There’s something wrong in the picture above (no, I don’t mean about the photograph itself). Count up how many pink legs you can see. No, not including the reflections. Give up? It’s three. Between two birds. I assumed of course that ‘Oner’ had a perfectly good serviceable leg tucked up into its undercarriage. I admired the balancing skills involved in resting one leg while nonchalantly standing on the other.
We were watching this pair of black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus at the pond at Gilpin Point, which at certain times can be ‘Stilt Central’. These birds are permanent breeders on Abaco and are without a doubt the most beautiful of all the waders (avocets, being extremely uncommon winter visitors, are disqualified from consideration for lack of presence).
It gradually dawned on me that Oner really did only have one stilt to stand on. After 10 minutes observing them and the other birds around them, there was no question about it – the right leg was completely and utterly missing. This unipedal deficit had no obvious ill-effects on the bird – nor on its ability to throw a good pose (above). Or to preen (below).
I’m in danger of losing sight of Twoer here, a bipedal bird that deserves its own place in the story, not just a wade-on part in Oner’s story.
Twoer as Ringmaster…
BNSs are territorial and in particular can become ‘proactive’ (ie aggressive) in protecting the area near a nest. I once mistakenly got close to a nest, not even knowing it was there. I soon learnt – a parent BNS came wading towards me, zigzagging in the water, shouting and carrying on in a way that immediately said ‘my nest is nearby’. And when I meanly stood my ground it suddenly took off and flew straight at my head…
A shouty stilt
BLACK-NECKED STILT ALARM CALL
Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
All photos: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco(and, if anyone noticed, sorry about some formatting issues which I can’t get rid of…); Audio file Jim Holmes / Xeno Canto
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.
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.
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.
And to show I am not making up the fishing part, a shot of this bird actually making a catch…
THE PRINCE OF WHALES: BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO
There’s a strange affinity between humans and whales. Humans seem to think so, anyway – and whales seem to tolerate them amiably, perhaps now that the decimation of their populations by humans is (largely) a thing of the past. The Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular are in the mainstream of progressive cetacean research, led by the BMMRO at Sandy Point.
One of the speciality research species is the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. These magnificent creatures are deep divers, and although they are found in many parts of the world, the Bahamas is one of only 3 locations with a significant population for study. Most of the whales here were photographed within sight of land (and a few with the Castaway Island Disney Cruise Ship visible on the horizon!).
I’ve been lucky enough to be on the BMMRO research vessel on a beaked whale outing – and luckier still that we were able to spend plenty of time with a group of them, including some males. The header image is of a mature male with his huge teeth that protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and in time become encrusted with barnacles.
The whales were quite undisturbed by our presence – indeed they behaved much like dolphins, circling the boat and swimming under it; moving away and returning. This was an opportunity to count the whales, to identify those that had already been recorded, and to document any new ones. Each whale has its own unique pattern of marks, striations and in some cases healed wounds. The pair below are a good example.
Also, the whales have individually distinctive dorsal fins, with nicks and tears that also act as a means of identification. These can often be made out from a distance with powerful binoculars or photographed with a long lens for later analysis (this ID method also works reliably for dolphins).
Beaked whales often bear the healed scars from the gouging bites of COOKIE-CUTTER SHARKS, a vicious little species that I recently featured. The distinctive circular scars on the back of the whale below result from encounters with these unpleasant creatures.
Finally, the photo below. It has no merit, photographically speaking, but I love the way that sometimes a ‘risk’ shot – into the sun, perhaps – produces rather magical effects. The unexpected ‘sea stars’ were a bonus!
The Bonaparte’s gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia is one of the smallest gulls, and is found mainly in Canada and northern United States, though vagrants sometimes end up as far away as Europe. And Abaco. These birds are considered very uncommon winter residents on Abaco (categorised WR4). Yet within the last couple of months Elwood Bracey saw an amazing 4 in Treasure Cay harbour… Milton Harris reported seeing one at Hope Town harbour… Keith Kemp saw a couple on South Abaco (2 locations)… Eugene Hunn reported 1 on the Sandy Point dock… then suddenly there were 3 on the beach at Delphi. They have hung around there, too – let’s hope that all these birds find their way back to their breeding grounds safely. They have quite a journey ahead of them.
The species is named for Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French ornithologist and nephew to the French emperor (see below for more about him). The philadelphia part of its Latin designation oddly results from the location from which the original ‘type specimen’ was collected (see below for the reason). This is not unlike the Cape May warbler, so named for the location of the original specimen, yet not recorded there again for more than a century (and still quite rare)…
The gulls shown here are in their winter plumage, with the characteristic dark blotch behind the eye. In the breeding season, they acquire smart slate-black hoods:
10 BONAPARTE’S GULL FACTS TO TELL YOUR GRANDCHILDREN
Graceful in flight, resembling terns as much as gulls
Monotypic: the sole representative of its taxonomic subgroup
Males and females have very much the same colouring
Believed to be monogamous
Showy breeders, with much display, swooping, diving, yelling at each other etc
Typically (and ungull-like) they nest in trees, preferring conifers eg jack pine
Share nest-building and parenting duties
Capable of considerable aggression to protect their nests / chicks
Have been known to live 18 years
The only bird species with an Emperor’s name (prove me wrong!**)
We saw these birds on the beach most days, usually just 2 of the 3 at any one time. They were quite shy and hard to get close to, however subtly. And they kept on the move – except when they decided to have a rest.
TELL US MORE ABOUT PRINCE BONAPARTEBonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove
Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino & Musignano 1803 – 1853
Bonaparte was a French biologist and ornithologist, and the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson. And presumably that’s where he found his specimen gull.
Bonaparte studied the ornithology of the United States, and updated Wilson’s work American Ornithology. His revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. He was a keen supporter of a (then unknown) ornithologist John James Audubon. Rather sweetly, he created the genus Zenaida, after his wife, applying it to the White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica, Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. He himself was later honoured in the name ‘Bonaparte’s Gull’.
LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERMyiarchus sagrae is one of 3 permanent resident ‘tyrant’ flycatchers found on Abaco, the others being theCUBAN PEWEE and the LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD. In the summer, they are joined by another commonly-found species, theGRAY 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.
Here are the two flycatcher species, mentioned above, that might cause confusion:
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
Mmmmm… gumbo limbo berries at Bahama Palm Shores. My favourite evening snack as we parrots head south to the National Park in the evening.
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…
Uh oh! That was never going to happen. We are a noisy rowdy gang, and no one gets to eat alone for long…
This is really bad news… this guy’s hungry, and he’s swooped in higher up the branch, so he’s got an advantage.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.