BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD


Piping Plover Bahama Mama, Michigan / Abaco (Carol Cooper)

BAHAMA MAMA: BIG NEWS ABOUT A TINY BIRD

The bird in the header image is the presciently named Bahama Mama in Muskegon State Park, Michigan – so, one of the rare Great lakes piping plovers. She originally hatched and was banded as a chick in 2014 at Tawas MI, some distance away from Muskegon. When later named in 2015 by Muskegon monitor Carol Cooper, no one could possibly have known then where she would chose to overwinter. The Bahamas, as it turned out – the avian equivalent of nominative determinism.

Piping Plover Chick (MDF / Wiki)

This little bird is the perfect example to demonstrate the success of (a) an organised monitoring and recording system in the breeding grounds of these rare birds; (b) the use of easily identified coded banding and (c) the deployment of ‘citizen scientists’ to back up the professionals in the overwintering grounds such a Abaco.

A combination of the three factors leads over time to the compilation of a life story. Invariably there will be gaps, but let’s take a look at what we know about Bahama Mama, in her own dedicated timeline. Note two things: her beach fidelity; and the evidence of mate infidelity…

  • 2014 Born Muskegon State Park, MI
  • 2015 Nested with Little Guy and raised chicks. Winter location unknown
  • 2016 Returned to Muskegon and again successfully nested with a new male, Bear, from Sleeping Bear Dunes Park MI. (Little Guy went off with another female on the same beach…)
  • 2016 Resighted in October on Long Beach Abaco and stayed for several months
  • 2017 Back at Muskegon and raised chicks again with Little Guy
  • 2017 Again resighted  in October on Long Beach Abaco and overwintered
  • 2018 Back at Muskegon, initially back with Little Guy, eventually nested with Enforcer

The official record of the latest union – evidence of fickleness

This summer 4 chicks  were hatched. Sadly, one of them (Ringo, 2 pics below) was lost, presumed predated, leaving 3 to fledge.

Bahama Mama with one of her chicksBahama Mama & Chick, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Little Ringo RIPRingo Piping Plover, Muskegon MI (Carol Cooper)

Another of the chicks

These are rare and threatened birds, vulnerable at both ends of their migration for all the usual reasons. The studies undertaken at both ends of the migration have revealed astonishing beach loyalty in these little birds that travel up to 1500 miles (sometimes more) every Spring and every Fall to be somewhere safe to nest and breed; and then to overwinter. In Michigan, Carol Cooper is Bahama Mama’s mama, watching over her, recording the details, checking when she has left the beach, and anxiously watching each Spring for her arrival home.

On Abaco, these duties – pleasures, even – are undertaken by ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH and the team of citizen scientists who keep an eye on the beaches, count the birds, note the banded birds and photograph them for ID, and pass the info on to HQ (which happens to be me). The data from all sightings is collated and then the season’s stats are compiled and provided to the scientists involved. Here’s a summary of stats for last season: 

Abaco Piping Plover Watch Stats 2017-18 (Keith Salvesen)

Bahama Mama, first sighting on Long Beach Abaco Oct 2017Bahama Mama Piping Plover, Long Beach Abaco (Keith Kemp)

Photo Credits: Carol Cooper (1, 3, 4, 5, 6); MDF (2); Keith Kemp (7). Special thanks to Carol Cooper, monitor in Michigan; and to Keith Kemp, primary monitor on Abaco. Also to Todd Pover CWFNJ and all the other real scientists involved for the last 3 years

POLITE REQUEST

If you live on Abaco or its cays anytime between August and March and might be interested in helping with piping plover research by becoming a monitor, please get in touch with me. It’s very simple and undemanding. A beach stroll from time to time – even as little as once a month – with a notebook, pencil, binoculars, a chocolate bar and (preferably for accurate ID of banded birds) a camera. Not a dog, though. Not on this walk anyway! Every report, even of a single bird, adds to the picture. Last season there was more than one ‘citizen scientist’ sighting of a plover where none had been seen before. 

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING


Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

WHERE’S THE CATCH? A REDDISH EGRET FISHING

The narrowest point on Abaco is just north of Crossing Rocks. The 120-mile long highway that splits the Island down the middle passes over a narrow strip of land. On the west side, there are mangrove swamps, an inlet of sea, and a small jetty used by bonefishers to reach the productive waters further out. On the east side? Well, there’s more mangrove swamp, giving way to thick jungly coppice before reching the top end of Crossing Rocks beach – and not much else. Except for a long thin brackish pond by the road, that is. 

