BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS


Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’s finches. So, we are “common”, huh? Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS

  • Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
  • Both sexes build the nest together
  • Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
  • Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
  • They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
  • Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (1)

May 15th is – was – Endangered Species Day worldwide. I missed it, of course I did. Typical. So, belatedly, here’s the first of a short series highlighting the Endangered Species of Abaco, Bahamas. It will include a couple of species formerly found on Abaco but now extirpated and hanging on in tiny numbers in specific habitats in the wider Bahamas archipelago. Regrettably, much of the endangerment has been caused, or substantially contributed to, by a dominant species that tends to prize self-interest over broader considerations.

ABACO PARROT

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

These gorgeous and beloved parrots nest uniquely in limestone ground burrows in the island’s protected National Park in the south of the island, a vast area of pine forest. They are the big success story of Abaco conservation. I was fortunate enough to become tangentially involved with the parrots just as years of patient research and intensive fieldwork were beginning to impact positively on a dwindling and barely sustainable population (fewer than 1000 birds). Adults and particularly the chicks in breeding season were very vulnerable to the attentions of feral cats, non-native racoons and rats. Nests were protected, cameras were deployed, and predators eradicated.  

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot Nest & Chick, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala)

The work of scientists such as Caroline Stahala was (and still is) supported by local organisations such as Bahamas National Trust and Friends of the Environment Abaco. Local communities lent valuable encouragement and enthusiasm to the project. No one can fail to be uplifted by the sight of a flock of these parrots flying overhead, flaunting their bright green, red and blue feathers that flash in the sunlight. Even the sound of a flock squabbling in the trees like noisy children just let out of school is a joy. Here’s a sample, recorded at Bahama Palm Shores: see if you agree…

Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

10 years on, these gorgeous, raucous and intriguing birds have made a comeback, and the pleasure of their continuing visual and audible presence is hopefully secure. 

Credits: Nina Henry (1, 2); Caroline Stahala (3); Keith Salvesen (4) and audio clip

 

CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)


CUBAN PEWEE: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (12)

Cuban Pewee, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

The Cuban pewee Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the crescent-eyed pewee) is the smallest of the four so-called ‘tyrant’ species found on Abaco. These flycatchers are tiny compared with their kingbird cousins. You can clearly see the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which helps to trap caught insects.

Like other flycatchers, the Cuban pewee has distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. These are in fact feathers that have modified into bristles. They act as tactile sensors that help detect and target aerial insects. The pewee will then dart from its perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel (known sometimes as ‘hawking’), returning to the branch to swallow the snack.

Of all small unassuming brownish birds – and there are a great many – I consider the pewee to be one of the prettiest. It is also rewarding to photograph, being inquisitive by nature and as likely to pose for the camera as to fly away.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

 

SMALL BEE FOR GOOD CHEER


SMALL BEE FOR GOOD CHEERSmall Bee - Pollen-covered Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

I photographed this little bee a couple of days ago (nb not in Bahamas). Watching it foraging and getting covered in pollen was curiously relaxing, even though it kept moving from flower to flower with no regard to my camera focus. Life is so bizarre at the moment that it was good to see a creature happily getting on with its everyday life. 

Photo Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

 

RED HIBISCUS FLOWER: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (8)


Red Hibiscus Flower, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

Not much in the way of a caption needed here. As the poet said:  “He that loves not the Hibiscus has a Soul assuredly viscous…”

EASTER BUNNY: OUT STANDING IN ITS FIELD


EASTER BUNNY: OUT STANDING IN ITS FIELD

Rabbit, Dorset UK (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Well, strictly more lying down than standing I suppose, not least because it had sensed me. When I was one-and-twenty* rabbits were a-plenty… and I might have shot it with a bun gun. Then I decided that shooting with a camera was the better way forward. 

*Nod to A.E.Housman; also to my erstwhile online natural scientist friend who led an outdoorsy life and blogged as ‘Out Standing in my Field’, a self-referencing ID never bettered.

LUNAR SEA + CRATERS = SUPERMOON


LUNAR SEA + CRATERS = SUPERMOON

Supermoon - annotated mapping (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

This is not the ‘pink’ supermoon you saw the other day, but one from a couple of years back. I only had a bridge camera with me with a cheapo 1.7 teleconverter, but luckily a sturdy windowsill as well to reduce the shakes (that kind, anyway…). I marked a few prominent features on the image. Some of these took me back to a childhood astronomy book (‘Imbrium!’; ‘Nubium!’) where I learned about stars well beyond Orion, Ursa ma. & mi., and Cassiopeia – about the only constellations I can reliably point to these days. 

