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 first Canada Warbler recorded for Abaco AND Bahamas (Christopher Johnson)
CANADA WARBLER: A NEW BIRD FOR ABACO & BAHAMAS
As reliable as seasonal clockwork, the migratory warblers are swarming south from their summer breeding grounds to warmer climes for the winter. In the case of Abaco, this amounts to 32 warbler species to add to the 5 resident breeding species (Bahama Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Olive-capped Warbler, Pine Warbler & Bahama Warbler. 37 warblers in total.
Well, now make that 38. On August 28th, young birder Christopher Johnson was out with well-known birding sage Woody Bracey when he saw something small and yellow hopping about in the coppice. On closer examination – and he took the photos to prove it – it was not just one of the many familiar yellowy winter warblers, but a completely new species recorded for Abaco and (more significantly) the entire Bahamas. It was a Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis (Linn. 1766) aka Wilsonia canadensis.
The photo above is one of 3 that Christopher managed to take. In many respects it is typical of a field photograph: a small bird, at a distance, zero’d into focus through a small gap in the leaves and branches of thick coppice. Sharp bird, blurry surroundings. The trick is not to end up with a wonderful clear shot of a green leaf on its twig, with a small yellow blur in the background. (I perfected this ill-advised technique with my only photo of a Kirtland’s warbler).
WHERE WAS THIS BIRD DISCOVERED?
One of the features of the excellent birding to be found on Abaco is that some of it can be carried out in unexpected places. Town dumps are a classic example, though photos have to be taken with care to avoid unsightly rubbish-based settings. The Abaco Big Bird Poultry Farm area is another. This little bird was found there.
SO WHERE WOULD IT NORMALLY BE FOUND?
In summer, roughly 80% of CAWAs live and breed in Canada; 20% in the northern US. They spend a relatively short summer there. In the early Fall they fly down to South America. From the range map below, it looks as though their flight path would naturally take them right over the Bahamas to get to their destination. In fact, their journey is quite different. Following the central ‘bend’ of the Americas, they fly at night along a southwesterly route to the Texas coast, then on to southern Mexico and beyond.
I suspect that, as with many migratory birds, the occasional specimen takes a wrong turn on its route south, or is blown off-course by a storm. Maybe a few such vagrants pass through further east – even over the Bahamas perhaps – each year, as ‘vagrants’. But in reality their tiny size in the dense foliage of the land masses means that only a fluke sighting could result. So Christopher’s sighting will be recorded as a V5 – a vanishingly rare vagrant with only a single sighting (cf Abaco’s BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS).
Q. DO MALES & FEMALES LOOK MUCH THE SAME? A. NO
Based on the Macaulay Library pictures below, the Abaco CAWA must be a female or an immature male. In comparing photos of this species (which I had never come across before) I have noticed one thing. The yellow lore (the area between the base of the beak and the eye) extends to include the top of the bird’s otherwise white eye-ring. This is found in both the male and the female. Now I need to check other eye-ringed species to see if this feature is a unique identifier or not…
WHAT DO I LISTEN FOR (JUST IN CASE…)?
The two sounds to listen for are the chirpy scrap of song and the ‘chip’ call.
WHAT IS THE CAWA’S CONSERVATION STATUS?
The CAWA is IUCN-listed as being of ‘least concern’. That of course is very far from saying it is of no concern at all. Surveys are already showing a gradual population decline in the breeding grounds. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the CAWA as ‘threatened’. Dull as it is to keep repeating the point, this species like most others faces all the usual threats to its existence, mostly man-made and during my lifetime…
Deforestation, habitat destruction and intrusion, development etc etc
Problems arising from acid rain and pollution
The uncontrolled spread of the tree-destroying woolly adelgid, an import from Asia
Oh, and all those damn deer browsing the understory a bit. Blame them!
ARE THERE ANY FUN FACTS ABOUT THIS BIRD?
Well, confusion about its name, maybe, though that’s more ‘interesting’ than ‘fun’, I think. In 1760, a French zoologist named Brisson gave a name to a warbler specimen from Canada. It was “Le gobe-mouche cendré de Canada”, ie ‘The Canadian Ash-gray Flycatcher’. Because he needed a conventional Latin name for the bird, he put together the name Muscicapa Canadensis Cinerea. This did not fit in with the binomial system of taxonomy (nor was it a very good description of the bird), and the name was accordingly rejected by the wonderfully named International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Linnaeus (to cut a longer story short) sorted it all out in his next edition of Systema Naturae in 1766, with the binomial name Muscicapa canadensis. In due course the genus Muscicapa was changed to Cardellina.
THAT WASN’T A WHOLE LOT OF FUN. IS THERE MORE?
