Red, green, blue, and a touch of snowy white. The colours of Christmas, sort of. We are past all that for another year, but for those on Abaco the unique, ground-nesting Abaco parrots Amazona leucocephala flash those same colours throughout the year.
These birds have cousins on Inagua that nest conventionally; and there are now a handful of NASSAU PARROTSon New Providence, of uncertain origin (click link for more on these).
The parrots are only found in South Abaco, between Marsh Harbour and the National Park where they live and breed in limestone holes in the forest floor.
You are most likely to hear these birds before you see them, as they make their way daily north in the morning and back again in the evening.
Despite the racket they make, finding the parrots in the National Park is a bit ‘needle-in-haystack’. Instead, try the Gilpin Point point area, and coppice areas to the north. They pass back and forth over Delphi, pausing to squabble noisily, almost daily. I have made several recordings of them – here’s one example.
Far and away the best location is Bahama Palm Shores, where the mix of dense coppice with their favourite gumbo limbo trees and the open gardens is much to their liking. And frankly, it’s a great place for birding anyway, even if you blank for the parrots.
Just think: a dozen years ago, these fine birds were sliding towards extinction, with an unsustainable population of fewer than 900. Conservation efforts and in particular attention to habitat protection and predator control have resulted in population increases year-on-year, and the total now stands at around 5000 adults.
I’ve posted quite a lot about these parrots over the years, so if you are already familiar with them, I hoped you felt free to skip the text, and simply to admire these wonderful creatures.
Credits: Gerlinde Taurer, Craig Nash, Tom Sheley, Caroline Stahala, Keith Salvesen, Peter Mantle, Nina Henry, Erik Gauger; audio recording Keith Salvesen
Where did they come from, and when did they arrive on New Providence? And how? The conventional wisdom is that the Cuban Amazon or rose-throated parrots (Amazona leucocephala) exist in the Bahamas only on South Abaco (from Marsh Harbour down to the National Park) and Inagua. The species is arguably (but not as yet officially) divisible into two subspecies. On Inagua, the parrots behave as you’d expect, including in their breeding and tree-nesting habits. Conversely, the parrots of Abaco nest underground in limestone holes and crevices in the National Park at the southern end of the island. This very distinctive habit makes them vulnerable to predators of course. On the other hand, there is good protection from the forest fires that pass rapidly and harmlessly through the scrub above them, yet which would make tree-nesting extremely hazardous. It would be interesting to know if the parrots of Abaco have always done this; or whether they were originally tree nesters who adapted their behaviour to meet changed conditions in their habitat.
WHEN DID THE PARROTS ARRIVE IN NASSAU?
The BAHAMA PARROTS OF NASSAU LOCATOR group was set up on Facebook in early 2012 by Shelley Cant-Woodside. Lynn Gape of the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) was also involved from that early stage. The stated purpose of the group was “to help locate the increasing reports of parrot sightings on NP in general and Nassau in particular”. This suggests an increased awareness of an existing intrusion of the colourful and noisy Cuban parrots, a species hard to mistake or ignore. At the other end of the time-scale for their arrival on NP, when omniscient and much-missed ornithologist Tony White published his comprehensive checklist for each Bahama island in his Birder’s Guide to the Bahama Islands (inc. TCI) in 1998, no record existed of a sighting of a Bahamas parrot on NP. Abaco and Inagua, yes. But nowhere else. So that gives less than a 14-year window for a parrot influx.
SO HOW DID THEY GET TO NP?
There are realistically two possibilities. Either two or more captive parrots on NP (including a male and a female!) escaped or were released on NP; or were brought to NP and freed. Alternatively, says another theory, a flock of parrots in the Abaco National Park were caught up in a hurricane, and involuntarily relocated to the nearest land in the confusion. It could of course be both (Helpful Reader: “…or neither?”). Shelley tells me: “I know thatARDASTRA GARDENS(Nassau Zoo) positively identified Bahama Parrots on New Providence as early as 2004, which is when I worked there. We were told at the time that some folks had purposely released them. I doubt that it is related to hurricanes”.
This theory is by far the most likely one, and is supported by anecdotal evidence. Even so, it is not entirely straightforward. I don’t know what protection was afforded the parrots in the Bahamas in the early 2000s, but certainly there were captive birds; and indeed there was and is a market for this species of Amazona further afield – Cuba for example, and (to my huge surprise) the UK, where a single bird may be had for £380 ($500). But even assuming the existence of a few males and females, they would have needed to breed. And there are few, if any, contemporary reports of parrot nests in trees; or of chicks or juveniles. If these bright, noisy birds were new to Nassau around 2004, they must surely have attracted some attention if they were breeding and spreading from then on.
I have taken a look at several Bahamas hurricanes and tropical storms between 2004 (the Ardastra ID) and 2012 (Locator page founded). Tracking and intensity information rules out most of them. It’s fair to say that the paths of the storms are almost invariably from the south / east veering west / northwards. You might think that a parrot flock could not be carried by hurricane 50 miles in the opposite direction, from the south of Abaco to New Providence. But perhaps disorientation and self-preservation play their parts – a psittacine instinct to fly away from the danger, in the opposite direction from its path, towards where the weather is calmer.
Hurricane Irene tracking path
WHAT’S THE ANSWER, THEN?
To check the rival theories, I asked well-known scientist and parrot expert Caroline Stahala for her views. This authoritative opinion leads to the conclusion that the Parrots of Nassau result from escape, or release from captivity, perhaps supplemented by later importation.
“I know people like the ‘hurricane’ theory but there isn’t much support for it, especially since we did get reports through-the-grapevine that someone had released these birds. They did show up after a serious hurricane season Frances/Jeanne etc  but thats probably because their housing in Nassau was damaged or the person who had them couldn’t take care of them properly. During hurricanes, parrots don’t fly away, they hunker down and ride out the storm. Amazon parrots absolutely do not like flying over large bodies of water, their wings are designed to be super manoeuverable in forests, not for distance flights, so the chance that they would fly over water during a hurricane is very very slim. Not to mention a whole group of them (6-12)”.
