I wrote this post about Royal Terns Thalasseus maximus* quite some time ago, in the early days of Delphi (and indeed Rolling Harbour™ ® ). Bonefishing was a completely new experience and my skills were embryonic. As they continued to be for the duration. By then the amazing birdlife of Abaco had reeled me in and BIRDS OF ABACO was in the planning stage.
If there’s a magnificent golden bandwagon drawn by 8 horses passing by, why not just hop on? I’ve skipped the info about the range and nesting arrangements of these birds. Here are a few, in all their regal glory, posing in the sunshine on a dead tree way out on the Abaco Marls. The header image was taken on Cherokee Long Dock, long pre-Dorian and its magnificent replacement.
** Now to be renamed Thalasseus carolus rex magnificans. Not worldwide, obviously.
PS No terns were injured in trying to get the yellow crown to fit one of them
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 ABACOand 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.
In March, I posted about a bald eagle spotted by a Delphi fisherman out on the Marls near Big Pine Point. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a very rare sighting of this magnificent raptor. The bird is classified for Abaco as a V4, which is to say an extremely unusual vagrant (but not quite a ‘one-off’ V5).
You can read all the details HERE, but to summarise, the only previous Abaco sightings were 3 years running over 2000 – 2002, at the end of each year. The annual visits over such a short time-span suggest that this may have been the same bird each time. So this March’s report is possibly the second bald eagle ever seen on Abaco… and on any view, the fourth.
Now comes the news of another bald eagle sighting in the last couple of days on the Marls, this time by Danny Sawyer while out fishing. The bird was sighted approx 1.5 miles west of the airport / 2 miles south of Bustic Point. Danny’s FB post has unsurprisingly attracted quite a number of comments – and even some more sighting reports. Here’s the list so far…
BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)
2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
2001 December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
2004 Autumn – south of Lynard Cay (after hurricane) – Cheryl Noice
2014 Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
2017 March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
2017 Early May – Power plant area – LC
2017 May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
2017 May – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’
2017 September – Cross Harbour – Carol Rivard Roberts (with photo)
Italics indicate a report in comments on Danny’s FB page; Blue = added reports
So far, however, there has been no photograph of an ‘Abaco’ bald eagle. It’s fair to say that the official verification of a sighting generally requires a photograph – more especially where there is a risk of confusion with a native bird (eg some warblers). But there really is no mistaking a bald eagle. For obvious reasons it is surely one of the most recognisable raptors of all. And the only Abaco candidates for confusion would be a turkey vulture or an osprey. A quick look shows very little scope for confusion with either:
Bald eagle in flight. Note: dark brown, head & tail bright white, huge yellow beak and feet
Turkey vulture & Osprey for comparison. No comparison, in fact
ABACO BALD EAGLE CHALLENGE
How about being the first person to capture an Abaco bald eagle on film digital media? The kudos! The traditional Rolling Harbour bottle of Kalik is already on ice in the expectation of a usable image, together with the accurate location… Failing that, all reports welcome anyway.
Credits: all brilliant eagle photos by very kind permission of Brian Lockwood, taken in his backyard in Poquoson, Va. except eagle in flight, Carol Robertson (wiki); TUVU (Bruce Hallett); Osprey (Craig Nash); Amusing Cartoon, Birdorable
BALD EAGLE ON THE ABACO MARLS: EXTREMELY RARE SIGHTING
On March 22nd a friend of ours, James, was bonefishing far out on the Abaco Marls when he was astounded to see the unmistakable appearance of a bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus flying above him. His boat partner and guide Joe also saw the bird. James is a very experienced birder, and has seen plenty of bald eagles over the years. He was not to know, at the time, what an exceptionally rare sighting this is. The location was in the area of Big Pine Point.
If you are out on the Marls and see this bird, please can you add a comment to this post or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, giving the date, time, approximate location… and if possible attaching a photograph. Any reports will add important data to the archive for the birds of Abaco, and of the Bahamas generally.
