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)

‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO


Clapper Rail preening, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

‘LIKE’ THE CLAPPERS: ON THE RAILS IN ABACO

CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.

Clapper Rail stretching.Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley ("The Birds of Abaco" by Keith Salvesen, p80)

Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO.  By being  both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.

Clapper Rail rousing.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking,  picking their way through marginal  vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name. 

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Erik Gauger))

Clapper Rail running, Abaco Bahamas (Sandy Walker)

It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.

COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY

When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.

OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION

“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.

Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).

Clapper Rail preening.Abaco Bahamas.3.12.Tom Sheley copy

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Yellow-headed Blackbird (R. Welker / Wiki)

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Alan Vernon / Wiki)

BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.

Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example  of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD

THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACOYellow-headed Blackbird, Little Harbour Abaco (Bernard Albury)

The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Tom Kerner / Wiki)

A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?

The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.

Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas. 

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Sibley)

BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?

The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh  there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.

Map: incidence of Yellow-winged Blackbirds in Bahamas

Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.

I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird

Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Dan Hackley Cornell / eBird)

Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’

Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong

Audubon's Blackbirds

CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.

Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library

Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto

Yellow-headed Blackbird (ALLABOUTBIRDS CORNELL© Brian Sullivan / Macaulay Library )

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE… WHILE TECHIES LABOUR


Ring-billed Gull, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

SOME NICE PICS OF BAHAMAS WILDLIFE…

WHILE TECHIES LABOUR

Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I’m never quite sure how far it’s permissible to go beyond ‘really pissed off’ about a tech problem. Anything much stronger seems a bit indulgent both in itself and especially when measured against the far-reaching despair experienced by many in far more important areas of life.

Northern Parula Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

I am just having a huge “Grrrrrrrrr” moment because my complex blog menu, with 3 rows of headings and carefully curated nests of drop-downs under each, has been scrubbed by persons or AI unknown. It’s several years of cumulative and (mostly) pleasurable organisational work up the spout.

As a Brit, may I be permitted to say ‘bother’. Or maybe ‘Dash it all?’ Or declare that I’m a mite cheesed orf? To which a fair response would be “it’s just a trivial inconvenience, get over it…”

Abaco Parrot (Craig Nash)

For the moment, here are some nice pics to enjoy, all taken on Abaco. I’m happy to say that right now, 7 weeks since Dorian, there are promising signs that in some areas of Abaco, the birds are starting to show themselves – including a few winter warblers. See you the other side of rethinking my Menu…

Conch shell, Schooner Bay Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Mary Kay Beach, Craig Nash, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO (western spindalis badge, moi)

Humpback Whale tailing, Abaco Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

“THE BIRDS OF ABACO”: BOOKMAKERS (& GAMBLERS?)


Delphi Club Guide to the Birds of Abaco (Jacket)

“THE BIRDS OF ABACO”: BOOKMAKERS (& GAMBLERS?)

THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO

163 SPECIES, 350+ PHOTOS, 30 PHOTOGRAPHERS, 272 PAGES

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Black-necked Stilt – Alex Hughes

THE POST DORIAN PLANS

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, until 1 September 2019 when Dorian struck, Abaco was a prime birding location in the Bahamas archipelago, an island chain that stretches from the lower reaches of the temperate zone to the more exotic sub-tropical region. The judgement for ‘best birding location’ is both objective and subjective, and the criteria are flexible. However on any view Abaco scores highly in all avian categories: resident species, endemics, migratory birds, speciality species, vulnerable species, and extreme rarities.

We’ll have to wait some time before it is possible to tell what effects the devastating storm has had on the wildlife of the island and on its birding credentials…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher vocalizing. Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Tom Sheley

BOOKMAKING

The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACO was published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project (now in new & expert hands) – was Peter Mantle. The book showcases the work of 30 photographers, including some outstanding contributions by islanders. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager (= Mrs RH, then of YUP) and from the top Bahamas bird experts – Woody Bracey, Tony White, Bruce Hallett, and Tony Hepburn, to name but 4. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.

Cuban Emerald (f) Gilpin, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Cuban Emerald (f) – Keith Salvesen

GAMBLERS?

The book project was something of a gamble. When planning began, social media – and the facility to reach a wide audience – was significantly less active than it was soon to become. The book was launched at Delphi to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, but the extent of the interest (and sales) that might be generated more widely was unknown. We predicted it might be a slow-grower, so we were astonished by the immediate positive response to the guide. Perhaps it helped that there was a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco’s rich birdlife – we donated copies to all Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations for educational purposes. A significant percentage of the profits was set aside for local wildlife causes and duly distributed. 

Moving on just 5 years to this summer, the limited edition of 500 had all but sold out; and around 100 free copies had been donated – or deposited (as required by UK Law) in specified institutions: British Library; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; and Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Brown Pelican, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Brown Pelican – Tom Sheley

PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE?

Six weeks after Dorian, a semblance of normality is returning to the stricken island. Daily snippets of optimism are of great significance: a lost pet found after many days; a trashed plant defiantly putting out a flower; a pair of parrots screeching past; a boat recovered; a building slightly less damaged than feared. Recovered possessions from flooded houses have brought mixed emotions – heart-rending losses of precious items, yet also the unexpected recovery of possessions believed lost or destroyed. And in that context but far less emotionally, I have now had quite a few requests for replacement copies of “Birds of Abaco”.