On the other hand, it’s not that simple. Lynn Gape (BNT) comments: “I heard the hurricane theory differently. I was told that someone thought that the parrots flew to Nassau with a flock of White Crowned Pigeons after one of the hurricanes. The thought being that although they do not like to fly over water, they were really in need of food and felt there would be strength in numbers for the flight”.
WHERE CAN I FIND THEM?
Almost all reported sightings have been in East Nassau. Occasional sightings have been reported outside that area but the overwhelming majority are within the RED oval on the map below, with the hotspot area within the ORANGE oval. I base this both on the Locator page and also the somewhat sporadic eBird reports.
SO THE NASSAU PARROTS MUST BE BREEDING, RIGHT?
Parrot sighting reports are increasing but that fact, as I have discovered on Abaco, does not necessarily suggest an increasing population. Increased citizen enthusiasm and awareness is also linked to increased bird reporting, as is the advent of simple reporting systems such as social media posts, eBird and so forth. However the impression I get from reading the Locator posts is that, while evidence of actual population growth is unclear, numbers may be being maintained despite an inevitable attrition rate. The Locator has sad images of 2 known casualties, causes of death unknown.
WHERE ARE THEY NESTING, THEN?
It seems that, unlike Abaco, there is no secluded forested area on NP with suitable limestone terrain to provide underground caves. Therefore the parrots must be finding other suitable cavities, the most obvious being in trees. As far as I can make out, there have been very few – if any – reports of juvenile parrots being seen. For that matter, there have been none of nesting behaviour either – a pair of parrots in a tree preparing a nest, taking turns on the eggs, foraging for food for the chicks, or squawking flying instructions at the fledglings**. So perhaps there is an unfrequented area of coppice on NP, some distance from the bustle of Nassau, where all this takes place in midsummer. By the time they put in an appearance in the town, they have already grown to young adulthood.
**COMMENTOn the question of evidence of nesting behaviour, Lynn Gape says: “I have seen four parrots in my garden, and they exhibited behaviour similar to what I have seen with adult and juvenile parrots on Inagua – calling for food, and adults feeding them. So possibly there may have been some successful breeding”.
This recent photo (below) by Ian Coerbell shows the sort of tree cavity that according to Caroline Stahala might be a possible nesting site. She says:
“I did document a nesting pair of Abaco parrots in Nassau. The nest was in a tree cavity. However, as long as the birds have been there, the numbers do not seem to have increased. For some reason they aren’t very successful on NP. Melissa Maura rehabbed a young Abaco parrot that was found malnourished & dehydrated in Nassau. She ended up releasing it but we don’t know what happened to it.”
Cat Binks has commented that she believes there is a nesting location in an overgrown lot adjacent within the ‘hotspot’ area. She sees them most evenings, sometimes as many as six. Cat also confirms that “enthusiasm and awareness has increased… I’m getting daily feedback about fly-overs [in the hotspot area]”.
A parrot and chick in a limestone cave nest on Abaco
HOW MANY OF THEM ARE THERE?
The BNT gave this estimate of numbers a few years ago:“There is a very small population (less than ten individuals) on the island of New Providence”. I suspect it is difficult to make a reliable estimate of numbers now. The birds are unbanded, and there is a considerable risk of double-counting when the sightings are of 2 or 3 at a time, in different locations over a very small area. I think it’s probable that the number has reached double figures, and that in any event it is not diminishing despite some casualties.
STOP PRESSOn 6 October 2016 New Providence was in the direct path of Hurricane Matthew. Despite the power of the storm, by the following day there was a report of a sighting in Nassau. Today, 9 October, comes a report of a group of 15 – as far as I am aware the highest number sighted together. Maybe they all came together for solidarity… In any event, the sighting confirms that, at least as far as the parrots are concerned, the hurricane has not caused any problems.
Caroline points out that there is a good chance of interbreeding between feral Amazon species in Nassau that ‘hang out’ with the so-called Abaco parrots:“That would basically make the Bahama parrot population a hybrid and not of much conservation use. Having said that, I still think its really neat that the birds are there and I hope everyone enjoys seeing them in a natural setting. Hopefully we can find out more about them in the next few years”.
Lynn comments: “With regards to the interbreeding with feral parrots that does not seem to be a problem at this time – we did at one time see them with a Yellow Nape Amazon but that bird has disappeared; and according to Caroline Stahala they will not breed with the Black-headed Parakeet. We thought that the birds did nest in a large tree right on Parliament Street. Caroline Stahala and Predensa Moore investigated but did not find conclusive proof. However the timing would correspond with the time when Melissa found and took care of the young parrot”.
WHAT ARE THE HAZARDS FOR THE PARROTS?
Numerous, as you’d imagine, especially in an urban setting, though the birds may have adapted their behaviour to an extent to avoid some of the obvious dangers. There is evidence that some birds are already adapting to urban life, as this recent photo shows. Two parrots have teamed up with a black-hooded parakeet (presumably escaped or released from captivity) to investigate a vehicle and maybe play with the windshield wipers…
STOP PRESS Parrot in a Gumelemi tree, Skyline Heights, Nassau. A great shot by Linda J Clews, with thanks. The parrots have sadly stopped coming to her property since the clearance of coppice to make way for the golf course of the Baha Mar development – an example of the effects of habitat loss on wildlife.
ARE THEY PROTECTED, OR CAN WE CAGE THEM OR SHOOT THEM?
Yes, and no, and definitely not. According to the Bahamas National Trust “Bahama Parrots are protected under the Wild Birds (Protection) Act. It is illegal to harm or capture or offer this bird for sale. The Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) list the Bahama Parrot in Appendix 1 meaning that it is a species which is near extinction or very endangered”.
If anyone would like to know what a flock of these wonderful but uninhibitedly raucous birds sounds like, this is a short recording I made at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco (an excellent hotspot for them incidentally).