This week’s supermoon shone very brightly where I am now, but the moon itself was rather hazy. It certainly wasn’t pink but rather more of a pale cold white. As it turns out, the ‘pink’ doesn’t refer to the lunar colouring anyway, but to the full moon in Spring that occurs when the early-blooming wild pink comes into flower. So, it’s a seasonally-based name and a bit like the harvest moon not being harvest coloured…

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)


GREEN HERON: PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (6)

Green Heron, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

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.

Photo: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)


CUBAN EMERALD (f): PICTURE PERFECT ON ABACO (3)

I spent a wonderful 15 minutes with this little Cuban Emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii), which I found perched on a stick in a small clearing in the coppice at Delphi. I was several feet away when I first noticed it, so I spent some time inching forward towards it. Even from a distance, the metallic sheen of the feathers glinted in the bright sunlight. The bird watched me, tame and unruffled, as I approached. I took photos as I moved closer so that if it flew off at least I’d have something to remember it by. In the end it let me get so close that I could almost have touched it. When I’d taken some close-ups, I backed very slowly away. The little beady black eyes followed my retreat with interest. The bird was still happily perched on the stick when I lost eye-contact with it. In the end I was more moved (in one sense) than it was (in another).

Credit: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD


Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

‘EGYPTIAN MUMMY’ (aka MOTHER GOOSE) & HER BROOD

This post has little to do with Abaco, and only a tenuous connection with the Bahamas. It is about birds, though, so I’ll justify it that way. This is today’s news and these are photos I took this morning in a park that is less than 10 minutes walk from our house. The reason? I’d heard that goslings had been seen at the small lake there, remarkably early in the year for any bird.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Gosling (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

I had expected that this rumour related to the Canada geese that lord it over the smaller waterfowl (moorhens, coots, mallards, tufted ducks and so on). What I saw, as I got close to the lake, was a pair of Egyptian geese Alopochen aegyptiaca. And, true to the report, they had goslings with them. There were 10 in all and they were jointly and severally (as we lawyers say) totally adorbs and charmsy.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

These are birds of Africa, but – like Canada geese – have spread far and wide mainly as the result of introduction by man. The Egyptians considered them sacred and featured them in hieroglyphs. Modern man has deemed them ornamental (cf peafowl) and removed them from their home to pastures new. Geese are robust, so they adapted in their new environment with relative ease. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

As with many other transferred species, birds inevitably escaped from their ‘owners’ and feral populations soon became established. In Abaco terms, this is exactly what happened with the peafowl that were brought to the ‘Different of Abaco’ fishing lodge. The birds survived its demise, lived and bred in the increasingly wild grounds, and are now many generations on.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

At some stage, the Egyptian goose was introduced in Florida, where it thrived. Nowadays it is not a particularly unusual bird there.  It remains one of the birds of south-east US that has never made the relatively short journey to Abaco. There are however a handful of reports from Grand Bahama, New Providence and Eleuthera, so northern Bahamas is in range.

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

It’s probably only a matter of time before these geese turn up on Abaco. Five years ago, the first BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS were found, a flock of 6 seen several times as they progressed from Crossing Rocks north to the airport. There are still the occasional sightings of these ducks, the last about 2 weeks ago north of Marsh Harbour. The Egyptian goose is a fine bird and part of me (the part that doesn’t disapprove of avian introductions) hopes that they do occasionally undertake the journey from the flocks in Florida. 

Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

That’s all, folksEgyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Craig Nash)

ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS

As the intensive Hurricane Dorian relief operation continues on a devastated Abaco, the extent of the destructive power of the huge storm is all too evident. Gradually restored communications and the availability of social media have circulated far and wide the awful photos and aerial views of the smashed island, and the tragic stories of loss and desolation. Accounts of astonishing courage, determination and generosity are for all to see. And, nearly 4 weeks later, we have early signs of recovery and grounds for hope in a stricken land.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

For the last 10 days or so, inquiries about Abaco’s birds and other wildlife have begun and are increasing daily. I take this as a sign that people are at last able to look slightly beyond the immediate horrors of the storm to the brighter horizon of the future. The iconic parrots are the principle concern, and finally – finally – I have some good news to bring. Here it is, in all its glory.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas post hurricane Dorian (Tara Lavallee)

