ABACO’S 38 WARBLERS: AN ILLUSTRATED ID GUIDE (Pt 1)
IT’S STARTED The great winter migration of warblers and their imminent arrival in The Bahamas is underway. Any day now – if not already – the ‘winter’ / ‘Fall’ (late summer & early spring as well) warblers will be arriving on Abaco. There are 38 warbler species recorded for the main island and the cays. For years, it was just 37. Exactly a year ago, a CANADA WARBLER was seen and photographed by well-known birder Chris Johnson. It was a first for Abaco – and the first-ever report for the Bahamas as well. You’ll find the story HERE.
First-ever Canada Warbler for Abaco & the entire Bahamas: Aug 2018 (Chris Johnson)
This post is the first of 3 warbler posts for the Fall. A while back I compiled a basic (in retrospect) guide to Abaco’s warbler species. I’ll give a link and pdf in due course once I have rechecked (improved? rewritten?) it. [Note: of no value on eBay, @m@z@n or anywhere else]. Many of the warblers are far from easy to distinguish from each other. For example, many males have yellow or yellow-and-black plumage. The females are invariably less colourful – often brownish or olive – than the males (as are juveniles), and that can lead to confusion – and not only by me, I think.
Hooded Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Chris Johnson)
The guide divides the original 37 species into categories, with a code for each bird to show. You’ll see below the codes relating to each of the 5 resident species:
Resident status – permanent / breeding, migratory or transient
Frequency – likelihood of seeing each species in its season, rated from 1 (very likely) to 5 (extreme rarities, maybe recorded once or twice since c1950
Numerically, the division of the 38 breaks down into 3 categories:
5 permanent residents (PR) that breed on Abaco (B), of which two are ENDEMIC
21 winter residents (WR) ranging from ‘everyday’ species to rarities like the rare, vulnerable Kirtland’s Warbler (now under threat from proposed development)
12 transients, most of which you will be very lucky to encounter
Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)
The photos used in this series were almost all taken on Abaco / the Cays. There’ll be examples of the male of each warbler species, with some females for contrast. Where I have no Abaco / Baha images – especially with the transients – I have used other mainstream birding resources and Wiki. All due credits will be given at the foot of each post.
The warblers shown above are a mix of warbler species on Abaco: resident / endemic, winter migrants, and transient / vagrant. Time to take a look at the first category, the Bahamas-loving resident species that live and breed on Abaco
5 PERMANENT RESIDENTS
BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT Geothlypis rostrata PR B 1 ENDEMIC
PHOTO CREDITS Tom Sheley (1, 9, 11); Chris Johnson (2, 3); Alex Hughes (4); Nina Henry (5); Gerlinde Taurer (6, 7); Bruce Hallett (8, 10); Photos mainly from the archive collected for“THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO”by Keith Salvesen
ABACO WARBLERS: THE FAMOUS 5 (PERMANENT RESIDENTS)
There are 37 warbler species recorded for Abaco. They fall into three distinct categories. Surprisingly perhaps, only 5 species are permanently resident on Abaco, ie non-migratory. Then there are warblers that commute from the breeding grounds of North America to warmer climes in the Fall, returning in the Spring to breed. Some will be familiar – PALM WARBLER, AMERICAN REDSTART, BLACK-AND -WHITE WARBLER. Others, like the HOODED WARBLER, are less common. One or two are very rare indeed, such as the KIRTLAND’S WARBLERSthat choose Abaco as a winter destination. Finally there are the so-called transients, warbler species that use the northern Bahamas as a stopover during their longer migratory flights, such as the BLACKPOLL WARBLER.
The 5 permanent residents obviously don’t migrate, so there is a chance to find them throughout the year. The pine forests would generally be the best place to start the quest. Importantly, 2 of the 5 species are endemic birds to the Bahamas and can be found nowhere else: BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT and BAHAMA WARBLER. The latter and the OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER, are very range-restricted, and only found on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
THE 5 PERMANENT RESIDENTS
BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT Geothlypis rostrata PR B 1 ENDEMIC
YELLOW WARBLER Setophaga petechia PR B 1
OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER Setophaga pityophila PR B 1
PINE WARBLER Setophaga pinus PR B 1
BAHAMA WARBLER Setophaga flavescens PR B 1 ENDEMIC
PHOTO CREDITS Bruce Hallett (1, 3, 5, 8, 11); Gerlinde Taurer (2); Tom Sheley (4, 6, 7); Tom Reed (9); Alex Hughes (10, 11)
CHECKLIST CODESbased on the complete checklist and codes for Abaco devised by Tony White with Woody Bracey for “THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO” by Keith Salvesen
RARE, PRECIOUS – AND FOUND ONLY ON ANDROS, BAHAMAS
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.
Lethal Yellowing Diseaseof the coastal coconut palms, until very recently (see above) believed to be the prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas the palms have been all but wiped out. The recent findings in the forests have clearly reduced the impact of this specific problem
The arrival in the 1990s and spread of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, abrood parasitethat lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species*
Habitat loss / development
Forestry work / forest fires
Feral cats and rodents
Disease within the population is also cited as a contributory cause
*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)
Yesterday an Abaco friend asked me to ID a striking-looking bird photographed in the coppice by their house. It was a Bahama Yellowthroat, one of the 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas. The bird was not clear enough for use here, but I’ll take any reason to feature these lovely creatures, with their trademark Zorro masks.
