The Northern Parula is one of 37 warbler species recorded for Abaco. The vast majority of these species are migratory, arriving in the Fall and leaving in the Spring to fly north to the breeding grounds. When I’m back at HQ from my computer-free break, I’ll be writing more about these little birds. Meanwhile, this post is a reminder that the influx will begin very soon. The Northern Parula, with the distinctive green patch on its back, is sure to be among them.
AMERICAN REDSTARTS ON ABACO: MALES IN FOCUS
Time to rectify an omission and to feature the striking orange and black male American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla. A while ago I posted about the equally distinctive yellow and black females HERE (the dissimilar colouring between the sexes of these little warblers is due to differing carotin levels in each). These unmistakeable winter residents are common on Abaco. They are an easy warbler for new birders look out for, being unlike any other small warblerish-looking bird. All the birds here were photographed on Abaco.
- The Latin name means moth-eating red-tail (‘start’ is an archaic word for tail)
- AMRE are among the most common New World warblers
- Occasionally they are found as far afield as Europe
- They are almost entirely insect-eaters, with occasional berries or seeds for variety
- Males are late developers, tending to skew the sex ratio: too many of them
- They are inclined to monogamy, but only to an extent. Two-or-more-timing goes on
- The most aggressive males get the pick of the habitats
- This all begins to sound like human behaviour (not strictly a fact, so it doesn’t count)
- Their fanned tails are for display, and maybe to surprise insects into breaking cover
- Redstarts suffer badly from predators, especially in the breeding season
- They are popular with coffee farmers for keeping insect numbers down
“THE DIET OF WORMS”: WORM-EATING WARBLERS ON ABACO
The little worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) is unique. Not because of its worm-eating propensities or its warbler-ishness (or the combination), but because it is the only species currently classified in the genus Helmitheros. The Swainson’s warbler was once in the same genus, but the WEWA saw off the competition.
SO WHAT IS A HELMITHEROS THEN, IF IT’S SO SPECIAL?
The word is Greek, meaning something like ‘grub-hunter’. And the Latin-derived vermivorum reflects the diet of a VERMIVORE – an eater of worms. But this description is, like a worm, somewhat elastic. It includes caterpillars, larvae, grubs, spiders and similar creatures. But whereas there are other warbler vermivores there is only one Helmitheros.
SOME WORM-EATING FACTS TO DIGEST
- WEWAs are sexually monomorphic. Males & females are indistinguishable for most of the year
- They can only be reliably sexed at the height of the breeding season
- Don’t ask. OK, a magnifying glass may be needed
- These birds are believed to eat earthworms only rarely. Moth larvae are their best treat
- They are ground-nesting birds, one of only 5 new-world warblers to do this
- Like some shore-birds, adults may feign injury to lure predators away from the nest
- They are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds** & feral cats
- Fires, deforestation, habitat change & diminished food resources are also threats to the species
- As are pesticides, which destroy the primary food source and are in any case potentially toxic
**cowbirds are luckily very uncommon on Abaco but are spreading their range at an alarming rate and pose a potential threat to many Bahamas bird species
DISTRIBUTION & CONSERVATION STATUS
The breeding range of the worm-eating warbler covers much of the eastern half of the US as far south as the Gulf Coast. It winters in the West Indies, Central America and southeastern Mexico. There is no overlap between summer and winter habitat. Because of the vulnerability of this ground-nesting species to a number of threats (see FACTS above), they are now IUCN listed as ‘Special Concern’ in New Jersey.
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
In this case the song and call, as transposed into human, really does sound like the bird itself. The song is a rapid squeaky trill; and the calls for once do actually sound like ‘chip’ or ‘tseet’. See what you think.
Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
THE (ORIGINAL) DIET OF WORMS – A DIGRESSION
Studied European history? Had a laugh over The Diet of Worms in 1521? This was an assembly (or ‘diet’) of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in the City of Worms. There had already been several. This one resulted in an edict concerning Martin Luther and protestant reformation, with the consequence that… [sorry, nearly nodded of there. Just as I did at this stage at school I expect]
It is always instructive to look at Audubon’s fine depictions from the early c19. Here is his WEWA. Notice that it is here called Sylvia vermivora. So he had the worm-eating part, but the first part of the name rather strangely relates to a group of old-world warblers. No, I’ve no idea why.
Credits: Photos – Tom Sheley (1); Charmaine Albury (2, 4, 6); Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (3, 7); Tom Friedel (5). Research material – CWFNJ / Michael J Davenport; Tom Fegely / The Morning Call; assorted magpie pickings & open source
BLACKPOLL WARBLERS ON ABACO: UNCOMMON TRANSIENTS
The Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata is a “TR3” on Abaco. Which is to say, the species is classified as an uncommon transient in its migration, and as such it is rarely seen on Abaco. Apart from anything else the window of opportunity of seeing one in the Fall or in Spring is limited by the length of time they pause on Abaco to catch their breath. Also, they are small birds that do not draw attention to themselves. They hang around in the coppice foliage rather than parading out in the open; and their call is a tiny ‘tsip‘ sound (as with so many other small birds…).
Fortunately, on Abaco’s warbler magnet Man-o-War Cay, alert birder Charmaine Albury was out and about with her camera to record a sighting. I should say that during the writing of THE BIRDS OF ABACO, I never managed to obtain a single image – however poor – of a Blackpoll Warbler actually taken on Abaco (a qualification for inclusion) from any of the many sources I used. So sadly, this pretty warbler does not feature in the book.
The summer breeding area for blackpolls covers northern North America from Alaska through most of Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England. In the fall, they fly South to the Greater Antilles and the northeastern coasts of South America. The summer and winter areas are very distinct, as the distribution map shows:
Despite their diminutive size**, blackpoll warblers generally undertake their long-distance migration – often over open water – non-stop or with a single stopover. Their migration has been the subject of many scientific studies. One of the longest distance non-stop overwater flights ever recorded for a migratory songbird was made by a BLWA. Which all goes to explain why the species is so rarely seen along the migration route: unlike many migrating birds, they make few, if any, stops along the way.
Of the many stats I have read through, I chose one to demonstrate the stamina of these little birds. In one study, an number were fitted with tiny geolocators. These revealed an average migration journey of around 1600 miles, with the non-stop trip being completed in 3 days by at least one bird.
“Transoceanic migration by a 12 g songbird”
The maps above show blackpoll warbler migrations recorded for 5 birds in a study that indicates that, while a direct overwater route is preferred in the fall migration, the return journey in spring is more leisurely, and overland (it looks as though only 3 birds made it home).
The study quoted is by William V. DeLuca, , , , , , , .
** I came across the statement that “The blackpoll warbler… attains the weight of a ball point pen”. I find this an unhelpful comparison. I know what is meant, but I find it hard to think of a ball of feathers in terms of a writing instrument. Maybe it’s just me? [Astute Reader: I’m afraid so…]
YOU MENTIONED THAT THEY GO ‘TSIP’. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN SOUND LIKE?
Credits: header image of a summer bird, Cephas; all other photos by Charmaine Albury, taken on Man-o-War Cay Abaco; birdsong Xeno-Canto / wikimedia commons
MELLOW YELLOW: HOODED WARBLERS ON ABACO
The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) breeds in eastern North America in summer, and winters in Central America and the West Indies. On Abaco they are classed as WR3, ‘uncommon winter residents’. The range map below reveals one strange aspect of their habitat. It looks as though they choose not to live in Florida either in summer or winter. I’m sure they must be found there as transients; and there must presumably be some small breeding or wintering populations in Florida. Or both. But it’s hard to understand why Florida does not seem to suit them.