I have been waiting anxiously to pick up the first reports of parrot sightings – or even of their raucous squawks. This iPhone photo was taken yesterday at Bahama Palm Shores by Tara Lavallee. You are looking at the first photograph of the parrots since the end of last month. This pair were apparently wary and jumpy – quite unlike the unselfconscious rowdy birds with which we are so familiar. There was a sighting near Casuarina, too. It looks as though the parrots are returning.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

WHERE HAVE THE PARROTS BEEN IN THE MEANTIME?

The parrots live and breed in the Abaco National Park right down in the south of the island. This is a vast area of pine forest that gives way to scrubland as it nears the coast. The assumption is that the approaching storm will have driven the parrots deep into the forest where, happily, they will have been some distance away from the destructive path of the hurricane. Many creatures can sense the approach of bad weather from changes in the air around them. This may trigger an instinct to head for home some time before the threat arrives. 

ONCE THEY GET THERE, WHAT DO THEY DO?

They lie low. The parrots have an additional and most unusual way to stay safe. They can avoid the dangers of adverse weather and even forest fires because they live and nest underground in limestone caves deep in the National Park.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

HOW RARE IS THAT?

The Abaco parrot (as opposed to its tree-nesting cousins in Inagua and in small numbers in Nassau) is unique in this respect, certainly in the northern hemisphere. There are half-a-dozen mostly inter-related species in the Antipodes that nest underground, but that is all. Even if the caves get flooded, limestone is a permeable rock and water will dissipate. And as for fires, the holes are deep enough for the flames to pass over them. Tree-dwellers are far more vulnerable.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

DOES THIS MEAN THE PARROTS ARE ALL SAFE?

It’s much too early to judge, because there is another vital component in their survival: the availability and sufficiency of suitable food. This is the factor that most worries those concerned with the parrots’ welfare – the BNT, the scientists and naturalists who helped to bring the species back from the edge of extinction, and organisations further afield such as Birds Caribbean. So it’s a question now of where they will find to feed; and beyond that, how they respond if they find their usual feeding haunts trashed. 

Feeding on Gumbo Limbo berries, a favourite snackAbaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

SIGHTING REPORTS

The signs are that the parrots are now emerging and looking for food. With luck their presence will become more noticeable. This is an important moment for collecting stats. They will help research into the effect of Dorian on the population including the wellbeing of the birds, their flocking behaviour, and the locations they now find to their liking. The fact that parrots have been seen at BPS, the parrot hotspot, is encouraging. 

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (from a photo by Craig Nash))

If anyone sees or even hears parrots over the next couple of weeks I’d welcome a report either directly or indirectly. The most helpful details are date, time, location and approx numbers (1, pair, a few, lots). Beyond that, behaviour notes are of interest – feeding, chattering, hanging round, being unsettled and so on. A photo is always a bonus, even a phone one. 

Parrot Crossing sign Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Do not doubt the resilience of these beautiful birds. Now that the threat of extinction has been removed through skilled  conservation, management and predator control, they will win through. If you doubt it, just look at this image below. It shows a nest in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Irene, with its occupant safe and sound as the parents forage for food and parrot scientist Caroline nips in with her camera.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Caroline Stahala Walker)

Credits: Craig Nash (1, 9); Caroline Stahala Walker (2, 4, 6, 7, 11); Tara Lavallee (3); Keith Salvesen (5, 10); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Melissa Maura (12)

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF


Abaco (Bahama) Parrot - Melissa Maura

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF

ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GO FUND ME BIRDS

For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.

Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.



‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed. 

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK.  Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through their DORIAN RELIEF FUND .

A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book.  Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.

Cuban Pewee, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)


The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays. 

The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.

Reddish Egret, breeding colours - Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.

Keith Salvesen

Rolling Harbour Abaco

Photo Credits: Melissa Maura – Abaco Parrot (1); Alex Hughes – Black-necked Stilt (2); Sally Salvesen – book jacket (3); Tom Sheley – Olive-capped Warbler (4); Keith Salvesen – Cuban Pewee; Reddish Egret in breeding plumage (5, 6)

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT


Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

HERRING GULL STUDIES: EYE CONTACT

Getting close to a herring gull is not a particularly heroic act, and yet… they look quite intimidating. The glint in the eye is somewhat evil. And they can be fairly aggressive when the mood takes them. I once had my scalp raked by a herring gull when I got too near a breeding area on a small island in Scotland. It got me from behind. There was blood. Plenty of it. It was my own stupid fault, and a lesson learned.

 Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Behold a fine herring gull stepping ashore with its beady eye fixed on me. Behold it starting to advance towards me in a purposeful way… Then it noticed the camera and decided to pose instead of attack.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

One complication for amateur birders is that these (and other) gulls take 4 years to reach maturity and the full adult plumage shown here . We’ve all seen those huge browny-gray-speckled babies crying pitifully to be fed, when they are nearly the same size as the food-providing parent. Over those few first years the plumage goes through several stages, and other colour changes – eyes and feet, for example – take place. Eventually they get to look as handsome as this one.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

I photographed the bird featured here only last week, on the south coast of Ireland, which is a bit of a cheat. Strictly, you are looking at a European herring gull, although the differences from the American ‘Smithsonian’ herring gull is relatively small. I’ll say ‘negligible’ for present purposes.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THE RED BLOB ON THE UNDER-BEAK?

Good question, and one that historically was the subject of hot debate in ornithological circles. The short answer is that scientific investigation and experimentation led to the conclusion that the red blob is a kind of feeding cue for chicks, a target area for them to aim for food or to peck to say they are hungry. Some other gull species also have this clever beak feature.

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

“HAPPY FEET”

As we all know, there are gull species with yellow legs (not least the apty-named yellow-legged gull in Europe). Herring gulls have decidedly pink legs and feet, and interestingly constructed ones at that. This isn’t the moment for a lot of technical blurb about it – just take a look at these 2 images. Extraordinary, huh?

Herring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling HarbourHerring Gull FEET Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

RELATED POSTS

LAUGHING GULL 

BONAPARTE’S GULL

RING-BILLED GULL

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Herring Gull Studies (Ireland) - Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

 

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO


Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

WAVE CHASERS: SANDERLING POOL TIME ON ABACO

It’s often a hard decision whether to include a short piece of video footage in a post. By short, I mean less than a minute. On the one hand, there is usually a good reason for inclusion, even if only aesthetic. On the other, it simply takes up more time for busy people who may prefer to flick through an article and enjoy some nice images along the way. Today, you can have the best of both worlds.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Sanderlings are definitively ‘peeps’, a group name that embraces the smallest and squeakiest sandpiper species. They are the wave chasers, the tiny birds that scuttle along the beach, into the retreating tide for a snack from the sand, and back to the beach again as the waves creep in. Their little legs and feet move in a blur, and many people immediately think of wind-up clockwork toys as they watch the birds in action.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.

I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.

Waves and incoming tide getting a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Next to the migratory PIPING PLOVERS that favour Abaco as their winter home, the wave chasers are my favourite shorebirds. My keenness on them killed my camera. I went out into the incoming waves to get shots back at the beach with the sun behind me. Great idea until I lost my balance with, as they say, hilarious consequences. Lesson learnt – never turn your back on waves.

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour taken on the beach at Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS: STEP AWAY FROM THIS INSECT


Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

SPIDER WASPS  & TARANTULA HAWKS (PEPSIS WASPS)

I’ve recently had a flood of online hits for a creature I wrote about several years ago. It’s an aggressive-looking insect that I found in the coppice on South Abaco. I have revisited and revised the original article, with some better images than my own original ones. I could only get a partial shot of the insect, and I wondered whether to try to reach it and get a more complete shot. Perhaps I could have, but very fortunately for for me (as it later turned out) I didn’t touch it.

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

This creature turned out to be a Spider Wasp (aka Pepsis Wasp), of the Pompilidae family. The insect is familiarly known as a Tarantula Hawk, for reasons give in unsparing detail below. For it turns out that this creature would be the hardest bastard insect on Planet Bastard in the Galaxy Bastardium. 

