YELLOW WARBLER (female) Setophaga petechia
Photos taken on Abaco by Gerlinde Taurer, a major contributor to “Birds of Abaco”
YELLOW WARBLER (female) Setophaga petechia
Photos taken on Abaco by Gerlinde Taurer, a major contributor to “Birds of Abaco”
Since the hurricane struck nearly 3 months ago, order is slowly being imposed on the chaos. Debris is being removed in vast quantities, building repairs are in progress, shops and some businesses are starting to open – and even (only last week) a bank.
Specific bird news from Abaco post-Dorian is sporadic, with people having plenty of other concerns at the moment and for some time yet. The wellbeing of the parrots has been checked during a scientific survey last month. There is infrequent but positive news of the shorebirds, especially of the piping plovers that are counted each winter season. There have been some reports of the warblers (of which there are an astonishing 38 species recorded for the Island and its cays).
As yet, I have seen no recent mentions at all in SocMed about the hummingbirds – the endemic Bahama Woodstar (#1 F; #2 M); and the Cuban Emerald (#3 F; #4 M). Are they around? Is anyone seeing them darting about like jinking bullets or feeding on flowers on the hover? I’m not on-island, so I’d be very pleased to know: are the hummers still humming?
Photos: Tara Lavallee (1); Bruce Hallett (2); Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco (3), (4)
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
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…
It is axiomatic that people tend towards birding – if at all – in later life. Not the scientists, of course: they must commit themselves to the study of natural history at an early age, collecting qualifications by degrees (as it were), through Masters, Field Work, their first posts, PhDs and beyond.
I didn’t take a very active interest in birds until the first time I investigated Central Park NYC and saw a blue jay. Followed by a cardinal… a red-tailed hawk… chickadees… American robins (or ‘Mercan rubbins‘, as I was informed). These were alien species for a European, and they awoke my interest.
On later trips to NYC I have always spent a day in CP, wandering from end to end, spending time in the hotspots like The Ramble, the JO Reservoir, and the pretty Loch trail to the north, and wondering at the huge and expensive birding hardware toted by those around me (while knowing I didn’t want it). And then a visit to Prospect Park Brooklyn too, if I have the time. More recently came Abaco, and a whole new world of wildlife that has captivated me…
This reminiscence by an oldster brings me to Chris Johnson, a young Bahamian man who will be familiar to many readers of this blog. I first encountered him when I was researching the Bahama Oriole and discovered that he, in his early teens, had found one on a trip to Andros and photographed it. It was a pleasure to be able to include the image in my article.
Since then, Chris’s birding and photographic skills have rapidly developed and his reputation is growing too. This summer he was one of 12 students chosen to attend Cornell University Lab of Ornithology for their Young Birder’s Event in Ithaca NY, a great tribute to his accomplishments and a wonderful opportunity too. It is worth noting that Chris is the first Bahamian to be invited to attend this event.
Chris is also beginning to make his own presentations, as he did recently to the Bird Club of New Providence. It won’t be long before he is leading bird groups – in fact, he is probably doing this already.
Another impressive feature of Chris’s birding is his photography. I have watched the progression online with interest. The crispness of his images, the composition and the right ‘take’ to make the best of each bird is wonderful, and he has a great eye for a neat shot – for example in the header image I have chosen, with its awareness of the effective use of dark and light.
I should say that I have never met Chris, although we have occasionally been in touch. I am featuring him because I believe he and other young people of his age – Chris is 17 – are the future for birding, for wildlife, for species protection and for habitat conservation. The older generation will move on and the ‘middles’ may begin to take an interest in the birds around them. But Chris’s generation are the ones who can make a difference in the future. As things stand right now, they may have to. It’s a huge responsibility for them, but it’s one our generation is in the process of transferring to them.
I hope you have enjoyed the small gallery of Chris’s photographs displayed here. If you are interested in the birds of the Bahamas, keep an eye on him and others like him. They need all the encouragement we can give them.
All photos: Chris Johnson, with thanks for use permission. Please do not ‘borrow’ any of these images without asking first. That would only be fair.
