‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND


Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

‘FILLYMINGOS’, BIRD BOOKS & JAMES BOND

My favourite bird book, in a fairly large collection, is my treasured 1947 ‘first printing’ edition of James Bond’s Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies. It is not especially rare, and one can still be had for under $200. The price is rising – about 5 years ago mine cost $80, in excellent condition, with intact dust jacket and protective cover.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

This renowned reference book has since had many subsequent incarnations – if you are interested, you can find the whole story including how Ian Fleming chose to name his Double-O hero after an ornithologist HERE. I have several later versions, including 1960 and 1985, where the source material forms the basis. However the latest book of the same name, by Norman Arlott published in 2010, is a completely new offering with a wealth of useful detail. It is good – but it isn’t Bond!

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

The 1947 Bond is commonly described as the First Edition, and sold as such. But as some will know, it is in truth the second edition of Bond’s famous book, which was originally published in 1936. This was made clear in the copyright info to the 1947 edition; but seems to be rather less prominent in later editions.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A true first edition – very rarely on the market –  now comes in well north of $2000, unless in poor condition and without the all-important dust jacket (with rare books, the “DJ” seems to be almost as important as the book itself, especially if in “VGC”).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

My edition of Bond’s book has a strange quirk in the title. It’s not exactly a misprint, more of a variation that was probably unintentional. The jacket proclaims it to be a field guide of  birds of the West Indies, as does the book’s front cover and frontispiece. However the book’s spine and the page preceding the Introduction state that it is a field guide to birds of the West Indies.

Flamingo nests, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

One of the great charms of ‘Bond’, besides the elegance of his writing, is that he includes the Caribbean-wide local names for the birds he features. Thus the mangrove cuckoo is variously known as a rain bird, rain crow, four o’clock bird, and coffin bird. The black-faced grassquit might be a blue-black, a see-see, or a johnny-jump-up. And a flamingo could be a flamenco, a flamant – or a fillymingo.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

These reflections on one of the great bird books of the 20th century were prompted by a request I received from someone wanting a good image of a Bahamas flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber (the National Bird) to illustrate what is effectively a research paper about Bahamas natural history. Often with such inquiries – I get quite a few – I can supply images from my own archive.  Other times I am able to source images from generous people who give use permission (non-commercial) in return for a credit.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

For the flamingos, I only had images of a single vagrant bird that turned up at Gilpin Pond, Abaco a few years ago (Birds of Abaco p25). It looks rather sad and lonesome in the photos; within a matter of weeks it was gone. 

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

None has been reported on Abaco since, though once they were plentiful. Before this lone specimen, there was an attempt to reintroduce the species on the brackish ponds at the fishing lodge ‘Different of Abaco’, Casuarina. The lodge is long-since defunct, as are the flamingos (the PEACOCKS are flourishing however).

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Luckily I knew who to turn to for flamingo pictures: Nassau resident Melissa Maura, a person deeply involved with the wildlife of the Bahamas and far beyond. Melissa has spent time with the flamingos of Inagua which has one of the world’s largest breeding colonies  – well over 50,000 – of these gorgeous birds in its National Park, overseen by the Bahamas National Trust.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

The flamingos of Inagua now thankfully receive the protection that was sadly lacking in c19 Bahamas, when their vast numbers were radically reduced by mankind, leading to extirpation on many islands where they had been plentiful. Hunted for meat and for ornamental feathers; taken for trading, for collections, for zoos: there were no limits. CHARLES CORY noted at the end of c19 that masses of chicks were being killed before they even fledged; and that large numbers were sold to passing ships, on which they were simply left to die.

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Melissa has been fortunate enough to be on Inagua during the breeding season when banding takes place. So besides the adult birds in their orange-pink finery, she has been able to photograph the strange ‘mini-volcano’ nests (above) and the sweet, awkward-looking grey chicks. And with her kind permission, Melissa’s superb ‘fillymingo’ photos adorn this article. I believe the real James Bond would have been delighted to admire them; I hope that goes for you too.

All great photos courtesy of Melissa Maura, with many thanks

Flamingos & Chicks, Inagua Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…


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BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…

The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) is one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas and – like the similarly rare BAHAMA ORIOLE on Andros – it is confined to one island only, Grand Bahama.  At best about 1000 – 1200 mature birds may inhabit the pine forests though current estimates vary, and that number may be optimistic. What is clear is that, for all the usual reasons (see below) the population is likely to be decreasing rather than growing.

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Despite its  scarcity and size – this little bird is one of the smallest in the nuthatch family – the BANU is subject to much scientific debate in bird circles. Until a dozen years ago, it was simply considered to be a brown-headed nuthatch, a familiar enough bird in south-eastern USA. Then a research paper was published, which led to the bird being awarded subspecies status as the Bahama nuthatch S. p. insularis. Some argue further, that it should be considered a fully separate species and split from its cousin (as, recently, with the Bahama and Inagua woodstars in 2015). Others write as though this has already happened but as far as I can make out, it has not – though it might possibly happen once further researches have been completed and submitted (polite correction on this point welcome…).