The other endemics are the Bahama Woodstar, Bahama Warbler and Bahama Swallow – all found on Abaco. The fifth is the endangered Bahama Oriole. Sadly these fine birds are now only found in very small numbers on Andros. They once lived on Abaco too, but have not been recorded there since the 1990s, and are considered extirpated. You can find out more about all these endemic birds HERE.
The Bahama Yellowthroats have a cousin, the Common Yellowthroat, that is a winter visitor on Abaco. There is some scope for confusion between the two birds, although a close look will reveal several differences. But let’s not get into that kind of detail right now… it would slightly detract from this little ‘gallery of gorgeous’.
One reason for my fondness for the yellowthroats is that it is one of the few species that I am able to imitate with sufficient accuracy to draw one from the depths of the coppice to the front of stage. It’s usually described as a ‘wichety-wichety‘ call, and the talent to mimic it has no other uses in life. Here’s a short recording I made – the Yellowthroat is the first and last call of the sample, with other species in between.
These are curious birds, and are not afraid to pose for a while, watching the watcher. They are also very vocal birds. You’ll see that many of these photos show them singing (‘vocalising’). You can even see their tiny tongues!
A couple of these images feature in THE BIRDS OF ABACO. This is a good moment to mention that we still have some remaining books, and right now we have a seasonal offer on them of a festive $88 plus shipping. A drop in MH can be arranged. Interested? Let me know or email the Delphi Club direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 3); Bruce Hallett (2, 5); Tom Reed (4); Charles Skinner (6); Tom Sheley (7); sound recording Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
Any day now – if not already – winter warblers will be arriving on Abaco. There are 37 warbler species recorded for the main island and the cays. They fall into 3 categories: 5 permanent residents (PR) that breed on Abaco (B), of which two are endemics; 21 winter residents (WR) ranging from ‘everyday’ species to rarities such as the Kirtland’s Warbler; and 11 transients, most of which you will be lucky to encounter. The codes given for each bird show the residence status and also the likelihood of seeing each species in its season, rated from 1 (very likely) to 5 (extreme rarities, maybe only recorded once or twice).
The photos that follow show an example of each warbler, where possible (1) male and (2) taken on Abaco. Where I had no Abaco images – especially with the transients – I have used other mainstream birding resources and Wiki. All due credits at the foot of the post.
This is a slightly revised version of a guide I posted a couple of years ago. Afterwards, I compressed the guide into a pdf which, in theory at least, is downloadable. You could even send it to your phone and add it to your home screen, so that you will never be without a basic guide to the warblers around you. But it’s not as enthralling as Pokemon Go!, I do quite understand…
THE CARIBBEAN ENDEMIC BIRD FESTIVAL (CEBF) is a Caribbean-wide festival that aims to heighten awareness for birds generally in the region. It is sponsored by the excellent BIRDS CARIBBEANorganisation – click the link to see what it is all about. Birds, obviously, but from the points of view both of promoting and of preserving the rich avian variety throughout the Caribbean.
As part of the CEBF celebrations this month, a birding group from New Providence came to Abaco to explore the birdlife. The expedition group included several well-known local bird experts, all the better for locating and identifying species and ensuring a comprehensive checklist could be compiled. Also in the group was photographer Linda Huber, whose photos you will undoubtedly have seen in Bahamas publications, including the recently published small guideBEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS(click to see my review and further details – highly recommended for any birder from novice up). Here are a few of Linda’s photos of some of the birds seen during the expedition, a gallery that shows the extraordinary diversity of species to found in a short time on Abaco.
Apologies to those who received a ‘false start’ draft of this post. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, I pressed ‘Save Draft’… or thought I had. Why is the ‘Publish’ button so close? Oh. Right. I see. It’s not its fault, it’s mine…
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena Abaco Parrot Amazona leucocephala bahamensis
2 or 3 introduced or domestic species (if that Muscovy Duck was at Gilpin Point it’s a pet!)
The debatable ‘Caribbean Coot’, about which it has been written** The American Coot is familiar to all, but controversy surrounds the Caribbean Coot with its all-white frontal shield. Some authorities say it is a separate species; others say it is a true subspecies of the American Coot; some claim it is simply a local variant. Bond (1947) treats them as distinct species. The image below shows the two species together. They coexist contentedly and are indifferent to the debate.
The group on a Logging Track in the Abaco National Park
The New Providence Birding Group Expedition to Abaco
CREDITS All photos Linda Huber (with many thanks for use permission) except the pair of coots (Tony Hepburn) and the singing Bahama Yellowthroat in the BNT Flyer (Bruce Hallett)
FEWER THAN 300 LEFT IN THE WORLD – AND ALL ON ANDROS
Having just posted about the endangered NASSAU GROUPER and its protection by the introduction of a 3-month closed season, it’s time to focus on a rare, beautiful and vulnerable bird, the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi). It is IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. ENDEMIC to the Bahamas, this bird lived only on Abaco and Andros. Not any more. Now you’ll only find them on Andros, the species having been lost to Abaco in very recent memory. The 1990s, in fact. And on Andros, this lovely bird is now struggling against the threat of extinction and is found only in limited areas in very small numbers. The most optimistic population estimate I have found puts the total as fewer than 300 individuals… the consensus puts the likely total in the region of 250.