Well, there were more naming shenanigans when John James Audubon illustrated a female Canada warbler in Birds of America nearly a century later. Plate 73 (below) was entitled “Bonaparte’s Flycatching-Warbler—Muscicapa bonapartii.” He’d slipped in the name of ornithologist (and nephew of the more famous Emperor) CHARLES BONAPARTE,he of the BONAPARTE’S GULL. This version did not stick. However the CAWA acquired another ‘tribute’ name, an alternative that is still in use: Wilsonia canadensis. This tip of the hat is to another ornithologist ALEXANDER WILSON, of Wilson’s Plover fame.
Photo Credits: Christopher Johnson (1, 2, 3); Emmet Hume / Wiki (4); Male / Female CAWAs, David Turgeon & Bob Edelen, Macaulay Library; Audubon Plate 73, OS; William H Majoros / Wiki. Sound Files, Ian Davies & Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto; Abaco Resident Warbler Chart, Keith Salvesen;, Cartoon by Birdorable; Range Map, Cornell U.
I’d best make it clear at the outset that, in the very narrowest sense, the buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) is not strictly a new bird on Abaco. Tony White’s authoritative official checklist for Abaco, valid back to 1950 or so, does actually include the species. It is classified as a ‘V5’, which is to say a vagrant that is vanishingly rare – indeed may only have been sighted on Abaco once or perhaps twice before. Ever. The only category rarer than V5 is H for hypothetical, which essentially means that there is some unconfirmed report of a bird that it might not be outrageous to suppose might be blown onto Abaco. A penguin, therefore, would not qualify even for an H.
A few days ago, beyond a shadow of a doubt this small shorebird was seen on Abaco by Keith Kemp, and photographed by him too. He is having an excellent year with his birding: this may well be the jewel in the crown for him. So even if one of these little guys was once spotted on an Abaco twig in 1961, Keith is definitely the first person to get a photo!
UPDATE(next day!) Abaco birder-in-Chief Woody Bracey has solved the mystery of the previous sighting – it was he himself who saw a BBSP “years ago” at the less-than-glamorous yet excellent-for-birding Marsh Harbour ‘Dump’.
As it happens, some weeks ago a BBSP was also spotted at West End, Grand Bahama by Linda Barry-Cooper. I featured a guest post from her about the fall birds in that region HERE. Woody Bracey also says that he and Bruce Hallett saw 2 BBSPs at West End early this season. Erika Gates and Martha Cartwright saw one on the GB Reef golf course at the end of August. So these birds are around in the northern Bahamas, and perhaps it’s not such a surprise after all that one should have gone on a little expedition to Abaco to check out the undeniable joys of Winding Bay.
The buff-breasted sandpiper is a long-distance migrant, breeding mainly in the open arctic tundra of North America, and overwintering mostly in South America, especially Argentina. Its route takes it overland – the central flyway – rather than over coasts, but as it happens, as a species it is a bit of a wanderer. These birds a regularly found in Europe – including the UK – and although I am sure a sighting there must generate a great deal of excitement, they are not considered extremely rare. They have even been found, very occasionally, in South Asia and Australasia.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the odd one turns up on Abaco. Maybe they do so every year, but only the keenest eye will spot one. And after all, there are many remote beaches on Abaco that are only very occasionally – if ever – visited by humans. Perhaps that’s where the BBSPs congregate…
In the breeding season, males collect on display grounds, or “leks,” to attract females. This helpful description comes from Audubon: “The leks are spread out, each male defending an area of up to several acres. The male displays by raising one wing, showing off the white underside. If females approach, the male spreads both wings wide, points its bill up, and shakes its body. One male may mate with several females; the male takes no part in caring for the eggs or young.” Typical, huh?
The BBSP is another bird that has been hit badly by the passage of time. By which I mean, of course, by mankind. At one time they were deemed ‘abundant’. Around 100 years ago a serious decline set in, not least because people were shooting them during their migration. Nonetheless, in 1988 the IUCN assessment was ‘lower Risk/least concern’. Then another slide began. By 2000 it was ‘lower Risk/near threatened’. Since 2004 it has been ‘near threatened’. Why? Largely because the habitat for migrating and wintering birds has been destroyed or degraded.
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Xeno-Canto / Bernabe Lopez-Lanus
The BBSP page from the excellent Crossley ID guides (available via WikiMedia Commons)
Credits: Tim Lenz, Keith Kemp, Magnus Manski, Linda Barry-Cooper, Cornell Lab (range map), Mario Porras, Crossley Guides, Bernabe Lopez-Lanus @ Xeno-Canto, Audubon, Wiki.
The first ever Black-bellied Whistling Ducks recorded for Abaco arrived last June. Six birds turned up on South Abaco in the Crossing Rocks area and slowly worked their way north via Delphi, Bahama Palm Shores and Casuarina. They split up into smaller groups. Two were seen near the airport. Eventually, after 3 weeks or so, the sightings and reports ceased. The BBWDs had moved on, presumably to Florida.
