“THE DIET OF WORMS”: WORM-EATING WARBLERS ON ABACO


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“THE DIET OF WORMS”: WORM-EATING WARBLERS ON ABACO

The little worm-eating warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) is unique. Not because of its worm-eating propensities or its warbler-ishness (or the combination), but because it is the only species currently classified in the genus Helmitheros. The Swainson’s warbler was once in the same genus, but the WEWA saw off the competition.

Worm-eating Warbler, Man-o-War Cay Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

SO WHAT IS A HELMITHEROS THEN, IF IT’S SO SPECIAL?

The word is Greek, meaning something like ‘grub-hunter’. And the Latin-derived vermivorum reflects the diet of a VERMIVORE – an eater of worms. But this description is, like a worm, somewhat elastic. It includes caterpillars, larvae, grubs, spiders and similar creatures. But whereas there are other warbler vermivores there is only one Helmitheros.

worm-eating_warbler_Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren wiki

SOME WORM-EATING FACTS TO DIGEST

  • WEWAs are sexually monomorphic. Males & females are indistinguishable for most of the year
  • They can only be reliably sexed at the height of the breeding season
  • Don’t ask. OK, a magnifying glass may be needed
  • These birds are believed to eat earthworms only rarely. Moth larvae are their best treat
  • They are ground-nesting birds, one of only 5 new-world warblers to do this
  • Like some shore-birds, adults may feign injury to lure predators away from the nest
  • They are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds** & feral cats
  • Fires, deforestation, habitat change & diminished food resources are also threats to the species
  • As are pesticides, which destroy the primary food source and are in any case potentially toxic

**cowbirds are luckily very uncommon on Abaco but are spreading their range at an alarming rate and pose a potential threat to many Bahamas bird species

Worm-eating Warbler, Man-o-War Cay Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

DISTRIBUTION & CONSERVATION STATUS

The breeding range of the worm-eating warbler covers much of the eastern half of the US as far south as the Gulf Coast. It winters in the West Indies, Central America and southeastern Mexico. There is no overlap between summer and winter habitat. Because of the vulnerability of this ground-nesting species to a number of threats (see FACTS above), they are now IUCN listed as ‘Special Concern’ in New Jersey.389px-helmitheros_vermivorum_map-svg

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WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

In this case the song and call, as transposed into human, really does sound like the bird itself. The song is a rapid squeaky trill; and the calls for once do actually sound like ‘chip’ or ‘tseet’. See what you think.

Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

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THE (ORIGINAL) DIET OF WORMS – A DIGRESSION

Studied European history? Had a laugh over The Diet of Worms in 1521? This was an assembly (or ‘diet’) of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in the City of Worms. There had already been several. This one resulted in an edict concerning Martin Luther and protestant reformation, with the consequence that… [sorry, nearly nodded of there. Just as I did at this stage at school I expect] 

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It is always instructive to look at Audubon’s fine depictions from the early c19. Here is his WEWA. Notice that it is here called Sylvia vermivora. So he had the worm-eating part, but the first part of the name rather strangely relates to a group of old-world warblers. No, I’ve no idea why.

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Credits: Photos – Tom Sheley (1); Charmaine Albury (2, 4, 6); Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (3, 7); Tom Friedel (5). Research material – CWFNJ / Michael J Davenport; Tom Fegely / The Morning Call; assorted magpie pickings & open source

BLACKPOLL WARBLERS ON ABACO: UNCOMMON TRANSIENTS


Blackpoll Walbler dendroica_striata_mn-cephas-wiki

BLACKPOLL WARBLERS ON ABACO: UNCOMMON TRANSIENTS

The Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata is a “TR3” on Abaco. Which is to say, the species is classified as an uncommon transient in its migration, and as such it is rarely seen on Abaco. Apart from anything else the window of opportunity of seeing one in the Fall or in Spring is limited by the length of time they pause on Abaco to catch their breath. Also, they are small birds that do not draw attention to themselves. They hang around in the coppice foliage rather than parading out in the open; and their call is a tiny ‘tsip‘ sound (as with so many other small birds…). 

