‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: UNWELCOME NEWS


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. These are Audubon’s Shearwaters, also known as Dusky Petrels. They are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco. Three others (Cory’s, Great and Sooty) are rare transients; and the last – the Manx – is a very rare off-course vagrant.

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. As in previous years, a few of the birds that succumb may be Great Shearwaters mixed in with the Audubon’s. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote two detailed posts about the situation. This bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from the mainland and the cays from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks, all duly mapped to get the overall picture. 

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some are still alive, but in a very poor state. The prospects for recovery for birds that were captured and cared for were not good.

Audubon's shearwater - Kinlarak / wiki

Two years on, and the melancholy cycle is repeating itself. A few days ago, Melissa Maura, an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater, now being cared for by Melissa Maura

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looks to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). The cause is probably a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor fishing conditions out at sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay a couple of days ago
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds is not that good. They may have been carried a long way from open sea and they will be exhausted and starved. Those that are strong enough may recover naturally; but most will sadly die, being too weak and emaciated to survive. There is no available facility able to deal with a large number of very poorly or dying birds.
The most practical advice I can give is:
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this seems to be working, then carry on until the bird is strong enough to fly (this may be quite a commitment)
(5) do not reproach yourself if a bird you try to help dies. Many will be in such bad shape by the time they are washed up that they are unlikely to survive whatever steps you take
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
I’d be interested to hear any other accounts of this year’s dieback, especially of any recovery stories. By all means do this as a comment, or email me, DM, or FB.
Credits: thanks to those  on Abaco who have been reporting this event over the last few days; Dominic Sherony (1); Melissa Maura (2, 5); Keith Kemp (3); Kinlarak / wiki (4); Rhonda Pearce (6); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell  (7); )Richard Crossley / Crossley Guides for the composite picture

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD: RARE LEUCISTIC VARIANT ON ABACO


Leucistic Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD

RARE LEUCISTIC VARIANT ON ABACO

The header image is of a Bahama mockingbird recently photographed by keen-eyed Abaco birder Keith Kemp. It is a thing of wonder and beauty, exceptionally rare and possibly unique. I can find no other example of a leucistic bird of this species online.

This is not Keith’s first leucistic bird discovery on Abaco either – a while back he found a leucistic Western spindalis. You can read more about leucism and its distinction from albinism, and see a number of other examples of leucism including a white turkey vulture HERE

Leucistic & Normal Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

Even more astonishingly, Keith managed to get a photo of the ‘white’ bird and a ‘normal’ bird together (above). The difference is startling. Below is a fine photo by Peter Mantle of a Bahama mockingbird, as you would expect to see one – basically brown with a pale, flecked front / underside.

Bahama Mockingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)

LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?

I’ll recap what I wrote in the earlier post linked above. First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. For example:

Albino Rabbit (pinterest)

Albino Fwuffy Bwunny Wabbit

WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?

Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused by pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally pale or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected – so, not pink. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.

KK’s leucistic Western spindalis, an example of partial or ‘pied’ leucism

Leucistic Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp) Leucistic Western Spindalis, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

So there you have it: another extreme rarity for Abaco, and a further example of how rewarding – and surprising – birding on Abaco can be. To repeat the link to the more detailed article on leucism in birds, you can find with (*distraction alert*) some music and inappositely comedic material thrown in HERE

All photos Keith Kemp except the ‘normal’ bird, Peter Mantle

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO


Black-legged Kittiwake (Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org / Wiki

BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE: A RARE SPECIES FOR ABACO

I recently posted about the sighting of an entirely new bird species for Abaco, the CINNAMON TEAL. Almost at once, another species was sighted – not a new one, but in the next category of rarity, the V5 and V4. ‘Vagrant’ birds that have been credibly recorded on Abaco / in Abaco waters fewer than 5 times – and maybe only once – are classified as V5 or ‘accidentals’.  Birds seen a few times more than that, but irregularly and unpredictably (‘casuals’) are V4s. One such is the fine black-legged kittiwake, also known as the seahawk and a close relative of gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Yathin S Krishnappa / Wiki)

During the Abaco Christmas Bird Count in December, avid birder Keith Kemp and a small group were checking the beach at Crossing Rocks. In due course he uploaded a list of birds seen, with selected images, to the excellent eBird site. This included a royal tern. Or make that “royal tern”.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)It wasn’t long before sharp-eyed Bruce Purdy from Cornell contacted Keith to say “You shot a picture of an adult non-breeding black-legged kittiwake!!!!!!!!”. This was confirmed by Bruce Hallett, author of the definitive field guide to the birds of the Bahamas.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

As Bruce Purdy commented:

“This is the first kittiwake reported that I know of in the last 20 years.  Tony [White] shows a few reports but I don’t know if they were documented.  Probably not since most people just started carrying cameras, so you may have the first documented kittiwake… It is a great find”

So you are looking at (almost certainly) the first photographs of a kittiwake ever taken on Abaco. Actually, make that the Bahamas – no others are shown on eBird for the whole region; the nearest being a handful of sightings on the Florida coast.