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk - TheCrotalusfreak

It’s lucky that I didn’t try to try to collect it to keep it in a matchbox (if those even exist now).  Note, for start, the scary eating apparatus… and it’s not for nibbling leaves as I had thought, but chopping up small insects. The leg claws and barbs are for pinning down its prey. You would not believe how unpleasant these little buddies are –  and that’s before we even mention the sting…

SPIDER WASPS IN ACTION

These wasps are known in some countries as “horse-killers”. There are many species around the world, with 6 subspecies, one of which being the Tarantula Hawk or Pepsis Wasp – so-called because it hunts tarantulas and uses them in a most ingenious and cruel way… NB the BNT have rightly pointed out that these insects are unaggressive to humans. If you leave them alone, they will spare you. I’ve also read that “The tarantula hawk is relatively docile and rarely stings without provocation” Now read on to see if it might be sensible to provoke one or not.

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk - astrobradley

SCARY CRITTERS & LIVING LARDERS

(Trigger Warning: this is really rather gross)

SPIDER WASPS are ‘solitary’ insects that feed on ground spiders/ tarantulas by stinging them to paralyse them, then eating them. In the most sinister way, the females also make use of spiders for breeding purposes. Hear this! They build a nest in a burrow, find a spider (a tarantula for choice), paralyse it with their sting, drag it to the nest and lay a single egg on its abdomen. Then they seal up the burrow. 

Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk mshandro

When the egg hatches, the larva chews a hole on the spider’s abdomen and enters a living larder. It gradually eat its host as it grows. The spider’s vital organs are left till last, so that the spider stays alive as long as possible until the larva has reached full-size. After several weeks, the larva spins a cocoon and pupates (often over winter). Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, bursts Alien-like from the spider’s abdomen (deftly evading Ripley), and tunnels out of the burrow… 

Do NOT try this at home or more than 10 yards from a medical centre Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk _ Paul Nylander

SPIDER WASPS: MORE FEARFUL FACTS

  • Their hunting improves with experience – the more spiders they eat, the quicker they find, attack & kill them
  • Males use ‘perch territories’ to scan for receptive females from a tall plant or other vantage point, a behaviour known as HILL-TOPPING
  • Adult wasps also feed on a variety of plants for nectar & pollen. They may become intoxicated on fermented fruit, which affects their ability to get around (I think we’ve all been there at some time…)
  • The female Pepsis gets her spider in two main ways: approaching a tarantula causing it to rear up defensively on its legs, thus exposing its abdomen to the sting or
  • She locates a tarantula’s burrow, using her sense of smell. She tricks the spider into emerging by tweaking the web at the burrow’s entrance or ‘intruding’ (see video below)
  • The wasp uses her long stinger to stab her prey. The poison rapidly paralyses the spider. She then drags it to her burrow, lays her egg onto the tarantula’s abdomen, seals the burrow and leaves. Job done
  • The hooked claws and barbs on the wasps’ long legs are weapons for grappling with victims
  • The stinger of a female tarantula hawk can be up to 7 mm (1/3 inch) long – and the sting is among the most painful insect stings in the world (see below)
  • Only the females sting (males may pretend to) because the stinger is linked to the ovipositor (egg-laying organ)
  • You can distinguish females from males by the curled antennae of the female. Mine was therefore female
  • The Pepsis wasp has (unsurprisingly) very few predators, though apparently roadrunners and bullfrogs may tackle them

Here is a hypnotically fascinating 3-minute video of the life-or-death struggle

SPIDER WASP  –v-  TARANTULA 

THE STING

The sting of these wasps is among the most painful of any insect, though the most intense pain lasts on a few minutes. Entomologist Justin Schmidt bravely submitted himself to the stings of various insects and described this pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” 

Schmidt produced his SCHMIDT STING PAIN INDEX The pain scale, based on 78 species, runs from 0 to 4, with 4 awarded for the most intense pain. Spider Wasps of the species Pepsis – i.e. Tarantula Hawks – have a sting rating of 4.0, described as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath” Only the bite of the Bullet Ant – and the sting of the Warrior Wasp – is ranked higher, with a 4.0+ rating, vividly described as pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel”

LIGHT RELIEF AFTER THE PAIN

1. In 1989, New Mexico chose the Tarantula hawk wasp as the official state insect. The choice seems to have been left to schoolchildren and I’m guessing here (or gender-stereotyping) but I suspect it was the boys’ choice that won…

2. Tarantula Hawk is a “psychedelic progressive metal band” from San Diego, Ca. Their short discography includes their debut Tarantula Hawk (CD/LP, 1998); Burrow (Live CD, 2000, self-released); and Untitled. The cover of their debut provides the perfect ending for this post, vividly depicting the colour and texture of the swirling fiery pain you could experience (and I don’t really mean from listening to the music…) 