Blackpoll Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

Fortunately, on Abaco’s warbler magnet Man-o-War Cay, alert birder Charmaine Albury was out and about with her camera to record a sighting. I should say that during the writing of THE BIRDS OF ABACO, I never managed to obtain a single image – however poor – of a Blackpoll Warbler actually taken on Abaco (a qualification for inclusion) from any of the many sources I used. So sadly, this pretty warbler does not feature in the book.

Blackpoll Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

The summer breeding area for blackpolls covers northern North America from Alaska through most of Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England. In the fall, they fly South to the Greater Antilles and the northeastern coasts of South America. The summer and winter areas are very distinct, as the distribution map shows:

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Despite their diminutive size**, blackpoll warblers generally undertake their  long-distance migration – often over open water – non-stop or with a single stopover.  Their migration has been the subject of many scientific studies. One of the longest distance non-stop overwater flights ever recorded for a migratory songbird was made by a BLWA. Which all goes to explain why the species is so rarely seen along the migration route: unlike many migrating birds, they make few, if any, stops along the way.

Blackpoll Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

Of the many stats I have read through, I chose one to demonstrate the stamina of these little birds. In one study, an number were fitted with tiny geolocators. These revealed an average migration journey of around 1600 miles, with the non-stop trip being completed in 3 days by at least one bird.

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“Transoceanic migration by a 12 g songbird”

The maps above show blackpoll warbler migrations recorded for 5 birds in a study that indicates that, while a direct overwater route is preferred in the fall migration, the return journey in spring is more leisurely, and overland (it looks as though only 3 birds made it home).

The study quoted is by William V. DeLuca, Bradley K. Woodworth, Christopher C. Rimmer, Peter P. Marra, Philip D. Taylor, Kent P. McFarland, Stuart A. Mackenzie, D. Ryan Norris (

Blackpoll Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

** I came across the statement that “The blackpoll warbler… attains the weight of a ball point pen”. I find this an unhelpful comparison. I know what is meant, but I find it hard to think of a ball of feathers in terms of a writing instrument. Maybe it’s just me? [Astute Reader: I’m afraid so…]

YOU MENTIONED THAT THEY GO ‘TSIP’. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN SOUND LIKE?

Credits: header image of a summer bird, Cephas; all other photos by Charmaine Albury, taken on Man-o-War Cay Abaco; birdsong Xeno-Canto / wikimedia commons

RACCOONS ON ABACO: A MIXED BLESSING?


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RACCOONS ON ABACO: A MIXED BLESSING?

Abaco, like the rest of the Bahama Islands, is strangely short of native land mammals. The last of the wild ABACO BARBS – descendants of Spanish Colonial horses of high pedigree – died very recently. The proud Barbs are no more. But they, of course, were an introduced species. There are the hard-breeding, hard-hunted hogs. And feral potcakes, unowned or disowned. Many feral cats. Maybe a few rabbit escapees. And bats: several of the dozen (or so) Bahamas species are found on Abaco. At one time there was the shy nocturnal HUTIA that had the distinction of being – or having been – endemic to many of the islands. Not on Abaco, sadly – its own subspecies the Great Abaco Hutia had become extinct by the c17. You’ll have to go to the Exumas to see a hutia.

HEY! THERE ARE RACCOONS, AREN’T THERE?

This endearing-looking creature was photographed on Abaco by Charmaine AlburyRaccoon, Abaco, Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

Raccoons are a non-native species, probably introduced in the Bahamas many decades – perhaps a couple of centuries – ago. They are thought to have been brought to New Providence originally. More recently they arrived on Abaco – possibly as pets in the first place, which were then released or escaped. And they are spreading: as recently as April 2012 an excellent article in the Bahamas edition of COASTAL ANGLER MAGAZINE introduced “Eleuthera’s Newest Mammal”.

Raccoon (Cheryl Wile Ferguson)

RACOON PROS

  • Cuddly, furry, cute-looking, quite high on the well-known scientifically-based ‘ADORBS’ scale (Animals Deemed Outrageously, Ridiculously, Breathtakingly Strokeable)
  • Comfortingly familiar despite being wild animals (NB potentially aggressive)
  • Don’t have the same drawbacks as skunks
  • Have valuable fur
  • Pelts can be used for Davy Crockett hats
  • raccoon-danny-sauvageau

