In mid-December, Kaderin Mills of the Bahamas National Trust saw Abaco’s first-ever reported Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) in the Fox Town area of North Abaco. Woody Bracey was quickly onto the news and in the afternoon he took photos of the bird. I posted about this exciting (because a new species is always exciting) event, with details about its significance plus facts, maps etcHERE
Six weeks later, the crane is still in residence. In the meantime a number of birders have been to see the new novelty bird for Abaco in what has become a small but significant birding hotspot right at the top end of the island, in area round the Church, the Primary School, and the Clinic. The crane is now firmly on the eBird map for the Bahamas.
This elegant visitor seems to be quite tame and unfazed by its new fame. People watch while it forages for invertebrates in the grass, pausing to check on bystanders before resuming its feeding. It tolerates the presence of humans without showing fear, let alone flying away.
The call of the Sandhill Crane sounds like this:
To test its reaction, a recording was played and immediately the crane responded and called out to the (apparent) co-crane. The bird has also (rather sadly?) been seen by locals by the door of the Church, looking at its reflection and even making pecking motions at it. A lonely crane, maybe.
This bird is likely to remain disappointed by any expectation or hope of company. With any luck in the Spring, the instinctive call to the north (Canada and nearby US) will persuade it to migrate back to sandhill habitat to join a flock in the summer breeding grounds.
It is always a somewhat melancholy occurrence when a fine bird like this – or like last season’s lone BALD EAGLE– takes a wrong turn on their migration or perhaps get blown off course and finds itself on its own, species-wise. This bird seems to be taking it in its (longish) stride, however, and it has become something of a celebrity avian for the local folk. It will be interesting to find out when the migration urge finally encourages its flight away from its unusual overwintering habitat.
Credits: Chris Johnson (1); Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright (2, 4); Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (3, 5, 6); Audubon (7); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon); and a tip of the hat to the School Principal, to Kadie Mills, and to Uli Nowlan who uploaded her sighting to eBird.
SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS
Still they keep arriving, the new birds that have never before graced the shores of Abaco Recently it was a Canada warbler, at the lower end of the size scale. The elegant sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is the 10th new species for Abaco since the publication of The Birds of Abaco in March 2014. If you are wondering why the bird is not called Grus canadensis any longer, it’s because the genus of the bird was reclassified by the ABA in 2016. Out with dreary old Grus and in with exciting Oedipus’s daughter (or was she his half-sister? They… erm… had the same mother… Discuss, using both sides of the exam paper) in Greek mythology…
As the crane’s canadensis suggests and as range map shows, these are birds of North America, breeding mainly in Canada. In winter they head south to the warmth, reaching Florida as winter migrants. As you can see, the northern part of Florida and also Cuba have small year-round breeding populations. Zero zilch zip nada in the Bahamas.
THE ABACO SIGHTINGS, DECEMBER 2018
At 9.00 am on December 13, the bird above was photographed by Kaderin Mills (of the Bahamas National Trust) on Little Abaco, at the Fox Town Primary School, Crown Haven. The day before, the 12th, the school Principal Mrs Curry had seen the bird in the school grounds feeding on the grass. A couple of phone ‘sighting shots’ were taken before it flew off. Next day it returned, word spread and Kadie Mills recorded the bird officially and put it on eBird to give the newcomer some due publicity. By the early afternoon, Woody Bracey had been told about the bird, and went to take photos. He saw it in the same place the next day too.
OK, FIRST FOR ABACO – AND THE BAHAMAS TOO?
The strict answer is, no. Many years ago, there was a single report of a Sandhill Crane on Andros. It’s not known if the sighting was officially confirmed, but according to expert Bruce Hallett there was a photograph, and the late Tony White, then ‘recorder’ for the Bahamas, saw it. There are no available records, but Tony’s authority on issues around Bahamas birds was (and remains) absolute.
12 CAREFULLY SELECTED SANDHILL CRANE FACTS
These cranes are social birds, usually living in pairs or in family groups
Their calls are loud and far-reaching, like a huge crows with a sore throat (below)
Mated pairs engage in ‘unison calling’, standing close and duetting amorously
Hatchlings are fully-formed and can leave the nest within a day.