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you are interested in birds – maybe on your way to the pond at Gilpin Point for Bahama Duck and waders, or returning from a Bahama mockingbird hunt in the National Park – it’s worth pulling over at the pond. Or preferably on the other side of the road so you can approach it stealthily. There’s plenty of roadside cover for birder discretion. Chances are, you’ll encounter one or more of the several heron or egret species found on Abaco – and that they’ll be fishing.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

You can see how clear the water can be. It’s no wonder that this reddish egret has ‘hunched up’ to get that cruel beak closer to the surface to stab down on a small silver snack. In the short time we watched, he had no success (hence ‘Where’s the Catch?’ – there was none). But I’ve seen reddish egrets including the white morph successfully snacking at the pond; and a tricolored heron. A couple of years ago we had a great scoop in late March – a male reddish egret fishing in his wonderful breeding colours. Compare the ‘routine’ plumage of the bird above with this gorgeous creature.

Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

And to show I am not making up the fishing part, a shot of this bird actually making a catch…Reddish Egret Fishing, Crossing Rocks, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”


Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

THICK-BILLED VIREOS ON ABACO: “NIDIFICATION”

“Nidification” was one of the new words I learned from the wonderful book Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (a different one – for the full story behind the name click HERE). It means, essentially, the nesting process of a bird. It sounds pleasingly technical for a straightforward concept: nest-building.

Soft furnishings being addedThick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

I spotted this TBV making its nest on the edge of the drive at Delphi. I usually think of these cheerful chirpy birds as ‘lurkers’, hanging back in the coppice and not making themselves easily visible. But this nest was right out in the open – possibly not the wisest place for nidification.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

If you look up TBV’s in bird books, you may find a reference to nest building in the fork of shrubs or bushes – exactly what was going on here. It quite a messy nest, but then again it looks comfortable and firmly wedged in.

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Although I only saw one of the pair actively engaged in the building, another TBV was ‘vocalising’ (there’s another technical term, = singing) nearby, presumably the mate. In a way that humans have been slow to adopt, both birds will be actively involved in raising their family, from incubating the eggs to chick care – feeding, cleaning out the nest and so on. 

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE WHEN THEY VOCALISE?

Let’s hope for a successful outcome to the nidification…

Thick-billed Vireo nesting - Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

All photos Keith Salvesen, also the sound recording (made at Delphi)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO


American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

AMERICAN KESTRELS BEING CREATIVE ON ABACO

I don’t usually hold back from using (my) bad photos if there’s a reasonable excuse to do so. There’s a reason here. So here are a few bad photos. This sequence of mating kestrels was taken at a considerable distance, after I’d seen a bird fly into a pine tree out of the corner of my eye**. I couldn’t make out what species it was with the naked eye or through the viewfinder, so I took an ‘ID shot’ to enlarge later on. The image below is it – and a clear enough blur to say AMKE. Then I carried on taking pictures.

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

The header image came next as I realised there was another bird flying in from the right. Then the sequence below: the male mating with the female at once, dispensing with preliminaries; the male moving off along the branch; the female following a short way up the branch; then the male eventually flying away. 

American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour) American Kestrels mating, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour)

And that was that: all over in no time at all; all captured on camera; all finding its way onto the internet before you can say K@rd@shi@n tape. Let hope some good comes of it. Some baby kestrels would be good…

These photos were taken at Bahama Palm Shores, one of the go-to hotspots on Abaco for great birding including the gorgeous parrots. A new local initiative has seen the building of a tall platform overlooking a secluded lake that offers birders a great view of the birdlife there. But that’s a topic for another day.

All photos: Keith Salvesen

**This is badly written, I do realise – no, it didn’t literally fly out of the corner of my eye, that’s just how I happened to see it.

SCALY TALES: CURLY-TAILED LIZARDS ON ABACO


Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

SCALY TALES: CURLY-TAILED LIZARDS ON ABACO

The northern curly-tailed lizard Leiocephalus carinatus, to give it its full name, resembles a tiny dragon with a twist in its tail. These little critters bask in the sun, or scuttle away into holes and crevices as you approach them. I suspect that even a confirmed herpophobic would find some charm in them. They are, of course, completely harmless to humans. 

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Charles Skinner)

Surprisingly, the Bahamas is home not just to one but five different curly-tail species, and nine sub-species. Broadly-speaking, the variants are found on different and specific islands and have discrete local markings. Mostly they are brownish, but they may also be grey or with a greenish tinge like this one I recently photographed.

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen) Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Curly-tail males, being very territorial, turn somewhat aggressive around breeding time, which is basically most the the year, from February to October. Behaviours indicative of their territorial claims include tail curling / uncurling (of course), head-bobbing, strutting about in an agitated way and inflating the sides of their necks in a threatening kind of way. The tiny-tails, 2″ long when born, are known as ‘hatchlings’.

