WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS: EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE


White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDS: EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE

I am interrupting my intended sequence of posts (I try to plan ahead a bit…) to bring you some gorgeous white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) seen within the last week near the Low Place on Man-o-War Cay. There were 6 in the group, flying high, flying low, circling, dipping down, flirting  – all of this taking place just offshore.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Sally Chisholm, Abaco birder and photographer, was with Todd Pover of CWFNJ, engaged in the final piping plover count of the season before the birds return to their summer breeding grounds [check out ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH if you are interested]. Sally and Todd were distracted from the matter in hand as the group of tropicbirds glided and swooped through the air. It was a free demonstration of beautiful flying skills that can be matched by few other species.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

It became obvious that courtship was involved. As Sally vividly describes it, “The birds were observed for more than 15 minutes making wide circles, at times flying out of sight across towards Great Abaco and coming back flying low over the same area on MOW. Two birds would interact with a lot of “keck-keck-keck”, and then one of the pair flew down to land several times in the same crevice of the iron shore. It first appeared that the bird was landing for food but none of the photos showed anything carried. The display looked to be one of courtship and was amazing to watch”.

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

TROPICAL TOPICS

  • WTTR plunge-dive for fish and squid, sometimes submerging completely
  • Or they swoop and skim their prey from the surface
  • Another technique to take flying fish in the air (I’d love to see that…)
  • WTTR have no fixed breeding season, and may nest year-round
  • Nesting is colonial or in pairs in a particular area, or even in isolation
  • Pre-mating behaviour involves courtship displays (as here)
  • A pair will fly together, one above the other then…
  • …the higher bird bends its tail down to touch tail of lower bird and [veil drawn]
  • They nest in crevices, holes in rock, on ledges, on the ground under vegetation
  • Chicks are fed by both parents using regurgitation
  • The same site may be re-used for several years by the same pair

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Credits: All photos, Sally Chisholm except the fantastic nest shot, Melissa Maura (many thanks to both for use permission – I’ve never got a decent photo of one); Audubon NA

White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesbyi, Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

MARK CATESBY, PIONEER NATURALIST: NEW BOOK


MARK CATESBY, PIONEER NATURALIST: NEW BOOK

Exactly two years ago, I wrote about the publication of a lavish limited edition facsimile of Mark Catesby’s renowned work The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands in 4 volumes to mark the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in the New World. Unsurprisingly, the cost of the set was prodigious (a rather nice car) – but only a fraction of the cost of a vanishingly rare original set (a rather nice house). Reader, I didn’t buy one.

Now the CATESBY MEMORIAL TRUST has produced an excellent and inexpensive illustrated introduction to Catesby’s great work that will transport you back through the centuries to the earliest days of natural historical research by Europeans abroad. It’s worth remembering that Catesby antedated the more famous John James Audubon (1785-1851) by a whole century.

Catesby’s signature

The new book has over 40 illustrations from Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. These are paired with relevant extracts from the work, and there is additional commentary. Click on Catesby’s Tropicbird below for a sample of the book.

Click me for book sample!

To buy the book – it’s $25 – click HERE

Mark Catesby - 'Bahama Titmous' (Bananaquit)

Mark Catesby – ‘Bahama Titmous’ (Bananaquit)

MARK CATESBY? JUST REMIND ME…

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749) was a pioneering English naturalist and artist who published his magnum opus based on a number of expeditions he undertook from 1712 onwards. His was the first ever published account of the flora and fauna of North America, and the 2 volumes (with a supplement) included some 220 colour plates of the creatures and plants of land and sea that he had come across. After his travels, Catesby spent some 20 years producing his masterwork and died soon after, perhaps from the sheer effort of it all.

Red-legged Thrush in Gumbo Limbo Tree (HM QE2)

Red-legged Thrush in Gumbo Limbo Tree

AND HIS RELEVANCE TO THE BAHAMAS IS…?

On behalf of the Royal Society Catesby undertook expeditions, first to Carolina and then more widely in America and eventually in the Bahamas. On these trips he drew and painted detailed pictures of birds, fish, turtles, flowers and corals, many of which are familiar in the Bahamas to this day – and a few of which are included here.

