The Cuban pewee Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the crescent-eyed pewee) is the smallest of the four so-called ‘tyrant’ species found on Abaco. These flycatchers are tiny compared with their kingbird cousins. You can clearly see the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which helps to trap caught insects.
Like other flycatchers, the Cuban pewee has distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. These are in fact feathers that have modified into bristles. They act as tactile sensors that help detect and target aerial insects. The pewee will then dart from its perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel (known sometimes as ‘hawking’), returning to the branch to swallow the snack.
Of all small unassuming brownish birds – and there are a great many – I consider the pewee to be one of the prettiest. It is also rewarding to photograph, being inquisitive by nature and as likely to pose for the camera as to fly away.
For tens of thousands of people, the past 2 weeks have been dominated by one cruelly aggressive female: Irma. In terms of a lucky escape, Abaco’s gain was elsewhere’s pain. Recently, only the vivid Wunderground trackers I have posted have stood out from the bleakness of the ominous clouds, pounding waves, and sluicing rain. With the prospects for Hurricane Jose wandering around in the mid-Atlantic looking increasingly good, it’s time for a look at something more cheerful.
Birds can lighten the spirit. As yet, I’ve seen few reports of how the birds on Abaco have fared, but the ones I have seen have been encouraging. A west-indian woodpecker back on his usual tree; a piping plover foraging on the beach at Winding Bay, even as the storm raged; bird business more or less as usual at Delphi. No news yet of Abaco’s iconic parrots, which will have most likely headed to the National Park for cover. They usually manage OK. The header image is a tip of the hat to them, their raucous beauty, and their healthy recovery from near-extinction over the last few years.
Here’s a small gallery of some of Abaco’s most colourful and striking birds for some light relief. Have a nice day!
Photo Credits: Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Melissa Maura; Painted Bunting, Tom Sheley; Bananaquit, Keith Salvesen; Western Spindalis, Craig Nash; White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Keith Salvesen; Cuban Emerald (f), Keith Salvesen; Bahama Woodstar, Tom Sheley; Black-necked Stilt, Tom Sheley; Cuban Pewee, Keith Salvesen; Osprey, Tom Sheley; Bahama Yellowthroat, Gerlinde Taurer. Storm tracker, Wunderground
The LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER(Myiarchus sagrae) is a common resident breeding species of flycatcher on Abaco, and these very pretty small birds can be seen in many habitats – pine forest, scrubland, coppice and gardens, for example. They are insectivores, as the name suggests, but they also eat seeds and berries.
As a ‘tyrant flycatcher’, this little bird is a member of the large passerine order that includes kingbirds, pewees and phoebes, with which they are sometimes confused. I last wrote about LSFs in the infancy of this blog, illustrated with my own rather… ahem… ‘simple’** photos. Time to revisit them and to do them justice with some new, improved images.‘
‘Simple’ photo from a less complex era, taken with a 2mp ‘Cheepo’™ camera
Magnificent photo by Gelinde Taurer that you can actually enlarge (click pic– see?)
Unlike many bird species, adult LSFs are very similar in appearance in both sexes. Whatever the gender, they are sometimes confused with their cousins the Cuban Pewees, but those have a very distinctive eye-crescent.
Cuban Pewee – note eye-crescent, absent in the LSF
Both species have a tiny hook at the end of the (upper) beak – to help trap insects, I assume
Another thing to notice about LSFs is the amount of rufous brown in their plumage, particularly on the wings and tail – and even at the base of the beak. This coloration is absent from their larger cousin kingbirds, the loggerhead and the gray.
WHAT SHOULD I LISTEN OUT FOR?
“A high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’... ” Or it might be ‘bip‘. Or ‘weep‘. Or (on one recording I listened to, complete with sonograph) it sounded like ‘chi-chitty chew‘. But it may have been a misID.
Hans Matheve @ Xeno-Canto
A hint of a crest is visible in this photo
ANY IDEA WHAT LA SAGRA CHICKS LOOK LIKE?