An impressive ‘double curly’ by the pool at DelphiCurly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

THREATS TO CURLY TAILS

According to the Bahamas National Trust BNT, the main dangers to the curly-tails of the Bahamas are:

  • Dogs, cats, rats and introduced predators such as raccoons
  • Collection for the pet trade – curly tails are unprotected by CITES listing (also cute)
  • Collection of the rarer endemics by reptile enthusiasts seeking ‘exotics’
  • Development and habitat destruction (though it is noted that curly tails seem to adjust well in developed areas)

A curly tails sloughs its skin as it grows, as with snakes and other reptilesCurly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Charles Skinner)

WHY THE CURLY TAIL?

  • As mentioned above, for use in territorial posturing
  • In courtship displays by males to attract females (luckily a method not available to humans)
  • As a response to predators, confusing an attacker with movement at both ends
  • As a last resort, to detach to aid escape (the tail re-grows)
  • For fun and just because they can grow one and you cannot

Curly-tailed Lizard, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: all photos, Keith Salvesen except #2 & #6, Charles Skinner; BNT

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS REVISITED ON ABACO


LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS REVISITED ON ABACO

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER Myiarchus sagrae is one of 3 permanent resident ‘tyrant’ flycatchers found on Abaco, the others being the CUBAN PEWEE and the LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD. In the summer, they are joined by another commonly-found species, the GRAY KINGBIRD. There are other flycatchers, but they are seasonal, transient or vagrant, and far less common. 

Two classic LSF poses: ‘head-on-one-side’ & ‘watching-for-insects’

I have just been watching one of these frankly rather very cute little birds as it patiently watched me watching it. I wasn’t very close, and I kept my distance because it seemed a little wary and I didn’t want to blow the chance of a couple of photos – the familiar ‘bird-flies-off-just-as-shutter-pressed’ syndrome.

Sized between the little cuban pewee, with its diagnostic crescent eyes, and the larger loggerhead kingbird (see below), the LSF shares with them the ability to raise its crest. I was luckily able to catch this on camera – and also some singing.

As the name suggests, the species is primarily insectivore, fly-catching in the undergrowth and low scrub or ‘hawking’ from branches. However these birds also eat berries and seeds. Their call is a high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’. Here’s a Bahamian example.

Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto

The LSF’s natural habitat is coppice and rough scrubland. It builds its nest in a tree cavity or similar natural hole, and usually lays a clutch of two to four eggs. And this morning by coincidence, Abaco birder Rhonda Pearce posted a photo of a LSF nest with its eggs.

ID CONFUSION

Here are the two flycatcher species, mentioned above, that might cause confusion:

CUBAN PEWEE

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris (1798–1871)

For those who may be wondering who – or what – a ‘La Sagra’ is, the answer is: a multi-talented Spanish botanist. He 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 arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be an oxymoron…)

[I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, or a small comet – all of which meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…]

To continue with the occasional PHILATELIC theme of this blog, 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 the LSF. The colouring is… somewhat unrealistic!

Credits: All photos Keith Salvesen except nest (Rhonda Pearce) and loggerhead kingbird (Mrs RH); recording by Paul Driver / Xeno-Canto; stamps O/S

AGGRO ON ABACO: ‘PARROTS OF THE CARIBBEAN’


Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

AGGRO ON ABACO: GOTCHA!

‘PARROTS OF THE CARIBBEAN’

Mmmmm… gumbo limbo berries at Bahama Palm Shores. My favourite evening snack as we parrots head south to the National Park in the evening. 

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

There’s a flock of about 60 of us tonight. I hope I’m left alone to get stuck in – there are plenty of trees to choose from here…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Uh oh! That was never going to happen. We are a noisy rowdy gang, and no one gets to eat alone for long…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

This is really bad news… this guy’s hungry, and he’s swooped in higher up the branch, so he’s got an advantage.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Time to take a stand. I’m getting on a level with him. I was here first – these are MY berries… But he’s getting shouty. And there’s aggro in the air…

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Right, I’m backing off here. I never did much like gumbo limbo berries, now I come to think of it… And he looks mean as hell. But wait – I’m not just going to back down. Let’s give him a little surprise to remember me by.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

GOTCHA!

Abaco (Cuban) Parrots, Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Photo sequence taken at BPS (North) around 17.00, when often the parrots flock to the gardens and surrounding coppice on their way home in the south of the island; raucous recording also made at BPS on an earlier visit. All ©Keith Salvesen