The scaly-naped pigeon (Patagioenas squamosa), also known as the red-necked pigeon, is found throughout most of the Caribbean. Except for the Bahama islands – if indeed they are considered Caribbean, which strictly and geographically they are not – even though for some purposes such as passport requirements they may be.
Until the last year or so, this pigeon species had not been recorded in the Bahamas. Then sightings began to be recorded on Inagua and TCI – not so very far north of their normal range – and mostly within the last 4 weeks. Since bird records began, they had never been reported further north in the Bahamas, until a few days ago on Abaco.
The scaly-naped pigeon is so called because the plumage on the back of its maroon-coloured neck looks somewhat… erm… scaly (hence the Latin squamosa in the binomial name): close-up below. Notice also the bright, ringed eyes.
These pigeons mainly feed on fruits and seeds, and usually hang out in small groups or mix in with other dove and pigeon species. They can be wary and flighty, like many of the family Columbidae. Here’s a short (30 secs) video of one preening.
IS THERE PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF OF AN ABACO ONE?
This is slightly tricky, I’m afraid. Right now, it is pigeon shooting season on Abaco. Several birds shot in South Abaco turned out not to be white-crowned pigeons or a WCP / dove cross, and Woody Bracey was asked to ID photos taken of the deceased birds. The neck close-up above is from one of them… The full photos are a bit sad for a generally cheerful blog so I’ve not used them. At times like these, I have to remind myself that historically, natural historians obtained their specimens of our feathered friends by shooting them. Here are 3 portraits of John James Audubon as a young, middle-aged, and elderly man with his specimen-collecting equipment of choice.
WHY HAVE THESE PIGEONS TURNED UP ON ABACO NOW?
The likeliest cause of the sightings this year on Inagua / TCI, and the current influx on South Abaco, is the recent extreme weather, especially Hurricanes Irma and Jose. It seems improbable that a mere whim to fly several hundred miles north from Hispaniola or Puerto Rico would account for the presence of these birds. One of the SNPs shot on Abaco has been retained as a specimen and preserved in a freezer. Woody is contemplating risking an expedition into the target area – a dangerous mission during the shooting season. He has invited any takers to join him, advising people to wear orange clothing to distinguish them from pigeons…
Scaly-naped pigeons are featured on stamps from Barbados (shown) and Barbuda. Like the Bahamas, the Caribbean countries have an excellent record for featuring their wildlife on stamps. You can read more about Bahamas wildlife stamps HERE
Credits: Woody Bracey for the heads-up for the Abaco sightings; Jean Lopez (header still from a Youtube video); Dick Daniels / Carolinabirds.org; Cornell Lab / Neotropical Birds (range map); neck close-up from Abaco via Woody Bracey; ‘postdlf’ wiki; Felipe at Aves Puerto Rico; open source & wiki for all else
I’m quite a fan of bird action sequences. Top quality ones, I mean, not the rubbishy ones that I have tried to accomplish with either (a) a camera I understand but is not sophisticated enough for such use; or (b) a more serious camera that I never got the hang of, was secretly a bit ‘overawed by’ (= scared of), and which met a watery end when I was photographing sanderlings on the beach while standing in the sea…
Among the photographers who kindly let me use their images from time to time are a couple who are especially adept with sequential shots. One is Danny Sauvageau, a Floridian who combines great bird photography with a tireless capacity for tracking down banded birds at migration time. Here is his Great Egret catching breakfast.
Credits: All fantastic photos by Danny Sauvageau, with thanks as ever for use permission; cartoon, the very excellent Birdorable
Within a couple of weeks of the decision to use Tom Sheley’s wonderful Bahama Woodstar as the ‘cover bird’ for “THE BIRDS OF ABACO”, another Bahamas bird book was announced. The same colourful and enchanting endemic bird had also commended itself to the authors for their cover. I wrote to Hays Cummins at once to check whether he would mind another Bahamas bird book encroaching on the territory, especially one using the same cover bird into the bargain. He very charmingly said it would be fine and declared his support for our (luckily) rather different project.