PREVIOUS ABACO SIGHTINGS
I checked Tony White’s compendious checklist compiled for BIRDS OF ABACO that contains all species recorded for Abaco since 1950. He categorised the Bald Eagle as a ‘V4’, indicating a vagrant species with a handful of irregular sightings – ever. I then contacted Bahamas bird guru Woody Bracey to check the details of earlier sightings. The answer is:
“Bald Eagles were sighted on Abaco three years running 2000-2002. In each instance it was over the Christmas Holiday period (12-20-1-10). I saw one in 2002 from the overlook near Treasure Cay looking out over the marls. Betsy (Woody’s wife) saw one over the chicken farm fields in 2001 but I missed it”.
Some people might mistake the Caribbean subspecies of Osprey (an all-white head) for a Bald Eagle but as Woody points out, “their flight and shape are very different”.
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR? A large raptor with a dark body and wings, and a distinctive white head and tail
HOW CAN I TELL IT FROM AN OSPREY? By comparison with this Abaco Osprey
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Image / audio credits: open source / David R Tribble / Craig Nash (Osprey)
For some time now, there has been understandable concern about the increasing evidence of mangrove die-back in the Abaco Marls and elsewhere in Abaco waters. Scientific investigations are ongoing and you will find some of the survey results so far on the excellent Abaco Scientist interactive mapHERE. You’ll find other relevant and authoritative mangrove material if you check out theBLOGmenu of the website.
The ‘200 sq. miles’ in my map is debatable, depending what one includes. Other estimates are of 300 or even 400 sq. miles. Whichever, the Marls cover a massive area of mangroves, islets, flats, channels and wonderfully diverse wildlife. A large proportion of the many species – fish, birds, turtles etc – depend on the complex ecology of the mangroves for food, shelter and breeding. Depletion of the mangroves from whatever cause will have a direct effect on the creatures of the Marls.
Ryann Rossi, a PhD student with North Carolina State University, has been researching the worrying phenomenon of mangrove die-back in the Marls this summer. She has written an interesting and informative account (conveniently in the RH ‘Facts about…’ style) that was published in Abaco Scientist last week. The blue links will take you to the ABSCI site for further information on each topic. I’m grateful to Ryann and ABSCI for permission to use the material.
Five Things to Know About the Mangrove Die-back in The Marls (at this point, anyway)
1. This die-back appears to be the result of multiple stressors acting together. Think of it in the sense of our own body – when our immune system is down, we are often more susceptible to getting sick. The same thing is likely happening to the mangroves.
2. It appears as though a fungal disease may be taking advantage of already stressed mangroves and causing die-back. We did preliminary surveys across Abaco and found fungal lesionsnearly everywhere. However, the fungus was present in different densities in different areas. In the die-back area nearly all the leaves remaining on trees have lesions. We think that this pathogen capitalized on the mangroves being weakened by other stressors such as hurricanes, which cause extensive leaf drop, change in the movement of water, change in sedimentation and erosion.
3. We are still working on identifying the pathogen associated with the lesions we’ve found. We are confident that it is a fungus and are currently growing fungal cultures in the lab to examine defining morphological characteristics in addition to using DNA sequencing to identify the culprit.
4. We have documented the presence of the Robust Bush Cricket (Tafalisca eleuthera) in the die-back areas as well as other areas with high densities of lesions. These crickets are documented to consume Red and White mangrove leaves. As such, we were concerned about their potential role in die-back. We set out a caging experiment to exclude the crickets from certain dwarf Red mangrove trees to see just how much grazing they may be doing in the die-back area. This experiment is ongoing.
5. The take home: there is likely more than one causal agent of the die-back in The Marls. Many factors govern mangrove productivity and functioning: nutrient availability, salinity, sedimentation rate, herbivory, and disease are just a few of the factors that contribute to overall mangrove function making it very difficult to pin point which factors may be driving the die-off. On the bright side, we are confident that we have a lead on the causes and we are working hard in the field and laboratory to fully understand what is going on in The Marls.
This summer Stephanie Archer and I continued research efforts focused on determining the cause of the mangrove die-off in The Marls (work funded by the National Science Foundation). Our efforts were predominantly focused on the fungal pathogen we found associated with the die-off site. We created a small citizen science and outreach project to document the presence or absence of the pathogen across Abaco. This project consisted of short surveys and leaf collections. In total, 92 areas were surveyed including locations from Abaco and San Salvador. We also took this outreach project to the annual Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF) teacher training conference. There we disseminated survey packets to teachers from islands throughout The Bahamas who will help us collect more data on the presence (or absence) of this pathogen on other Islands.