In 2010, the Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis was separated by the AMERICAN ORNOTHOLOGISTS’ UNION into 4 species, one being the Bahama Oriole. As the BNT wryly put it, “New species are always a source of excitement… but in this case the intrigue is overshadowed by a sense of alarm and urgency”. For by then this new species ‘in its own right’ was limited to certain parts of Andros, in small and diminishing numbers. It had already vanished from some areas – especially in North Andros – were it had formerly been abundant. The best estimates suggested 250 individual birds.
WHEN & WHY DID THEY 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”. I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a photo of one taken on Abaco, although to be fair the option of snapping everything with wings several times using a digital camera with a large chip didn’t exist then. In the next para a number of crucial factors in the more recent decline of the Andros population are given; but as far as I can determine, some at least did not apply in the 1990s, or certainly not to the same extent. Maybe it was a combination of a degree of habitat loss and the gradual decline of a small population that could not breed prolifically enough to sustain the future population **.
THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS
Lethal Yellowing Diseaseof the coconut palm, prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas on Andros (e.g. Staniard Creek), the palm has been all but wiped out.
The arrival and spread of the Shiny CowbirdMolothrus bonariensis, abrood parasitethat lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species such as the yellow warbler, the black-whiskered vireo… and the oriole. The cowbird reached Andros in the mid-1990s. The first Abaco report that I have found is from 1999 (so presumably, as the oriole was already gone from the island by then, they were not a factor). The cowbird is a summer resident on Abaco, though still relatively uncommon; and its range continues to expand northwards. Some might argue that the cowbird should be discouraged from spreading on Abaco right now for the sake of the indigenous warbler and vireo populations – before it is too late.
Habitat loss / island development (although Birdlife International notes “…the planting of coconut palms in residential areas has allowed the species to spread into human settlements”). Other factors put forward include forestry work, forest fires, diseases, rodents and feral cats – problems that affect many other birds such as the Abaco parrot.The photo below is a pleasure to include in this post. It was taken earlier this year on Andros by Christopher Johnson of Nassau. And here’s the thing. He is 13, and an avid birder. I’m sure he likes his X-Box time, but he certainly knows plenty about birds too. He’s quick off the mark with offering IDs – correct ones – for birds online, and when he saw this bird he knew the significance of it and managed to get some good shots too. This is my favourite, the oriole ‘vocalising’. See below for its song. Here is Christopher’s brief but enthusiastic field report: “Awesome trip to Andros this past weekend! Was amazed to see the Bahama Oriole and its nest — feeling great”.
Bahama Oriole taken during a BMMRO research trip on Andros
Paul Driver / Xeno Canto
A GLIMMER OF HOPE?
In the same way that urgent conservation measures were put in place to halt and then reverse the critical decline of the Abaco parrot population, similar projects are in place for the Bahama Oriole on Andros. One proposal is to establish a ‘captive breeding’ program leading to reintroduction and reinforcement of the wild population. According to the American Bird Conservancy, this could even include reintroduction on Abaco… So perhaps in a decade or two, this fine bird will once again become firmly established as one of the birds of Abaco.As I said in my Nassau Grouper post, a country’s attitude can to a degree be gauged by the pride with which it features its wildlife and natural resources in its stamps (I used North Korea for adverse comparison). In 2009 The Bahamas Postal Service even issued a ‘Rare Birds’ set featuring the Bahama Oriole.. I rest my case.
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WHO WAS THE EPONYMOUS MR NORTHROP?
The comprehensive answer is 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 (New York: 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).
“Rediscovering the Bahama Oriole” Erik Gauger, author of the excellent Notes from the Road and photographic contributor to the Birds of Abaco has a good tale of the pursuit of the apparent sighting of a Bahama Oriole on Abaco 2o years after its (supposed?) extirpation. You can read it HEREThe Auk Read more about this journal and the birding history of the BahamasHEREThere is a Care2Action ‘Save the Bahama Oriole Before It Is Too Late’ petition HERE. It seems to have stalled somewhat, so it would be good to generate some more signatories.** Mathematically inclined? Find out about the application of thestochastic processto the oriole’s situation. In a nutshell, this concerns the combined effect of several random adverse factors on sustainability, given that the oriole’s already very small population, very limited range and particular habitat requirements militate against breeding expansion, and therefore increase the likelihood of extinction. We can only hope this is not an inevitability…
Image, audio and research credits: American Bird Conservancy, Binkie van Es, BNT / Carlton Ward, Birdlife International, Christopher Johnson, Cornell Neotropical, Harold Brewer, MxMerce, birdtheme.org, Wiki, Xeno Canto / Paul Driver; Uni of Glasgow / Roger Herriott