We saw this green heron (Butorides virescens) at Gilpin Pond, South Abaco. It’s an excellent location for waterbirds and waders, although in hot weather when the water level drops an algal bloom colours the water with a reddish tinge. The coppice around the pond is good for small birds; parrots pass through on their daily flights to and from the forest; and the beach the other side of the dunes can be excellent for shorebirds.
We watched this heron fishing for some time. I took quite a few photos of the bird in action, including its successes in nabbing tiny fish. However there were two problems with getting the perfect action shot. First, the bird’s rapid darts forwards and downwards, the fish grabs, and the returns to perching position with its snack were incredibly quick. Secondly, my slow reactions and innate stupidity with camera settings militated against a sharp ‘in-motion’ image to be proud of. So I’m afraid you get the bird having just swallowed its catch.
The brackish pond at Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks is generally a reliable place to find waterbirds. For those birding on South Abaco (in many respects, one big hotspot) Gilpin is definitely worth a visit at almost any time. Bear in mind it is (a) a longish private road (we got a puncture down there once…**) and (b) it is private land. However, the owner Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who bring only enthusiasm and take only pictures. Plus he very kindly changed our wheel!
We found this small Green Heron quite easily. We’d watched it fly onto a stump in the pond near the jetty, then fly closer to the shoreline. By tiptoeing onto the jetty, we could see the bird perched close to the water, inspecting it with a fierce and predatory eye. Both eyes, in fact.
The hunting technique is deceptively simple. Note the long sharp stabbing beak. Note the large feet and claws for gripping securely Here’s how it is done. As a fish is sighted, so the heron leans gradually forwards, beak dipping closer to the water, the body more streamlined to look at. The procedure is beginning in the image above.
The stance means ‘small fish – 5 feet off – moving left and closing – prepare to strike‘. As the prey unwittingly approaches, the bird slowly tilts further forward unless its beak almost touches the water, the quicker and closer to strike.
The actual strike is so rapid that it is barely possible to see with the naked eye, let alone to photograph it clearly (not on my type of camera anyway). But the end result is rarely in doubt, with a small fish struggling but securely held in that long, clamping beak. It will be down the heron’s gullet in a matter of seconds.
I left the heron as it settled slowly back into ‘scanning the water mode’ while I went to watch some lesser yellowlegs nearby. Some minutes later, the heron was still contentedly fishing from its vantage point.
ROUGH GILPIN CHECKLIST
Species we have found on and around the pond include black-necked stilts, little blue heron, great blue heron, tricolored heron, snowy egret, reddish egret, yellow-crowned night heron, the relatively rare and very shy sora, hordes of white-cheeked pintails, northern pintails, lesser yellowlegs, belted kingfisher, turkey vulture, smooth-billed ani, American kestrel, Bahama woodstar, Cuban emerald, Mucovy duck (Perry’ pet!) – and the green heron of course.
As a bonus, Gilpin has become an increasingly regular stop for raucous flocks of Abaco parrots. Rarer species found there include American flamingo (rare vagrant), brown pelican, double-crested cormorants, and limpkins. On the beach 5 minutes walk away, there are usually shorebirds including rare piping plovers, Wilson’s plovers, turnstones; gull and tern species; and passing tropicbirds & magnificent frigatebirds flying high over the water.
** I realise that strictly I should be saying ‘flat’ here, but that might be confusing for Euro-readers, who would understand that to mean that we had rented (or purchased) an apartment in a larger dwelling house containing similar accommodation.
All photos, Keith Salvesen except the cute chick, Charlie Skinner; and the cute cartoon GH, Birdorable…
There are a number of birding hotspots on South Abaco (defined loosely for avian purposes as south from Marsh Harbour). Most are attractive places to be; a few (e.g. the town dump) less so, requiring additional skills to avoid taking your long-awaited ‘life bird’ in a pool of grossness…
Always a good bet, Gilpin Point near Crossing Rocks is definitely worth a visit at almost any time, especially the brackish pond just inland from the shoreline. Bear in mind it is (a) a longish private road (we got a puncture down there once…*) and (b) it is private land. However Perry Maillis is always welcoming to tidy birders who bring only enthusiasm and take only pictures. Plus he very kindly changed our wheel! At the end of this post is a rough list of birds I have seen at Gilpin, with one or two that I know have also been seen there (photographic evidence!)
*I realise I should say we got a ‘flat’, but to me that would mean we had obtained an apartment. We are indeed “nations divided by a common language” (Attrib variously to Wilde, Shaw & Churchill)
We found this small Green Heron quite easily. We’d watched it fly onto a stump in the pond near the jetty, then fly closer to the shoreline. By tiptoeing onto the jetty, we could see it perched close to the water, inspecting it with a fierce and predatory eye. Both eyes, in fact.
The hunting technique is deceptively simple. Note the long sharp stabbing beak. Note the large feet and claws for gripping securely Here’s how it is done. As a fish is sighted, so the heron leans forward, beak closer to the water, more streamlined to look at.