Credits: Shelley Cant-Woodside and Caroline Stahala for information and advice; Locator page members for active or tacit use permissions; photos by Melissa Maura (1, 2, 5); Lynn Gape (3, 7); Sandy Cunningham (4); Neill Pritchard (6, 10); Ian Coerbell (8); Caroline Stahala (9); Tim Colclough (11); Linda Clews (12); Keith Salvesen (13)
Tony White, Keith Salvesen, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey
TONY WHITE: CHAMPION OF BAHAMAS BIRDS
Tony White passed away 2 days ago. The sad news has spread rapidly through the birding community and far beyond it. It is not my place to write a detailed appreciation of Tony’s life and achievements; others who have been his long-term friends, associates and birding companions are in a far better position to do so than I. However, I do have direct experience of Tony’s kindness, enthusiasm and pragmatism in connection with the compilation of The Delphi Club Book of the BIRDS OF ABACO.
Tony with Caroline Stahala Walker, erstwhile parrot supremo of Abaco
It took 16 months or so from the initial idea of the project to the finished 30-contributor book and a launch party at the Delphi Club in March 2014. During that time I had amazing support from the birding elite of the Bahamas. The proposed book might well have been treated as misconceived fantasy by amateur hicks from out of town. Instead, we received nothing but courtesy, kindness, cooperation, and a willingness that the project should succeed.
Tony with Bruce Hallett (author of Birds of the Bahamas and TCI)
Tony was one of the invaluable experts on whom I knew I could rely. His emails were invariably cordial, helpful and to the point. When I asked if he would undertake a complete revision of the checklist for Abaco that appears in his indispensable book for Bahamas birders (see link below), he agreed without hesitation. In due course, and in conjunction with Woody Bracey, a new checklist for all birds recorded for Abaco – however rare – from 1950 until the day of publication was completed.
Tony in the field (Lynne Gape, BNT)
When the book was launched Tony was there of course, his startlingly blue eyes bright with excitement. His friends Bruce Hallett and Woody Bracey, without whose help the book would never have been the avian showcase that it is, were also present. The contributions of all three were indispensable .
Tony after a Grand Bahama bird count (Erika Gates)
I have included some photos of Tony as we would all like to remember him, with thanks to Lynn Gape of the Bahamas National Trust and to Erika Gates, Grand Bahama.
Tony White, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey at “Birds of Abaco” launch; author aka RH (seated)
To read my original review of Tony’s magisterial book clickHERE
To see Tony and Woody’s complete Abaco bird checklist, up to date as at March 2014, clickCHECKLIST FV 06 table sun2Since then, 5 new species have been recorded on Abaco.
In past posts I have mentioned what an excellent birding place Gilpin Point has become. There’s the large pond; and right beside it, dunes, the other side of which is a fine secluded beach and the ocean. The place is a magnet for birds of all shapes and sizes, from brown pelicans down to the tiny endemic Bahama woodstars. There are water birds, wading birds, shorebirds and coppice birds. It has become a place where Abaco parrots regularly congregate. You can reach the Gilpin FB page HERE.
A while back, there was a rare visitor, a Flamingo that stayed a few months then disappeared again. It was in some ways a sad reminder of past flamingo glory days, when they were commonly found on Abaco. Now they are confined to Inagua apart from the occasional vagrant. For more on the the topic, with wonderful photos by Melissa Maura of the breeding season on Inagua, click HERE. Another rare vagrant – formerly quite plentiful on Abaco – was recently found at Gilpin by Keith Kemp, who skilfully managed to get photos of it from some distance away: a Roseate Spoonbill.
I have featured spoonbills before in a post IN THE PINK, but the photos were taken on New Providence by Woody Bracey. I had no Abaco spoonbill photos. To be fair, we did once see one while we were bonefishing far out on the Marls. It was on the edge of the mangroves a good distance away, and the pale pink tinge caught my eye. My photo with an iPhone 4 (the one with the risibly cr@p camera – remember?) was so utterly pathetic that I dumped it (the photo, I mean, but the phone soon followed). But we knew what we had seen, and that was enough.
STOP PRESS 1I should add that a friended visited the pond after the side-effects of Hurricane Joaquin had receded, and the spoonbill had gone. So the spoonbill alone would not make the journey worthwhile!
STOP PRESS 2A check of eBird reveals that a handful of spoonbills have been reported in Northern Bahamas this year, about 6 in all. Almost none before that. I have the impression that birding intensity in The Bahamas, coupled with the ease of uploading reports to eBird, will increasingly make a difference to the incidence of sightings of uncommon and rare species, cf the recentWHIMBRELSof Grand Bahama.
GILPIN POINT LOCATION
Gilpin Point is just south of Crossing Rocks. The brackish pond – sometimes an alarming reddish colour that I assume is algal – is just inland from the shoreline and provides a wonderful haven for birds. It’s a long mile from the highway. There is no vehicle nor even human traffic apart from occasional birders and walkers. Please note that the drive and the property are private. However Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who (as I have written elsewhere) bring only enthusiasm and take only photographs (though a picnic on the beach is worth considering. And maybe a swim…).
Helpful location maps
WHAT SPECIES MIGHT BE FOUND AT GILPIN?
A brief list includes regular visits from parrots. It’s the only place we have found a furtive little sora skulking in the reedy margins. It’s a reliable spot for herons and egrets of every kind, white-cheeked (Bahama) pintails by the score, black-necked stilts and lesser yellowlegs. Occasionally a northern pintail, ruddy duck or merganser. Turkey vultures. Limpkins. We’ve seen belted kingfishers, Bahama woodstars, cuban emeralds, american kestrels, Bahama swallows, doves, pigeons, western spindalis and many more coppice birds besides. One flamingo. One spoonbill. Pelicans have been seen on the rocks on the beach. Shorebirds include turnstones, sundry plovers & sandpipers, and oystercatchers. You may well see tropicbirds and frigate birds off-shore, and assorted gulls and terns. I can’t personally be more species-specific because I have never ‘shorebirded’ properly there, but I have noticed an impressive mix…
When we launched THE BIRDS OF ABACO at the Delphi Club, we were delighted that Pericles was able to come to the party. He took a few photos and I’m sure he won’t mind my including a small gallery to end with, featuring a couple of the Gilpin entries in his signed copy.
