‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)


Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)‘ON STILTS’: ELEGANCE ON TWO LEGS (OR JUST ONE)

There’s something wrong in the picture above (no, I don’t mean about the photograph itself). Count up how many pink legs you can see. No, not including the reflections. Give up? It’s three. Between two birds. I assumed of course that  ‘Oner’ had a perfectly good serviceable leg tucked up into its undercarriage. I admired the balancing skills involved in resting one leg while nonchalantly standing on the other.

We were watching this pair of black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus at the pond at Gilpin Point, which at certain times can be ‘Stilt Central’. These birds are permanent breeders on Abaco and are without a doubt the most beautiful of all the waders (avocets, being extremely uncommon winter visitors, are disqualified from consideration for lack of presence). 

Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
It gradually dawned on me that Oner really did only have one stilt to stand on. After 10 minutes observing them and the other birds around them, there was no question about it – the right leg was completely and utterly missing. This unipedal deficit had no obvious ill-effects on the bird – nor on its ability to throw a good pose (above). Or to preen (below).
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
I’m in danger of losing sight of Twoer here, a bipedal bird that deserves its own place in the story, not just a wade-on part in Oner’s story.
Twoer as Ringmaster…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
BNSs are territorial and in particular can become ‘proactive’ (ie aggressive) in protecting the area near a nest. I once mistakenly got close to a nest, not even knowing it was there. I soon learnt – a parent BNS came wading towards me, zigzagging in the water, shouting and carrying on in a way that immediately said ‘my nest is nearby’. And when I meanly stood my ground it suddenly took off and flew straight at my head…
A shouty stiltBlack-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
On reflection…Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)
All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (and, if anyone noticed, sorry about some formatting issues which I can’t get rid of…); Audio file Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
Black-necked Stilts, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES


Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ABACO’S THREE CUCKOO SPECIES

Goodness, is it the end of the month already? So much going on, 3 half-written posts but running short of time. So here’s something (even) more interesting than the stuff I write – actual photos of actual birds with no words. Great photos (not mine) of Abaco’s 3 cuckoo species to compare and contrast. Until next month… when there’ll be stilts, hutias and a whole lot more.

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (and header image)

Yellow billed cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

MANGROVE CUCKOO

Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Mangrove cuckoo, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

SMOOTH-BILLED ANI

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley, Tony Hepburn, Alex Hughes, Gerlinde Taurer, Nina Henry

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: BENIGN ‘TYRANT’ OF ABACO

Abaco is home to 4 main so-called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae): the loggerhead kingbird, the gray kingbird, the La Sagra’s flycatcher and the Cuban pewee. All are common permanent residents except the gray kingbird, which is a summer resident only. Several other flycatcher species are found on Abaco, but they are very uncommon winter residents, rare transients, or vagrants.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The loggerhead featured here in several poses is a watchful sentinel at Delphi. His preferred perches are in the edge of the coppice round the pool or at the edge of the main drive. From time to time he will leave his perch to catch a passing insect by ‘hawking’, returning to the same place to eat it.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead and gray kingbirds can be quite easy to confuse. A couple of years ago I wrote about how to distinguish them, and with gray kingbirds in residence now this is probably a good time to set out the distinctions again.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD Tyrannus caudifasciatus vs GRAY Tyrannus dominicensis 

DIFFERENCES and SIMILARITIES

TOP TIP ANY KINGBIRD SEEN IN WINTER WILL BE A LOGGERHEAD

  • Kingbirds seen between (say) October & March are Loggerheads. Grays are strictly summer visitors
  • Both are medium size birds and roughly the same size as adults (around 23 cms)
  • Loggerheads have dark brown to near-black heads, grays have lighter, slate-coloured heads
  • Loggerheads have a ‘squared’ tip to the tail; grays have a notched tip
  • Loggerheads may have a whitish fringe at the tip of the tail; grays not so
  • Loggerheads have yellowish tinges to their white undersides & forewings; grays less so or not at all
  • Grays have a dark or black ‘mask’ through the eyes, often clear but not always easy to see
  • Loggerheads allegedly have inconspicuous orange head crests; grays are red. I’ve never seen either!
  • [*RH personal opinion alert*] Grays have larger, heavier beaks than loggerheads
  • Grays are territorially aggressive; when they turn up, the loggerheads tend to retreat to the forest

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Here is how David Sibley shows the differences

 6323_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1 3069_Sibl_9780307957900_art_r1-1

Illustrations: David Allen Sibley

GRAY KINGBIRD FOR COMPARISONGray_Kingbird (Dick Daniels Wiki)

MEMORABLE FACT TO DEPLOY IN CONVERSATION

The collective names for a group of kingbirds are: a Court, a Coronation, or a Tyranny

Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: All loggerheads, Keith Salvesen at Delphi;  gray kingbird by Dick Daniels; Illustrations David Sibley

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”


Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”

“Nidification” was one of the new words I learned from the wonderful book Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (a different one – for the full story behind the name click HERE). It means, essentially, the nesting process of a bird. It sounds pleasingly technical for a straightforward concept: nest-building.

Soft furnishings being addedThick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I spotted this TBV making its nest on the edge of the drive at Delphi. I usually think of these cheerful chirpy birds as ‘lurkers’, hanging back in the coppice and not making themselves easily visible. But this nest was right out in the open – possibly not the wisest place for nidification.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you look up TBV’s in bird books, you may find a reference to nest building in the fork of shrubs or bushes – exactly what was going on here. It quite a messy nest, but then again it looks comfortable and firmly wedged in.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Although I only saw one of the pair actively engaged in the building, another TBV was ‘vocalising’ (there’s another technical term, = singing) nearby, presumably the mate. In a way that humans have been slow to adopt, both birds will be actively involved in raising their family, from incubating the eggs to chick care – feeding, cleaning out the nest and so on. 

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE WHEN THEY VOCALISE?

Let’s hope for a successful outcome to the nidification…

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos Keith Salvesen, also the sound recording (made at Delphi)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO


American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO

I don’t usually hold back from using (my) bad photos if there’s a reasonable excuse to do so. There’s a reason here. So here are a few bad photos. This sequence of mating kestrels was taken at a considerable distance, after I’d seen a bird fly into a pine tree out of the corner of my eye**. I couldn’t make out what species it was with the naked eye or through the viewfinder, so I took an ‘ID shot’ to enlarge later on. The image below is it – and a clear enough blur to say AMKE. Then I carried on taking pictures.

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

The header image came next as I realised there was another bird flying in from the right. Then the sequence below: the male mating with the female at once, dispensing with preliminaries; the male moving off along the branch; the female following a short way up the branch; then the male eventually flying away. 

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

And that was that: all over in no time at all; all captured on camera; all finding its way onto the internet before you can say K@rd@shi@n tape. Let hope some good comes of it. Some baby kestrels would be good…

These photos were taken at Bahama Palm Shores, one of the go-to hotspots on Abaco for great birding including the gorgeous parrots. A new local initiative has seen the building of a tall platform overlooking a secluded lake that offers birders a great view of the birdlife there. But that’s a topic for another day.

All photos: Keith Salvesen

**This is badly written, I do realise – no, it didn’t literally fly out of the corner of my eye, that’s just how I happened to see it.

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ABACO’S RARE TREASURES


Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLER: ABACO’S RARE TREASURES

This is a challenging topic that I have been (shamefully) putting off. My task is a full-scale facing-up to an extremely rare, very small, and rather adorable adversary, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). There are probably more dedicated KIWA experts out there than there are birds of this scarce species. Estimates of bird numbers vary wildly, but if I take a consensus of the mean of an approximate average of the median as ± 5000 individuals, I’d probably be in the ballpark named “Current Thinking“. 

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

THAT SOUNDS QUITE RARE, RIGHT?

Around 50 years ago, the species was all but extinct – perhaps fewer than 500 birds in total, a barely sustainable population. In 1975, Brudenell-Bruce estimated 1000. I’ll mention some of the reasons later. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan was instituted with the twin objectives of protecting the vulnerable breeding habitat – basically large areas of jack pine; and of monitoring and management aimed at encouraging an increase in numbers. Around that time, they became IUCN listed as vulnerable, but more recently, population growth has resulted in a recategorisation to the more optimistic near-threatened category.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

AND THEY LIVE  WHERE, EXACTLY?

In spring and summer almost the entire KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. There are signs that the range has expanded slightly in Michigan and more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio as the numbers have increased.

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

In the fall and 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.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

SO THEY ARE REALLY FOUND ON ABACO?

Yes – but they are notoriously hard to find. To give you an idea, I checked the eBird stats for Abaco sightings over the last 10 years: 9 successful trips reported, with 18 birds seen in all**.  There were 3 groups comprising 6, 4, and 2 birds; and the rest were single birds. Abaco ornithologist and guide Woody Bracey is the go-to man for finding these little birds. Two years ago we were in his party that saw 4 in the space of a couple of hours. I was supposedly the photographer, but unaccountably found myself in completely the wrong place for the first 3. The 4th flew off a branch and straight at my head as I raised the camera… I felt the wind as it passed on its way deep into the coppice. I’m not proud of my effort; the fuzzy lemon item beyond the twigs and leaves is a KIWA (you’ll have to take my word for it…).

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour / KS)

HAVE ANY BEEN SEEN ON ABACO THIS YEAR?

Last week, Woody took another party to the main hotspot in the Abaco National Park, a protected area at the southern end of the island. The park is huge, covering more than 20,000 acres of (mostly) pine forest. These birds are tiny, about 14 cms long and weighing 14 gms. Despite which they found a female and then a male KIWA in their favoured habitat beyond the pine forest. Those are the only 2 I’ve heard about this winter season.