Short-billed Dowitcher, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Short-billed dowitchers – Bruce Hallett

SO, ARE THERE ANY REPLACEMENT BIRD BOOKS LEFT?

The position in a conch-shell is this:

  • There are now no copies still available on Abaco. Former HQ (and book storage / fulfilment facility) The Delphi Cub changed hands a year ago, and no longer carries a stock of the books. 
  • In the UK, Peter Mantle and I have about a dozen between us that are, in one way or another, ring-fenced.
  • That’s it, I’m afraid.
Bridled Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

Bridled Tern – Bruce Hallett

ARE YOU PLANNING TO REPRINT?

For several reasons, no – it’s not a viable proposition. Specifically:

  • the size & print-costs of such a large heavy (2 kgs) book
  • the specialist printing (eg in Italy) needed to retain the quality; and the associated shipping costs
  • the lack of any viable storage and / or fulfilment facilities on Abaco, or anywhere else suitable
  • the lack of a prominent ornithologically-minded literary-leaning benefactor with a kind smile & deep pockets
Black-throated blue warbler (Gerlinde Taurer)

Black-throated blue warbler – Gerlinde Taurer

CAN I STILL GET THE BOOK IN SOME OTHER FORM?

Yes! I hope. We are kicking around the following ideas in a general and inchoate way:

  • first, avoiding any system requiring storage or fulfilment (so, not a physical reprint)
  • using existing production material to create a Print-on-Demand book
  • turning the guide into an eBook (may be difficult / impossible with non-standard format)
  • most likely producing a full PDF (or similar) version for download and possibly printing
  • selecting sections – eg the definitive checklist – as individual downloads
  • considering other suggestions!

At the moment this is in the basket marked ‘non-urgent’, but the alternatives will be under active consideration.

Clapper Rail Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley

Clapper Rail – Tom Sheley

The original flyer for the book"Birds of Abaco" flyer

Painted Bunting male.Abaco Bahamas.Tom SheleyPainted Bunting Tom Sheley

Photos: Alex Hughes (1); Tom Sheley (2, 4, 9, 10); Keith Salvesen (3, 11); Bruce Hallett (5, 7); Gerlinde Taurer (8);  Charmaine Albury, para-breakers 

Cuban (Crescent-eyed) Pewee, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Cuban Pewee Keith Salvesen

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BAHAMAS: A FIELD GUIDE


Roseate Spoonbill, New Providence Bahamas (Elwood 'Woody' Bracey)

Roseate Spoonbill, New Providence – Dr Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BAHAMAS: A FIELD GUIDE

On October 15th Cornell University Press publishes the first-ever comprehensive field guide to the terrestrial natural history of the Bahamas*. This monumental study has been years in the devising, researching, writing and production. The five authors are all eminent natural scientists in their specialist fields, and well-known far beyond the Bahamas. They combine to bring authoritative yet accessible scholarship to the pages. This book will undoubtedly become the go-to standard field guide for the Bahamas for decades. Furthermore, its breadth of scope will reach adjacent territories beyond the archipelago. *With a few exceptions for ‘signal species’, ocean-life is not included

The new guide comprises an encyclopaedic 464 pages with 768 colour photos plus line drawings, maps, charts and tables. The subject-matter begins with a detailed introduction that encompasses Geology, Climate, Habitat, Biogeography, Human History and Conservation. This establishes the wider context for the pages that follow.

Merlin, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

Merlin, Abaco Bahamas – Becky Marvil

The guide is then divided into discrete sections that cover Fungi, Flora / Plants, Invertebrates, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals (of which there are very few in the Archipelago, and few of those endemic). As a general observation, you simply will not believe how many species and subspecies there in some of the categories.

Wild Pig or Hog (f) on Abaco Bahamas (Dana Lowe)

Wild Pig or Hog (f) on Abaco Bahamas (Dana Lowe)

In expressing my enthusiasm for the new guide, I ought to declare my interest. From a fairly early stage of the project, I helped in two ways: sourcing / supplying images; and helping with proofing / editorial work of the sort common to all such diverse reference works.

Nassau Grouper, Grand Bahama (Melinda Riger)

Nassau Grouper, Grand Bahama (Melinda Riger)

Right now, in the aftermath of the disastrous impact of Hurricane Dorian, the northern Bahamas (Abaco & Grand Bahama) are still at the very earliest stages of a return to normality. Some areas are still without reliable water or power. The extent of the devastation suggests that the new ‘normality’ will inevitably be rather different from the past. It is sobering to consider that, since this field guide went to press, the balance of nature on two of the most diverse islands for wildlife in the archipelago has already changed significantly – and in some instances that change may well be for good.

Gull-billed Tern in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Gull-billed Tern in flight, Abaco Bahamas – Alex Hughes

I have a hope – and there are some signs already – that people’s interest in the wildlife around them provides a degree of comfort in hard times. Further south in the Bahamas, the other islands will each have had their own similar extreme weather experiences many times. The wildlife is varied but with similarity throughout the extensive chain of 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, with a vertical length of over 500 miles and covering more than 8000 square miles of land and sea. The familiarity of many of the plants, trees, butterflies, and birds binds the diverse islands together to create a common experience.

West-Indian Manatee, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

West-Indian Manatee, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

For more information on this new publication CORNELL U P FIELD GUIDE

Credits as captioned, with thanks to all concerned

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)