Some birds are named for the sounds they make (bobwhite, chuck-will’s-widow, pewee, killdeer). Some are named for their appearance (yellow-rumped warbler, painted bunting). And some are named for what they do (shearwater, sapsucker – but definitely NOT killdeer). The ruddy turnstone Arenaria interpres is in the last two of these categories: it looks ruddy and it literally turns stones to get at the goodies underneath.
And they don’t just turn stones to look for food. Someone with a lot of patience has defined 6 specific methods by which a turnstone forages for food:
Turning stones by flicking them with its beak
Digging using its beak to flick away sand or earth (see video below)
Routing around in piles of seaweed to expose food under it
Surface pecking with short, shallow pecks for food just below the surface
Probing by simply sticking its beak deep into soft sand or ground
Hammer-probing to crack open a shell and get at the occupant
In these photos taken on a rather gloomy day on the Delphi beach, a combination of mainly digging and routing is going on. Note the sandy beak of the RUTU below, right up to the hilt.
This short video shows how effective the RUTU method is. It was fascinating to watch the team work their way through and around the piles of weed on the beach, flicking sand vigorously in their quest for sandflies or whatever. Watch the sand fly! Pity it wasn’t a sunny day – the photos might have looked a bit more cheerful…
I see it is ‘literally’** years since I last wrote about these lovely, accessible birds, the only permanent resident breeding thrush species on Abaco (out of 8). The post –OL’ RED-EYES IS BACK– featured mainly my own photos, plus one by Mrs RH. With a whole lot of more recent photos, it’s time to revisit these cheery birds. I promised something brighter after two rather sombre shearwater die-off posts – (incidentally, a far wider problem than just in the Bahamas, including NC & Cape May). Here it is.
A RED-LEGGED, RED-EYED GALLERY
Many of the birds shown here were photographed in or around the grounds of Delphi. More recently, they have to an extent been displaced by red-winged blackbirds which are of course very fine birds but in large numbers sound (may I say this? Is this just me?) quite irritating after a while. Whereas the thrush of course has a sweet and melodious song, like this (my own recording – turn up the vol):
Mr & Mrs Harbour’s Handiwork at Delphi
As I may have mentioned before (impatient reader: ‘yes, yes, you did’), the eyes of the RLT are at least as prominent a feature as their legs. Lots of birds have red legs. Very few have such remarkable bright, fiery eye-rings, even in a youngster.
This photo from birdman Tom Sheley is my favourite – a perfect composition
**This means it really is literally years (4), not in the modern modified sense of ‘not actually literally’, as in “I am literally dying of hunger”. Unless you are exceptionally unfortunate, while you have the breath to say you are, you are literally not doing so…
There is quite literally no song since 1950 with the word ‘thrush’ in the title. Hard to fathom why… One or two songs have a thrush buried away in the lyrics somewhere. Blackbirds have done rather better in this respect…
Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 11); Peter Mantle (2, 4); Gerlinde Taurer (3); Mr & Mrs Harbour (5, 6, 7); Charles Skinner (8, 9); Erik Gauger (10). Lo-fi audio recording: RH
THICK-BILLED VIREO ‘ON VOCALS’: A CHIRPY JUVENILE ON ABACO
I’m not sure that TBVs would rank as anyone’s all-time favourite bird. Probably not in the top 10. Or 20. But we have a particular affection for them. When we first arrive at Delphi, that cheerful call is invariably the first birdsong we hear. And when we leave, it’s often the last. These small birds inhabit the coppice on either side of the drive, and are often found right by the the Lodge.
The strange thing about them is that despite their ubiquity and their uninhibited advertising of their presence, they are surprisingly hard to see, let alone get a clear photograph of. A singing TBV often seems to be at least 2 rows of bush further back than it sounds, concealed by intervening branches, leaves, and twigs.
Maybe growing juveniles are less cautious. This little guy is right out in the open, and singing away happily. He’s still cutely fluffy, but his plumage already starting to turn yellow. He has the diagnostic yellow marking in front of and around the eyes. However at the base of his characteristically plump beak there’s still a hint of baby bird mouth.
Here’s a recording of an adult TBV I took from the Delphi drive (you may need to turn up the volume a bit). And no, I couldn’t actually see the bird, though I knew exactly where it was from the slight movements of foliage. All-in-all, the TBV is a most engaging little bird and well-deserving of affection if not perhaps a high placing in the Avian Popularity Charts…
All photos by Charles Skinner (a significant contributor to The Birds Of Abaco)
The Delphi Club on Abaco has a number of permanent residents (or by now – let’s be realistic – maybe their descendants). There’s the huge curly tail lizard that lives under the large stones by the outside staircase. There are the West Indian Woodpeckers that noisily nest in a box under the eaves of the verandah and produce 2 batches of shouty chicks each summer. And there is the silent sentinel – a loggerhead kingbird that spends much of its time in the trees and bushes at the far side of the pool.
It’s a good place to chose. The bird uses the tree branches and shrubs to ‘hawk’ for passing insects, suddenly leaving its perch to pounce, before returning to just the same place to eat its snack – classic flycatcher behaviour. I call it the ‘watchful tyrant’ because the kingbird is nearly always there. Somewhere. If you look carefully and wait patiently. He stays in the shade, so he’s not bright with sunlight (or P/shop) in these photos. This is just the way he is.
