The Pine Warbler Setophaga pinus is one of 5 year-round resident warblers on Abaco. The other 33 warbler species (including the recently recordedCANADA WARBLER) are migratory and at this time of year they will be in their summer breeding grounds. The co-resident warblers are the 2 endemics – Bahama warbler and Bahama Yellowthroat – plus the olive-capped warbler and the yellow warbler. You can see all 5HERE. All are to be envied. First, they are all bright, attractive birds. Secondly, they live in the Bahamas all year round, without needing to undertake a long exhausting flight twice a year, unlike the rest of their warbler compadres. And indeed, unlike many of the human inhabitants of Abaco.
As the name strongly hints, the pine warbler is primarily a bird of the pine forests, of which Abaco has an abundance. The tall, straight trees were a vital local source of timber (cf SAWMILL SINK). As a historical note, felled pines were also exported to the UK to be made into the strong pit-props needed for coal-mines.
Q. WHAT IS THE NORMAL RANGE OF THIS BIRD? A. THIS IS!
Pine warblers have a broad diet and forage methodically. Pine cones are a fertile source for food, and those robust, stabby, slightly down-curved beaks are ideal for getting the seeds out of the cones. Equally, these warblers use their beaks to prise out insects from the rough pine trunks and branches.
WHAT OF THEIR NIDIFICATION?
The pine forest is obviously the preferred nesting habitat for these birds. On Abaco there are vast acres of forest, but I’m sure the warblers also nest in the smaller groups of pines found (for example) in or near some of the settlements; or around the edges of former sugar cane fields and the like. One nesting habit is slightly unusual – pine warblers tend to build their nests near the end of branches rather than near the trunk. I have no idea why – the trunk end of a branch looks far more secure **.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ‘FUN FACTS’?
One source states that “The song of this bird is a musical trill. Their calls are slurred chips“. I think we’ve all been there at some time, possibly when lunching at Pete’s Pub.
Don Jones / Xeno-Canto
The longest pine in the world is the Benzodiazepine (14 letters)
** Milton Harris helpfully points out: “One theory on Pine Warbler nest location is that they are safer from predators by building at the end of a small branch. Some other birds do the same.”
Photo Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 3, 6); Alex Hughes (2); Tom Reed (4); Tom Sheley (5); Dick Daniels (7); Wiki (range map); Nat Geo (species drawings)
Every day of the year, or so it seems, at least one worthy creature has been awarded an ‘Appreciation Day’, a special day when a particular species has its profile raised and awareness spread around. It certainly seems to be the case with birds; I’m going to assume that it applies to all the other classes of animal – mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, each with their own worthy candidates for recognition. Except for no-see-ums, obviously. And fire ants, I hope. You’d think standing on a nest while taking photos just once in a lifetime would be a lesson. I’ve done it twice… Anyway, yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day 2018.
PLOVERS ON ABACO
Until recently Abaco had 33 recorded shorebird species but since the first-ever sightings of a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER in 2016, the number has risen to 34. Of these, a mere 6 are plovers:
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola WR 1
American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica TR 4
Wilson’s Plover Ochthodromus wilsonia PR B 2
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus WR 2
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus WR 3
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus WR 2
The codes tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5)
The best-known of the 6 Abaco plover species is the Wilson’s Plover, because it is the only permanent resident. The American Golden Plover is a rare transient, but we luckily have a photo of one (below) taken on Abaco. All the others are winter residents and easy to middling hard to find.
The Piping Plover is the most interesting species, with a mere 8000 left in the world. There is a vigorous conservation program to protect them and their habitat, both in their breeding grounds in the North and their southern overwintering grounds. Their summer breeding range is in Canada and the Great Lakes, north-central US, and the eastern seaboard. In winter they migrate south, many to the Bahamas – and Abaco is one of their preferred homes. We count as many as we can between August and February, report the banded ones, and find out their origins and histories
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER Pluvialis squatarola WR 1
Non-breeding plumage (as you would see normally it on Abaco, without the black belly)
Breeding plumage – and the reason for the name
AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER Pluvialis dominica TR 4
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER Charadrius semipalmatus WR 2
KILLDEER Charadrius vociferus WR 2
PIPING PLOVER Charadrius melodus WR 3
WILSON’S PLOVER Ochthodromus wilsonia PR B 2
This permanent resident plover is a year-round presence on the Delphi Club beach, where in summer they nest and raise their tiny fluffball chicks. They are especially significant on Abaco as the only breeding plover species – it’s the only chance we get to see plover nests and chicks… (see header image and below).
This is a challenging topic that I have been (shamefully) putting off. My task is a full-scale facing-up to an extremely rare, very small, and rather adorable adversary, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). There are probably more dedicated KIWA experts out there than there are birds of this scarce species. Estimates of bird numbers vary wildly, but if I take a consensus of the mean of an approximate average of the median as ± 5000 individuals, I’d probably be in the ballpark named “Current Thinking“.
THAT SOUNDS QUITE RARE, RIGHT?
Around 50 years ago, the species was all but extinct – perhaps fewer than 500 birds in total, a barely sustainable population. In 1975, Brudenell-Bruce estimated 1000. I’ll mention some of the reasons later. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan was instituted with the twin objectives of protecting the vulnerable breeding habitat – basically large areas of jack pine; and of monitoring and management aimed at encouraging an increase in numbers. Around that time, they became IUCN listed as vulnerable, but more recently, population growth has resulted in a recategorisation to the more optimistic near-threatened category.
AND THEY LIVE WHERE, EXACTLY?
In spring and summer almost the entire KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. There are signs that the range has expanded slightly in Michigan and more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio as the numbers have increased.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)
In the fall and winter the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.
A Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio
SO THEY ARE REALLY FOUND ON ABACO?
Yes – but they are notoriously hard to find. To give you an idea, I checked the eBird stats for Abaco sightings over the last 10 years: 9 successful trips reported, with 18 birds seen in all**. There were 3 groups comprising 6, 4, and 2 birds; and the rest were single birds. Abaco ornithologist and guide Woody Bracey is the go-to man for finding these little birds. Two years ago we were in his party that saw 4 in the space of a couple of hours. I was supposedly the photographer, but unaccountably found myself in completely the wrong place for the first 3. The 4th flew off a branch and straight at my head as I raised the camera… I felt the wind as it passed on its way deep into the coppice. I’m not proud of my effort; the fuzzy lemon item beyond the twigs and leaves is a KIWA (you’ll have to take my word for it…).
HAVE ANY BEEN SEEN ON ABACO THIS YEAR?
Last week, Woody took another party to the main hotspot in the Abaco National Park, a protected area at the southern end of the island. The park is huge, covering more than 20,000 acres of (mostly) pine forest. These birds are tiny, about 14 cms long and weighing 14 gms. Despite which they found a female and then a male KIWA in their favoured habitat beyond the pine forest. Those are the only 2 I’ve heard about this winter season.
Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas, 12 April 2018
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
Females are paler and more streaked
Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
Frequent tail pumping and bobbing (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond)
WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?
Some would say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found they produce ‘a loud tchip, song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). You be the judge!
Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?
Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species.
Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species.
There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable.
In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least.
Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again.
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)
Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician and amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler; and also in a couple of snake species.
The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps
**I realise eBird is not the be-all and end-all for sighting reports. It hasn’t been in existence for as long as 10 years, and not everyone uses it anyway. And awareness of the Bahamas as the winter home for KIWAs is a surprisingly recent development (as with piping plovers). As awareness increases, so do birder interest, habitat knowledge, and consequently reports of sightings.
Another example of the ‘twigs in the way’ problem for photographers
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Tom Sheley (5); Unattributable (me, in fact) 6; Woody Bracey (7, 9); Tony Hepburn (8); Lionel Levene (10); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.
I realise that the title of this post has its unattractive aspects. This is a family blog, and we try to keep references to ‘butts’ and so forth to a minimum. But like it or not, the Palm Warbler is one of two species** that have acquired the nickname ‘butterbutt’. They weren’t even consulted; birders just went ahead with it without checking how they’d feel about it.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this minor linguistic outrage came about. It’s there for all to see, right under the bird’s… erm… stern. That flash of vivid yellow, together with the pale speckled front, a rusty brown cap and striking eye-stripe, is diagnostic for this Abaco winter resident species.
The ‘heads-up’ is because right now they are among you. In the gardens, on the grass, on the tracks, in the coppice, in the casuarinas. And they have an endearing habit of bobbing their… tails, let’s say, as they forage. Palm Warblers are inclined to be fairly inquisitive and tame, so if you are careful, they may stay around to let you watch them.
The PW above must, I think, have been photographed at the very end of the winter season, just before it headed north from Abaco. The strong colours suggest this guy is getting into the breeding mood. Compare him with the picture below, taken by the same photographer during the same period, of a slightly less garish stage of breeding plumage. But it’s on its way…
As often as not, a palm warbler will be fairly easy to spot. Not always, though. You may have to work a bit to locate one half-hidden in foliage. Its posterior may not even be visible.
Luckily, PWs are common enough in winter to give you a chance to shoot them in the open, as it were. Perched on a branch works just fine to capture the essential characteristics.
Keep an eye out for these pretty little warblers. They are enjoyable to watch, and relatively easy to get a photo of at close quarters. Just make sure you get the butterbutt into the picture.
** The other butterbutt bird is the descriptively-named YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, though its buttery bits are on the topside so there’s no risk of confusion (I photographed this one from a pool-side lounger, a distance shot at the top of a tree with a small camera – but it captures the essentials!)
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1)*; Gerlinde Taurer (2, 7); Nina Henry (3, 4, 5); Peter Mantle (6); Keith Salvesen (8, 9)
* Possibly Tom Sheley – all I have got on the filename is ‘Fruit Farm’ so I can’t be sure of the photographer’s ID – apologies
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 email@example.com
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
In 2014 I wrote about finding myself – with others on a birding expedition – in the midst of dozens of nighthawks as they swooped and dived (dove?) while hawking for flies. “The birds were quite unperturbed by our presence, and from time to time would zoom past within inches of our heads, making a swooshing noise as they did so”. You can find the post at FAST FOOD ON THE WING.
Nighthawks catch flying insects on the wing, and mostly forage at dawn and dusk – or (more romantically) at night in a full moon.
Besides aerial feeding displays, nighthawks may also be seen on the ground, where they nest. I say ‘nest’, but actually they hardy bother to make an actual nest, but just lay their eggs on bare ground. And, more riskily, this may well be out in the open rather than concealed. The eggs – usually 2 – hatch after 3 weeks or so, and after another 3 weeks the chicks fledge.
Fortunately their colouring enables them to blend in with the landscape – a good example of bird camouflage in natural surroundings.
The photos above are from Sandy Walker (header), Stephen Connett – to whom special thanks for use permission for his great nighthawk and egg images – and the last one by bird legend and author of the locus classicus The Birds of the Bahamas (without which no trip to the Bahamas is complete), Bruce Hallett.
Antillean Nighthawk Chordeiles gundlachii, is a species of nightjar. These birds have local names such as ‘killa-ka-dick’, ‘pi-di-mi-dix’, ‘pity-pat-pit’, or variations on the theme, presumably onomatopoeic. Pikadik-(dik) will do for me. See what you reckon from these recordings (excuse the thick-billed vireo – I think – in the background):
Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto
I have read in several sources that no one knows where these migratory birds spend winter; or else that winter season data is ‘scarce’. So no sensible range maps exist, for example. If you read this, and have antillean nighthawks (as opposed to common nighthawks) all round you in winter, please tell someone – you may hold the key to an ornithological mystery…
As so often, the Bahamas Philatelic Bureau leads the way with natural history stamps. The 15c Antillean Nighthawk above featured in a 2001 bird set. You can see dozens more very excellent Bahamas bird, butterfly, fish, flower and other wildlife stamps HERE.
Find out about Juan Gundlach, Cuban Natural Historian (he of the Antillean Nighthawk and the Bahama Mockingbird for example) HERE
Credits: Sandy Walker (1); Stephen Connett (2, 3, 4, 5); Bruce Hallett (6); Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto (audio files); Audubon (7); Sibley / Audubon (8)
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon we are closely related toDarwin’s finches(so, we are “common”, huh?).Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…
How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.
6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS
Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
Both sexes build the nest together
Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)