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WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TO JUSTIFY SEPARATE STATUS?

Close investigation of the Grand Bahama population showed a number of significant differences between the island and the US populations. Having read and digested all the relevant research (NOT! Abstracts, maybe…), I discovered that the main distinctions are:

  • A longer, heavier bill (compare the header image of a brown-headed nuthatch in South Carolina with the second one of a Bahama nuthatch).
  • Shorter wings
  • Whiter belly
  • Distinctively different vocalisations

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IUCN RED LIST STATUS

Whether the BANU is a sub-species of brown-headed nuthatch or a fully separate species, the bird is incredibly rare. The population may be unsustainable without intervention (as implemented to save the Abaco parrots) – and the threat of extinction looms even as the bird begins to attract international interest. In 2016 the IUCN listed the BANU as ENDANGERED, meaning essentially that it faces extinction. ‘Critically endangered’ is the only higher category. The main reasons given for the listing were the small population, found on only one island, and likely to continue declining as a result of habitat loss & invasive species

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 WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES, I MEAN SUBSPECIES?

  • Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
  • Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
  • Competition from other bird species in a limited area

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HOW DO THESE BIRDS BEHAVE?

A few years back, Erika Gates, well-known Grand Bahama birder and guide, wrote an excellent article in her ‘Bird Talk’ column published in the Bahamas Weekly. It includes this description:

The Bahama Nuthatch exhibits several highly unusual and endearing behaviors. It is one of the very few bird species that conducts co-operative breeding, in which young males assist with nest construction, nest sanitation as well as feeding of the female sitting on the eggs, nestlings and fledglings. It is also one of the few birds known to utilize a tool. On occasion, it uses a bark chip, held in its bill, to pry off bark portions during foraging for insects and grub.

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SO IF I’M IN THE PINE FOREST ON G B, WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?

Sadly, there are no available recordings of a BANU**. As their vocalisation is one of the factors that differentiates them from the brown-headed nuthatch, it’s clearly not very helpful to illustrate what the latter sound like. But I am going to anyway, because they can’t be that different. It’s probably just a Bahamian accent. I have read somewhere that it sounds a bit like a squeezed rubber duck toy.

Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

** Feb 2018 I have just been contacted by Jeff Gerbracht, who has very kindly sent me a recording he made on Grand Bahama in 2011 on a trip with Bruce Hallett (a familiar name to regular readers of this site) and uploaded to the indispensable Macaulay Library. I must have overlooked it when I wrote the post. The links below are to the recording and to the species checklist from that occasion, including a photo taken by Rudy Sawyer, the third member of the party.

And yes, comparison shows that the 2 nuthatches do indeed have “distinctively different vocalisations” (see above); and that the Bahama nuthatch does not sound anything like a squeezed rubber duck…

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WHY MIGHT THESE BIRDS TURN UP ON ABACO?

Well, I’m being a bit romantic and optimistic here. But let’s look at the official distribution map from Birdlife International. Not so very far for even a small bird to travel. There are even some small cays as stepping stones. And just think of the thousands of acres of pine forest on Abaco, much of it remote and completely undisturbed. Maybe… if a breeding pair could just… you catch my drift? 

bahama-nuthatch-distribution-birdlife-org

Here is another instructive map, this time from eBird. These are the only BANU sightings ever recorded, and all since 2010. These birds are tiny. There are very few of them, spread over a wide area. They live in pine trees, and are to an extent camouflaged against them. You’d be very very fortunate to find one at all, let alone get a decent photo of it… Let’s hope you can spot one while they are still around.

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ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?

I have written elsewhere (in fact, HERE) about the ornithologist James Bond and his connection with Ian Fleming’s hero. The very rare first edition** of Bond’s seminal Birds of the West Indies was published in 1936. In it, he described the BANU and suggested it was a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch. A man way ahead of his time. 

PLEASE STOP NOW. ANY LAST WORDS?

“The species may become extinct unless Bahamians are willing to take action to save it. As the rarest bird in the Bahamas, and one of the rarest birds in the world, the nuthatch will become a high-profile symbol of conservation efforts (or their failure) in the Bahamas”. RESEARCHGATE

Photo credits: David Hill (BHNU) 1; Birdlife.org (BANU) 2; Bruce Purdy (BANU) 3; Robert Norton (BANU) 4; Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (BANU) 5; Matt Tillett (BHNU) 6, 8; Dick Daniels (BHNU) 7

Sound: Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

Addendum Feb 2018: Jeff Gerbracht for a BANU sound recording and species checklist

Research credits: Birdlife International /Birdlife.org; Birding Community E-Bulletin, Nov 2008; Research Gate; IUCN; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)

**The edition of James Bond usually described as the first edition (indeed in the book itself) was published in 1947. You might pick one up for $100 or so (try Abe.com), as I did. Don’t get one without a dust-jacket. It’s a treasure, and an affordable slice of avian history. A 1936 edition will probably be well north of $2000… 

“BEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS”: NEW BAHAMAS BIRD BOOK REVIEW


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“Over the Moon” (Abaco Parrot / Melissa Maura)

“BEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS”: NEW BOOK REVIEW

Published 2014 ~ 128pp ~ $20, available from the BNT

A fine new book on the birds of the Bahamas has recently been published by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST and BIRDSCARIBBEAN. Compiled and edited by well-known Bahamas bird guide CAROLYN WARDLE  with the BNT’s Lynn Gape and Predensa Moore, this slim book is packed with valuable information. It doesn’t set out to be an exhaustive field guide, a task already fully covered by Bruce Hallett’s indispensable Birds of the Bahamas and the TCI. Nor is it anything like my own photographic tome ‘Birds of Abaco’, differing in scope and intention, and weighing a mere 225 gms as opposed to 2 kilos! Beautiful Bahama Birds is eminently a book for the pocket, day bag or backback, to be carried along with your Hallett.

I have illustrated this review with photos of sample pages of the book, invariably the best way to give a clear impression of this kind of publication. Apologies that some of my images are a bit wonky, my copy being new and individual pages being hard to keep flat…

Beautiful Bahama Birds 1 Beautiful Bahama Birds 2

The photographs throughout the book are mainly the work of Linda Huber and the late Tony Hepburn. I was fortunate enough to be able to use some of Tony’s photographs for my own book, given with unreserved generosity; it is a fitting tribute to him that his images have now been published in Beautiful Bahama Birds, and that it  is dedicated to him.Beautiful Bahama Birds 3

An idea of the broad scope and of the book and its usefulness to the birder can be gained from the contents pages, which I reproduce here. Click to enlarge them. The book is arranged in 3 parts: Let’s Go Birding; Field Guide to 60 Common Birds; and Conservation Now.

Beautiful Bahama Birds 4Beautiful Bahama Birds 5b

PART 1 offers plenty of useful information and practical advice about birding in general (I wish I could have read this before I started my own book!). Anyone who loves birds will benefit from this whole section, even if they would not call themselves a birder – especially Chapter 3 ‘Getting Closer to Bird Life’.

Beautiful Bahama Birds 6  Beautiful Bahama Birds 7

PART 2 All 5 Bahama endemics are featured in the main section, which is handily divided  very broadly into ‘waterbirds’ and ‘land birds’. Some birds are commonly found on most islands; some have more limited range: for example the Bahama Oriole is now found only on Andros; and breeding populations of the Cuban Parrot are found only on Abaco and Inagua (the increasing number of sightings on New Providence give some hope for a breeding population there too). I’ve chosen the parrot because the underground-nesting subspecies on Abaco is so special; and the Flamingo and Bahama Oriole, both very sadly extirpated from Abaco in recent memory.

The illustrations by Tracy Pederson and Kristin Willams are clear and highlight well the identifiers for each species. Where necessary, species variations are shown, for example between sexes, breeding / non-breeding plumage and adult / immature. This can be a confusing and even fraught area (as I constantly find), which this book usefully addresses.  Some birds in flight are also shown to aid ID.

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Beautiful Bahama Birds 10

PART 3 covers the National Parks, important birding areas of the Bahamas, conservation matters, and a charming section on birds in Bahamian culture. Appendices include lists of Bahamas native plants and their importance for wildlife; National Parks and Protected Areas; important birding areas of the Bahamas; a Checklist; a Bibliography; and a user-friendly Index (not all are…).

 Beautiful Bahama Birds 13 Beautiful Bahama Birds 12

A good Checklist is a vital ingredient for any birder, whether visitor or local. Here, all the species occurring on the islands are shown on the left and their residential status and range throughout the islands across the top. Thus at a glance you can tell whether a given species is found on a particular island and when it may be found there. You would know not to look for Turkey Vultures on Eleuthera at any time; and that the black-bellied plover is a winter resident throughout the region and not to be seen during your trip in June…  I also like the tick-boxes on the left for species collectors.

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Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this small book and unreservedly recommend it. It does not replace Hallett, but it complements it. Furthermore, I’m sure the straightforward style and presentation will appeal to bird-loving non-birders and also to younger birders – it may even encourage some out into the field! On p.20 the recommended reading list includes books that would appeal to young readers and links to appropriate websites, a thoughtful touch. I have learnt, or been reminded of, much from reading this book a couple of times. It is a welcome addition to the relatively sparse avian literature for the Bahamas, a prime birding region that is home to an astonishingly wide variety of birds including rare, threatened and vulnerable species like the Parrots, the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Piping Plover.

BOOK LINKS

RH BOOK REVIEW PAGE

BIRDER’S GUIDE TO THE BAHAMA ISLANDS (Tony White)

JAMES BOND (LICENSED TO WATCH BIRDS…)

SAN SALVADOR BIRDS

DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO