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”).
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)
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.
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
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
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
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
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.
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 ABACOIt 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.
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.
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.
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 ABACOand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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