Three men on a skiff – Abaco Marls
On Abaco, we constructed an experiment to investigate the role of grazing and the presence of fungal lesions on Red mangroves. We simulated grazing using crafting scissors to cut small sections on 600 leaves in 4 different mangrove creeks. We observed the leaves for 28 days to determine if cutting leaves predisposed leaves to fungal infection. At these sites we also trapped for insects to gain an idea of what kind of grazers may be chewing on the leaves. We also did a series of disease incidence surveys that will be routinely monitored for disease progress over the next 2 years. These surveys will allow us to systematically track the progress of the disease. In addition to our field work, we spent many hours in the laboratory isolating fungi from leaves to grow in culture. These cultures were brought back to North Carolina State University and will be sequenced in order to help us identify the fungal pathogen responsible for making the lesions on the mangrove leaves.
The magnificent Osprey Pandion haliaetus is one of the world’s most successful raptors and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
On Abaco the Osprey is a permanent breeding resident, and while certainly not an ‘every day bird’, the chances of seeing one are reasonable. They are fairly often seen flying over the bay at Delphi, or out on the Marls. A pair recently nested at Sandy Point close to Nancy’s restaurant.
There are few more exhilarating sights in the world of birds than an osprey swooping from a great height into the sea, emerging with a large fish held characteristically ‘fore and aft’ in its talons, and flying into the distance with heavy wing-beats. This wonderful close-up by wildlife photographerPHIL LANOUEshows an osprey that has actually managed to grab dinner for two…
This bird looks as if it is poised to dive onto some hapless fish
10 PANDION POINTS TO PONDER
Ospreys are also known as sea hawks, fish hawks or fish eagles. They are almost exclusively fish-eating
A mature adult’s wingspan may reach 6 feet
They are the only members of their taxonomic family, genus and species
Ospreys & owls are the only raptors with reversible outer toes to grasp prey firmly
They can carry fish weighing more than 4 lbs
They dive into water feet first to grab its prey; their nostrils can close up to keep out water
Osprey-watch.orgis a global site for mapping osprey nest locations / logging nesting observations
A New Jersey group has designed the optimum artificial nest platform, now an accepted standard
Ospreys usually mate for life
Osprey populations in many areas have been affected by pesticides and by egg trophy-hunters
PUTTING THE ‘PREY’ INTO ‘OSPREY’
A utility post makes a perfect perch for a bonefish snack
CHECK OUT THE TALON…
The impressive wingspan of an Abaco osprey
An osprey far out on the Marls. I managed to get some distance shots of it despite having a fishing rod in my hand…
Osprey, by John James Audubon
The Osprey is a prolific symbol in national, cultural and sporting themes, and has been depicted on Bahamas stamps. And quite right too.
Wm Shakespeare Coriolanus
I think he [Coriolanus] will be to Rome As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it By sovereignty of nature…
Credits: Jim Todd (1, 3), Tom Sheley (2), Phil Lanoue (4), Gareth Rasberry / Wiki (5), Danny Sauvageau (6, 8), Woody Bracey (7), Craig Nash (9), RH (Marls pics) – thanks for all image use permissions
The Marls of Abaco are prime bonefishing grounds, a vast area of labyrinthine mangrove swamps, sandy islets, channels and shallow flats on the west side of the main island. The fish are wily and powerful, the fly hooks are barbless, and each one caught, retained, boated and swiftly released is a prize. There’s plenty of other wildlife to be seen. Heron and egrets, ospreys, belted kingfishers, wading birds and many other bird species make the Marls their home. In the water, there are snappers, jacks, barracuda, and sharks of various kinds and sizes. These latter range from small black tip, lemon and hammerhead sharks to more substantial contenders, with the occasional massive bull shark to add a frisson for those on a suddenly fragile-seeming skiff…
There are also rays. I have posted before about the SOUTHERN STINGRAYand theYELLOW STINGRAY. Out on the Marls I have mainly seen Southerns as they move serenely and unhurriedly through the warm shallow water. A couple of weeks ago, we were out with the rods when we had a completely new Ray experience. I’m not overly given to anthropomorphism and getting too emotional about encounters, but we all found this one quite moving – even our very experienced guide.