Mark Catesby - Angelfish

Mark Catesby – Angelfish

Flamingo Head + Gorgonian Coral (HM QE2)

Flamingo Head & Gorgonian Coral

Mark Catesby - plate 139 Hawksbill Turtle

Mark Catesby – Hawksbill Turtle

Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)

Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)

RELATED POSTS

CHARLES CORY & ABACO 1891

THE PIONEERS (Wilson, Audubon, et al)  

MR SWAINSON (on his 224th Birthday)

Bahama Finch (Western Spindalis)

RELATED BOOK

51C+Zz+7CSL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_

Information about the Catesby Commemorative Trust and the book The Curious Mister Catesby can be found HERE. I have the book: it is wonderful, but as an amateur I find it quite a difficult read, and I have to take it in small chunks.

For anyone tempted to look further into the importance of this ground-breaking naturalist, the CCT produced a 50 minute film that is well worth watching if you are interested to know more.

Credits: HM QE2, Catesby Commemorative Trust, National Geographic, Mariners’ Museum Library, sundry open source info-&-pic-mines inc. Wiki, Addison Publs, 

“Illuminating natural history is so particularly essential to the perfect understanding of it”   (Mark Catesby)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD: ABACO’S MOST ELEGANT BIRD


White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD: ABACO’S MOST ELEGANT BIRD

A competition to decide the most elegant bird found on Abaco (of 350+ recorded species) is a simpler task than it sounds. Colourfulness doesn’t come into (sorry, painted bunting, Abaco parrot & co). Nor cuteness, rarity, popularity and so on. Some birds don’t make the starting line at all (but we love you, ungainly limpkins and raucous clumsy-flying Anis). Best to judge from a different viewpoint: is there one bird that in flight is invariably beautiful to watch, in a way that can make you catch your breath…?

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

The caribbean white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) is one of six types of tropicbird found worldwide. It is named after pioneering naturalist MARK CATESBY, who predated John James Audubon. Click the link to find out more about him. Catesby’s depiction (below) of a ‘Phaeton’ must be one of the earliest.

Catesby’s TropicbirdTropicbird - Mark Catesby jpg

IMG_0413

In the Bahamas, tropicbirds are summer resident only and breed on the islands. Abaco is fortunate to have several breeding colonies, not all in remote or inaccessible places. Female tropicbirds lay a single egg directly onto the ground or on rocky ledges and in rocky holes. One might suppose that such limited egg production with a somewhat high-risk nesting policy, coupled with modern problems such as habitat destruction, might affect numbers. However, these fine birds seem to be doing well, and are IUCN-listed ‘Least Concern’.

This tropicbird on Abaco has found a safe place to nest in a rocky holeWhite-tailed Tropicbird on nest, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

Tropicbirds have a variety of local names in the Caribbean, for example ‘longtail’ and ‘bosun bird’ (after their screeching call). They plunge-dive for fish, but are inexpert swimmers. This is a factor I am prepared to overlook in the elegance contest. They were born to fly high, not to paddle about.

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE STORY OF TB THE TROPICBIRD

A couple of years ago, a tropicbird chick was rescued by a dive boat and given to Melissa Maura, well-known for her animal magic, to care for. She nurtured ‘TB’, giving him a soft bed and providing him with a swimming pool. To begin with, it looked as though he might not be able to fly at all, but as he became stronger he started to flap his wings.

White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Then it was time to go to the beach, get acquainted with sand and sea, and practise flying. I have some pathetic photos of an exhausted TB lying flat out on the sand after his initial attempts to fly. But Melissa and TB persevered with the flying practice and in due course TB began to get the hang of it. Finally, the great day arrived. Melissa and a friend took TB down to the beach and launched him into the air. He took off, flying strongly away, never to return. A moment of triumph mixed with poignance.

  White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura) White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)White-tailed Tropicbird, Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

You are very welcome to propose a rival in the elegance stakes in the comment box!