Bahamas birding nobility: Tony White with Caroline Stahala; Woody Bracey & Bruce Hallett
Credits: Keith Kemp for the great spoonbill photos; Perry for the Delphi photos
The compilation of The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACO involved making a few rules and sticking to them. For example, the avian images in the book – and there are a great many – had to be of birds actually photographed on Abaco or in Abaco waters. Gorgeous pictures from Grand Bahama or New Providence were ruthlessly excluded, however painful it was to do. Some wonderful spoonbill photos taken in Nassau stayed in the ‘Not Use’ folder. The temptation to slip in an non-Abaco whimbrel to fill a whimbrel-shaped space among the shorebirds had to be resisted – even though at the time the last recorded sighting of one on Abaco (no photo) was in 2000…
Another important restriction was the stipulation that we would only use birds that had been photographed in their natural surroundings, defined as being a place where a particular species might naturally be found. Coppice and shoreline, obviously, but this included utility wires, posts and docks etc for species that habitually use them to perch on or hunt from. However, the rule meant a complete embargo on feeder photos, however winsome a hummingbird might look as it sips sugar water. We extended the principle to include a ban on luring birds into camera-shot with seed or corn trails; and similar ruses beyond the simple whistles and pishes that anyone might use to tempt a bird out of deep cover.
Cuban Emerald coming in to land… and feeding
The Delphi club is the perfect location for an enviably varied number of species. Its remoteness down a one-mile drive from the Highway, with pine forest giving way to luxuriant coppice, ensures minimal disturbance for the birds including a number of rarer species.
The one-mile white sand curve of the beach sees many shorebirds and seabirds in all seasons. The gardens attract both the usual suspects and less common birds. The building, too, has its resident West Indian Woodpeckers in two nesting boxes under the eaves, thoughtfully provided to discourage the Club’s woodwork from exploratory drilling.
Mr and Mrs Black-faced Grassquit
There are a number of seed and sugar water feeders around the place, and bird baths too. It’s a long time since I featured a collection of ‘tame’ birds. This post shows a few of the species that have made Delphi their home.
Mr and Mrs Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Mr and Mrs Painted Bunting
Bananaquit: the curved beak makes it easy to use the hummer feeder (see above)
A Gray Catbird takes a drink… and a bath
Adaptive behaviour from a W I Woodpecker – that long tongue is perfect for the job
The turkey vulture takes priority over all smaller birds…
A red-legged thrush enjoys picking up the seed shrapnel off the ground…
As do rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings
Meanwhile, a yellow-crowned night heron takes a drink from the pool
Credits: all photos RH except aerial shot of Delphi, Peter Brown; the hummers, Peter Mantle; and the buntings / grosbeaks, PM and Caroline Stahala…
LIMESTONE CAVES ON ABACO: WELL WORTH LOOKING INTO…
I have written several posts in the last few months featuring Brian Kakuk’s amazing photos of the underwater caves of Abaco. These caves, mostly beneath Abaco’s pine forests, are fabulous treasures of rock and crystal. A recent post example can be seenHERE. I have also featured some of the famous Blues Holes of Abaco from time to time, for example HERE. So now it’s time to turn attention to ‘land caves’, the dry(ish) limestone holes and caverns that are dotted around Abaco, especially in the South, and bear witness to aeons of geological development through erosion.
The coppice and extensive pine forests are pitted with holes of widely varying sizes. I’m way out of my depth here, geology-wise (polite corrections invited), but this sort of landscape is I believe known asKARST. This term presumably includes Abaco’s ‘dry’ holes, the blue holes and the substantial network of underwater caverns. Small examples can readily be found in easily accessible places such as non-dense coppice. We were very surprised when we pushed our into the coppice bordering the Delphi Club guest drive and took a closer look at a hole. Although the weather was hot and dry at the time, you will see that the hole has some form of micro-climate, with damp walls and interior and wet-climate plants like small ferns and forms of what I take to be moss and algae.
ONE OF MANY LIMESTONE HOLES BESIDE THE DRIVES AT DELPHI
A HOLE NEAR HOLE-IN-THE -WALL – LARGER INSIDE THAN IT LOOKS
THE CAVE-DWELLERS OF ABACO: THEFABULOUSPARROTS
Among the best-known special residents of Abaco are the ground-nesting parrots, gorgeous birds that I have often featured in the past – see the parrot page HERE. Not so long ago, their numbers had reduced to an unsustainable population – fewer than 1000 – that faced extinction. The creation of the National Park covering the pine forests where they breed, coupled with a vigilant and intensive conservation program, have reversed the trend. There is now a sustainable breeding population again, exceeding 3000 birds.
The only other breeding Cuban parrot population in the Bahamas is found on Inagua, where they nest conventionally in trees. There is a very small non-breeding population on New Providence. Abaco’s cave-dwelling subspecies of the cuban parrot is unique. Here’s an insight into how they live, deep in the pine forest, during the summer breeding season, with many thanks to Caroline Stahala, the scientist who spent some 10 years researching and protecting the parrots.
PARROT NEST HOLES: VULNERABLE TO PREDATORS, PROTECTED FROM FOREST FIRES
PARROTS MAY NEST DEEP – OR SHALLOW.
THE BREEDING SEASON: NEST, EGGS, HATCHLINGS, FLEDGELINGS…
HOW BIG DO THE ‘DRY’ HOLES GET?
TBH my personal experience is somewhat limited. I believe there are large, sea-scoured caves along rocky parts of the south coast, but those are rather different from the eroded ground holes discussed here. As so often I rely on Mrs RH – far more intrepid than me – and her exploring skills. The cave shown below is right down at the far south of Abaco, at Hole-in-the-Wall, hidden in the coppice along the ‘Soldier Road’ from the T-junction (we are talking rough tracks here – very – not proper roads) towards the lighthouse.
The rock is far more colourful than you might expect
Credits: Caroline “The Parrot Lady” Stahala; Mrs RH for investigating the last cave and taking the camera with her; RH the rest; Woody Bracey for our great day of birding at Hole-in-the-Wall and his local knowledge of the area…
[Yay! A Christmas gift of a puntastic avian / festive double-meaning]
A small New World songbird of the cardinal subfamily
Flags and other colourful festive decorations
It’s hard to imagine a more Christmasy little bird than the Painted Bunting. Bright blue, red, green primary colours make for a spectacular small bird to grace any garden or feeder. The 2 birds above were featured in a detailed post on the species several months ago, with plenty of other great photos,HEREBut there are other bunting species and close relations on Abaco that haven’t yet had a look-in on these pages. A common factor is the little fat beak and a great liking for seeds…
Indigo Bunting male with 2 females going for the seeds, Bahama Palm Shores
The birds above are all buntings or part of the wider bunting family. The definition is somewhat flexible and includes piranga and tanager species (and in the past the Western Spindalis, formerly the Stripe-headed Tanager). All were photographed on Abaco, mostly at the Delphi Club or Bahama Palm Shores. The photos below are a flagrant cheat. You’ll never see one of these on Abaco. They were taken by me a couple of years back in Central Park, NYC, made magic with snow and freezing air. Have a very happy and colourful Christmas!
Credits: Erik Gauger, Tara Lavallee, Tom Sheley, Ann Capling, Caroline Stahala, Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey, RH
The latest version of the 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BAHAMAS PROPOSAL FOR THE EXPANSION OF THE PROTECTED AREA SYSTEM OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF THE BAHAMAS has been published. It is a joint proposal by the Bahamas Government, The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust. The breadth of the scheme is very ambitious, affecting all the principal Bahama Islands. To understand the objectives and scope of the project, you can see the whole 34-page project by clickingBAHAMAS PROPOSED PROTECTED AREAS 2014It is in pdf format, so you should be able to save it if you wish to.
Many people will be familiar with the proposals as they affect Abaco. However since the latest version appears to be a final draft, I thought it might be helpful to show the 4 proposed areas of protection and conservation in their present form. These are, in summary:
THE ABACO MARLS NATIONAL RESERVE A vast area of nearly 200,000 acres (300 square miles) of mangrove flats, sandbanks, creeks and wetland habitat
EAST ABACO CREEKS NATIONAL PARK13,000 acres (20 square miles) of wetland habitat that provides a vital wildlife nursery, and includes blue holes, creeks and a significant area for recreational activities (though Pete’s Pub at Little Harbour may be just outside the zone…)
CROSS HARBOUR PROTECTED AREA 14,000 acres (21 square miles) in South West Abaco, a crucial breeding area for a number of species,including bonefish
SOUTH ABACO BLUE HOLES CONSERVATION AREA A huge 34,000 acre (53 square miles) swathe of South Abaco to the west of the E D Highway, incorporating 4 inland blue holes and important cave systems, and 13 offshore blue holes. This is an area of mainly pine forest on land and low waters at sea, with an anticipated value for eco-tourism
Here are the BNT maps showing the extent of each area. Far more information will be found via the link to the report given above.
THE ABACO PROPOSALS
Credits: Parrot, (ex-)parrot protector Caroline Stahala; Maps, BNT; acres to sq m conversion, Gizmo!
It’s been a while since the parrots of Abaco got a look-in hereabouts. Time to put that right. At the end of this gallery I will add some links to posts about the unique ground-nesting parrots of Abaco. Newcomers to this blog (I thank you both) may be interested to know that intensive conservation measures have brought this subspecies of the Cuban Parrot back from the brink of extinction – fewer than 1000 – to a sustainable and expanding population of around 4000.
For an overview of these lovely birds, I’ve made a slideshow presentation of a small booklet I put together in conjunction with scientist Caroline Stahala, who devoted several years to the research and protection of the parrots. Contents: parrots, nests, eggs, cute chicks, info, Sandy Walker with a fledgling on his lap.
Here is the noise of a flock of parrots at Bahama Palm Shores, an excellent place to find them. It’s one of the less raucous recordings that I have made! We normally go to the main (north) turning, drive straight down to the end, cut the engine and listen. I’ve usually been lucky in that immediate area around 5.00 p.m., though others may have discovered other good times of day.
THE ABACO PARROT: BEAUTIFUL, NOISY AND UNIQUE [Video]
I’ve posted quite often about Abaco’s unique ground-nesting parrots. They have their own page atABACO PARROTS; and there’s a link in the right sidebar to a small illustrated booklet about them wot I writ in conjunction with Caroline Stahala. I have just found a very short bit of video footage that’s ideal for anyone who is extremely busy and /or has a short attention span. Spend a happy 10 seconds to (a) admire the bright colours and (b) listen to the raucous cries of a flock of Abaco parrots.
Credits: Header photo & video RH; 2-parrot pic Melissa Maura with thanks
‘Furtive’. ‘Secretive’. ‘Skulking’. These are harsh epithets to chuck at a small inoffensive bird that just goes about its daily routine in watery places. And look at it from the Sora’s point of view: ‘intrusive’; ‘prying’; invasive’; ‘nosy’… That’s you with your camera, disturbing its quiet life in the reeds and on the margins of marsh and lake. And for that matter your careful attempts to get close to the shy sora without startling it could also be described as furtive, secretive and skulking. See how it feels?
The Sora Porzana carolina is a species of rail, a winter resident on Abaco. The island also has the CLAPPER RAIL, Virginia Rail and the Black Rail. There are no recorded sightings of this last one, and certainly no photographs. But their distinctive call has been heard in several locations over the last few years – for example, by two people in different places last June when we were in full bird mode for “THE BIRDS OF ABACO”.