Kingbirds are of the family Tyrannidae and the genus Tyrannus. The ‘tyrant’ group includes a number of flycatcher species commonly found on Abaco: the KINGBIRDS (loggerhead and gray), the CUBAN PEWEE and the LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER being the most familiar. Note the hook at the end of the beak; and the yellowish tinge to the undertail area.
With the exception of the gray kingbird, the flycatchers named above are very common permanent breeders on Abaco. There’s probably one of them within 20 feet of your house right now. The gray, however, is a summer breeding resident. This is most helpful of it: if you see a kingbird between October and April, it will be a loggerhead. This gives you a 6-month window for near-certain ID.
IT’S SUMMER – SO HOW DO I TELL A LOGGERHEAD FROM A GRAY?
The Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii is similar to its slightly smaller cousin, the widespread Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottis. The range of Bahama Mockingbirds is not restricted to the Bahamas themselves, and includes areas of Cuba, Jamaica and TCI, so despite the name they are not an endemic species to the Bahamas. They are also occasional vagrants to the United States, especially – for reasons of proximity – southeastern Florida.
The Bahama Mockingbird is browner than the greyish Northern Mockingbird, and has distinctive streaking and spotting to its breast and undercarriage. This may extend to what you might describe as the bird’s ‘trouser legs’, though I’m sure there’s a more technically correct term.
Both mockingbird species are found on Abaco. The NMs are ubiquitous in towns, settlements, gardens, coppice and pine forest, whereas BMs are shyer and tend to be found in the pine forest and well away from humans and their operations. When we were putting together The Birds of Abaco, I went on a birding trip with Abaco birding legend Woody Bracey and Ohio bird photographer Tom Sheley. We took a truck into the pine forest down a logging track south of Delphi, and they were quick to locate a bird, not least because one was sitting prettily on a branch singing lustily and unmistakably. It was well within range of Tom’s massive lens; more of a struggle for my modest camera (below). Caught the cobwebs, though…
I was astounded by the beauty and variety of the song. It consisted of very varied notes and phrases, each repeated 3 or 4 times before moving on to the next sounds in the repertoire. Here is a short 18 second example I recorded, using my unpatented iPhone method, for which seeHERE.
For those with interest in birdsong, here is a longer 1:13 minute song from the same bird, with largely different sounds from the first recording made minutes earlier. There’s even a decent stab at imitation of a 1960s Trimphone™. Had we not had to move on to Sandy Point for an appointment with some cattle egrets and American kestrels, I could have stayed listening for far longer.
THE ‘SUBSPECIES’ THAT WASN’T…
More recently, on a trip in backcountry to find Kirtland’s warblers – we saw 4 – the slow-moving truck jolted to halt in the middle of nowhere. This was because a Bahama Mockingbird was right by the track. I fired off some quick shots out of the window into a rather difficult light, to find that we appeared to have found a new subspecies, the scarlet-faced mockingbird.
The reason was clear, however. The bird had been pigging out on some red berries, and had managed to collect plenty of the juice round the base of its beak.
SO WHAT DOES A NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD LOOK LIKE, THEN?
I photographed the Northern Mockingbird below in a garden at Casuarina. The species is far tamer than its cousin, and seen side-by-side they are clearly very different. The range maps show the stark contrast between the very limited range of the Bahama Mockingbird and the vast distribution of the Northern Mockingbird.
Photos Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 6); Peter Mantle (2); Charlie Skinner (3); Keith Salvesen (4, 7, 8, 9); Alex Hughes (5); Susan Daughtrey (10). Range maps eBird & wiki.
One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed toBIRDWATCHING, a more committed-sounding enterprise with its own Wiki entry, that may require equipment, books & mag subs…) is to spend some time observing them enjoying themselves. Perhaps you have a feeder, and like to watch the birds getting stuck into the seeds, carelessly flicking the husks around and throwing their ‘feeder shapes’ on the perches. Maybe you like to see the hummers, beaks deep into the little red plastic flowers on the rim of the sugar-water feeder, tiny bodies motionless and upright, wings a glistening blur of rapid movement in the sun.
Well, join me at Sanderling Bath Time on the Delphi Beach. We are the north end, where the exposed rocks of the reef curve round towards the beach. At low tide, there’s a sandbar bridge from beach to rocks. It is a perfect feeding area for shore birds. Sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, least sandpipers, Wilson’s plovers and the prized piping plovers forage happily together here.
Towards mid-tide on the rise, the water begins to creep round the rocks and encroach onto the sandbar. At high tide, it is well under water and fish are back in residence. Small sharks sometimes hang in the waves just behind their breaking point over the shallow sand. And so the tidal process repeats. But ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and become frothier as the water pours in. And it’s an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…
Substantial immersion is not out of the question…
These moments don’t last long. Soon the increasing force and height of the water spoils the fun, and the flock will suddenly take flight and move south a little way along the beach, away from the rocks. There’s the incoming tideline to play with – and more importantly, food to be uncovered with each incoming and retreating wave…