PINE WARBLERS ON ABACO: ‘PINUS ENVY’


Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

PINE WARBLERS ON ABACO: ‘PINUS ENVY’

The Pine Warbler Setophaga pinus is one of 5 year-round resident warblers on Abaco. You can see all 5 HERE. All are to be admired of course, and the pine warbler is to be envied for several reasons.

  • Like most setophagae, they are bright, lively and attractive birds
  • They live in the Bahamas all year round without needing to undertake a long exhausting flight twice a year, unlike the rest of their warbler compadres. And indeed, unlike many of the human inhabitants of Abaco
  • Abaco has vast areas of their preferred pine forest habitat
  • They are plentiful – the population is largely untroubled by usual habitat concerns
  • They are one of the few seed-eating warbler species, so feeders are a bonus

The other 33 warbler species found on Abaco (including the recently recorded CANADA WARBLER) are migratory and spend roughly half the year in their summer breeding grounds. Some of these are very rare. The co-resident year-round warblers are the 2 endemics Bahama warbler and Bahama Yellowthroat, plus the olive-capped warbler and the yellow warbler. 

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GUIDE TO ABACO’S 38 WARBLER SPECIES

As the winter warbler migrants return to the Bahamas in increasing numbers, I will soon be posting a handy illustrated ‘cut-out ‘n’ keep’ (= ‘save’) warbler. You’ll see which ones are easy to find; quite easy if you look; hard to locate; extremely rare.

‘Pine Creeping Warbler’ Audubon

As the name strongly hints, the pine warbler is primarily a bird of the pine forests, of which Abaco has an abundance. The tall, straight trees of Abaco were once a vital local source of timber (SAWMILL SINK q.v.). As a historical note, felled pines were also exported to the UK to be made into the strong pit-props needed for coal-mines. 

Pine Warbler (immature), Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Immature

Q. WHAT IS THE NORMAL RANGE OF THIS BIRD? A. THIS IS!

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Reed)

Pine warblers have a broad diet and forage methodically. Pine cones are a fertile source for food,  and those robust, stabby, slightly down-curved beaks are ideal for getting the seeds out of the cones. Equally, these warblers use their beaks to prise out insects from the rough pine trunks and branches.

Pine Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

WHAT OF THEIR NIDIFICATION?

The pine forest is obviously the preferred nesting habitat for these birds. On Abaco there are plentiful pine forests for them – the protected National Park in the south covers more than 20,000 acres. The warblers also nest in the smaller groups of pines found (for example) in or near some of the settlements; or around the edges of former sugar cane fields and the like. One nesting habit is slightly unusual – pine warblers tend to build their nests near the end of branches rather than near the trunk, a position that seems far less secure. Milton Harris has helpfully pointed out: “One theory on pine warbler nest location is that they are safer from predators by building at the end of a small branch.  Some other birds do the same.”

Pine Warbler (immature), Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

One source states that “The song of this bird is a musical trill. Their calls are slurred chips. I think we’ve all been there at some time, possibly when lunching at Pete’s Pub.

MUSICAL TRILL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

SLURRED CHIP Don Jones / Xeno-Canto

Photo Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 3, 6); Alex Hughes (2); Tom Reed (4); Tom Sheley (5); Dick Daniels (7); Wiki (range map); Nat Geo (species drawings); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto – call; Don Jones / Xeno Canto – chips

Pine Warbler (Dick Daniels wiki)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES


Osprey, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

OSPREYS: ID GUIDE TO THE BAHAMAS SUBSPECIES

I have featured bird comparatives from time to time, not least because scope for confusion meant that I needed to investigate for my own peace of mind. These included the tyrant flycatchers; a number of superficially similar warbler species (mostly with yellow bits); varid 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 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, below, 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)

THE EYES HAVE IT?

After I had looked into the noted distinctions I wrote “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 noticed that the eyes of the P.h.r were much paler compared with the bright orangey-yellow of P.h.c. This distinction is found in all the comparative photos above. The P.h.cs were photographed in Florida and further north and have the 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 haven’t seen this commented on since my original piece, but if anyone has a view it would be welcome.

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 small 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!

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS


Wilson's Plover & Chick - Sandy Walker, Abaco Bahamas

Wilson’s Plover & Chick, Abaco, Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

PIONEER NATURALISTS: ABACO & BAHAMAS BIRDS

WHO’S WHO? POTTED BIOGRAPHIES!