RAC-CONS

  • Considered to be “one of the world’s most omnivorous animals”
  • Known to wreak havoc with certain crops, eg watermelons
  • Canny and adept hunters, including at night; good climbers to treetop level
  • Suspected of predation of land crabs (depriving ‘natural’ predators of the pleasure)
  • Compete with birds for fruit, berries and nectar
  • Relish birds’ eggs. Low and ground-nesting birds are particularly at risk throughout season
  • On Abaco, a major conservation program has been needed to protect the nests of the Abaco parrots in the limestone caverns of the national park from raccoons, feral cats and rodents
  • Eat small birds, curly tail lizards, anoles and suchlike
  • Can be aggressive to humans – note the handy claws clearly shown in the photo above

A shy raccoon in a tree, Treasure Cay (Becky Marvil)raccoon-abaco-becky-marvil

LIVE AND LET LIVE?

“The authors of the study Taxonomic status and conservation relevance of the raccoons of the West Indies (2003) hold that the Bahamian raccoon is an invasive species which itself poses a threat to the insular ecosystem.The Government of the Bahamas has this species listed as up for eradication on the islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama”.

So the official line favours eradication of a potentially harmful non-native species – failing which, presumably containment of numbers. Trapping is one way to achieve this – and there are both humane as well as cruel ways to do so. However, trapping in one place, only to release somewhere else is clearly not an option. But it would provide the opportunity to neuter / spay the animals and slow or prevent the reproductive spread of the creatures. Hunting raccoons is another method.  It’s not currently a significant sport, but neither are raccoons protected. Their fur has a value, and some say they could provide a source of somewhat gamey meat.

Or they could be just left as they are, as attractive creatures now well-established, despite the inevitable risks to native species such as the reviving population of Abaco parrots, now at sustainable numbers. On Abaco, reduced to its basics the $64k question might be: which would you prefer in the future? More raccoons or fewer parrots (or indeed, no parrots at all)?

Raccoons exhibited in the Garden of the Groves, Freeport, Grand Bahama (neutered /spayed)raccoons-nassau-bahamas-weekly

PUMPKIN

I wouldn’t wish to run the risk of influencing the delicately balanced arguments about the raccoons of the Bahamas, but will you just take a look at this? The perfect fit for the acronymic descriptor A.D.O.R.B.S!

Coastal Angler magazine, BNT / Erika Gates, Bahamas Weekly, Charmaine & Becky for the Abaco photos, plus Wiki / open source, Buzzfeed / YouTube & don’t get stuck into the rest of the cutesy viddys… Stop Press: added above the pros & cons – a great recent photo by Cheryl Wile Ferguson (nb not taken on Abaco)

At least as far as stamps are concerned, the raccoon gets equal billing with the hutia (and the bat)bahamastamp

SCOOP! BLACK SKIMMERS FOUND ON ABACO


Black Skimmers in flight (Terry Foote, wiki)

SCOOP! BLACK SKIMMERS FOUND ON ABACO


I have been waiting soooooo long for photos of black skimmers (Rynchops niger) taken on Abaco. When we were putting together “The Birds of Abaco”, I had just one skimmer image – a bird standing self-consciously on a jetty facing the camera, a shot into difficult light with a low-res unusable picture resulting. I never collected another qualifer (‘Abaco birds only, natural surroundings, no feed trails’). So sadly they don’t feature in the book.

Black Skimmer, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

These rather special seabirds breed in North America. Very sensibly (and like many humans), they migrate south to overwinter in warmer climes, including the Caribbean. But in the northern Bahamas sightings are very rare. Or maybe I should say, reports of them are rare, and photos the more so. They are classified as WR4, very uncommon winter residents.

Black Skimmers, Abaco, Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

But now the Rolling Harbour duck is broken (so to speak). Two skimmers were spotted yesterday by Man-o-War Cay resident Charmaine Albury, a keen birder and photographer. Her images of this chance sighting as the pair flew gracefully past to land on the beach show enviably quick reactions with the camera! We have a Big Scoop here. Two of them.

Black Skimmer, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

 WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THEM?

  1. EYES These birds have dark brown eyes. So far, so what. But their pupils are unique in birdland: they aren’t round, but vertical – like a cat. As far as I can make out, this is to maximise the fish-catching potential of their other speciality feature…
  2. BILL Take a look at this close-up of a great photo by Don Faulkner. Check out that unmistakeable bill, with the extraordinary elongated lower mandible. 

