Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)


Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

Least Sandpipers Calidris Minutilla are the smallest ‘peeps’ to be found on Abaco. There are plenty of other sandpiper species, but none so tiny as these. Take a look at the image above. See them? All 3 of them? Just look at their size in comparison with the mangrove stems.

Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

I took these photos from the sharp end of a skiff a few days ago, way out on the Marls and with a fishing rod tucked under one arm. We were on a drift along the shoreline, and these little guys were foraging on the water’s edge as we silently floated past.

Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

They were quite unperturbed by our presence, being far too busy feeding to be bothered with us. I have usually seen these little birds on the beach, busy in the wrack-line rootling out goodies. There, they look very small – but not nearly as tiny as when foraging among the mangrove stems.

Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

I debated whether to do some cropping to magnify the details on the page, so to speak, but then I decided that these very sweet creatures deserved their own space without the indignity of close inspection. Context is all.

Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

These mini-sandpipers may be Least by name, but they are very far from last in my personal list of favourite peeps. There are some down on the beach right now, but there’s some cloud cover today… I’ll wait for the sun to catch them in the best light.

Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)


Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla, Abaco Bahamas (©Keith Salvesen)

All photos: Keith Salvesen


Painted Bunting, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)


South Abaco – the whole area south of Marsh Harbour – provides by far the best birding opportunities for a day of varied birding. A recent party led by birding guide Reginald Patterson included Charmaine Albury in the enthusiastic team. She sent me their checklist for the day – 40 species covering an impressive range of bird types. Here is the list, to which I have added some illustrative photographs.

Abaco (Cuban) Parrot (Keith Salvesen)


1. Blackfaced Grassquit
2. Greater Antillean Bullfinch
3. Red-winged Blackbird
4. Gray Catbird
5. Abaco (Cuban) Parrots
6. Painted Bunting
7. Northern Mockingbird
8. La Sagra’s Flycatcher
9. Cuban Pewee
10. Yellow-throated Warbler

Western Spindalis, Abaco (Craig Nash)

11. Western Spindalis
12. West Indian Woodpecker
13. Cape May Warbler
14. Ovenbird
15. Eurasian Collared Dove
16. Common Ground Dove
17. Bananaquit
18. Red-legged Thrush
19. Turkey Vulture
20. Cuban Emerald Hummingbird
21. Thick-billed Vireo

Thick-billed Vireo, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

BPS Duck Pond

22. Blue-winged Teal
23. Green-winged Teal
24. Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)


25. Olive-capped Warbler
26. Yellow-rumped Warbler
27. Loggerhead Kingbird
28. Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)


29. Bahama Warbler
30. American Kestrel

American Kestrel, Abaco (Tom Reed)


31. White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail
32. Great Egret
33. Great Blue Heron
34. Tricolored Heron
35. Lesser Yellowlegs
36. Solitary Sandpiper

White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)


37. Laughing gulls
38. Ruddy turnstone
39. Sanderlings
40. Royal terns

Sanderlings, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

The checklist covers a broad range of birds that you might expect to see in habitats ranging from coppice to pine forest to water to shoreline. Most are permanent residents, with some winter residents (eg the painted bunting, Cape May warbler). Abaco specialities include the parrots of course, the West-Indian woodpecker and the olive-capped warbler.

And birds that might, on another day, be seen? Maybe the endemic Bahama Woodstar hummingbird and the endemic Bahama Swallow. At Gilpin Pond, black-necked stilts and perhaps a belted kingfisher. And at Sandy Point, brown pelicans fishing off the dock and the chance of white-tailed tropicbirds off-shore. But overall a ’40 day’ is a great day!

Great Egret, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

We are just back on Abaco last night, and without actually trying – and just from the balcony in about 20 minutes – we have scooped:

Turkey Vulture, Black-faced Grassquit, Bananaquit, Bahama Swallows, Loggerhead Kingbird, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and Thick-billed Vireo – also Oystercatchers heard from the beach. Time to investigate further…

Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Keith Salvesen (2, 5, 8, 9); Craig Nash (3); Gerlinde Taurer (4, 6); Tom Reed (7); Nina Henry (10)


Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)


The sounds are unmistakeable – a discordant chorus of soft chuckling noises like tongue-clicks as the RWTs flock into a bush, interrupted by harsh, metallic calls like rusty metal gate-hinges being forced open. Or maybe a lone bird mournfully repeating its eerie call from the mangroves far out on the Marls as the bonefishing skiffs slip silently along the shoreline. No other species sound quite like Agelaius phoeniceus.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)

The handsome males sport flashy epaulets, most clearly visible in flight or in display – for example to impress a prospective mate. Again, they are unlikely to be confused with another species.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The females, as is often the way, are less showy. I have just read that they are ‘nondescript’, which is unnecessarily harsh I reckon. Here are a couple of examples.

