently encountered than white, but there doesn’t seem to be much in it.

Looking back at photographs I took last spring, I found a sequence of a hunting white egret. Now these are not exhibition-quality photos. They were taken quite far out on the Marls, and a fair distance from the skiff I was standing on the front (prow?) of.

I had a smallish camera, and a fishing rod tucked under my arm rather hoping not to hear the usually welcome call “Hey RH**, bones at 10 o’clock moving left – 4 of them – give it 30 feet…” So this sequence is designed to give an idea of how the bird hunts the shallows. Rather than standing stock still and suddenly stabbing down to catch a fish, sometimes the egrets will stride purposefully though the shallow water, taking their chances as they move.

A small success at the start of the hunt (look carefully at the tip of the beak) A pause (and a slightly bad hair moment)

I always enjoy watching the actions of these birds make as they go about their work. But now the hunt is over; the egret has worked his way along the shoreline and he’s thinking out his next move… 

…which is to fly off and try his luck elsewhere

Your compensation for some mediocre – but hopefully illustrative – shots is a header image from the camera of the highly experienced birdman and photographer Danny Sauvageau. 

Finally, the way to tell that you are looking at a reddish egret, whichever version, rather than one of the other available egret / heron candidates is to look at the bill – pinkish, with a black tip. No other egreto-heronish species has this. 

A ‘proper’ reddish reddish egret taken in one of the brackish ponds at Crossing Rocks – always a good place to pull in and check for herons and egrets. This one, photographed in March, is in his handsome breeding plumage. Compare the bill with the white morph above – just the same.

** This not in fact how I am customarily addressed. I have a real name. Probably.

Credits: header image, Danny Sauvageau with thanks as always; all mediocre white morphs RH – also the rather better effort comparative photo of a ‘proper’ reddish one; cartoon by the inimitable Birdorable.

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO


Black-legged Kittiwake (Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org / Wiki

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO

I recently posted about the sighting of an entirely new bird species for Abaco, the CINNAMON TEAL. Almost at once, another species was sighted – not a new one, but in the next category of rarity, the V5 and V4. ‘Vagrant’ birds that have been credibly recorded on Abaco / in Abaco waters fewer than 5 times – and maybe only once – are classified as V5 or ‘accidentals’.  Birds seen a few times more than that, but irregularly and unpredictably (‘casuals’) are V4s. One such is the fine black-legged kittiwake, also known as the seahawk and a close relative of gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Yathin S Krishnappa / Wiki)

During the Abaco Christmas Bird Count in December, avid birder Keith Kemp and a small group were checking the beach at Crossing Rocks. In due course he uploaded a list of birds seen, with selected images, to the excellent eBird site. This included a royal tern. Or make that “royal tern”.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)It wasn’t long before sharp-eyed Bruce Purdy from Cornell contacted Keith to say “You shot a picture of an adult non-breeding black-legged kittiwake!!!!!!!!”. This was confirmed by Bruce Hallett, author of the definitive field guide to the birds of the Bahamas.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

As Bruce Purdy commented:

“This is the first kittiwake reported that I know of in the last 20 years.  Tony [White] shows a few reports but I don’t know if they were documented.  Probably not since most people just started carrying cameras, so you may have the first documented kittiwake… It is a great find”

So you are looking at (almost certainly) the first photographs of a kittiwake ever taken on Abaco. Actually, make that the Bahamas – no others are shown on eBird for the whole region; the nearest being a handful of sightings on the Florida coast.

STOP PRESS Keith’s sighting was in December 2017. The very day I pressed ‘publish’ on this post, January 30, two people immediately contacted me to say they had seen this bird in the Crossing dock area in Marsh Harbour! Thanks to Philip Sawyer and Nancy Albury for their sharp eyes and immediate response. Neither managed to get a photo, but two independent witnesses on one day in the same location make for a compelling ID. I imagine this is the same bird (rare enough as a single – the first in over 20 years – so exceptionally unlikely as a pair). Maybe there are rich fish pickings to be had in the MH harbour area.

Any further reports would be most welcome; a photo would earn the theoretical Kalik reward…

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

These kittiwakes are a pelagic species, birds of the open sea. They spent most of their time over the ocean, where they live on fish. However, they return to land to breed – often on cliffs, and in large, noisy, nesting colonies. Here’s a very short idea of what that might look and sound like.