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HOW DOES THAT HELP?

When hunting for food, skimmers fly fast and very close to the surface of the sea. The long thin lower mandible cuts through the water … and when it comes into contact with its prey, the bird snaps shut the upper mandible onto it. 

OK, SHOW ME!

Black Skimmer skimming water for prey (Dan Pancamo wiki)

NOT ENOUGH. I WANT TO ACTUALLY WATCH THEM DO IT…

This short video by EstuaryLiveTV shows skimmers feeding in real time, then in slow motion in an estuary. They are looking for fish, crusteaceans and molluscs. It explains all.

Black Skimmer, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

Credits: Terry Foote (1); Charmaine Albury (2, 3, 4, 7); Don Faulkner (5); Dan Pancamo (6); EstuaryLiveTV (video).

MELLOW YELLOW: HOODED WARBLERS ON ABACO


Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

MELLOW YELLOW: HOODED WARBLERS ON ABACO

The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) breeds in eastern North America in summer, and winters in Central America and the West Indies. On Abaco they are classed as WR3, ‘uncommon winter residents’. The range map below reveals one strange aspect of their habitat. It looks as though they choose not to live in Florida either in summer or winter. I’m sure they must be found there as transients; and there must presumably be some small breeding or wintering populations in Florida. Or both. But it’s hard to understand why Florida does not seem to suit them.

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ABACO WARBLER HOTSPOT

On Abaco, I have only ever had reports of Hooded Warblers from Man-o-War Cay, which seems to be a warbler hotspot every season. There are 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco. FIVE WARBLER SPECIES are year-round residents. Of the migratory 32, at least two dozen seem to favour Man-o-War for their winter break in the sun. MoW resident Charmaine Albury, who took the main photos in this post, has already counted 14 different warbler species before the end of September. She has found up to 5 species in a tree at the same time. 

Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

There are periodic upheavals in Birdland which, following research, lead to an official reclassification of a particular bird species or genus. In 2011, many warblers that were cheerfully going about their business under the classification Dendroica found themselves merged into the older ‘priority’ genus Setophaga (Greek for ‘moth eating’). The Hooded Warbler, formerly Wilsonia, has found itself similarly merged into Setophaga – a kick in the teeth for the naturalist ALEXANDER WILSON, for whom the bird was named (along with many others – his plover being a well-known example on Abaco).

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WHY ‘CITRINA”? (FUN FACT!)

The word relates to lemons – citrus fruits – and their colour, and is undoubtedly apt for the hooded warbler. However the semi-precious calcite gem, ‘Citrine’ (same word origin) is not lemon coloured but (disappointingly) brownish.

                         imgresnatural-citrine-calcite

Hooded Warbler, Man-o-War Cay, Abaco (Charmaine Albury)

This little warbler has a plain olive / greeny-brown back, and a bright yellow face and underparts. There are white feathers on the outsides of their under-tail (I’m sure there’s a more technical word for this…) – see header image. Only males have the black hoods and bibs; females have an olive-green cap. 

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Hoodies forage for insects in low vegetation and dense undergrowth, or catch them by HAWKING from a branch or twig. Sadly, they are one of the species that are targeted by brown-headed cowbirds, the cruel exponents of brood parasitismThese birds are rarely found transients on Abaco at present, but they are a robust species and there is evidence that their range is increasing. In some areas there are controlled (euphemism for… er… dispensed with). I’d favour that approach for Abaco, should they show signs of inflicting their evil ways on the resident breeding population of small birds.

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Hooded Warbler in Audubon’s Birds of America

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

I am often at sea with the attempts to turn birdsong into to memorable words of phrases. Yes, a Bobwhite sounds a bit like a quizzical ‘Bob… White?‘. But I rarely ‘get’ the “I’d-like-a-Kalik-with-my-Conch” and suchlike. For what it is worth, I learn that for the Hooded Warbler “the song is a series of musical notes which sound like: wheeta wheeta whee-tee-oh, for which a common mnemonic is “The red, the red T-shirt” or “Come to the woods or you won’t see me“. See what I mean? Anyway, we can all agree that “the call of these birds is a loud chip.” As with so many species!  

So here’s what to listen out for (recording: FLMNH). Suggestions for a suitable phrase welcome!