Gliding to our right side, a pair of stingrays slowed as they neared the skiff
The adult paused very close to us, allowing the little ray to catch up
Lifting a wing slightly the adult let the juvenile creep under, while keeping a beady eye on us
The large ray was missing the tip of its tail, presumably from some adverse encounter
The creatures examined us carefully for 2 or 3 minutes, before separating
Then they slowly drifted away across the sand…
According to our guide, this gently protective behaviour is not uncommon. They may well have been completely unrelated, the large ray tolerating the smaller one accompanying it through the waters and offering a kindly wing in the presence of danger or suspicious objects like us.
Photo Credits: Mrs RH (I was too entranced at the sharp end, with a bird’s eye view, to get a camera out)
Anglers are not the only creatures out fishing on the Marls. Herons and egrets of several sorts live in the massive area of mangrove swamp, shallow sea and sandy spits that make up the prime bonefishing grounds of Abaco. Yesterday, we were lucky enough to be joined by an osprey. Hooking my ‘Delphi Daddy’ safely into a rod ring, I grabbed a camera and took some shots. These aren’t that great because (a) I normally only take a small cheap camera out fishing (b) the bird was some away off and (c ) my image qualities are variable… These aren’t really worth clicking to enlarge, but I’m pleased to have got some ‘action shots’ of this wonderful bird.
ROSEATE SPOONBILLS (Platalea ajaja) are rare visitors to the Northern Bahamas. For Abaco they are classified with the undignified term ‘vagrant’, meaning essentially (a) that you will be very lucky indeed to encounter one, so therefore (b) it is highly unlikely to be worth making a special trip based on the likelihood of seeing one. Try Florida instead.
We saw one once when bonefishing far out on the Marls. It was unmistakeable, but well beyond the effective range of the puny ‘don’t-really-mind-if-it-takes-a-dive’ camera I had with me. The spoonbills in this post were photographed elsewhere in the Bahamas or in two cases, Florida. The wonderful one below of a spoonbill ‘flipping’ a fish was taken there by Ohio bird expert and photographer Tom Sheley.
SPOONBILLS LOOK VERY DRAMATIC IN FLIGHT
Unlike herons, spoonbills keep their necks outstretched in flight. They are most likely to be found in marshes, salt-water lagoons and on mudflats. They are gregarious and mix in happily with herons and egrets, though there is some competition for food. Spoonbills nest in shrubs or trees, often mangroves.
Spoonbills tend to get pinker as they get older. As with American Flamingos, the pink colouring derives from their diet, which contains carotenoid pigments. The colouring ranges from pale pink to loud pinks and reds, depending on age and location.
Spoonbills feed in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging their bill from side to side while steadily walking through the water, often in groups. The spoon-shaped bill allows it to sift easily through mud for the edible contents – crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, newts and small fish ignored by larger waders. This excellent 1 minute Audubon video shows exactly how they feed, with some white ibises for company.
NEW ADDITION (props to Roselyn Pierce)
And a short non-roseate spoonbill feeding video from the Netherlands June 2014, showing the technique
Photo Credits: Header, Wiki; 1,3,4,5 Woody Bracey; 2 Tom Sheley, 6 Bruce Hallett (RH: nil)
Contrary to appearances from the header image and the one below, Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens) do not yet use cellphones to communicate. Nevertheless, the trick of having a good ear-scratch while standing in water on one leg is a good posey accomplishment.
All these photos were taken while we were bonefishing from a skiff far out on the Marls in the mangroves. Ishi poled us closer so that boat-partner Tom – a real photographer – could get some shots. Meanwhile, I did my best with my little camera that I take out on the boat – the one that won’t matter too much when it slips from my hand or pocket into the drink. These things happen: I lost a good pair of Costas that a gust of wind unkindly whisked away when I took them off to change a fly.
This egret comes in two very different ‘colourways’. The classic version has a slatey-blue body and a reddish head and plumes. The white morph is pure white. The only similarities between the two are the two-tone bills with the black tip; and the blue-grey legs and feet.