Credits: Main photos Alex Hughes; TB images Melissa Maura

White-tailed Tropicbird, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

MARK CATESBY: PIONEERING NATURALIST OF EARLY c18


Mark Catesby Bahama Finch (Western Spindalis, Spindalis Zena)

Mark Catesby: Bahama Finch (Western Spindalis, Spindalis zena)

MARK CATESBY: PIONEERING NATURALIST OF EARLY c18

There’s been (yet) another abrupt side-swerve away from a topic I’d intended to post about, resulting from a newspaper article I read over the weekend. This concerns what was gushingly described as “the ultimate coffee table book”, a facsimile of Mark Catesby’s renowned work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

Catesby (1682 – 1749) was a pioneering English naturalist and artist who published his magnum opus based on a number of expeditions he undertook from 1712 onwards. His was the first ever published account of the flora and fauna of North America, and the 2 volumes (with a supplement) included some 220 colour plates of the creatures and plants of land and sea that he had come across.
Mark Catesby - Angelfish

Mark Catesby – Angelfish

Mark Catesby - Queen Triggerfish

Mark Catesby – Queen Triggerfish

Catesby’s growing fame as a botanist led to his undertaking expeditions on behalf of the Royal Society to collect plants and seeds in Carolina. He widened his researches both in America and to the West Indies, collecting plants and fauna as he went and sending them back to England. Among other discoveries, he was one of the very first people to observe and record the occurrence of bird migration as a twice-yearly phenomenon.

Red-legged Thrush in Gumbo Limbo Tree (HM QE2)

Red-legged Thrush in Gumbo Limbo Tree

Eventually, in 1726 Catesby also returned to base and set about writing up his findings and painting what he had seen. He learnt how to etch printing plates, and gradually the illustrations became more sophisticated, starting without backgrounds then including plants with the animals and birds. The whole project took him some 20 years; quite soon after completing it, he died.

Flamingo Head + Gorgonian Coral (HM QE2)

Flamingo Head & Gorgonian Coral

 
CATESBY: THE VIDEO INTRO
WHERE IS THE ORIGINAL WORK NOW?
 
Catesby’s original drawings were bought by King George III for £120 (a very considerable sum in 1768 – my quick attempts to discover how much suggest ± £200,000) and have remained in the Royal Family ever since. This treasure is kept in the Royal Library of Windsor Castle, the property of HM QE2, though it is occasionally exhibited elsewhere. Later facsimiles of the original were produced, of which some 50 survive today.
Mark Catesby - 'Bahama Titmous' (Bananaquit)

Mark Catesby – ‘Bahama Titmous’ (Bananaquit)

SO WHAT’S ALL THE EXCITEMENT ABOUT NOW? 
Addison Publications has printed a very limited edition facsimile of 60 in 4 lavish volumes, printed one at a time, “to mark the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in the New World”.
catesbys_natural_history_9
The cost per set? A stonking £39,500 ($61,330). Now this may sound a great deal of money for a modern copy of an old book and it undoubtedly is. But here’s the Christie’s Auction catalogue entry for one of the early facsimiles. Mmmmmm.
CATESBY AUCTION JPG
Mark Catesby - plate 139 Hawksbill Turtle

Mark Catesby – Hawksbill Turtle

“Illuminating natural history is so particularly essential to the perfect understanding of it”                 (Mark Catesby)
Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)

Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)

Delphi afficionados, especially any who have stayed in Room 1, may recognise 3 of the illustrative images I have chosen – the Spindalis, the Bananaquit and the Grassquit. No, I don’t mean the actual species, I mean that Catesby prints of them are tastefully hung on the walls. I can never decide which of the 3 is my favourite…

RELATED POSTS

CHARLES CORY & ABACO 1891

THE PIONEERS (Wilson, Audubon, et al)  

MR SWAINSON (on his 224th Birthday)

51C+Zz+7CSL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_

STOP PRESS Thanks to Woody Bracey for his interesting comment. More information about the Catesby Commemorative Trust and the book The Curious Mister Catesby can be found HERE. A slightly curious promo video was also released.

For anyone tempted to look further into the importance of this ground-breaking naturalist, the CCT produced a 50 minute film that is well worth watching if you can spare the time.

Credits:  Sunday Times (article), HM QE2, National Geographic, Catesby Commemorative Trust, sundry open source info-&-pic-mines inc. Wiki, Addison Publs, & my Bank Manager for declining to loan me the purchase price of the new facsimile…