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas, 12 April 2018 Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

WHAT DO I 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 (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

Some would say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found they produce ‘a loud tchip, song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). You be the judge!

 Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

WHAT ARE 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 of development is another threat, as with so many species.
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable.
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least.
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

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 and 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; and also in a couple of snake species.

The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps

**I realise eBird is not the be-all and end-all for sighting reports. It hasn’t been in existence for as long as 10 years, and not everyone uses it anyway. And awareness of the Bahamas as the winter home for KIWAs is a surprisingly recent development (as with piping plovers). As awareness increases, so do birder interest, habitat knowledge, and consequently reports of sightings.

Another example of the ‘twigs in the way’ problem for photographers

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Tom Sheley (5); Unattributable (me, in fact) 6; Woody Bracey (7, 9); Tony Hepburn (8); Lionel Levene (10); 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.

‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND

My favourite bird book, in a fairly large collection, is my treasured 1947 ‘first printing’ edition of James Bond’s Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies. It is not especially rare, and one can still be had for under $200. The price is rising – about 5 years ago mine cost $80, in excellent condition, with intact dust jacket and protective cover.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

This renowned reference book has since had many subsequent incarnations – if you are interested, you can find the whole story including how Ian Fleming chose to name his Double-O hero after an ornithologist HERE. I have several later versions, including 1960 and 1985, where the source material forms the basis. However the latest book of the same name, by Norman Arlott published in 2010, is a completely new offering with a wealth of useful detail. It is good – but it isn’t Bond!

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

The 1947 Bond is commonly described as the First Edition, and sold as such. But as some will know, it is in truth the second edition of Bond’s famous book, which was originally published in 1936. This was made clear in the copyright info to the 1947 edition; but seems to be rather less prominent in later editions.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A true first edition – very rarely on the market –  now comes in well north of $2000, unless in poor condition and without the all-important dust jacket (with rare books, the “DJ” seems to be almost as important as the book itself, especially if in “VGC”).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

My edition of Bond’s book has a strange quirk in the title. It’s not exactly a misprint, more of a variation that was probably unintentional. The jacket proclaims it to be a field guide of  birds of the West Indies, as does the book’s front cover and frontispiece. However the book’s spine and the page preceding the Introduction state that it is a field guide to birds of the West Indies.

Flamingo nests, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

One of the great charms of ‘Bond’, besides the elegance of his writing, is that he includes the Caribbean-wide local names for the birds he features. Thus the mangrove cuckoo is variously known as a rain bird, rain crow, four o’clock bird, and coffin bird. The black-faced grassquit might be a blue-black, a see-see, or a johnny-jump-up. And a flamingo could be a flamenco, a flamant – or a fillymingo.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

These reflections on one of the great bird books of the 20th century were prompted by a request I received from someone wanting a good image of a Bahamas flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber (the National Bird) to illustrate what is effectively a research paper about Bahamas natural history. Often with such inquiries – I get quite a few – I can supply images from my own archive.  Other times I am able to source images from generous people who give use permission (non-commercial) in return for a credit.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

For the flamingos, I only had images of a single vagrant bird that turned up at Gilpin Pond, Abaco a few years ago (Birds of Abaco p25). It looks rather sad and lonesome in the photos; within a matter of weeks it was gone. 

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

None has been reported on Abaco since, though once they were plentiful. Before this lone specimen, there was an attempt to reintroduce the species on the brackish ponds at the fishing lodge ‘Different of Abaco’, Casuarina. The lodge is long-since defunct, as are the flamingos (the PEACOCKS are flourishing however).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Luckily I knew who to turn to for flamingo pictures: Nassau resident Melissa Maura, a person deeply involved with the wildlife of the Bahamas and far beyond. Melissa has spent time with the flamingos of Inagua which has one of the world’s largest breeding colonies  – well over 50,000 – of these gorgeous birds in its National Park, overseen by the Bahamas National Trust.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

The flamingos of Inagua now thankfully receive the protection that was sadly lacking in c19 Bahamas, when their vast numbers were radically reduced by mankind, leading to extirpation on many islands where they had been plentiful. Hunted for meat and for ornamental feathers; taken for trading, for collections, for zoos: there were no limits. CHARLES CORY noted at the end of c19 that masses of chicks were being killed before they even fledged; and that large numbers were sold to passing ships, on which they were simply left to die.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Melissa has been fortunate enough to be on Inagua during the breeding season when banding takes place. So besides the adult birds in their orange-pink finery, she has been able to photograph the strange ‘mini-volcano’ nests (above) and the sweet, awkward-looking grey chicks. And with her kind permission, Melissa’s superb ‘fillymingo’ photos adorn this article. I believe the real James Bond would have been delighted to admire them; I hope that goes for you too.

All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura, with many thanks

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)