Who were all the people – all men, I’m afraid – who are immortalised in the names of birds they first discovered or recorded or collected specimens of or wrote about? In various previous bird posts I gave brief bios of the specific naturalist for whom the particular species under consideration was named. In due course I decided to bring all those who relate to the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular, together in one place. 

John James Audubon (Am Mus Of Nat Hist)

John James Audubon with his specimen gathering kit

This is an interesting moment to be revisiting and revising the earlier collection. There is a groundswell of demand for reappraisal of the many people whose endeavours and achievements in former times were honoured in paint, in stone, on paper, or by associative naming. However, ‘the past is a foreign country, they did things differently then’, to adapt L. P. Hartley. Suffice it to say that already, naturalists are under scrutiny for views and behaviours that were of their time and are now considered debatable or unacceptable. Audubon (above) – he of the shearwater, warbler and oriole – is one ornithologist whose scientific methods and wider perspectives are now in question. As far as I know, this applies to none of the others featured below.

ALEXANDER WILSON 1766 – 1813

Wilson’s plover, warbler, phalarope,snipe, storm-petrel

Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson, the ‘father of ornithology’, was a scottish poet and writer. He specialised in ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. The latter got him into trouble when he overstepped the mark by making a vicious written attack on one mill owner. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to burn the work in public (fair enough, perhaps) and imprisoned (somewhat harsh). After his release, he sensibly emigrated to America in 1794.

Wilson's Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson’s Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Wilson became a teacher in Pennsylvania, and developed his interests in ornithology and painting. His ambitious plan was to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America. He travelled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions to fund a nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated, 26 had never previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord. Wilson predated John James Audubon (though not by many years) and  is generally acknowledged to be the founder of American ornithology. It appears that Audubon himself may have thought otherwise…

For examples of Wilson’s American Birds, check out the excellent Virginia University records HERE 

Wilson's Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

Wilson’s Phalarope, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

 

CHARLES LUCIEN BONAPARTE 1803 – 1853

Bonaparte, Charles Lucien (1803-1857)Bonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino and Musignano was a French biologist and ornithologist. He was nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson (see above).

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Bonaparte’s Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Bonaparte studied the ornithology of the United States, and updated Wilson’s American Ornithology. His revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. He was a keen supporter of a (then little-known) ornithologist John James Audubon. Rather sweetly, he created the genus Zenaida named after his wife, and applied it to the White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica, Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. He himself was later honoured in the name ‘Bonaparte’s Gull’.

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Zenaida Dove, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

RAMON LA SAGRA (1798 -1871)

Mr La Sagra La Sagra’s Flycatcher

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris was a multi-talented man, being a Spanish botanist and also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). He lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be a contradiction in terms…).

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

A Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the naturalist who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the flycatcher, and who himself is honoured in the name of the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii 

Cuba Stamp La Sagra's Flycatcher

 

WILLIAM JOHN SWAINSON (1789 – 1855)

Mr SwainsonSwainson’s Hawk, Thrush & Warbler

Swainson was an English ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, natural historian, and a gifted illustrator of the natural world. He was a pioneer of the new lithographic technology, which enabled quicker reproduction of his work than engraving. Swainson lent his name to a number of avian species, three of which may be found on Abaco – the Swainson’s Hawk, Thrush and Warbler. The hawk is a rare visitor; the thrush is a transient, passing through the Bahamas during migration; and the warbler is a hard-to-find winter resident. Below is the only known Swainson’s Hawk to be photographed on Abaco.

Swainson's Hawk, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Swainson’s Hawk, Abaco, Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

JOHN ISIAH NORTHROP (1861 – 91)

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)

John Isiah Northrop, for whom the endemic BAHAMA ORIOLE Icterus northropi is named, entailed a bit more research. The link above will take you to my post about this very beautiful species that is sadly on the brink of extinction. Until recently it was found only on Abaco and Andros, but is now extirpated from Abaco and exists only in certain enclaves on Andros.

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

Bahama Oriole, Andros Bahamas (Mary Kay Beach)

I can do no better than regurgitate the info provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine  illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies:

The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist)”.