And the darker brown ones that are clearly not handsome black males? These are young males in their first season, before they move on to the full adult male plumage. Previously I had designated them females (as I had assumed) until very gently corrected by the legendary Bruce Hallett. Not only was Bruce an essential part in the production of the Birds of Abaco, he also keeps a benign eye on my posts and occasionally steps in to clarify IDs etc.  I took the first male juvenile at Casuarina, when I also made the sound recording (below). The second was at Delphi – and with some ‘light’ issues, I notice…

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Fledglings are kind of cute…Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley))


You may need to turn up the volume a bit. You will also here a lot of dove noise and, in the background, the sound of waves lapping onto the shore.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 4, 5, 8); Alex Hughes (3); Keith Salvesen (6, 7, 9 & audio)




The trouble with reddish egrets is simple: they come in two colourways. There’s the conventional one which is indeed reddish, as one might hope and expect. Then there’s the snow white type (or ‘morph’). That’s the one featured here (with the other dark variety below, for comparison).

Both types are common breeding residents on Abaco. There are theories about which kind outnumbers the other; on balance I’m not sure the difference is very significant. Maybe reddish are a rather more frequently encountered than white, but there doesn’t seem to be much in it.

Looking back at photographs I took last spring, I found a sequence of a hunting white egret. Now these are not exhibition-quality photos. They were taken quite far out on the Marls, and a fair distance from the skiff I was standing on the front (prow?) of.

I had a smallish camera, and a fishing rod tucked under my arm rather hoping not to hear the usually welcome call “Hey RH**, bones at 10 o’clock moving left – 4 of them – give it 30 feet…” So this sequence is designed to give an idea of how the bird hunts the shallows. Rather than standing stock still and suddenly stabbing down to catch a fish, sometimes the egrets will stride purposefully though the shallow water, taking their chances as they move.

A small success at the start of the hunt (look carefully at the tip of the beak) A pause (and a slightly bad hair moment)

I always enjoy watching the actions of these birds make as they go about their work. But now the hunt is over; the egret has worked his way along the shoreline and he’s thinking out his next move… 

…which is to fly off and try his luck elsewhere

Your compensation for some mediocre – but hopefully illustrative – shots is a header image from the camera of the highly experienced birdman and photographer Danny Sauvageau. 

Finally, the way to tell that you are looking at a reddish egret, whichever version, rather than one of the other available egret / heron candidates is to look at the bill – pinkish, with a black tip. No other egreto-heronish species has this. 

A ‘proper’ reddish reddish egret taken in one of the brackish ponds at Crossing Rocks – always a good place to pull in and check for herons and egrets. This one, photographed in March, is in his handsome breeding plumage. Compare the bill with the white morph above – just the same.

** This not in fact how I am customarily addressed. I have a real name. Probably.

Credits: header image, Danny Sauvageau with thanks as always; all mediocre white morphs RH – also the rather better effort comparative photo of a ‘proper’ reddish one; cartoon by the inimitable Birdorable.


Cookiecutter Shark mouth, jaws & teeth (BMMRO Bahamas)



The Cookiecutter shark Isistius brasiliensis (aka the less scary, more genial sounding ‘cigar shark’), might be an ideal candidate for a Room 101 nemesis.** These little beasts – a species of dogfish shark – are found in several mainly island-based areas dotted around the globe, including in Abaco waters.