Juveniles are known as colts (whichever their gender, it seems)
They have an impressive wingspan as adults, from about 5′ to 7′ 6″
They are able to soar in flight, using thermals to obtain lift and stay aloft for hours
Flocks of cranes may be huge – sometimes estimated at over 10,000 individuals
Their ancestors are among the oldest fossils of any bird species, at around 2.5 M years
Vagrants have been found as far off piste as Britain (1981, 1991 only), China and Japan
Many predators call them dinner; but they can kick and stab with their bills in defence
The sandhills of Cuba form the smallest breeding population, around 300
(Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto)
On the map: Abaco’s first ever sandhill crane
Adult with its cutely ungainly, yellow-legged colt
Credits: firstly, to School Principal Mrs Curry for a truly excellent spot; Kaderin Mills (2) – the 1st usable image; Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (1, 3, 4, 6); http://www.birdphotos.com / wiki (5); Cornell (range map); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon)
The list of new bird species recorded for the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular continues to grow longer. At the end of August it was aCANADA WARBLER(now also recently seen on Grand Bahama and possibly New Providence). Now, a mere 4 weeks later, it’s a Ruff (Calidris pugnax), a mid-sized Eurasian shorebird that, it seems, has a tendency to ‘vagrate’ across the Atlantic from time to time.
Ruffs: the normal range
You have to take new birds as you find them, of course. First, you may not have a camera with you to record the sighting for posterity. Secondly, the bird may not be perched prettily on a twig or a small rock. In this instance the legendary Woody Bracey found his Ruff in the prosaic and arguably unattractive setting of the Treasure Cay dump. He didn’t have a camera, and when he next went back with a camera to check for the bird the ruff had gone…
Woody’s bird, a female (known as a Reeve), was standing next to a Lesser Yellowlegs. They are much the same height, but there the similarity ends – Ruffs are unmistakably plumper and with a shorter bill. Woody has good reason to recognise these rare and occasional transatlantic visitors, having often seen Ruffs both during his time living in the UK, and also in Africa. I’ve seen the appearance described as “like a gravy-boat”, which is well up there with the least useful descriptions of a bird’s appearance I have come across. Looked at another way, we have a couple of gravy boats that have an occasional outing. Neither looks remotely like a ruff.
IS THE ABACO RUFF A NEW SPECIES FOR THE WHOLE BAHAMAS?
Very nearly… but not quite. Only two previous Ruff sightings are recorded, in 2015 and 2018, and both in the same area on Grand Bahama, towards West End. And the only photo is from birder Duncan Mullis, who in 2015 took the first and maybe only one of a Reeve with a bunch of much smaller sanderlings (see also header image close-up).
The first ruff in the Bahamas
WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT RUFFS?
In the breeding season in particular, male ruffs are very different from the smaller reeves. They acquire a spectacular colourful plumage that includes a sort of ornamental collar (hence the name). They enhance their courtship rituals with elaborate displays designed to impress the reeves. These occur in chosen areas known as leks, places where strutting, preening and general competitive showing off occur to attract a mate. Such arenas are also created by a few other bird species – grouse, blackcock and peafowl, for example. The ruff’s lekking behaviour has some complex variations – including same-sex ‘copulation’ and polyandry – but sadly this isn’t the place to explore them in detail.
WHAT DOES A LEK LOOK LIKE?
Here are two males with very different breeding plumages, giving it their all at the lek… When Carl Linnaeus described the ruff in his Systema Naturae, he gave it the binomial name Tringa pugnax, the latter word meaning ‘aggressive’ – the lek can also become a combat zone between competing males.
This male has decided to vogue it and ‘strike the pose’ as it preens
Writing inThe Spruce, a new multi-interest resource I discovered in researching this article, Melissa Mayntz describes succinctly some of the common behaviour seen at leks. This includes some (or all) of the following (baby-boomers and dad-dancers may recognise some of these moves):
Bowing, dipping, or bending
Head bobbing or quick turns and nods
Strutting, stomping, kicks, or similar footwork
Exaggerated wing postures, such as fluttering, drooping, or spreading wings
Tails fanned, flared, cocked, or spread
Chests puffed out, often to reveal air sacs or distinct plumage
Calling, songs, drumming, or booming sounds
Dance-like sequences with multiple movements, possibly coordinated between partners after a female shows an interest in a specific mate
To which I’d add aggressive male territorial rivalry within the lek, leading to physical attacks with beak, claws and wings. Meanwhile the females watch from the edge to assess their chosen mates. The illustration below shows this rather charmingly.