As the prey unwittingly approaches the bird slowly tilts further forward unless its beak almost touches the water, the quicker to strike…
The actual strike is so rapid that it is barely possible to see with the naked eye, let alone to photograph it clearly. For me and my little Pentax, anyway. But the end result is rarely in doubt, with a small fish struggling but securely held. It will be down the heron’s gullet in a matter of seconds.
I left the heron as it settled slowly back into ‘scanning the water mode’ while I went to look at some Lesser Yellowlegs nearby
I returned a few minutes later. Scanning was still in progress, and the bird started the gradual ‘leaning forward’ process as it sighted a fish
Get ready to spearfish…
Epic success for the heron, epic fail for the photographer…
“Ha ha Mr Human with your funny black clicky thing hanging round the thing that attaches your head to your body. I was too quick for you. Who hasn’t got the hang of shutter speed yet? Eh? I win the fish. I win the game…”
ROUGH GILPIN CHECKLIST
Species we have found on and around the pond include Black-necked Stilts, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Sora, hordes of White-cheeked Pintails, Northern Pintails, Lesser Yellowlegs, Belted Kingfisher, Turkey Vulture, Smooth-billed Ani, American Kestrel, Bahama Woodstar, Cuban Emerald, Mucovy Duck (pets!) and – for the first time this year – Green heron. As a bonus, Gilpin has become a regular stop for flocks of Abaco Parrots. Other species found there include American Flamingo, Brown Pelican, DC Cormorants and Limpkin. I’ve no doubt there are shorebirds on the beach such as Wilson’s Plovers, various gulls to be identified, and passing tropicbirds & magnificent frigatebirds high over the water.
VOLUNTARY MUSICAL DIGRESSION
‘The Hunter’ is a well-known Albert King / Stax song from 1967 with elements reminiscent of many blues songs and lyrics before that. The best known versions are probably the one by Free (‘Tons of Sobs’ 1968), which is un-improvable and definitive; and the doff of the cap by Led Zeppelin towards the end of ‘How Many More Times’… However ‘Pacific Gas and Electric’ made a pretty good stab at the song, also in the late ’60s
Abaco has six ‘true’ heron species (putting aside the various egrets): Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The Green Heron Butorides virescens is a permanent resident and is easily distinguishable from the other heron species. The header picture by Tom Sheley is one of many wonderful photographs he took for THE BIRDS OF ABACO, and is one of the most striking. This is a bird actively hunting, keeping very low with eyes fixed on the water, waiting for the chance to use that long sharp bill to snaffle its prey – small fish, frogs and aquatic insects.
There are thought to be 5 sub-species of green heron within the range, but this is a matter for anguished debate (not by me). However, the resident variety in the Bahamas has been designated Butorides virescens bahamensis since 1888 (Brewster), so I’m going along with that.
Green Herons are most likely to be seen in or near water – the margins of brackish ponds or amongst the mangroves, for example. Their foraging is mostly done in water, usually at dawn or dusk.
You may encounter one on the shoreline or beach…
…but they don’t always choose the most scenic locations
Green Heron are known to drop food, insects, or small objects such as stones on the water’s surface as bait to attract fish or other tasty creatures. They are thus classified as one of the animal kingdom’s 44 (?)TOOL-USING SPECIES, considered a sign of superior intelligence.
Green Herons may also be found perching in trees
Occasionally they may be seen out at sea – this one from an offshore BMMRO research vessel
The Golf Course at Treasure Cay is an excellent place to go bird-watching. There is always plenty of bird life on the 3 ponds there, the one on hole #11 being the biggest and most abundant. If you are going to bird there, call in first at the Clubhouse and ask for permission: they are very kind about it, but they do need to know who is out on the course. And since the pond is alongside the fairway, keep your wits about you – you are a potential target for the sliced drive… (ok, ok left-handers – hooked, then).
The 2 images above are from Charlie Skinner, and show a green heron adult and chick putting the Golf Course drainage pipe to good use. Captions invited for the top one. Birds often seen at this particular location include green heron, white-cheeked pintail (lots), common gallinule (moorhen), coot, Canada goose, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, and blue-winged teal. You may also see little blue heron and smooth-billed anis. Once I found a least bittern in the background of a teal photo – I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I checked the photos there it was in the reeds behind the ducks. Another good place to bird if you are in the TC area is White Sound.
Credits: Tom Sheley, Woody Bracey, Nina Henry, Tom Reed, Rick Lowe, Peter Mantle, Charlie Skinner, Wiki
POSTSCRIPTI’ve just commented HEREon the supposedly phonetic call-sounds attributed to birds to render them recognisable by man – the “What’s-for-dinner-Martha, what’s-for-dinner” and the “Give-me-a-drink-please…NOW” and so on. So when I was borrowing the range map from Wiki I was amused to see this: “The green heron’s call is a loud and sudden kyow; it also makes a series of more subdued kuk calls. During courtship, the male gives a raah-rahh call with wide-open bill, makes noisy wingbeats and whoom-whoom-whoom calls in flight, and sometimes calls roo-roo to the female before landing again. While sitting, an aaroo-aaroo courtship call is also given”. So there you go.