UNDOUBTEDLY PAINFUL EXPERIENCE

ARGUABLY PAINFUL STING

Mr Gordon Sumner

AN ENJOYABLE STING

Credits:  Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1, 2, 7); TheCrotalusfreak (video clip) (3);  astrobradley (4);  mshandro (5); Paul Nylander (6)


Spider Wasp / Pepsis Wasp / Tarantula Hawk Abaco Bahama (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

BOUQUET OF ABACO FLOWERS (1): HIBISCUSES


BOUQUET OF ABACO FLOWERS (1): HIBISCUSES

‘HIBISCUSES’ as the plural for more than one Hibiscus schizopetalus looks wrong somehow (hibisci?) but is in fact right. It’s similar to the problem with the correct PLURAL OF OCTOPUS, a name that is also of Greek and Latin origin. The ‘schizo’ part reflects the division of the petals (though this characteristic surely applies plenty of other species).

Pink Hibiscus (with Polydamus Swallowtail) Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The flower above is being visited by the familiar and lovely POLYDAMAS SWALLOWTAIL or Gold-rimmed butterfly. They are extraordinarily difficult to photograph when their wings are open – they flutter by, and carry on fluttering non-stop. I have always found it hard to get an entirely in-focus open wing shot. And when I say hard, on reflexion I don’t think I ever have…

Elegant coral hibiscus

The hibiscus is kind of mallow, a large and colourful family found throughout the world in warm-to-hot areas. Apart from the bright colours and pretty looks, the plant makes for a nice cup of tea (cf camomile tea) that some say may help to lower blood pressure.

There’s a lot of technical stuff to say about the petal construction and leaf forms, but I prefer to leave you to look it up if you want a deeper analysis than I am minded to give. I love flowers to look at and even to grow – who does not – but unlike the mechanics of birds, botanical intricacies seem *whisper* quite dull.

IS THERE A STIGMA ATTACHED TO THESE FLOWERS?

Yes indeed, but not in the more common usage for disgrace, disrepute or dishonour. In the botanical sense, it is the central part where the pollen of a flower is to be found. It’s the part that the bees are looking for.

A massive stigma

Besides the tea / blood-pressure reduction benefits of hibiscus mentioned earlier, the plant is used in many places round the world for folk medicine for a variety of ailments. I don’t actually know if it is used in the Bahamas, where bush medicine certainly has its place in the treatment of some conditions. Any comments on this would be welcome.

All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO


Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

SANDERLINGS: A POOL PARTY ON ABACO

One of the pleasures of watching birds (as opposed to BIRDWATCHING, 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. 

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

It is 5.30 pm. The sun is sinking in the early evening sky. The tide is on the rise at the north end of the Delphi beach where the reef joins the land. There is a small spit of sand that will be covered quite soon, but meanwhile two dozen sanderlings mixed in with assorted ruddy turnstones are doing their idiot feeding thing, rushing around on their tiny legs, stabbing in the sand, and generally behaving like clockwork toys on speed. Meanwhile a handful have found the fun to be had in the swirling tide as it pours round the head of the reef onto the sand spit. Yes, it’s sandpiper bath-time!

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

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.

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

For the sanderlings, the best part of the day is when the tide is rising. At ± mid-tide is the time for the shore birds to bathe in the tidal pools that form – and as the water pours in around the end of the rocks, it froths like an overenthusiastic bubblebath. Right then is an excellent time to sit peacefully on the beach and watch the entertainment…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

Substantial immersion is not out of the question…Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith SalvesenSanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

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…

Sanderling Bath Time, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas - Keith Salvesen

All photos © Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO


Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

NO LAUGHING MATTER: A DISHEVELLED GULL ON ABACO

By the end of day 2 during my recent stay at Sandy Point, I thought that I had had just about enough of the laughing gulls Leucophaeus atricilla. They are delightful of course, and (in small doses) a joy to listen to. But their incessant outbursts of humour were getting beyond a joke.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The next day, on the nearby jetty, the gulls were in full cry. A lone brown pelican stood on top of a piling, looking out to sea. A few Royal Terns turned their faces, characteristically, into the light wind. I wandered over and slowly walked down the jetty. This generated some laughter, but the birds were quite content to watch me edge slowly towards them.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Probably, the gulls feel safety in numbers. Maybe they hope the din will send you away. Or perhaps, if approached very carefully, they are simply curious. I got close to the birds, and one in particular caught my eye. It was plainly having a bad-feather day. I took it to be a non-breeding adult, but it lacked the white spots on the tail-feathers (primaries). Maybe it was a first winter juvenile. Whichever, it was happy to pose for me.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

I realised, of course, that the jetty belonged to the birds, including the ruddy turnstones that had just joined the gang at the end of the jetty. I was the intruder in their world, and I had willingly visited their territory. So their racket was entirely their business, and absolutely none of mine**.