True Reddish Egret, as you might expect it to look
The white morph
I’m not certain of the proportions of each type on Abaco, but I have certainly seen twice as many white ones as true reddish ones. There seem to be quite a few around – there are plenty of fish for them and dozens of square miles of human-free space in which to stalk them. However as with many (most?) of the bird species, there is a declining population for all the usual man-related reasons, and these fine birds have now had to be put on the IUCN ‘near-threatened’ list.
The bird kept an eye on us as we drifted closer, but was unperturbed. It continued to poke around in the mud, and occasionally it moved delicately but quite quickly to a different patch.
We watched the bird for about 10 minutes. Then we returned to what we were really there for – Tom to catch bones with practised skill, and me to wave the rod incompetently around until some passing fish took pity on me and grabbed my fly, knowing it would soon be released once all the fuss was over…
I posted briefly about ROYAL TERNS (Thalasseus maximus) on the Abaco Marls earlier this year HERE. Yesterday’s news from the Lindo Wing (anti-Monarchists look away now) surely justifies a few more photos of these fine and noble seabirds. Everyone else is using the event to sell newspapers / magazines / products (‘Royal’ Baby Lotion – so gentle, so soft – fit for a future King’s delicate…’ etc etc). If there’s a cheerful bandwagon passing, why not just hop on? I’ll skip the info about the range and nesting arrangements of these birds and show some them in all their glory, posing in the sunshine on a dead tree way out in the Abaco Marls.
PS No terns were hurt trying to get the yellow crown to fit one of them. In fact, they rather enjoyed it…
Willets (Tringa semipalmata) are large sandpipers, familiar as shore birds, foragers on sand bars and mudflats, or out in the mangrove swamps. Some might describe them as quite solid and plain to look at. Until they take flight, when their gorgeous wing patterns are revealed.
Willets are ground-nesting birds, often breeding in colonies. They use their stout bills to forage on mudflats or in shallow water for insects, crustaceans, marine worms and occasionally plant-life. They tend to keep their distance, and in the past I have only managed this sort of unimpressive snapshot, not least because I normally only take a small basic camera out on the water in case it – or I – should fall in.
However, we recently fished from the prow of a skiff parked on a sandy spit on the Abaco Marls, as bonefish came past on the tide. It was a productive hour for my boat-partner, though frankly less so for his boat-partner… As we fished, and to our surprise, a willet landed of the point of the spit to feed, and gradually worked its way towards us seemingly unconcerned by the skiff, by us or by the fish action. It started off about 30 feet away, and at close quarters it was far less drab and notably more elegant than expected.
It foraged slowly towards us, keeping a beady inky-black eye on us
At one time it came within a very few feet of us, then decided it had come close enough. We watched it stepping delicately away on its semi-palmated feet. The shot isn’t clear enough to show the slight webbing between the toes. However, you can clearly see the barred tail.
In the c19 and early c20 there was a sharp population decline of these fine birds due to hunting. I’m not sure if it was for feathers, food or fun. All three, probably. Their population has recovered and their IUCN status is currently ‘Least Concern’, but like so many similar species they remain at risk, especially through continued habitat loss.
The Willet call and song are very distinctive, and are reproduced here via the great bird-noise resource Xeno-Canto
All images RH except header (Wikimedia) & in-flight image (Greg Page @ Cornell Lab for Ornithology)
(PS if you think the traditional RH puntastic title is laboured, be grateful I didn’t proceed with the initial idea of working ‘Bruce Willets’ into this post. It didn’t work, on any level…)
We passed these fine Royal Terns during the boat ride ride out to the bonefishing grounds of the Abaco Marls. The single dead tree lay alone in a vast expanse of open water near the mangrove swamps, providing a perfect perch and vantage point for the birds. Their positioning on the tree suggested a distinct “pecking order”, which turned out to be literally true. The terns were unembarrassed by our presence, but at one stage they all took off and circled lazily round once before settling back on the tree. Those that tried to take a higher perch were aggressively treated by the original occupant. In the end, things settled down much as before. However, one disappointed claimant to promotion was dispossessed of the main trunk entirely. He ended up, uncomfortable and huffy, on a small stump facing the opposite way to the rest of the birds – perhaps from wounded dignity, or to make his feelings known through body language….
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