Although not uncommon, the sora is relatively hard to find; and if found, to photograph. As I wrote in the book, ‘these are most inconspicuous birds, so it is quite a coup if you manage to locate one. Their creamy beak and upturned tail may give their presence away as they work their way along the water’s edge, feeding intently’. Tom Sheley took the magnificent photo above of a sora peering out from cover – he’s a very patient man. Often, the best sight you’ll get is of the bird half-hidden in the reeds at a distance, as in my feeble effort above. Spot the Sora… I tracked the same bird, and later got a more open shot as the sora picked its way along the edge of a pond before disappearing again into the reeds. The bird was moving away from me. I was crouched on a small jetty, with a little blue heron nearby looking at me in puzzlement. Or sympathy. My best (ha!) shot below (beak and tail both visible? Check!) is followed by much the most usual view of a sora in my experience, the less photogenic end with the white… stern.
I can’t improve on good old Wiki in summarising the diet of this little rail: “Soras are omnivores, eating seeds, insects and snails. Animals that are commonly reported as sora food items include snails, crustaceans, spiders, and insects – mainly beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and dragonflies. Soras often eat plant seeds. Plants in the sora’s diet include duckweed, pondweeds, and grasses.” Wiki’s own image is shown next.
We were with our friend the ornithological scientist Caroline Stahala* when we – I should say she – saw my first sora at the pond at Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks. She grabbed my camera and plunged into the rather thick undergrowth at the water’s edge. Actually, she had to plunge into the water itself at one stage. Here are 2 shots that further demonstrate how hard it can be to photograph these wretched creatures. They don’t pose prettily on a branch in the sunshine like a Spindalis, for example. They forage about in places where low light and thick vegetation combine to make focus and clarity difficult to achieve. *’The Parrot Lady’ The remarkable calls of the sora can be heard in the very short clips below, from the invaluable Xeno-Canto archive. They make three distinct types of sound, one described as “a descending whinny”. Apparently the use of ‘call broadcasts’ greatly increases the chances of hearing a sora. They also increase the chances of seeing a sora, as the bird will often investigate the source of the call. The propriety of using a recording to attract a bird is open to debate, but there’s no doubt that it can be far more effective than simply going ‘pish-wish’ repeatedly…CALL Ted Floyd ‘WHINNY’ CALL Micah Riegner ‘WEEP CALL’ Todd Wilson This is a second Wiki image of a sora foraging in water. I like the fact that, as with Tom’s photo, you can see the feet.“SORA”. Where does the word come from? What does it mean? It sounds like some uninviting butter-style spread. Or is that ‘Flora’? I did some research and for a start it means ‘Sky’ in Japanese and ‘Seashell’ in Korean – both used as names. Six countries worldwide have places called Sora. There are various obscure usages (e.g. a little-known video game). Disappointingly, however, the best etymology I can find in a birding context is that the origin is ‘unknown’. I was too disheartened to explore the derivation of ‘Porzana’. Could so easily be a second-tier female character in a Shakespeare comedy: “Haply, Porzana, hast seen the Sora of the Prince, withal?”. Having started this post with a header shot by Becky Marvil, I’ll end with the etymological mystery and another photo by Becky of the same bird going for some underwater delicacy.
STOP PRESS Uli Nowlan has kindly sent a photo of a Sora taken at ponds north of Treasure Cay (below). It’s a timely reminder to me that this blog is somewhat South Abaco oriented. More than somewhat, in fact. That’s inevitable I’m afraid, owing to my base camp being south of MH. Also, I think it’s generally accepted that South Abaco is the place to find the best birding. I do include birds from the TC area – the golf course ponds and the creeks – but perhaps not enough. Contributions welcome!
Credits: Header and last image – Becky Marvil; Tom Sheley, RH, Wiki, Caroline Stahala; Uli Nowlan. Wiki-nod for some info also.
The dawn of a New Year shimmers just below the horizon, with all its bright promise for the future. It provides a convenient excuse to peer symbolically into the limestone holes of the remarkableABACO PARROT to take a peek at some newly hatched eggs and the tiny chicks that will, by next spring, look like the handsome bird at the top of the page…
This website is not overly preoccupied with stats, but I have had a quick look to see which posts were the most popular during 2013. Here, for better or worse (I didn’t make the choices…), are the top dozen, introduced by the cutest chick of the year, a Wilson’s plover calling for its mum…
So! Farewell then 2013. Like the Curate’s egg, you were good in parts – indeed, many parts of you were excellent. Now, like Raphus cucullatus, you will become extinct, leaving remains and memories behind you… Thanks to all loyal followers of this site for sticking with it and its eccentricities (especially the musical digressions). If you wound up here by chance, mistyped g@@gle search or sheer misfortune, cheers… A very Happy New Year to you all!
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History – there’s also a dodo skeleton in the Oxford University Museum of natural History
Credits: Parrot nests – Caroline Stahala (the scientist i/c parrots); the rest – RH
‘TAKING OFF’ ON ABACO: NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDS & MIMICRY
The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is commonly found in North America, but also has a wide range further afield. The species is plentiful on Abaco and in the northern Bahamas generally. I recently posted about Abaco’s other mocker, the local Bahama Mockingbird,HERE.
A DOZEN MEMORABLE MOCKINGBIRD FACTS TO ENLIVEN YOUR CONVERSATION
Only male mockingbirds sing
The Latin name means ‘many-tongued mimic’
They are omniverous and eat fruits, seeds, insects and even small lizards
They been shown in experiments to be capable of recognising individual humans
They are the State Bird of Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, & Texas
Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named “Dick” [wish I’d invented this one…]
Courting males fly around females to impress them with their splendid wing patterns
Mockingbirds are monogamous & mate for life (though known to play away on occasion…)
Both the male and female are involved in the nest building
Cowbirds are inclined to lay their eggs in mockingbird nests
Both male and female feed their chicks, in the modern way
Mockers will confront larger birds including hawks; also cats and dogs; & even humans
Besides having a particularly wide song repertoire, the mockingbird will mimic other birds, other natural sounds (including dogs) and even man-made / mechanical sounds – car alarms, sirens and a whole lot more besides. Good old Wiki has this to say:
“There are four recognized calls for the Mockingbird: the nest relief call, hew call, chat or chatburst, and the begging call. The Hew call is mainly used by both sexes for potential nest predators, conspecific chasing, and various interactions between mates. The differences between chats and chatbursts are frequency of use, as chats are year-round, and chatbursts occur in the fall. Another difference is that chatbursts appear to be used in territorial defense in the fall, and the chats are used by either sex when disturbed. The nest relief and begging calls are only used by the males.”