These sharky little b@st@rds (*technical term*) attack marine mammals and fishes, gouging out perfect round plugs of skin and flesh, leaving what are sometimes called ‘crater wounds’. Then they eat them. Imagine getting hold of a really sharp domestic cookie cutter with circular rows of razor-sharp teeth, and grinding it hard into your thigh. There! That! 
The size of an adult shark:16″ max
The term ‘cookiecutter’ is also a pejorative slang term, meaning mass-produced, lacking in originality, or boringly samey, as in cookiecutter cars or TV genres etc. The little critters under consideration here are anything but…


  • Live in the depths, rise vertically in the day & dive back down at dusk
  • Undersides have light-emitting ‘photophores’ which emphasise…
  • …the dark collar which acts as a lure, resembling a small innocent fish
  • Bioluminescence lures prey & confuses predators (more on this below)
  • The glow is so strong it may last for some time after removal from water

  • Their lips are ‘suctorial’ = they attach tightly to their target
  • The jaws then gouge out the victim’s flesh in a remarkably neat circle
  • Omni-vicious: any medium to large ocean creature is vulnerable to attack
  • There are even occasional reports of humans being targeted

Here are two Blainville’s beaked whales that I photographed from the BMMRO research vessel. The top whale has a number of circular healed attack marks and a recent one. You can see how deep the gouged hole is. The other has well-healed scars.

Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)

  • Multi-toothed: top rows of small teeth, rows of larger teeth on the bottom
  • The lower teeth are the cutters, acting like a saw when locked on
  • See header image and below for full details


I can explain it no better than the renowned authority Prof. W. K. P. Dear:  “the suctorial lips ensure a tight seal. It then bites, using its narrow upper teeth as anchors while its razor sharp lower teeth slices into the prey. Finally, the shark twists and rotates its body to complete a circular cut, quite possibly aided by the initial forward momentum and subsequent struggles of its prey. The action of the lower teeth may also be assisted by back-and-forth vibrations of the jaw, a mechanism akin to that of an electric carving knife”.


The behaviour of these sharks is an example of a symbiotic relationship between two species that is parasitic. This means essentially that one gains and the other suffers (e.g. no-see-ums!). This is distinct from commensalistic symbiosis, where one species gains and the other is unaffected (e.g. cattle egrets with cattle); and mutualistic symbiosis, where both gain (e.g. cleaner fish & groupers). So, in a word, yes.

  • An ‘ambush predator’: they ‘hover’ in the water column waiting…
  • They are capable of rapid movement to catch up & latch onto prey
  • They will eat a passing small fish, crustacean or even squid as a snack
  • Sometimes they operate in schools; there is safety in numbers
  • The schools are thought to increase the ‘lure’ effect of the dark collar

A beached whale that’s been heavily targeted


In the late c20, more than 30 U.S. Navy submarines were forced back to base to repair damage caused by cookiecutter shark bites, either to the neoprene footings of sonar domes or to rubber-sheathed cables. The problems were solved by using fibreglass. Oceanographic equipment and telecommunications cables are also recorded as being damaged by these sharks.

Cookiecutter Shark – the real deal



These great cards from the weirdly spelled WIERD ‘N’ WILD CREATURES provide excellent factual info. Their CCS card is no exception. You’ll find more details here about the effect of the bioluminescence and so on, written as clearly as I might hope to. 

Cookiecutter Shark Facts (Monsters of the Deep)Cookiecutter Shark Facts (Monsters of the Deep)

** “The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.” (George Orwell, 1984)

Alright now…Blainville's Beaked Whale - cookiecutter shark damage (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: BMMRO – header image; beaked whale photos – Keith Salvesen / BMMRO; Te Ara NZ for the main jaw image; all small images with thanks to Wiki and respective photographers who took the time to upload them for all to enjoy & learn from; ‘wierdnwonderful creatures’ for the monster card; range map from Wiki

PS Apologies to anyone who bothered to wade through this, and stayed awake long enough to notice that formatting gremlins struck halfway through


Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Tom Sheley)


I realise that the title of this post has its unattractive aspects. This is a family blog, and we try to keep references to ‘butts’ and so forth to a minimum. But like it or not, the Palm Warbler is one of two species** that have acquired the nickname ‘butterbutt’.  They weren’t even consulted; birders just went ahead with it without checking how they’d feel about it.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this minor linguistic outrage came about. It’s there for all to see, right under the bird’s… erm… stern. That flash of vivid yellow, together with the pale speckled front, a rusty brown cap and striking eye-stripe, is diagnostic for this Abaco winter resident species.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

The ‘heads-up’ is because right now they are among you. In the gardens, on the grass, on the tracks, in the coppice, in the casuarinas. And they have an endearing habit of bobbing their… tails, let’s say, as they forage. Palm Warblers are inclined to be fairly inquisitive and tame, so if you are careful, they may stay around to let you watch them. 