Keith’s Kittiwake was way out of its normal range. This map shows just how far.

I always like to include an image of a species under discussion, as it was depicted by one of the early pioneers such a Mark Catesby or (as here) Audubon.
Black-legged Kittiwake (Audubon)

I’ll round off the story with another great source for comparative images – especially as between sexes, ages and seasons – the Crossley guide. The image below comes from the guide to Britain & Ireland, where kittiwakes are not uncommon locally where there are cliffs. Keith’s bird was in winter (non-breeding) plumage, as seen below, top left.

Kittiwakes (Crossley ID Guide Britain / Ireland)

Credits: Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (1); Yathin S Krishnappa (2); Keith Kemp (3, 4, 5); RSPB Britain (video); Audubon (OS) (6); Crossley Guide (OS) (7); range map Wiki

SEVEN NEW BIRD SPECIES ON ABACO


Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Keith Salvesen)

Black-bellied Whistling Duck June 2014

SEVEN NEW BIRD SPECIES ON ABACO

THE BIRDS OF ABACO was published very nearly 4 years ago. At the time, the checklist of species recorded for Abaco at the back of the book, so meticulously compiled by Tony White and Woody Bracey, was definitive for as long as records have existed (in practical terms, since 1950). The final new species included in the book was a Black-browed albatross amazingly spotted in Abaco waters from the BMMRO research vessel by a keen-eyed intern the previous summer.

Brown Thrasher (Manjith Kainickara - Wiki)

Brown Thrasher Nov 2014

Within 3 months of publication, the checklist had been rendered out of date. A totally new species had touched down on Abaco – a small flock of 6 black-bellied whistling ducks. They worked their way up South Abaco from down by Crossing Rocks up to MH Airport via Schooner Bay, Delphi and Bahama Palm Shores. By then, numbers were down to 2. Soon even they disappeared, heading presumably from wherever the flock had intended to go in the first place. Maybe they got tired en route. Maybe their internal Satnav suffered a collective failure. Maybe senior BBWD had had a bright idea for a shortcut…

Masked Booby (Duncan Wright wiki)

Masked Booby January 2015

We are not talking here of rarities in global terms, but species that have never been seen before on Abaco. Or, if seen, went unremarked. Or, if remarked, without awareness of the significance! The advent of the current enthusiasm for birding in the Bahamas plus the ease with which a quick photo can be taken – on a phone for example – as evidence of a sighting and to aid a clear ID, may well increase the number of new species sightings in the future.

Pearly-Eyed Thrasher, Treasure Cay, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Pearly-Eyed Thrasher March 2015

There’s the added benefit from the ease with which photos can be taken and distributed – people will no longer have to do any of the following:

  • Shoot birds and take them as samples (hello, J.J. Audubon & historical cohorts)
  • Pack a sketch pad & crayons to draw birds before they fly away (or from memory)
  • Rely on scribbled notes made in low light and a light drizzle
  • Listen to, or read, a query about a “sort of brownish medium sized bird with maybe a bit of yellow on the wings, and a black tail I think, but I didn’t get a very good look and oh yes it had sort of beady eyes and sounded a bit like ‘Kalik Kalik Kalik’ “. 
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Buff-breasted Sandpiper Oct 2016

Over the 4 years, there have been a few birds that, although not ‘first evers’, are second or third ever – and the first ones with supporting photos. These include the fabulous scissor-tailed flycatcher; and the bald eagle that was sighted several times over south Abaco last year. I’ll return to these rarities another time. Let’s see the sixth new bird, from late last year.

Scaly-naped pigeon (Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org wiki)

Scaly-naped pigeon Nov 2107

To complete the set, so to speak, 2017 ended with another gorgeous duck, the cinnamon teal. You can read more about all these birds using the following links to the relevant posts.

Cinnamon Teal (Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org)

Cinnamon Teal Dec 2017

Credits: Keith Salvesen (1); Manjith Kainickara (2); Duncan Wright (3); Woody Bracey (4); Keith Kemp (5); Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org / wiki (6, 7)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES


Osprey, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES

I sometimes feature bird comparatives, not least because there is so much scope for confusion that I have to keep checking for myself. Tyrant flycatchers; a number of superficially similar warbler species (all with yellow bits); those vireos; all those heron-y / egret-y types and their disconcerting morphs (hello, white reddish egret).