Remarkably, it seems that Northern Mockingbirds can inherit and store the imitations of their ancestors. We listened to a young one in the Abaco National Park with Caroline Stahala, the scientist i/c Abaco Parrot conservation. The bird was accurately mimicking a tufted titmouse, a bird it will never have heard and so cannot have learned from directly (and no other bird on Abaco sounds like the titmouse).
NEW! Another remarkable nugget, gleaned from Bahamas bird authority and author Tony White, is that in early Spring you may hear the calls of Grey Kingbirds starting to arrive for their summer vacations. Do not be fooled; Northern Mockingbirds begin imitate the calls of this species about 2 weeks before they begin to arrive…
By way of comparison, here is a Northern Mockingbird I photographed at the beginning of the year in New York while walking the High Line (if you get the opportunity to do this, take it. The perfect solution for a defunct high-level railway track is to turn it into a walkway-cum-park-cum-viewing platform). There are detectable differences, not least the brown frontal flecking.
THE INFLUENCE OF MOCKINGBIRDS ON THE ARTS
“To Kill a Mockingbird”, Harper Lee, (1960); Film version (1962) starring, by amazing coincidence, Gregory Peck
“Listen to the Mocking Bird” (1855) An American folk song popular in the mid-19th century
“Mockingbird” (1974) Carly Simon duets with James Taylor, her (then) husband, one of several (though not simultaneous)
“Mockin’ Bird Hill” (1951) Les Paul & Mary Ford, later massacred in 1964 by ‘The Migill 5’
Star of the Lullaby that starts “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…” That’s quite enough of that to be going on with
It turns out Mr Eminem has rapped up a ‘parental advisory’ and ‘explicit warning’ “Mockingbird” for our delectation. I was going to post the mp3 in a vaguely satirical way, but it is so numbingly dire that even his mum Mrs Mathers can’t bear to listen to it. So just enjoy the cover, then move on quickly to the birdsong video below…
‘Rolling Harbour: The Blog’ had humble beginnings – a dodgy structure built on foundations formed of an unpromising mix of ignorance and incompetence. Gradually it has come together, to the extent that it has just passed the 125,000 visits mark. Abaco is a small and uncrowded island, so the audience demographic [to use biz-speak] isn’t large. However the wildlife, scenery and lifestyle have turned out to have a wider appeal. 1/8 of a million people (or perhaps 1 crazy punter with repetitive strain injury from checking in unhealthily often) deserve a few of Abaco’s unique parrots in return.
I THANK YOU ALL
WHERE IT ALL BEGINS – AN UNDERGROUND NEST DEEP IN THE NATIONAL FOREST
EVENTUALLY THE CHICKS HATCH…
IN DUE COURSE THEY ARE READY TO BE CHECKED OVER AND RINGED
THEY HAVE NO FEAR OF THE ‘PARROT LADY’, SCIENTIST CAROLINE
SOON THEY ARE INDEPENDENT AND DISCOVERING THE JOYS OF GUMBO LIMBO BERRIES
KEEPING A BEADY EYE OUT…
…BUT NOT ALL THE TIME
‘HOW DO I LOOK AGAINST A BRIGHT BLUE SKY?’
PARROTS HAVING AN EARLY EVENING GET-TOGETHER AT BAHAMA PALM SHORES
‘GOODNESS ME, IS THAT THE TIME? I MUST FLY…’
Credits: Caroline Stahala, Melissa Maura, RH; recording and video RH
Abaco parrots. The only ground-nesting parrot species in the Bahamas. In the world, in fact. I’ve posted quite often about them – indeed they have their own page HERE – because, frankly, they are special and their story is one of encouraging success for intensive research and conservation programs. In 1492, Christopher Columbus was amazed by the vast number of parrots he saw in the Bahamas (not that the islands were called that then). In his journal he noted: “flocks of parrots darken the sun…” Not many years ago, parrot numbers on Abaco had dwindled to fewer than 1000 – below the critical point for sustaining a viable population. Extinction of the Abaco parrot loomed, accelerated by increasing habitat change, predation, and (*euphemistically*) ‘human intervention’. Thanks to the campaign of conservation, habitat preservation, anti-predation measures and vigilance, numbers have been restored to a sustainable level, perhaps as many as 4000. They are now a fairly common sight – and sound – in South Abaco. But not everyone who looks for them finds them, or even hears them. Especially not if they take pot luck in the vast areas of pine forest in the National Park, where they breed…
I’ve covered much of this ground before, but there is a slightly wider audience these days, so a few newcomers may be interested to learn about these lovely birds. The best thing is to have a look. All photos were taken by me during two early evenings in March.
The parrots are extremely agile, and have very strong feet and claws that enable them to move around in the tree-tops – or to hang upside down if they choose to. The next photo is a close-up a foot; below that is short video showing a parrot manoeuvring itself in a tree. You’ll also see how the birds use their beaks as an extra limb, so to speak. The uninspiring title shown is only because I forgot to label it ‘Abaco Parrot’ in the first place, and can’t find how to edit it…
In this image you can clearly see how their ‘opposable’ claws wrap round a branch
If you suspect that this one has had some ‘work’ done, you’d be right. I normally leave my photos largely alone, apart from cropping and maybe basic light balancing where needed. Sometimes an image is nearly there, but needs a bit of extra cosmetic business – but one can usually tell. The left wing? Hmmmmm (users of ‘noise reduction’ will know what I am talking about!).
The flocks of parrots are incredibly noisy. Sometimes they split into two or three groups, close together, and seem to compete in raucousness. Around 5.00 pm seemed to be the noisiest time. I took recordings of the racket, using the voice memo app on an iPh*ne, simply holding the phone with the speaker / mike end towards the parrots. Some come out pretty well – good enough to post on the excellentXENO-CANTObird sound site. Here is a recording, with the first few seconds transcribed into a sonogram. I made a ring tone from this recording for Caroline Stahala, the scientist who, with her team, looks after the birds. She’s been too polite to say whether she uses it or (more likely) not!