Well, as it happens, yes. By good fortune Abaco photographer and piping plover monitor Rhonda Pearce happens to have had a nest at hand this very season. So, happy to oblige…
WHO OR WHAT IS A ‘LA SAGRA’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME?
Mr La Sagra was a multi-talented Spanish botanist. Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris(1798–1871) was also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (‘The Future’). At one time he lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, ‘anarchist circles’ must be a contradiction in terms… that should be ‘anarchist disorganised squiggles’)
I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, and a small comet… All these meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…
Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris
Continuing this blog’s philatelic natural history theme, here are stamps from the Cayman Islands and Cuba featuring the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. The Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the man who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on this bird. And Gundlach’s name lives on in the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii…
** ‘Simple’, as in ‘not completely disastrous for an amateur effort but frankly not the sort of standard we have come expect around here’.
Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 4); Tom Reed (2, 6); Keith Salvesen (3 [!], 5, 12); Charles Skinner (7, 8); Peter Mantle (9); Rhonda Pearce (chicks) 10; Tom Sheley (11); Ramon and stamps, open source
The Abaco Neem Farm just off the highway about 20 minutes south of The (one and only) Roundabout is about much more than the neem plants and the resultant products sold at the well-known shop in Marsh Harbour. The many varieties of fruit tree, the grasses and the wild flowers, the coppice, the pine forest, the open land and the pond that make up the extensive property provide a wonderful haven for birds, butterflies, moths and bees (there are hives too). It’s a great place for birding, and the owner Nick is rightly proud of the peaceful ambience of the farm. On a bright day, the place is alive with birdsong.
Among my favourite small birds found there are two species that are so tame and inquisitive that it is often possible to move slowly right up to them. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is one. The cuban pewee is another. This pewee was flitting about the edge of the coppice, hawking for insects and quite unconcerned by our presence. Sadly I only had ‘hated camera’ with me, having thrown ‘beloved camera’ into the sea a couple of days before, photographing shorebirds (and thence into the trash bin). So I’m not wholly pleased with the results, either for clarity or for colour. Needless to say, hated camera always has the last laugh…
Identification of the various flycatcher species e.g. CUBAN PEWEE, LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD and GRAY KINGBIRD can be tricky. The simplest way to distinguish the cuban pewee is to remember that it is a small bird (so, not a kingbird); and that its informal name is ‘crescent-eyed pewee’ due to the very noticeable white crescent behind the eye. And as Liann Key Kaighin reminds me in a comment, these little birds also answer to the name Tom Fool…
A quick check of the sky for predators? Or maybe just for rain…
All photos: RH. Thanks to Nick Maoulis for his tolerance of people armed with cameras and binoculars.
PS I don’t go in much for beauty products (far far too late), but the Neem Salve is fantastic for minor injuries: cuts, grazes, bruises, small burns and so on. Well, it works for me.
I’ve fairly very often mentioned the remarkable diversity of the bird species on Abaco. This small island has a wide variety of permanent resident species and the advantage of being on a primary migration route so that it has both winter and summer migratory visitors. Here’s an example of some of the species a visitor might reasonably expect to find during a day’s birding. This isn’t an ‘invented inventory’, easy though that would be to compile. It records a birding outing by Abaco visitor Susan Daughtrey, guided by the legendary Woody Bracey, with sightings of 53 species from A (baco Parrot) to Z (enaida Dove). Here are some of Susan’s photos of the birds she encountered. At the end is the full list of the 34 species she photographed.There’s nothing very rare – most of those shown are permanent residents (PR), breed on Abaco (B) and are commonly found (1). Hence the code* PR B 1. SR is for the 2 summer residents, I is for the introduced collared dove. The best ‘get’ is the Bahama Mockingbird (PR B 3), a bird mainly of the pine forests and not so easy to find.
ADDENDUM Susan has now sent me her complete record for a great day out in which 53 species were seen. The list shows the numbers seen for each species. I have had to reformat the list from the original to make it work in this blog. I have added links for the first bird, the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, which was recorded on Abaco for the first time in early June. Of the six seen at any one time to begin with (including at Delphi), the reported numbers dropped to 2, then 1. The latest news is an unconfirmed sighting of a single bird at Treasure Cay Golf Course.