STOP PRESS Keith’s sighting was in December 2017. The very day I pressed ‘publish’ on this post, January 30, two people immediately contacted me to say they had seen this bird in the Crossing dock area in Marsh Harbour! Thanks to Philip Sawyer and Nancy Albury for their sharp eyes and immediate response. Neither managed to get a photo, but two independent witnesses on one day in the same location make for a compelling ID. I imagine this is the same bird (rare enough as a single – the first in over 20 years – so exceptionally unlikely as a pair). Maybe there are rich fish pickings to be had in the MH harbour area.

Any further reports would be most welcome; a photo would earn the theoretical Kalik reward…

Black-legged Kittiwake (Keith Kemp)

These kittiwakes are a pelagic species, birds of the open sea. They spent most of their time over the ocean, where they live on fish. However, they return to land to breed – often on cliffs, and in large, noisy, nesting colonies. Here’s a very short idea of what that might look and sound like.

Keith’s Kittiwake was way out of its normal range. This map shows just how far.

I always like to include an image of a species under discussion, as it was depicted by one of the early pioneers such a Mark Catesby or (as here) Audubon.
Black-legged Kittiwake (Audubon)

I’ll round off the story with another great source for comparative images – especially as between sexes, ages and seasons – the Crossley guide. The image below comes from the guide to Britain & Ireland, where kittiwakes are not uncommon locally where there are cliffs. Keith’s bird was in winter (non-breeding) plumage, as seen below, top left.

Kittiwakes (Crossley ID Guide Britain / Ireland)

Credits: Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (1); Yathin S Krishnappa (2); Keith Kemp (3, 4, 5); RSPB Britain (video); Audubon (OS) (6); Crossley Guide (OS) (7); range map Wiki

CINNAMON TEAL: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO


Cinnamon Teal (Michael L Baird, Wiki)

CINNAMON TEAL: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO

Picture the scene. You take a camera to photograph the winter ducks on a local pond on South Abaco. Suddenly you notice something strange and out of place out there. Something unfamiliar. It’s a duck for sure; but not one you’ve ever seen before in your life. Maybe it’s one you know about. Maybe you have no idea what it is at all, and have to identify it later on from a book or online. Anyway, you take some shots before it dabbles off into the overgrown margins of the pond, and leave with a modest air-punch: it’s a “lifer”. 

Keith Kemp, principal monitor for Abaco Piping Plover Watch, has just had this experience. There, on the local pond with the blue-winged teal, was a stranger. For him, a “lifer”. And as it turns out, for Abaco also a “lifer”. The only record of one I have found for the Bahamas is a single vagrant sighted on Andros (see range map below). Here are Keith’s unique photos of Abaco’s first Cinnamon Teal.

Cinnamon Teal, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)Cinnamon Teal, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)Cinnamon Teal, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)Cinnamon Teal, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

The cinnamon teal (Spatula cyanoptera) is a dabbling duck species found in western North America, and in South America. They live in and around marshes and ponds, feeding mostly on pond-weed and plants, along with any attached aquatic insects. On the range map below, note the single red dot in the Bahamas denoting the single vagrant sighting on Andros.

The duck is named for the overall colouring of the adult male has a cinnamon-red head and body; and it has startlingly noticeable orange-red eyes . The adult female, as is so often the way, is rather less showy –  a mottled brown, with a pale brown head, brown eyes, and a grey bill.  For those who like comparisons, it resembles a female blue-winged teal, a few of which are shown above (not the ones with the white stripe on the face, which are male blues). 

Cinnamon Teal pair(andeansolitaire wiki)

Since the publication of BIRDS OF ABACO in 2014, with its comprehensive checklist of all recorded species since 1950, several new species have been sighted on Abaco. The latest was only last month – the SCALY-NAPED PIGEON. Now we have a new species of duck. Conveniently, there’s no other ‘regular’ duck species quite like it. So if you see a pretty cinnamon-coloured duck on a pond near you, you’ll be looking at the newest ‘Bird of Abaco’. And if you do see one, please share the news!

Cinnamon Teal (Dick Daniels, carolinabirds.org Wiki)

Credits: Michael L Baird (1); Keith Kemp (2, 3, 4, 5,); ‘andeansolitaire’ (6); Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (7); special thanks to Terry Sohl / sdakotabirds.com for use permission for his range map; cartoon by the inimitable Birdorable

LARK SPARROW: EXTREMELY RARE VISITOR TO ABACO


Lark Sparrow (Nature Pics Online / Wiki)

LARK SPARROW: EXTREMELY RARE VISITOR TO ABACO

There’s a category of bird in the Bahamas known as a ‘V5’. The V stands for vagrant: a ‘foreign’ bird that ends up on Abaco by pure mischance. Whether through meteorological mishap (a storm for example) or navigational error, a bird that ought by rights to be found elsewhere turns up. That’s the first part of the rarity. The second part is that someone actually sees it, knows what it is (or may be) and reports it.