I find the parrots very hard to nail in flight (see above), possibly because of a shutter-speed issue (mine, not the camera’s). I nearly junked the picture below, but I liked the clash of the parrot colours with the purple bougainvillea, so I spared it.
If anyone is interested in making a small contribution towards the continuing research into and protection of these birds, please have a look at myABACO WILDLIFE CHARITIESpage, where the relevant link to Parrots International can be found. Or visit doudoubirds, where you will find endearing Abaco Parrot prints by dou dou herself for sale in aid of the parrots. Or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If anyone had a problem with the Xeno-Canto sound file above, here is a simplified version of the recording
Time to write some more about Abaco’s most famous bird, the unique ground-nesting Amazon / Cuban parrot sub-species that makes Abaco its home, and breeds in the pine forests of the Abaco National Park in the south of the island. You’ll find lots of information and photos on the dedicated page ABACO PARROTS.
This post covers the 2012 breeding season, and highlights the success of scientist Caroline Stahala and her team in helping to secure the future of these rare endangered birds. The population had shrunk to around 2500 (or fewer) some years ago. More recently it had risen to 3000. An intensive conservation program, including anti-predation measures, has proved effective; and a systematic ringing program has enabled the team to keep a close eye on recovering parrot numbers. Caroline says that the population is now in the region of 4000, confirming an encouraging reversal of a dismal decline towards extinction for these beautiful birds.
ABACO PARROTS IN THE PINE FOREST
The parrots breed only in the pine forest, where they nest in quite deep holes in the limestone rock. This makes the nests and the areas round them vulnerable to predation from feral cats and rodents etc; but conversely it offers protection from the forest fires that would destroy tree nests.
The holes are often well concealed in the undergrowth and take some searching for…
Both parents are involved in the nesting and later chick care. The female lays 2 – 4 eggs.
The chicks hatch after an incubation period of around 26 days
Some of the nest holes are remarkably deep: the parent parrots clamber up and down the sides
The chicks grow the beginnings of feathers, remaining quite unattractive except to their parents
By coincidence, as I was producing the post above, Craig Layman at THE ABACO SCIENTIST was also ruminating on the topic of Abaco parrot breeding. He posted the comments below, which raise the very interesting question whether the Abaco parrots, with their increased population, may be starting to breed outside the National park. Caroline can probably answer this (see COMMENTS), but does anyone have any direct evidence to suggest a wider breeding habitat? I guess there would need to be a suitably pitted rock structure for the nests, and an absence of the usual cat- and rat-type predators that one might find nearer human populations. Answers welcomed via the comment box…
(Sort of) A Bahama Parrot Study
Posted by laymanc 26 Nov 2012
It isn’t really much of a study, but the only “science” I have been able to do over the last week with the continued turbidity of nearshore waters.
The Bahama parrot (more informationHERE andHERE)is one of the iconic Bahamas animals, and the main factor behind the establishment of theABACO NATIONAL PARKin southern Abaco. But my study has been conducted instead from my desk in Little Harbour. My main finding is simple: the range of the parrot has clearly expanded; it has now been a full calendar in which parrots have been in the area. Just a few days ago two dozen were squawking around the harbour. The key will be whether they begin nesting here as well – I havent heard reports of that yet. But if they do, the expanding nesting range will substantially increase long term viability of the parrot on Abaco. That ends my first ever Bahama parrot study (I really need more time in the water when I come back).
A SERIES OF ABACO PARROT PAINTINGS BY ANTONIUS ROBERTS
The wonderful parrots of Abaco are often featured hereabouts, and with good reason. They are the only subspecies of cuban parrot to nest underground, a unique species adaptation that protects them from fires in the pine forest of the ABACO NATIONAL PARK where they breed. However this in turn makes them vulnerable to predation. An intensive long-term conservation and predation-reduction program headed by scientist Caroline Stahala has reversed the decline of this iconic bird. Numbers have increased from fewer than 2500 some years ago to an estimated 4000.
There are places on Abaco – south Abaco in particular – where the parrots congregate in noisy groups during the day. Many people manage to take photographs of them. Good photographers with a decent lens can get outstanding results. Even the camera-incompetent (I hear my name!) can manage the occasional first-class photo, given time and plenty of spare space on the camera card… But very few can do justice to these colourful birds in paint.
A recent reception was held in Nassau to showcase this series of paintings. You will find more about them by clicking the link to open a pdf of the reception brochureABACO PARROT PAINTINGSCaroline Stahala contributed an excellent one-page article about the Abaco Parrots and their conservation – click on it to enlarge to legible size
The wild parrots of Abaco are very special birds. Uniquely they nest underground in limestone holes which provides protection, not least from forest fires. Thanks to a program of intensive research over the last few years, far more is now known about these birds and their breeding habits. Investigations into predation have led to effective predator controls. The evidence this year is that the population numbers, having stabilised, are gradually rising to a sustainable level of some 4000 birds. The parrot below has been ringed as a chick as part of the continuing monitoring program.
I will soon be posting about the current breeding season – the parrots are in their limestone cavity nests now, the eggs are laid, the chicks will soon be hatching. Caroline Stahala, the Abaco parrot expert familiar to those who follow this blog (seeABACOPARROTS), will soon be reporting on this years breeding and chick-ringing program. In the meantime, here are some of Caroline’s pictures taken during the past season of the parrots in all their glory…
The parrots mainly live and breed in the pine forest of the Abaco National Park
During the day they fly northwards, often in large noisy groups, where they feed. One of their favourite treats is the fruit of the Gumbo Limbo tree. This sometimes requires acrobatic skill
The sunshine brings out their bright colouring. When they fly, the blue on their wings is wonderful
Besides Gumbo Limbo berries, the parrots enjoy feeding on seeds
A parrot takes flight near a nest cavity. There’ll be more photos of parrot nests later this month