Osprey P.h.carolinensis (CWFNJ)

And so to the magnificent osprey Pandion haliaetus. This time, the comparison is between two subspecies, broadly the North American P. h. carolinensis and the Caribbean P.h. ridgwayi. There is some overlap in Florida, and some evidence of interbreeding. In the northern Bahamas in particular there is also an overlap, so an osprey seen on Abaco could be either variety. You’ll probably be too excited watching it to care much which type it is, but this article will help you if you do…

The two ospreys shown below were recently photographed at Spanish Wells, Eleuthera by Barbara Crouchley. This is a ‘bingo’ photographic scoop, because each type of bird was found in the same region; now we can check out the differences between the two birds. 

The first is a North American bird. Note in particular its distinctive eye mask, and the clearly marked upper breast, more so in the female than the male (which may even be white). The overall impression of the upper-parts is dark brown. They are slightly larger than their cousins in the south.

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. carolinensis

In this Caribbean bird with its trophy fish, the eye-mask is absent, and the facial / nape markings are less pronounced. Furthermore, the breast and under-parts are white in both sexes (though slight marking may be apparent in some birds). And  the impression is of lighter upper-parts, even allowing for variable lighting and distance when the photos were taken. Conveniently, there’s not much detectable difference between male and females in the respective populations.

Osprey P.h. Ridgwayi, Eleuthera Bahama (Barbara Crouchley)

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi

EXAMPLES OF P. h. carolinensis

Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)Osprey P.h. Carolinensis, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)

EXAMPLES OF P. h. ridgwayi

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Grand Bahama (Linda Barry Cooper)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Jim Todd)Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

I’m going to stick my neck out here – I’ve not seen this mentioned anywhere, and I need to do some more comparative research. When I saw Barbara’s pair of photos, I immediately noticed that the eyes of the P.h.r were paler than the bright orangey-yellow of P.h.c. This distinction carries on through the comparative photos above: the P.h.cs were photographed in Florida and further north and have strikingly vivid eyes. The P.h.rs were photographed on Abaco and Grand Bahama at different times by different people. All have noticeably paler irises, more a light greeny-yellow. 

I’d welcome any views on this rash amateur theory. Preferably supportive ones…

UNDERWING DIFFERENCES

There’s a further comparison that can be made with the two subspecies in flight. Without going into technical and linguistic detail, the underwings of the P.h.cs are much darker than the Bahamas birds, whereas P.h.rs are notably paler and in some cases mostly white.  As an example, below is a distance shot I took when bonefishing out on the Abaco Marls, using a pocket camera. This is definitely a local bird! Compare with the dramatic image below it, where the strong darker markings are all too evident. It’s a great shot with which to bring the lesson to an end.

Osprey P.h. ridgwayi, Abaco Marls (Keith Salvesen)

Osprey in flight with fish (Northside Jim)

Photo credits: Tom Sheley (1); CWFNJ (2); Barbara Crouchley (3, 4); Danny Sauvageau (5, 6, 7); Jim Todd (8); Linda Barry Cooper (9); Woody Bracey (10); Keith Salvesen (11); the inimitable Northside Jim (12). Thanks for all use permissions – also to Steve Connett for the idea!

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER PICTURES FOR TWITCHERS


Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER PICTURES FOR TWITCHERS

It’s about 3 years since I featured dowitchers. There are two types, short-billed and long-billed. They are disconcertingly similar, especially if you are only looking at one bird with no comparator. However, on Abaco a good rule of thumb is that if you see a dowitcher it will almost certainly be a SBD, a common winter resident. The LBD is a rare visitor to the Northern Bahamas. And if you just happen to be wrong? Well, so might anyone else be…

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

I’m returning to the topic because recently Erika Gates, well-known bird authority and guide on Grand Bahama, took some excellent photos of some LBDs, and has kindly let me feature them. These birds are very unusual on Abaco, not least because they prefer fresh water rather than brackish, which is in short supply on the island and cays.

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

 Phoenix Birder / Xeno Canto

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

HOW DID THE DOWITCHER GET ITS NAME?

I had assumed that the strange name for these birds was onomatopoeic, in the same way that a Killdeer is supposed to call “Kill…Deer”; and a Bobwhite, an interrogative “Bob…White?”. When I tried to check this online, I found that the usually valuable primary sources for bird info were silent on the topic. In the end, I tracked down a Merriam Webster entry that simply said “probably of Iroquoian origin; akin to Oneida tawístawis. First Known Use: 1841”. Me neither!