ABACO (CUBAN) PARROT Amazona leucocephala PR B 1
ANTILLEAN NIGHTHAWK Chordeiles gundlachii SR 1
BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD (ENDEMIC) Mimus gundlachii PR B 3
BAHAMA SWALLOW (ENDEMIC) Tachycineta cyaneoviridis PR B 1
BAHAMA PINTAIL (WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL) Anas bahamensis PR B 1
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER Polioptera caerulea PR B 1
CUBAN PEWEE Contopus caribaeus PR B 1
EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE Streptopelia decaocto I PR B 1
HAIRY WOODPECKER Picoides villosus PR B 1
LEAST TERN Sternula antillarum SR B 1
LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD Tyrannus caudifasciatus PR B 1
MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD (female) Fregata magnificens PR B 1
OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER Setophaga pityophila PR B 1
RED-LEGGED THRUSH Turdus plumbeus PR B 1
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD Agelaius phoeniceus PR B 1
SMOOTH-BILLED ANI Crotophaga ani PR B 1
THICK-BILLED VIREO Vireo crassirostris PR B 1
WESTERN SPINDALIS Spindalis zena PR B 1
WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON Patagioenas leucocephala PR B 1
SUSAN’S LIST OF BIRDS PHOTOGRAPHED
SUSAN’S COMPLETE LIST FOR THE DAY – 53 SPECIES
To learn about Abaco’s latest new species the Black-bellied Whistling Duck click HERE & HERE
Credits: all photos, Susan Daughtrey; *the excellent birding code was devised by ornithologist Tony White with Woody Bracey
This post may be infected with a passing dose of Badworkmanblamingtoolitis. I took a new camera to Abaco, an upgrade on my previous one (which thankfully I kept while testing the new one). I only use a ‘Bridge’ camera, mostly set on auto because it takes me too long to fidget with controls while the bird in front of me chooses the optimum moment to fly off, i.e. fractionally before I have pressed the button…
We went to the Abaco Neem Farm, a large acreage of Neem and other trees, with pinewood, coppice and open land. Perfect for birding. The owner Nick kindly gave us a metaphorical ‘Access All Areas’, so we took him at his word. I will post about this trip in due course – as expected, we found much of interest there.
Meanwhile, back to the camera. This little Cuban Pewee Contopus caribaeus was quite close, watching me and seeming very relaxed. I hoped that the much-vaunted zoom (“and many other features”) would bring pin-sharp images. This was the first time I realised that this might not be the case. As it has turned out the bird results are a bit disappointing, with images being ‘soft’. A great camera, probably, for general use: not so good for bird close-ups…
The last photo was a lucky shot, as the bird took hold of a large passing insect (cricket? hopper?). It’s not a sharp shot, but I’m glad I got it!
One of the prettiest small birds to photograph on Abaco is the Crescent-eyed, or Cuban, Pewee Contopus caribaeus. These small flycatchers are as interested in your struggles with your camera settings and your ‘stealthy’ (yet clumsy) approach, as you are in their cute poses. It’s a symbiotic relationship – you may get nice pictures, they have a benign laugh at your efforts.
This bird was one of a pair we found at a magical corner of scrubland at a crossroad of tracks between the edge of the pine forest and a backcountry of derelict and overgrown sugar cane fields – the perfect habitat for a wide variety of species. The pewees had a nest hidden deep in the undergrowth, but were tame enough to be untroubled by our presence. They kept calm and carried on as usual.
These little birds are resident in Cuba and the Northern Bahamas. I have previously posted photos of them, taken by the beach at Casuarina, HERE. They are the smallest flycatchers – tyrannidae – on Abaco, a family that includes LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, and the larger Loggerhead & Gray Kingbirds. Here’s a recording of cuban pewees made on Abaco (credit: Jesse Fagan / Xeno-Canto)
They often have a charmingly quizzical or watchful expression