 

JARED POTTER KIRTLAND 1793 –1877

260px-Jared_Potter_Kirtland_1793-1877Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)

Jared Potter Kirtland was a naturalist, malacologist and politician, most active in Ohio where he served as a probate judge and in the Ohio House of Representatives. He was also a physician and co-founder of a University Medical School. Kirtland became one of America’s leading naturalists, with a particular interest in horticulture and sea shells. He published numerous natural history articles, and was a founder and president of the Kirtland Society of Natural History and the Cleveland Academy of Natural Science.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Somewhere in amongst all this, he discovered or at least studied the warbler that was named after him. This rare ‘at risk’ bird breeds in small numbers only in certain areas of Michigan and Ohio, favouring jack-pine territory. The warblers overwinter in the Bahamas, including on Abaco. They a very hard to find – and to photograph, in my limited experience. We once made an expedition into remote backcountry scrubland and found 4 KIWAs within a couple of hours. My only photo to come out was of a small lemon obscured by twigs.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Unattributed Epic Fail)

If you want to fixate on a warbler species, this is the one. Wiki, very good on this sort of thing, has an excellent entry that will tell you all you need to know and far more besides: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirtland%27s_warbler

Kirtland's Warbler (Tom Sheley)

Kirtland’s Warbler (Tom Sheley)

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785 – 1851)

Audubon's Shearwater, Warbler, OrioleAudubon’s Shearwater, Warbler, Oriole

John James Audubon never went to Abaco. The nearest he got was probably in 1820, when he made a field trip to the southern states, including Florida; or in the 1830s when he made at least one trip to Key West. One technique that set him apart from contemporaries was his method of producing naturalistic (as opposed to ‘stuffed bird’) drawings. It involved killing birds using very fine shot, and then using wires to pose them naturally, according to his field sketches. This contrasted with the usual technique of using a stuffed specimen as a model.

Audubon's Shearwater (Dominic Sherony Wiki)

Audubon’s Shearwater (Dominic Sherony)

In my original post I stated that no birds found on Abaco were specifically named for Audubon but that ‘it is almost impossible to dip a toe into ornithological history without immediately stubbing it on Audubon’s name’. As it turns out, the shearwater has raised its profile for the northern Bahamas, but in the saddest of circumstances. Every 2 years or so, there is a phenomenon called ‘die-back’ that seems to affect the pelagic shearwaters, and large numbers are washed up on the shorelines, either dying or already dead. A few can be rescued; few of those survive. The causes are complex: I wrote about this season’s die-back HERE if you want to know more.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Since the last outing, I have found another more tenuous avian link between Abaco and Audubon / his namesake birds. The yellowed-rumped warbler, a summer migrant to Abaco, is considered to be a close cousin of the myrtle warbler and Audubon’s warbler.

Audubon’s master-work was his renowned Birds of America, arguably the most famous bird tome ever. There are about 120 sets of the original book still in existence. They were incredibly expensive to produce in contemporary terms; and in modern times a set sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s London in 2010, setting the unbeaten record for the world’s most expensive book sale. Recently there was great excitement over the sale of another set at Christie’s New York, but the sale price was far lower, a mere $7,922,500… 

Audubon Birds of America.jpg

Credits: Bird pictures as shown; Encyclopaedia of Cleveland History, American Museum of Natural History, Britannica, University of Glasgow Library, The Auk, Audubon Society, Wiki, Magpie pickings

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’s finches. So, we are “common”, huh? Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS

  • Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
  • Both sexes build the nest together
  • Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
  • Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
  • They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
  • Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

ROLLING HARBOUR? TROLLING HARBOUR!


Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

ROLLING HARBOUR? TROLLING HARBOUR!

My troll friend is back! It’s been quite a long time since the last outbreak – congratulations on your growing self-control – but it’s good to know you still have it in you. In a way I consider your dogged trawls through my posts awarding coveted ‘One Star’ (= ‘Very Poor’) reviews, something of a plus. Your indiscriminate and equally low opinion of sequential blocks of posts suggests that you don’t actually read them, so I like to speculate what draws you here. You have the option of never visiting at all, of course, but that may not have occurred to you. Possibly you hate wildlife and / or conservation issues? Or have a phobia about nice photos. Or a lack of empathy for birds. Maybe you hold strong views that you feel are totally valid yet differ from the ones you perceive hereabouts. Possibly you need to see a counsellor?