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If you come across a bird that looks like a hooded warbler, but is motionless and makes no sound unless you squeeze it, you may have found the subspecies Audubonus stuffii, which is found mainly in the Amazon and E. Bay regions.51idfxzal

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIVERSION

I haven’t had time to musically divert for a while. My title refers, of course, to the ‘psychedelic pop’ song by Donovan, released in the US in 1966 and the UK in early 1967. The theory is that the song relates to the supposed (but mythical) hallucinogenic high to be had from smoking dried banana skins. There are an explicit interpretation for the ‘electical banana’ which we need not go into in a family blog.  There was a rumour, now discredited, that Paul McCartney supplied the “quite rightly” in the chorus. Anyway, to chime in with the mood of the time, one of the first ‘coffee shops’ in Amsterdam was called Mellow Yellow. 

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RELATED POSTS

ABACO’S 37 WARBLER SPECIES

ABACO’S 5 PERMANENT RESIDENT WARBLERS

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Credits: Charmaine Albury for the photos and her warbling work on Man-o-War Cay; Luis Alvarez-Lugo (Wikipici); random open source material; FLMNH (birdsong); my iTunes

BANANAQUITS ON ABACO (GUEST PHOTOS)


Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)

BANANAQUITS ON ABACO (GUEST PHOTOS)

This is the best job in the world (#it’snotajob #it’sapastime #duh!yougetpaidinajob). I get to choose what to write about and what photos to use. And it’s all enjoyable, interesting, and totally new (to me) within the last 10 years. Bananaquits are another favourite small bird of mine. Charmaine Albury takes great Abaco wildlife photos – birds, butterflies, insects, shells and more – on Man-o-War Cay and beyond. It’s time to showcase some of her bananaquit photos. Let’s go!

Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)

Juvenile bananaquits have their own totally adorbz qualities, as I have observed BEFORE.

Bananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury) Bananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury) Bananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury) Bananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury)

Bananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury)

As the juveniles grow, their colouring becomes stronger until eventually they are hardly distinguishable from their parentsBananaquit juvenile, Abaco (Char Albury)Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)

Bananaquits are readily attracted to gardens. They can used their sharp curved beaks to drink from hummingbird feeders. Or why not try Charmaine’s idea for a free-to-make bananaquit bar – look how successful it is!

Bananaquit, Abaco (Char Albury)

You’ll find several posts about bananaquits, none particularly recent. For an ‘in-house’ gallery of these bright little birds, click HERE

All photos Charmaine Albury, with thanks for use permission. You’ll notice that the images are watermarked or named, which is because Char’s images are available for sale. Let me know if you are interested in any of the photos featured here…

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER


Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER 

The Abaco Neem Farm is run by Nick Miaoulis with a passion and commitment to the environment matched by few. The farm products can be found in the excellent Abaco Neem shop in Marsh Harbour. This is wonderful place for birding. Besides fruit trees of many kinds, there is a perfect mix of coppice and pine-forest to satisfy the most habitat-pedantic species. 

Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3

Around the fruit trees, wildflowers are encouraged to thrive. These attract bees (Nick also has hives) and of course butterflies – not forgetting moths. Amongst the fluttery creatures, we found a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus), a butterfly found in tropical and subtropical areas. It is a striking creature, with iridescent blues on the body and two long tails extending from the hindwings. The caterpillar is said to be a crop and ornamental plant pest; the butterfly is described as uncommon (maybe for the Bahamas, anyway).

Urbanus proteus: the caterpillarUrbanus_proteus4 (Mike Boone Bug Guide)

Urbanus proteus on Man-o-War CayLong-tailed Skipper - Abaco Butterfly (Charmaine Albury)

Two non-Abaco examplesLong-tailed_Skipper_Butterfly_(Urbanus_proteus)_1 (Jonathan Zander Wiki)Common_longtailed_skipper_(Urbanus_proteus_domingo)_female (Charles Sharp)

Abaco Neem Farm (with beehive)Bee Hive, Neem Farm, Abaco (Mrs RH)

Credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2); Wiki-pillar (3); Charmaine Albury (4); Non-Abaco Wiki-Skippers Jonathan Zander (5) and Charles Sharp (6); Mrs RH (7)