Illustration of a lek by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857)
There’s a lot to be described about how ruff’s moult, but it’s not especially interesting for anyone but a moult specialist, so instead you can have a reminder of Ogden Nash’s last word on the topic: ‘The song of canaries / Never varies / And when they are moulting / They are pretty revolting…’ And we’ll leave migration as well, since basically that factor is N/A for our particular part of the world.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
JUST OUT OF CURIOSITY, CAN YOU EAT RUFFS / REEVES?
In former times ruffs were considered a delicacy and were eaten in large numbers. Often they would be fattened in pens in preparation for the table. I’ll finish with an old description:
…if expedition is required, sugar is added, which will make them in a fortnight’s time a lump of fat: they then sell for two shillings or half-a-crown a piece… The method of killing them is by cutting off their head with a pair of ‘scissars’, the quantity of blood that issues is very great, considering the size of the bird. They are dressed like the Woodcock, with their intestines; and, when killed at the critical time, say the Epicures, are reckoned the most delicious of all morsels. Not a 21st century culinary trend I hope…
Credits: Woody Bracey (sighting smarts); Duncan Mullis (1, 5); Dick Daniels (2); J.M.Garg (3, 9); Open Source / Wiki, prints (4, 8); Arjan Haverkamp (6); B.S.Thurner-hof (7); Melissa Mayntz / The Spruce re Leks; debt to Wiki (and other O/S) for source material, photos, range map etc
Picture the scene. You take a camera to photograph the winter ducks on a local pond on South Abaco. Suddenly you notice something strange and out of place out there. Something unfamiliar. It’s a duck for sure; but not one you’ve ever seen before in your life. Maybe it’s one you know about. Maybe you have no idea what it is at all, and have to identify it later on from a book or online. Anyway, you take some shots before it dabbles off into the overgrown margins of the pond, and leave with a modest air-punch: it’s a “lifer”.
Keith Kemp, principal monitor for Abaco Piping Plover Watch, has just had this experience. There, on the local pond with the blue-winged teal, was a stranger. For him, a “lifer”. And as it turns out, for Abaco also a “lifer”. The only record of one I have found for the Bahamas is a single vagrant sighted on Andros (see range map below). Here are Keith’s unique photos of Abaco’s first Cinnamon Teal.
The cinnamon teal (Spatula cyanoptera) is a dabbling duck species found in western North America, and in South America. They live in and around marshes and ponds, feeding mostly on pond-weed and plants, along with any attached aquatic insects. On the range map below, note the single red dot in the Bahamas denoting the single vagrant sighting on Andros.
The duck is named for the overall colouring of the adult male has a cinnamon-red head and body; and it has startlingly noticeable orange-red eyes . The adult female, as is so often the way, is rather less showy – a mottled brown, with a pale brown head, brown eyes, and a grey bill. For those who like comparisons, it resembles a female blue-winged teal, a few of which are shown above (not the ones with the white stripe on the face, which are male blues).
Since the publication of BIRDS OF ABACO in 2014, with its comprehensive checklist of all recorded species since 1950, several new species have been sighted on Abaco. The latest was only last month – theSCALY-NAPED PIGEON. Now we have a new species of duck. Conveniently, there’s no other ‘regular’ duck species quite like it. So if you see a pretty cinnamon-coloured duck on a pond near you, you’ll be looking at the newest ‘Bird of Abaco’. And if you do see one, please share the news!
Credits: Michael L Baird (1); Keith Kemp (2, 3, 4, 5,); ‘andeansolitaire’ (6); Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (7); special thanks to Terry Sohl / sdakotabirds.com for use permission for his range map; cartoon by the inimitable Birdorable
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
THE CARIBBEAN ENDEMIC BIRD FESTIVAL (CEBF) is a Caribbean-wide festival that aims to heighten awareness for birds generally in the region. It is sponsored by the excellent BIRDS CARIBBEANorganisation – click the link to see what it is all about. Birds, obviously, but from the points of view both of promoting and of preserving the rich avian variety throughout the Caribbean.