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

LONG OR SHORT – HOW ON EARTH DO I TELL? 

1. HELPFUL(ISH) WAYS

  • On Abaco, if you see a Dowitcher the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s a SBD
  • The species prefer different habitats, with the LBS preferring freshwater even in coastal regions
  • The SBD prefers coastal areas, shorelines and brackish / muddy ponds
  • The SBD’s call is said to be “mellower” than the LDB – though unless you have heard both for comparison, that’s not a very useful identifier
  • The body shapes are apparently subtly different, in ways I can only begin to guess
  • In breeding plumage, the species have perceptible colour / pattern differences (if you have binoculars?)

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

 2. CONFUSING / UNHELPFUL FACTORS
  • LBDs may occasionally join SBDs that are foraging on open tidal flats
  • Bill length may not help, there’s an overlap – some SBDs may have longer bills and vice versa.
  • There are theories about bill-length / head size comparison as a field ID method. Do they work? Only if you get it right, I guess.
  • “Winter plumage of both species is very similar” (grey). Both are only in the Bahamas in winter. So, not a lot of help.

Short-billed Dowitcher Bahamas (Erika Gates)

DOES THE DOWITCHER HAVE ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION?

Yes! In Scrabble you can form a stonking 315 words from just those 9 letters, all permitted under Scrabble rules (though not my own house rules, which forbid ridiculous 2 and 3 letter words that sound invented for the purpose of winning at Scrabble). Apart from the full 9 letter original, there’s one 8 letter word – ‘witherod’, a type of viburnum plant; and 13 words of 7 letters, of which I’d say 8 are in common though not everyday usage. I’ll leave you to work out the remaining 301 words…

Credits: Erika Gates, with many thanks for use permission; the excellent Xeno Canto / Phoenix Birder for the sound file

PALM WARBLERS: ‘HEADS-UP FOR BUTTERBUTTS’


Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Tom Sheley)

PALM WARBLERS: ‘HEADS-UP FOR BUTTERBUTTS’

I realise that the title of this post has its unattractive aspects. This is a family blog, and we try to keep references to ‘butts’ and so forth to a minimum. But like it or not, the Palm Warbler is one of two species** that have acquired the nickname ‘butterbutt’.  They weren’t even consulted; birders just went ahead with it without checking how they’d feel about it.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this minor linguistic outrage came about. It’s there for all to see, right under the bird’s… erm… stern. That flash of vivid yellow, together with the pale speckled front, a rusty brown cap and striking eye-stripe, is diagnostic for this Abaco winter resident species.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

The ‘heads-up’ is because right now they are among you. In the gardens, on the grass, on the tracks, in the coppice, in the casuarinas. And they have an endearing habit of bobbing their… tails, let’s say, as they forage. Palm Warblers are inclined to be fairly inquisitive and tame, so if you are careful, they may stay around to let you watch them. 

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

The PW above must, I think, have been photographed at the very end of the winter season, just before it headed north from Abaco. The strong colours suggest this guy is getting into the breeding mood. Compare him with the picture below, taken by the same photographer during the same period, of a slightly less garish stage of breeding plumage. But it’s on its way…

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

As often as not, a palm warbler will be fairly easy to spot. Not always, though. You may have to work a bit to locate one half-hidden in foliage. Its posterior may not even be visible.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)

Luckily, PWs are common enough in winter to give you a chance to shoot them in the open, as it were. Perched on a branch works just fine to capture the essential characteristics.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

Keep an eye out for these pretty little warblers. They are enjoyable to watch, and relatively easy to get a photo of at close quarters. Just make sure you get the butterbutt into the picture.

** The other butterbutt bird is the descriptively-named YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, though its buttery bits are on the topside so there’s no risk of confusion (I photographed this one from a pool-side lounger, a distance shot at the top of a tree with a small camera – but it captures the essentials!)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1)*; Gerlinde Taurer (2, 7); Nina Henry (3, 4, 5); Peter Mantle (6); Keith Salvesen (8, 9)

* Possibly Tom Sheley – all I have got on the filename is ‘Fruit Farm’ so I can’t be sure of the photographer’s ID – apologies

 Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)