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHAT DO LAUGHING GULLS SOUND LIKE? ARE YOU OVERSENSITIVE?

I made a couple of short recordings of the gulls in full humour mode. If you have never heard them before, you might want to listen to the full 30 seconds. For anyone else there’s a convenient lull at around 15 secs before they kick off again.

Breeding adult (Birdorable)

**In the UK there’s a thing where someone buys an attractive cottage next to the c15 village church. Then they discover that the clock chimes. And the bell-ringers practise their art on Monday and Thursday evenings. And on Sunday all hell breaks loose, especially if there is Sunday cricket on the village green in the mix. And the occasional ball being hit into the flowerbed. So, complaints are made to the Council, noise abatement orders are sought, legal letters fly round the Parish. And everyone hates the newcomers. Adopting village life with no research? Way to go!

All photos + audio clip: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO


Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘BIRD ON THE WIRE’: LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD ON ABACO

I’m just back from Abaco. Mostly, it was about Marine Mammals (i.e. whales, dolphins, manatees) and the biennial Retreat for the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). There was still time for some birding in Sandy Point, though. It’s a good place at any time for bird-watching BUT the settlement is rather remote. Specifically it is the terminus of the single 120-mile Highway that stretches south from Little Abaco in the north. Then the tarmac abruptly runs out and gives way at once to white sand. If that doesn’t halt you, you’ll wish your vehicle was amphibious… 

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead kingbirds, with their hooky flycatcher beaks, cresty hair and dashing yellowish undersides, are intriguing companions. If they get interested in you (or maybe your camera bleep, as I have discovered), they will accompany you on a walk, flying ahead until you catch up, then doing it again. And if they are ‘hawking’ for flies from a favourite perch, they are fun to watch and… a big bonus… they won’t stop because you are spectating.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Like all the Bahamas flycatchers, from the little cuban pewee upwards, the Kingbirds have a charming way of cocking their head to one side or dropping it down towards their chest. Slightly posey, always endearing.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION

‘Bird on the Wire’ was originally sung by Judy Collins, though written by Leonard Cohen. His own definitive version from 1968’s ‘Songs from a Room‘ is arguable the best known recording and preceded several hundred later cover versions. LC is a really “difficult” artist, however. Many will agree with his expressed view that the song is ‘a prayer and an anthem’. Others might say that it is simply growly dirge-like maundering. The (then-modish) mouth-harp twangling in the background may also be an opinion-divider. Since I have shoehorned Cohen’s song title into my blog title, you might as well have the song too, for contemplation. Is it a life-affirming ‘upper’ or a funereal ‘downer’? You be the judge!

Photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour, Sandy point, Abaco.

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO


Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“MEET THE FLOCKERS…” ON ABACO

I’ve been checking out jetties at Sandy Point, of which there are several. They look a bit rickety but are in fact sound except for having to step rounds piles of (empty) conch shells and occasional evidence on the timbers of recent fish-cleaning. This is a time of Laughing Gulls, and I have been recording their raucous hilarity. I may add a couple of sound files when I’ve downloaded them.

Sharing a jokeLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Right now, ruddy turnstones and laughing gulls seems to have formed a team of jetty birds, with a few royal terns in the mix and (as here) a random sanderling. The turnstones like to lie down in the hot sun on the jetty, possibly because it’s a bit breezier than on the burning sand of the beach.

Exhausted from turning stones

Random sanderlingRuddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

These jokers are wild…Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The jetties also attract pelicans, which use them to sun themselves and also to fish from. I will post about these remarkable birds another time. The largest flock of them I have seen so far is 5, one with a gold ‘breeding crown’.

Ruddy Turnstones, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

The gulls also spend time on the beach, and flock on the sandbars that emerge at low tideLaughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen

Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)