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

You doubtless will be pleased to see this post (and keen to award it a single star) expecting me to mind your somewhat negative and persistent attentions. Presumably in some weird way you hope that you have got to me. I’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years and I can assure you not. I could in fact have removed my star ratings at any time, but then I’d miss your badges of honour and you’d miss your fun. If I may make a personal comment, though,  right now the least important thing in the world you could be doing is to troll a wildlife blog. When you have a tranquil moment, would you like to try to find something better to do with your time? Maybe something positive for someone else?

Credits: all gorgeous black-necked stilt photos taken by Alex on Abaco.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco, Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: DIE-OFF 2020


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. Or you may have read about this online. These poor birds may be (a) Audubon’s Shearwaters (also known as Dusky Petrels), which are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco; (b) Cory’s, Great or Sooty, which are transients; (c) Manx, which is a rare ‘off-course’ vagrant.

JUNE 2020

At the moment there are plenty of posts and threads on social media about the current die-off. People are naturally upset and concerned, and want to know the cause of the phenomenon. I am recasting a post from last year to explain why this happens.

Exhausted shearwater beached on AbacoAudubons Shearwater Abaco Bahamas (Sharon Elliott)

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. It almost always happens in June. The pattern is much the same each time, though the mix of shearwater species that succumb may vary. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote about it then. That bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from mainland Abaco and the cays, stretching from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks.

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some were still alive, but in a very poor state. Their prospects for survival would have been very low. A few birds were captured and cared for, but even then the chances of recovery were not good.

Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Two years on, in 2019, the melancholy cycle repeated itself. Melissa Maura, well-known as an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater in the care of Melissa Maura (2019)Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A Cory’s shearwater in rehab with Melissa 2020Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looked to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). This year’s die-off makes it 2 years running, an obvious great concern. The cause is a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds fly increasing distances to try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or more often dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor Summer fishing conditions out to sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay
Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Rhona Pearce))
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds on the shoreline will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds 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. A few lucky birds will be found in a reasonable state, and be able to be nursed back to health. 
Melissa releasing a recent survivor from her careShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura) “Need Fish”
PRACTICAL ADVICE
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this 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
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree of attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
A spell in the paddling pool – plenty of rest and fresh waterShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Paul Harding))
Credits: thanks first to Melissa Maura for her tireless compassion in the care of damaged and diseased creatures of every kind; and to those on Abaco who have been reporting / commenting on this event over the last few days.
Photographers Dominic Sherony Wiki (1); Sharon Elliott (2); Melissa Maura (4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11); Keith Kemp (3); Rhonda Pearce (7); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell (8)
The perfect end to the careful rehabilitation of a very sick shearwater – June 2020
Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (13)


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Treasure Cay Abaco (Becky Marvil)

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”).

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley) a

Credits: Becky Marvil (1); Tom Sheley (2, 3)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER


Kirtland's Warbler Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

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)Kirtland's Warbler, 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.

Kirtland's Warbler Range Map wiki

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

Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

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

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

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

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

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 & 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.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)


PAINTED BUNTING: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (7)

Painted Bunting, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

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 ABACO  It 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.

 

GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)


GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)

Green Heron, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)


KILLDEER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (2)

Killdeer, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Birds of Abaco)

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. 

Credit: Bruce Hallett

RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)


RUDDY TURNSTONES: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (1)

Ruddy Turnstone, the Marls, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

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 ABACO and 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.

Ruddy Turnstone, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

ON THE WING: BLACK-NECKED STILTS, ABACO, BAHAMAS

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.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

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. 

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

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.

Black-necked Stilt in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

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

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD


Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD

This post has little to do with Abaco, and only a tenuous connection with the Bahamas. It is about birds, though, so I’ll justify it that way. This is today’s news and these are photos I took this morning in a park that is less than 10 minutes walk from our house. The reason? I’d heard that goslings had been seen at the small lake there, remarkably early in the year for any bird.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Gosling (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

I had expected that this rumour related to the Canada geese that lord it over the smaller waterfowl (moorhens, coots, mallards, tufted ducks and so on). What I saw, as I got close to the lake, was a pair of Egyptian geese Alopochen aegyptiaca. And, true to the report, they had goslings with them. There were 10 in all and they were jointly and severally (as we lawyers say) totally adorbs and charmsy.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