As part of the CEBF celebrations this month, a birding group from New Providence came to Abaco to explore the birdlife. The expedition group included several well-known local bird experts, all the better for locating and identifying species and ensuring a comprehensive checklist could be compiled. Also in the group was photographer Linda Huber, whose photos you will undoubtedly have seen in Bahamas publications, including the recently published small guideBEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS(click to see my review and further details – highly recommended for any birder from novice up). Here are a few of Linda’s photos of some of the birds seen during the expedition, a gallery that shows the extraordinary diversity of species to found in a short time on Abaco.
Apologies to those who received a ‘false start’ draft of this post. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, I pressed ‘Save Draft’… or thought I had. Why is the ‘Publish’ button so close? Oh. Right. I see. It’s not its fault, it’s mine…
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena Abaco Parrot Amazona leucocephala bahamensis
2 or 3 introduced or domestic species (if that Muscovy Duck was at Gilpin Point it’s a pet!)
The debatable ‘Caribbean Coot’, about which it has been written** The American Coot is familiar to all, but controversy surrounds the Caribbean Coot with its all-white frontal shield. Some authorities say it is a separate species; others say it is a true subspecies of the American Coot; some claim it is simply a local variant. Bond (1947) treats them as distinct species. The image below shows the two species together. They coexist contentedly and are indifferent to the debate.
The group on a Logging Track in the Abaco National Park
The New Providence Birding Group Expedition to Abaco
CREDITS All photos Linda Huber (with many thanks for use permission) except the pair of coots (Tony Hepburn) and the singing Bahama Yellowthroat in the BNT Flyer (Bruce Hallett)
PEARLY-EYED THRASHER – ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOUND ON ABACO
Exactly a year ago, the ultimate, complete and utter Checklist of the birds of Abaco, compiled by Tony White with Woody Bracey, was published. It covers 4 pages of close print inTHE BIRDS OF ABACO, and lists the 282 species recorded since 1950, including so-called ‘exotics’ but excluding so-called ‘pets’ (sadly your minah bird would not qualify). New sightings had been static since a BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS had made an unheralded appearance out at sea. In the last year, 5 new species have been recorded. The links to them are listed below. That Checklist already needs an update!
The newest bird in town is the Pearly-eyed Thrasher (Margarops fuscatus). This is a bird in the family Mimidae, along with mockingbirds and the gray catbird. Until last November, no thrasher species had ever been recorded for Abaco. Then there was a sighting of aBROWN THRASHER. Just a few months later, its Pearly-eyed cousin has turned up right in the heart of Treasure Cay, seen by first by Erik Gauger and confirmed by Woody Bracey (each a contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO).
This thrasher species is found widely throughout the Caribbean, though with several varieties that are genetically distinct. In the Bahamas, they breed on some of the southern islands. They are known to overwinter on Eleuthera and Cat Island, but have not previously been recorded as far north as Abaco. This sighting is important in suggesting that the species may be beginning to extend its range, although it could of course simply be a one-off ‘vagrant’, as they are officially yet disrespectfully known.
Since the first sightings by Erik & Woody a couple of days ago, Woody has been out again with a camera seeking to obtain photographic evidence of the bird. Last night he sent me a snapshot taken in difficult circumstances – the bird was being hassled by a Eurasian Collared Dove (who should have known better, being a non-native species itself…). The pearly eye is quite clear, as is the speckled front and white end to the underside of the tail. If a clearer shot comes in, I’ll add it. So, TC-based birders, a Rolling Harbour Kalik challenge is on!
STOP PRESSWoody has sent a couple more photos of the PET taken right in the centre of Treasure Cay. Or perhaps there is a second one… and if so, different sexes… and if so, a nest, eggs, chicks, fledglings and in due course a new breeding species on Abaco…
STOP PRESS April 2015Erik Gauger has now written up his account of his discovery of this new species for Abaco. You can read it HERE (scroll down to the second article on the page)
The other photos I have used are ‘open source’ for obvious reasons, and credited below as far as the information is available…