HOW FLAMINGOS WORK…
CREDITS: great photos from Inagua, Melissa Maura; vaguely interesting slo-mo movie, Keith Salvesen
By the end of day 2 during my recent stay at Sandy Point, I thought that I had had just about enough of the laughing gulls Leucophaeus atricilla. They are delightful of course, and (in small doses) a joy to listen to. But their incessant outbursts of humour were getting beyond a joke.
The next day, on the nearby jetty, the gulls were in full cry. A lone brown pelican stood on top of a piling, looking out to sea. A few Royal Terns turned their faces, characteristically, into the light wind. I wandered over and slowly walked down the jetty. This generated some laughter, but the birds were quite content to watch me edge slowly towards them.
Probably, the gulls feel safety in numbers. Maybe they hope the din will send you away. Or perhaps, if approached very carefully, they are simply curious. I got close to the birds, and one in particular caught my eye. It was plainly having a bad-feather day. I took it to be a non-breeding adult, but it lacked the white spots on the tail-feathers (primaries). Maybe it was a first winter juvenile. Whichever, it was happy to pose for me.
I realised, of course, that the jetty belonged to the birds, including the ruddy turnstones that had just joined the gang at the end of the jetty. I was the intruder in their world, and I had willingly visited their territory. So their racket was entirely their business, and absolutely none of mine**.
WHAT DO LAUGHING GULLS SOUND LIKE? ARE YOU OVERSENSITIVE?
I made a couple of short recordings of the gulls in full humour mode. If you have never heard them before, you might want to listen to the full 30 seconds. For anyone else there’s a convenient lull at around 15 secs before they kick off again.
**In the UK there’s a thing where someone buys an attractive cottage next to the c15 village church. Then they discover that the clock chimes. And the bell-ringers practise their art on Monday and Thursday evenings. And on Sunday all hell breaks loose, especially if there is Sunday cricket on the village green in the mix. And the occasional ball being hit into the flowerbed. So, complaints are made to the Council, noise abatement orders are sought, legal letters fly round the Parish. And everyone hates the newcomers. Adopting village life with no research? Way to go!
All photos + audio clip: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
I’m just back from Abaco. Mostly, it was about Marine Mammals (i.e. whales, dolphins, manatees) and the biennial Retreat for the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). There was still time for some birding in Sandy Point, though. It’s a good place at any time for bird-watching BUT the settlement is rather remote. Specifically it is the terminus of the single 120-mile Highway that stretches south from Little Abaco in the north. Then the tarmac abruptly runs out and gives way at once to white sand. If that doesn’t halt you, you’ll wish your vehicle was amphibious…
Loggerhead kingbirds, with their hooky flycatcher beaks, cresty hair and dashing yellowish undersides, are intriguing companions. If they get interested in you (or maybe your camera bleep, as I have discovered), they will accompany you on a walk, flying ahead until you catch up, then doing it again. And if they are ‘hawking’ for flies from a favourite perch, they are fun to watch and… a big bonus… they won’t stop because you are spectating.
Like all the Bahamas flycatchers, from the little cuban pewee upwards, the Kingbirds have a charming way of cocking their head to one side or dropping it down towards their chest. Slightly posey, always endearing.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
‘Bird on the Wire’ was originally sung by Judy Collins, though written by Leonard Cohen. His own definitive version from 1968’s ‘Songs from a Room‘ is arguable the best known recording and preceded several hundred later cover versions. LC is a really “difficult” artist, however. Many will agree with his expressed view that the song is ‘a prayer and an anthem’. Others might say that it is simply growly dirge-like maundering. The (then-modish) mouth-harp twangling in the background may also be an opinion-divider. Since I have shoehorned Cohen’s song title into my blog title, you might as well have the song too, for contemplation. Is it a life-affirming ‘upper’ or a funereal ‘downer’? You be the judge!
Photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Sandy point, Abaco.
I’ve been checking out jetties at Sandy Point, of which there are several. They look a bit rickety but are in fact sound except for having to step rounds piles of (empty) conch shells and occasional evidence on the timbers of recent fish-cleaning. This is a time of Laughing Gulls, and I have been recording their raucous hilarity. I may add a couple of sound files when I’ve downloaded them.