Lark Sparrow (Francesco Veronesi / Wiki)

The 5 part of V5 means that historically there may have been one, perhaps two previous reports of that species. Ever. More than 5 separate sightings, and the bird slips into the far less exclusive V4 category. The only category rarer than a V5 is an H. This stands for hypothetical, a bird that has been ‘credibly reported’ but where further confirmation is needed. Often, that never comes.

Lark Sparrow, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp / Christopher Johnson)

The lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) is a fairly large sparrow, familiar enough in parts of the US and Canada. Until this August, there had only been a couple of reports on Abaco since records began. I’m not aware of any photographs from those sightings. Then in August, birder Keith Kemp was at Bahama Palm Shores bird-spotting with his keen-eyed nephew Christopher, who saw a sparrow-like bird fly into low grass near the beach. Keith managed to take a couple of photos of it, and later on checked his bird guides for ID… and lo! a lark sparrow. These are most likely the first photos of the species ever taken on Abaco – and there’s nothing like a photo, however hard to take, to provide confirmation of a sighting.

Lark Sparrow, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp / Christopher Johnson)

Photo Credits: NaturePicsOnline / Wiki (1); Francesco Veronesi / Wiki (2); Keith Kemp with Christopher Johnson, Abaco (3, 4)

 

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY, PIPING PLOVERS & IRMA


Piping Plover (Danny Sauvageau)

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY, PIPING PLOVERS & IRMA

Sept 6 2017. World Shorebirds Day dawns, even as the huge Cat 5 Hurricane Irma makes landfall over the small islands of the eastern Caribbean. Irma’s path has been relentlessly westwards, for sure – but the path has been unnervingly variable. The tracking reports showed Abaco successively as being in line for a direct hit; then taking a sideswipe from the south; then completely clear of the cone prediction; then within the northern edge… and today, a right hook to the east suggests again that Abaco will take a hit from irma (though as a predicted Cat 4 or maybe 3).

Hurricane Irma Tracking Path Sept 6th 2017 Wunderground

Far down the list of concerns in such a situation come shorebirds. Most if not all the islands that Irma will affect have wonderful shorebirds, both permanent and migratory. On Abaco my personal preoccupation is for the tiny Piping Plovers and our citizen scientist annual 6-month WATCH. Generally, the birds manage to find some cover at the back of the beaches to hunker down until the worst is past. But generally the beach populations are rather different after the storm, as birds scatter and take cover. 

Well, except this little guy who decided to take a windy bath on the Long Dock at Cherokee during Hurricane Matthew as it passed over Abaco last October (and props to Keith Kemp for braving the elements to get this shot!)

Birds are resilient and resourceful. Humans too. But nature unleashed with full force is a terrifying prospect. From a safe distance of 4250 miles from Marsh Harbour, thoughts and best wishes from Rolling Harbour will be with all those in the path of Irma over the next few days. 

Piping plovers on the Delphi Beach, at a more peaceful timePiping Plover, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Photos: Danny Sauvageau, Keith Kemp, Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour; Graphic by Wunderground

SHEARWATER DIE-OFF ON ABACO: UPDATE


Great Shearwater (part of a die-back event on Abaco) - Dick Daniels

SHEARWATER DIE-OFF ON ABACO: UPDATE

A week ago I posted about the reports of dead and dying Audubon’s shearwaters being washed up on various beaches on the Abaco mainland in and around Cherokee Sound and down to Bahama Palm Shores. I included some advice about how to deal with these poor birds. You can find the post HERE.

Piping plover monitor Rhonda Pearce found a couple of struggling shearwaters in the seaAudubon's Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

The very next day, reports began to emerge of another species, great shearwaters, being found dead or in a distressed state just off-shore or washed up on beaches. Reports were fewer, but covered a wider area, including a bird in a very poor condition at Delphi. Great shearwaters were the ones involved in the die-back event 2 years ago. 

Audubon's Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Rhonda Pearce)

Keith Kemp, who made one of the earlier Audubon shearwater reports, found a young great shearwater in trouble in the sea while he was out in a kayak off Cherokee Point. He rescued it and took all sensible precautions to nourish it and make it comfortable but sadly it did not last the night. He has frozen the bird as a specimen in case analysis will help to explain this die-off event.

Great Shearwater - part of a die-back event on Abaco (Keith Kemp)

As I wrote before, these birds of the open ocean may become weakened and exhausted if fishing conditions become adverse. They will drift weakly with the tide, dying at sea or washing up in a very poor state in the tideline or on beaches.  Their prospects of survival if rescued is sadly very slim – I have not yet heard of a success, though I would love to…

Great Shearwater (part of a die-back event on Abaco) - Dick Daniels

Thankfully, during the past week, reports have gradually diminished. I’ve not seen one for a couple of days. With any luck, the current die-off is now over and will not be repeated for several years. However, another one will certainly happen, I’m afraid – maybe in 5 to 10 years time, the usual gap. Twice in two years has made for very bleak, distressing news.

A more cheerful post will be next, I promise. Meanwhile, any further reports or comments would be welcome.

Photo credits: Dick Daniels (1, 5), Rhonda Pearce (2, 3); Keith Kemp (4)