It’s been a while since I added to the section BOOKS, but I thought I’d mention this one for two reasons. First, it is described as ‘A Photo Essay of Common Birds’, which in practical terms means that most if not all of the species featured will be common to the northern Bahamas and therefore familiar on Abaco. Secondly, I very much like the format of the book: there are clear photos; and all necessary general information including notes on individual characteristics and similar species is presented in an easily assimilable way. Were the Delphi book not designed to be the 2 kg bird-showcasing non-field guide doorstop it is, the San Salvador book is one I should liked to have produced! DESCRIPTION “This enchanting book addresses a need for an important audience, the budding naturalist, which many of our students are. Without fanfare and pomposity, the book presents beautiful and inspiring photos and lively discussion, but does not indulge in the details of the accomplished birder. The authors present information about the natural history of birds on San Salvador, Bahamas, not through the eyes of a professional or advanced birder, but through the eyes and photographic lenses of inquiring educators and naturalists. This book will help capture and catalyze the interests of aspiring birders and will be an asset for introductions to the birds of the Bahamas and neighboring Caribbean. Over 400 images, representing 54 species, are all original and include a variety of behaviors and highlight recognition characteristics. The authors’ aesthetic photography, printed on high quality paper, will help reinforce identification and enjoyment. Birds are organized by habitat (Coastal, Interior, and Lakes & Ponds), not by taxonomic affinities. A taxonomic index is included.”
I’m pleased to see the decision to depart from the usual taxonomic ordering of species, though I recognise that for a serious field guide that tradition is pretty much sacrosanct. We played around with categories and sub-categories a bit (sea birds, water birds, land birds; big, medium, small; cute, splendid, dull, plug-ugly) before settling on Peter Mantle’s excellent idea of straight alphabetical organisation. For a mainly photographic book this gives an element of surprise to turning the pages, and avoids e.g. 37 pages of warblers species, mostly yellow, all huddled together. I notice that there is a single Amazon review, a good one, that says “This guide to one of the lesser known islands in the Bahamas is a nice one. While not exhaustive, it covers most of the species likely to be seen on San Salvador. The style is unorthodox for a field guide (elements of humor, gives brief description of species, but no real key field marks), the descriptions, locations on the island, and behaviors make this guide useful for those visiting San Salvador. The photographs are excellent.” For anyone interested in a useful reference guide to the common birds of Abaco, and in possession of a Kindle, this book is easily worth getting electronically. ‘To be brutally honest’ (™ Sandy Walker), I’d like in due course to produce a small book very like this for Abaco, but it would obviously be naked plagiarism to do that, so of course I won’t. Still, all the same…
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is the least common of three cuckoo species found on Abaco. All are permanent residents. It is similar to the more frequently seen Mangrove Cuckoo (post to follow). Both are avid consumers of insects in general and caterpillars in particular. The YBC is shy and you are quite unlikely to see one out in the open, though you may hear its distinctive ‘knocking’ call. The third species classified with the ‘cuculidae’ is the Smooth-billed Ani. Here’s what to listen out for:
Mike Nelson / Xeno-Canto
The YBC has, obviously, a yellow bill. It also has yellow eye-rings and pure white underparts. Photographer Tom Sheley, a major contributor t0 “The Birds of Abaco”, is a very patient man. He managed to capture these two beautiful birds by knowing the right place to be at the right time… and waiting. The results for this little-seen species are spectacular.
For those whose memories are stirred by the reference to “I hear you knocking” (Rick from Nassau – you!), I include archive material of Dave Edmunds hamming it up. Get a load of the Clothes! The Dancing! The Moves of the guy in the top left corner / centre back, at once rhythmic yet disconcertingly bizarre.
The Least Grebe Tachybaptus dominicus is an adorable little dabchick that can be very entertaining to watch. These small birds are able to stay underwater for long enough to ensure they always bob up further away from you than you expect. They can easily stay below the surface for 20 seconds, and may dive again only a few seconds after surfacing (their taxonomic name comes from a Greek compound meaning ‘fast diving’). While underwater, the grebe forages for tiny fish, crustaceans, frogs and aquatic insects. In the breeding season the striped chicks are sometimes carried on a parent’s back.
For the sake of completeness, there is one other dabchick species found on Abaco, the closely related Pied-billed Grebe. Here’s how to tell them apart: the Least has a bright golden eye, while the Pied-billed is slightly the larger of the two species, and has a dark eye and a black beak-ring in the breeding season.