Right now, ruddy turnstones and laughing gulls seems to have formed a team of jetty birds, with a few royal terns in the mix and (as here) a random sanderling. The turnstones like to lie down in the hot sun on the jetty, possibly because it’s a bit breezier than on the burning sand of the beach.
Exhausted from turning stones
The jetties also attract pelicans, which use them to sun themselves and also to fish from. I will post about these remarkable birds another time. The largest flock of them I have seen so far is 5, one with a gold ‘breeding crown’.
All photos: Keith Salvesen
There’s a time and a place for anthropomorphising animal behaviour in terms of human responses. Usually it’s best done with caution or not at all… I’m going to press ahead, though, with a romantic encounter between two Royal terns today at Sandy Point, Abaco. Ultimately, this appeared to be an approach, a come-on, a poorly executed attempt at intimacy, and ultimately a rejection. Or else it’s just bird interchange that we should not read too much into…
Good afternoon, I should like to get to know you better…
Would you do me the honour of commencing a relationship?
You’ve moved as far away as possible on this post – you have no idea what you’re missing
I’ll be the judge of that. I’m off, don’t try to follow me…
Credits: all photos (artfully taken in fairly poor light), corny storyline, inappropriate anthropomorphism – Keith Salvesen
The future of the gorgeous endemic Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) hangs in the balance. IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, the Oriole once lived on both Abaco and Andros. As recently as the 1990s, the species became extirpated on Abaco, leaving a small and fragile population in fairly specific areas of Andros. These are places where the habitat is conducive to the orioles’ well-being, and in particular where they can safely breed and (with luck) replenish their depleted population.
We hear a lot about habitat loss as a grave worldwide problem for an increasing number of species. Narrow that down to one species, one island, a few defined areas, then add mankind and his needs to the mix. The wrong mix of habitat degradation, clearances, predation or disease could cause the Andros population to disappear as well.
Which is where conservation and science come into play. The Bahamas archipelago benefits from an astonishing number of (broadly-speaking) environmental organisations that are involved in species and habitat protection, both terrestrial and marine. They range from international to Bahamas-wide and Governmental, to NFP organisations on the main islands, and on through local communities via citizen scientists to dedicated individuals. All are fighting a specific battle with a single aim; all face an increasing array of metaphorical weapons being deployed against them.
SO, ANY GOOD NEWS THEN?
Returning to the orioles – in many ways a perfect indicator bird species – recent research has led to an encouraging discovery. A new study in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology published by researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Bahamas National Trust collaborating on the Bahama Oriole Project (@BahamaOrioleProject) reveals new evidence about the nesting habits and habitats of the orioles that will have “…major implications for future conservation” (this work was funded in part by the American Bird Conservancy and Birds Caribbean).
The study is the outcome of the work of a dozen conservation specialists. In a coconut-shell, the orioles were thought to nest only in the coconut palms found near the coast. However the recent intensive research program reveals that ‘multiple pairs’ breed in the pines and the thatch palms of the forests, away from the coast. Indeed, these may prove to be the primary nesting locations. The implications of these new findings are significant, not least for a possible uplift in numbers and the way in which conservation measures can be adapted to the new discovery. For those wanting something more authoritative, the short Abstract of the study is given at the end. And if you’d like to read the whole article, click on the link below.
THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS
*The date of this arrival seems to correspond to when the orioles were extirpated from Abaco. However, see next para.
WHEN & WHY DID THE ORIOLES VANISH FROM ABACO?
This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. However, Abaco birding expert Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey comments (see below) that Bahama Orioles were last formally recorded on Abaco in 1973 by researcher Duncan Everette and his partner who were banding warblers in Southern Abaco in what is now the Abaco National Park. At that time, the Shiny Cowbird was only rarely found on Abaco, if at all.