ABACO WARBLER HOTSPOT
On Abaco, I have only ever had reports of Hooded Warblers from Man-o-War Cay, which seems to be a warbler hotspot every season. There are 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco. FIVE WARBLER SPECIES are year-round residents. Of the migratory 32, at least two dozen seem to favour Man-o-War for their winter break in the sun. MoW resident Charmaine Albury, who took the main photos in this post, has already counted 14 different warbler species before the end of September. She has found up to 5 species in a tree at the same time.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
There are periodic upheavals in Birdland which, following research, lead to an official reclassification of a particular bird species or genus. In 2011, many warblers that were cheerfully going about their business under the classification Dendroica found themselves merged into the older ‘priority’ genus Setophaga (Greek for ‘moth eating’). The Hooded Warbler, formerly Wilsonia, has found itself similarly merged into Setophaga – a kick in the teeth for the naturalist ALEXANDER WILSON, for whom the bird was named (along with many others – his plover being a well-known example on Abaco).
WHY ‘CITRINA”? (FUN FACT!)
The word relates to lemons – citrus fruits – and their colour, and is undoubtedly apt for the hooded warbler. However the semi-precious calcite gem, ‘Citrine’ (same word origin) is not lemon coloured but (disappointingly) brownish.
This little warbler has a plain olive / greeny-brown back, and a bright yellow face and underparts. There are white feathers on the outsides of their under-tail (I’m sure there’s a more technical word for this…) – see header image. Only males have the black hoods and bibs; females have an olive-green cap.
Hoodies forage for insects in low vegetation and dense undergrowth, or catch them by HAWKING from a branch or twig. Sadly, they are one of the species that are targeted by brown-headed cowbirds, the cruel exponents of brood parasitism. These birds are rarely found transients on Abaco at present, but they are a robust species and there is evidence that their range is increasing. In some areas there are controlled (euphemism for… er… dispensed with). I’d favour that approach for Abaco, should they show signs of inflicting their evil ways on the resident breeding population of small birds.
Hooded Warbler in Audubon’s Birds of America
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
I am often at sea with the attempts to turn birdsong into to memorable words of phrases. Yes, a Bobwhite sounds a bit like a quizzical ‘Bob… White?‘. But I rarely ‘get’ the “I’d-like-a-Kalik-with-my-Conch” and suchlike. For what it is worth, I learn that for the Hooded Warbler “the song is a series of musical notes which sound like: wheeta wheeta whee-tee-oh, for which a common mnemonic is “The red, the red T-shirt” or “Come to the woods or you won’t see me“. See what I mean? Anyway, we can all agree that “the call of these birds is a loud chip.” As with so many species!
So here’s what to listen out for (recording: FLMNH). Suggestions for a suitable phrase welcome!
If you come across a bird that looks like a hooded warbler, but is motionless and makes no sound unless you squeeze it, you may have found the subspecies Audubonus stuffii, which is found mainly in the Amazon and E. Bay regions.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIVERSION
I haven’t had time to musically divert for a while. My title refers, of course, to the ‘psychedelic pop’ song by Donovan, released in the US in 1966 and the UK in early 1967. The theory is that the song relates to the supposed (but mythical) hallucinogenic high to be had from smoking dried banana skins. There are an explicit interpretation for the ‘electical banana’ which we need not go into in a family blog. There was a rumour, now discredited, that Paul McCartney supplied the “quite rightly” in the chorus. Anyway, to chime in with the mood of the time, one of the first ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam was called Mellow Yellow.
Credits: Charmaine Albury for the photos and her warbling work on Man-o-War Cay; Luis Alvarez-Lugo (Wikipici); random open source material; FLMNH (birdsong); my iTunes
ABACO’S WINTER WARBLERS: ARRIVING ANY MOMENT!
To celebrate the forthcoming influx of the ‘confusing fall warblers’ of the winter season, here is a reminder of my guide to the 37 warbler species found on Abaco, of which only 5 are permanent residents. The remainder are either winter residents of variable scarcity; or transients somewhat randomly passing through. As ace birdman Woody Bracey has rightly commented on the guide, “One note of caution to new birders. Most transients are seen in Abaco in the fall. They are not in bright breeding plumage at this time. That’s why they’re called ‘confusing fall warblers’. So don’t expect all the birds you see to look exactly like the photos. Females and juveniles are generally duller and may look very different from Spring males”.