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

The PW above must, I think, have been photographed at the very end of the winter season, just before it headed north from Abaco. The strong colours suggest this guy is getting into the breeding mood. Compare him with the picture below, taken by the same photographer during the same period, of a slightly less garish stage of breeding plumage. But it’s on its way…

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Nina Henry)

As often as not, a palm warbler will be fairly easy to spot. Not always, though. You may have to work a bit to locate one half-hidden in foliage. Its posterior may not even be visible.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)

Luckily, PWs are common enough in winter to give you a chance to shoot them in the open, as it were. Perched on a branch works just fine to capture the essential characteristics.

Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

Keep an eye out for these pretty little warblers. They are enjoyable to watch, and relatively easy to get a photo of at close quarters. Just make sure you get the butterbutt into the picture.

** The other butterbutt bird is the descriptively-named YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, though its buttery bits are on the topside so there’s no risk of confusion (I photographed this one from a pool-side lounger, a distance shot at the top of a tree with a small camera – but it captures the essentials!)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1)*; Gerlinde Taurer (2, 7); Nina Henry (3, 4, 5); Peter Mantle (6); Keith Salvesen (8, 9)

* Possibly Tom Sheley – all I have got on the filename is ‘Fruit Farm’ so I can’t be sure of the photographer’s ID – apologies

 Palm Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)


Barn Owl, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

Barn Owl, Abaco, Bahamas (Woody Bracey)


The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is the only owl you are likely to see – and hear – on Abaco. The species is permanently resident, which is a good start in that sighting opportunities exist year-round. Although they are not at all common they can be found in particular locations, for example around Treasure Cay and Little Harbour; also on Elbow Cay, Lubbers Quarters (4 birds right now) and Man-o-War Cay (a while back). There are two other owl species recorded for Abaco: the rare Burrowing Owl (see link below for details); and the Northern Saw-whet Owl, a vanishingly rare vagrant recorded a handful of times that I don’t propose to feature unless and until it decides to visit Abaco more frequently…

Barn Owl (Birdorable)

I wrote about Barn Owls on Abaco many moons ago. I don’t usually rehash previous posts, but I am returning to the topic because of a recent barn owl sighting on Elbow Cay that caused interest, excitement and some speculation. 

Barn Owl, Treasure Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

Barn Owl, Treasure Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

The shrill wheezing cry of the Barn Owl – known in some places as the ‘screech owl’ (which, strictly, is a different owl species) – is unmistakeable. Barn owls also make an intimidating hissing noise. Mainly nocturnal, they fly noiselessly like white ghosts in the night. If you are lucky enough to see one in the daytime, you’ll be struck by the beautiful heart-shaped face and (if close enough) the delicate markings.

 Patrik Aberg Xeno-Canto

Both photos above were taken on Abaco. Woody Bracey’s header image is featured inTHE BIRDS OF ABACO“. Becky Marvil’s photo was taken near Treasure Cay. I’ve never seen a barn owl on Abaco, but  I’ve been lucky enough to get close to them in the UK. For those who have never seen one, here are a few of my own images that show what wonderful birds they are. They were photographed at a raptor rescue centre, so I am not going to pretend that these shots were taken in the wild. That would never do. 

Barn Owl (Keith Salvesen)Barn Owl Dorset (Keith Salvesen) Barn Owl Dorset (Keith Salvesen)Barn Owl 4 (Keith Salvesen)

This close-up of the barn owl above shows the typical speckling on its pure white front, and the beautiful wing patterns. Amazingly for such a large bird, an adult weighs a mere 350g or so. As a comparison, The Birds of Abaco book weighs 2kg!

Barn Owl close-up (Keith Salvesen)

This fluffy baby barn owl had been rescued and was being cared for in a sanctuary before being returned to the wild. Whimsy is rarely permitted  in this blog, but seriously, folks – cuteness overload!Barn Owl 6 (Keith Salvesen)




Credits: Woody Bracey, Becky Marvil, Keith Salvesen, Patrik Aberg /  Xeno-Canto (audio), RSPB (video), Birdorable (Cartoon)