I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last evidences sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a single photo of one taken on Abaco at any time in history. To be fair the option of snapping everything with wings multiple times using a digital camera with a huge chip didn’t exist then. As to past history, Kevin Omland of @BahamaOrioleProject says that there are at least 9 specimens in museums around the world collected from Abaco in the 1800s and early 1900s.
eBird map showing Bahama Oriole sightings distribution in c21
The Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) is a Critically Endangered species endemic to The Bahamas and currently found only on the Andros island complex. With the elevation of the Bahama Oriole to full species status in 2011, research suggested that there were fewer than 300 individuals remaining in the global population. The Bahama Oriole was also termed a “synanthropic species” based on data suggesting that the species nested almost exclusively within anthropogenic residential and agricultural habitats in introduced coconut palms (Cocos nucifera). These conclusions were based on population surveys primarily confined to settled areas near the coasts. However, we documented multiple pairs of orioles with breeding territories deep in pine forests, and we present the first records of Bahama Orioles nesting in pine forests—in both a Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) and native understory Key thatch palms (Leucothrinax morrisii). Given the predominance of the pine forests on Andros, this newly documented breeding habitat has important implications for developing population estimates and future conservation plans for the Bahama Oriole.
Credits: Dan Stonko / American Bird Conservancy, Michael Baltz / Bahama Oriole Project / Kevin Omland; Mary Kay Beach; Bahama Oriole Project FB header; C Ward / BNT; Thomas Nierle / Bahama Oriole Project; Bahamas Postal Service; BNT; D Belasco / American Bird Conservancy; Handbook of World Birds (drawing)
↑ Mr Northrop with his Bird
The brackish pond at Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks is generally a reliable place to find waterbirds. For those birding on South Abaco (in many respects, one big hotspot) Gilpin is definitely worth a visit at almost any time. Bear in mind it is (a) a longish private road (we got a puncture down there once…**) and (b) it is private land. However, the owner Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who bring only enthusiasm and take only pictures. Plus he very kindly changed our wheel!
We found this small Green Heron quite easily. We’d watched it fly onto a stump in the pond near the jetty, then fly closer to the shoreline. By tiptoeing onto the jetty, we could see the bird perched close to the water, inspecting it with a fierce and predatory eye. Both eyes, in fact.
The hunting technique is deceptively simple. Note the long sharp stabbing beak. Note the large feet and claws for gripping securely Here’s how it is done. As a fish is sighted, so the heron leans gradually forwards, beak dipping closer to the water, the body more streamlined to look at. The procedure is beginning in the image above.
The stance means ‘small fish – 5 feet off – moving left and closing – prepare to strike‘. As the prey unwittingly approaches, the bird slowly tilts further forward unless its beak almost touches the water, the quicker and closer to strike.
The actual strike is so rapid that it is barely possible to see with the naked eye, let alone to photograph it clearly (not on my type of camera anyway). But the end result is rarely in doubt, with a small fish struggling but securely held in that long, clamping beak. It will be down the heron’s gullet in a matter of seconds.
I left the heron as it settled slowly back into ‘scanning the water mode’ while I went to watch some lesser yellowlegs nearby. Some minutes later, the heron was still contentedly fishing from its vantage point.
Species we have found on and around the pond include black-necked stilts, little blue heron, great blue heron, tricolored heron, snowy egret, reddish egret, yellow-crowned night heron, the relatively rare and very shy sora, hordes of white-cheeked pintails, northern pintails, lesser yellowlegs, belted kingfisher, turkey vulture, smooth-billed ani, American kestrel, Bahama woodstar, Cuban emerald, Mucovy duck (Perry’ pet!) – and the green heron of course.
As a bonus, Gilpin has become an increasingly regular stop for raucous flocks of Abaco parrots. Rarer species found there include American flamingo (rare vagrant), brown pelican, double-crested cormorants, and limpkins. On the beach 5 minutes walk away, there are usually shorebirds including rare piping plovers, Wilson’s plovers, turnstones; gull and tern species; and passing tropicbirds & magnificent frigatebirds flying high over the water.
FOR MORE ABOUT GREEN HERONS: SHARP-EYED SHARP BILLED
** I realise that strictly I should be saying ‘flat’ here, but that might be confusing for Euro-readers, who would understand that to mean that we had rented (or purchased) an apartment in a larger dwelling house containing similar accommodation.
All photos, Keith Salvesen except the cute chick, Charlie Skinner; and the cute cartoon GH, Birdorable…