Last season, Charmaine Albury saw 22 of the possible warbler species on Man-o-War Cay, a remarkably good proportion for a small island (I’d be interested if anyone can top that in one location). Add prolific shorebirds including piping plovers to the mix and it looks as though MoW is fast becoming a reliable hotspot for birding. Charmaine’s species were: Yellow-throated, Tennessee, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, Pine, Bahama, Ovenbird, Worm Eating, Northern Waterthrush, Black and White, Cape May, Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Prairie, Hooded, Prothonotary, Orange-crowned, Blackburnian, BlackPoll.
AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO ABACO’S 37 WARBLER SPECIES
Until a couple of years ago, I lazily believed all of the warblers were (a) near identical and (b) yellow, differing only in their extent of yellowness. Not so. I know better now. The seasonal migration prompted me to devise a general guide to all the various warblers, so that the great diversity can be appreciated. 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.
Abaco has 37 warbler species recorded for the main island and 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).
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
WINTER RESIDENTS (COMMON)
OVENBIRD Seiurus aurocapilla WR 1
WORM-EATING WARBLER Helmitheros vermivorum WR 2
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH Parkesia noveboracensis WR 1
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER Mniotilta varia WR 2
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT Geothlypis trichas WR 1
AMERICAN REDSTART Setophaga ruticilla WR 1
CAPE MAY WARBLER Setophaga tigrina WR 1
NORTHERN PARULA Setophaga americana WR 1
BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER Setophaga caerulescens WR 2
PALM WARBLER Setophaga palmarum WR 1
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER Setophaga coronata WR 2
YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER Setophaga dominica WR 1
PRAIRIE WARBLER Setophaga discolor WR 1
WINTER RESIDENTS (UNCOMMON TO RARE)
LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH Parkesia motacilla WR 3
BLUE-WINGED WARBLER Vermivora cyanoptera WR 3
SWAINSON’S WARBLER Limnothlypis swainsonii WR 4
NASHVILLE WARBLER Oreothlypis ruficapilla WR 4
HOODED WARBLER Setophaga citrina WR 3
KIRTLAND’S WARBLER Setophaga kirtlandii WR 4
MAGNOLIA WARBLER Setophaga magnolia WR 3
BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER Setophaga virens WR 3
PROTHONOTARY WARBLER Protonotaria citrea TR 3
TENNESSEE WARBLER Oreothlypis peregrina TR 4
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER Oreothlypis celata TR 4
CONNECTICUT WARBLER Oporonis agilis TR 4
KENTUCKY WARBLER Geothlypis formosa TR 4
BAY-BREASTED WARBLER Setophaga castanea TR 4
BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER Setophaga fusca TR 4
CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER Setophaga pensylvanica TR 4
BLACKPOLL WARBLER Setophaga striata TR 3
WILSON’S WARBLER Cardellina pusilla TR 4
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT Icteria virens TR 4
PHOTO CREDITS: GUIDE (1 – 37) Bruce Hallett (Header, 3, 9, 12, 14, 17, 21, 22); Tom Reed (1, 4); Tom Sheley (2, 7, 10); Alex Hughes (5); Gerlinde Taurer (6, 11, 18); Becky Marvil (8, 20a); Woody Bracey (13, 24); Peter Mantle (15); RH (16); William H. Majoros (wiki)(19); talainsphotographyblog (20b, 26, 34); Charmaine Albury (23); Craig Nash (25); Ann Capling (27); Jerry Oldenettel wiki (28); Dominic Sherony wiki (29); 10000birds (30); Steve Maslowski wiki (31); MDF wiki (32, 33); Avibirds (35); Michael Woodruff wiki (36); Emily Willoughby wiki (37)
CHECKLIST & CODES based 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