These are birds of Africa, but – like Canada geese – have spread far and wide mainly as the result of introduction by man. The Egyptians considered them sacred and featured them in hieroglyphs. Modern man has deemed them ornamental (cf peafowl) and removed them from their home to pastures new. Geese are robust, so they adapted in their new environment with relative ease. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

As with many other transferred species, birds inevitably escaped from their ‘owners’ and feral populations soon became established. In Abaco terms, this is exactly what happened with the peafowl that were brought to the ‘Different of Abaco’ fishing lodge. The birds survived its demise, lived and bred in the increasingly wild grounds, and are now many generations on.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

At some stage, the Egyptian goose was introduced in Florida, where it thrived. Nowadays it is not a particularly unusual bird there.  It remains one of the birds of south-east US that has never made the relatively short journey to Abaco. There are however a handful of reports from Grand Bahama, New Providence and Eleuthera, so northern Bahamas is in range.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

It’s probably only a matter of time before these geese turn up on Abaco. Five years ago, the first BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS were found, a flock of 6 seen several times as they progressed from Crossing Rocks north to the airport. There are still the occasional sightings of these ducks, the last about 2 weeks ago north of Marsh Harbour. The Egyptian goose is a fine bird and part of me (the part that doesn’t disapprove of avian introductions) hopes that they do occasionally undertake the journey from the flocks in Florida. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

That’s all, folksEgyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA


ABACO PARROT: THE UNIQUE, ICONIC, AMAZING AMAZONA

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Fabulous in-flight shot by Nina Henry (contributor to ‘Birds of Abaco’)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS


White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)

WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BAHAMA DUCKLINGS

The white-cheeked (‘Bahama’) pintail Anas bahamensis (aka ‘Bahama duck’) is everyone’s favourite dabbling duck. Or at least it ought to be. And when there are ducklings swimming with the adults, there is no emoticon yet devised that will convey the extremes of cuteness achieved.

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)      White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner) White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Tom Sheley)  White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

Credits: all absolutely adorbs  photos are by Tom Sheley & Charles Skinner

White-cheeked Pintail / Bahama Pintail Ducklings (Charles Skinner)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT


CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT

A VERY HAPPY TO ALL FOLLOWERS OF ROLLING HARBOUR…

…AND TO EACH AND EVERY RANDOM DROP-BY TOO!

SEE YOU NEXT DECADE!

Abaco Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Credit: Nina Henry, photographed on Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

 

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING


PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 1: PAINTED BUNTING

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credit: Tom Sheley, photographed at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”

PAINTED BUNTING Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

 

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT


Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes) BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S NEWEST ENDEMIC RESIDENT

I was looking at the list of the dozens of Abaco bird species I have featured over the years, when I was struck by the complete omission of one of Abaco’s most significant small birds – the Bahama Warbler Setophaga flavescens. This warbler species is of the most important in the Bahamas for several reasons, any one of which should have prompted me to showcase this lovely bird before now.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

A SPECIALITY BIRD

The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:

  • Found only on Abaco and Grand Bahama
  • One of only 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas
  • One of only 2 endemic warbler species on Abaco (with the BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT)
  • One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.

Bahama Warbler Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Until 2011, the BAWA was classified as a subspecies of the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER. The ornithological powers-that-be then recognised that the two species were distinct in both appearance and in vocalisation, and split them into separate species (this splitting / amalgamating process occurs annually and plays havoc with the precious ‘Life Lists’ kept with such rigour by ardent birders**.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The BAWA has such a confined range that even the extensive reach of the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not got as far as this bird. The info sections of the otherwise comprehensive website for Neotropical Birds are blank and waiting for someone to upload some details. Here are a few facts in one of a very good series of info-graphics produced by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST.

BNT infographic Bahama Warbler

** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?


BAHAMA WOODSTAR (F) ABACO - TARA LAVALLEE

ABACO HUMMINGBIRDS: WHAT’S THE NEWS?

SIGHTINGS POST-DORIAN

Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank. 

BAHAMA WOODSTAR (M) ABACO - BRUCE HALLETT

Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).

CUBAN EMERALD (M) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?

CUBAN EMERALD (F) ABACO BAHAMAS (KEITH SALVESEN / ROLLING HARBOUR)

Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)