I mention them now because this June, a flock of 13 birds arrived on a golf course in Bermuda. The only previous recorded sighting of the species had been a single bird spotted in 2006. Within a couple of weeks, the birds had disappeared again. It’s strange that in consecutive years, June sightings have occurred on two islands where they are not a known species. I happen to have taken some photos of BBWDs elsewhere in the meantime, and I thought these pretty ducks deserved further exposure…
A BBWD LOVE STORY
Hello! Would you like to preen with me?
Yes I would. As long as there are no paparazzi around.
The third new bird species this year has been found on Abaco by bird authority Woody Bracey. After the excitement of 6BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKSin June and aFORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER in October comes the very recent sighting (with photos) of a BROWN THRASHER, hitherto unrecorded for Abaco. It was seen near Treasure Cay, at the site of a derelict restaurant.
The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the same family that includes mockingbirds and the catbird – Mimidae. Its normal range includes Florida where it is resident, so there’s only 200 miles of ocean to cross to reach Abaco. Easier still with a stop-over on Grand Bahama. However I’ve checked for other Bahamas sightings, and so far I have found one recorded for Grand Bahama, and one for Eleuthera. So this first sighting on Abaco is possibly only the third for the Bahamas, suggesting that the Thrasher is generally not a great adventurer.
Here are some images in case you happen to see a strange brown speckled bird…
ADULT AND JUVENILE
And here are Woody’s evidential images of his sighting. They may not be such close shots as the others but they are conclusive for the record.
BESIDES ONE BIRD VISITING ABACO, WHAT’S INTERESTING ABOUT THE THRASHER?
They are known to have more than 1000 types of song, one of the largest bird repertoires
They repeat phrases 2 or 3 times before moving on to another (somewhat like Mockingbirds)
Rick Wigh / Xeno Canto
They are omnivorous, eating insects, snails, worms etc; and balancing that with fruit, seeds and nuts
They are shy birds, but can be very aggressive when defending territory or a nest site
They used their slightly decurved beaks to thrash around under leaves and ground debris as they forage – hence the name
YES INDEED, BUT IS THERE ONE REALLY MEMORABLE FACT ABOUT THEM?
OK. Their necks are extremely flexible and they have more vertebrae than camels or (get this!) giraffes.
AUDUBON’S DEPICTION OF A ‘FERRUGINOUS THRUSH’, AS IT WAS THEN KNOWN
FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER: ANOTHER NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO
Following the flurry of reports and photos in June of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on Abaco – a species never recorded here before – comes a new ‘first bird’: the Fork-Tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus savant. On September 24 Shirley Cartwright saw an unusual bird with a long dark tail and managed to get a photo of it of sufficient quality for a certain identification to be made. Never mind the photo detail, the fact that Shirley saw the bird and was able to obtain photographic confirmation is the thing. So here is the first-ever Fork-tailed Flycatcher for Abaco – and only the third for the Bahamas (previous ones seen on New Providence and Great Inagua).
I did a little brightening and clarifying of the original image, and also tried a crop
Tony White, the well-known authority on Bahamas birds, sent me the image with some information about this bird’s usual range:
“This is an interesting species as the race found in eastern US is South American and highly migratory. It breeds in Chile and Argentina. It is a frequent vagrant to USA, well over 100 records, and has appeared as far north as Nunavut, Canada. In the Austral fall (our spring) it migrates north and winters in Northern South America. Birds that appear in the USA at that time are considered overshoots. Birds that appear in our fall (Austral spring) are believed to be mostly first year birds that winter in northern South America and then fly a mirror image from the proper direction heading north instead of south. Unfortunately, the photos of the Abaco bird are not close enough to tell whether it was a young one or not. Field guides say young birds have shorter tails, but in fact there is considerable overlap in tail lengths between females and young. I strongly recommend a paper by McCaskie and Patton on this species in Western Birds 1994 Vol 25, No 3, pp 113=127. It can be found on SORA (Searchable Ornithological Research Archives).”
Treading carefully through a copyright minefield, I have dug out some illustrative images of this flycatcher, shown below. It belongs to the group known as tyrant flycatchers, which includes the kingbirds that are familiar on Abaco.
This first range map (Cornell Neotropical) shows the FTFs’ typical, largely subequatorial range
However this ‘overshoot’ range map (Audubon) reflects the fact that overshoots occur almost annually in the eastern United States seaboard and even as far north as Canada. To see these birds photographed in Connecticut (10000birds.com), clickHERE. Given that the whole Florida coast is included, it’s perhaps not surprising that sooner or later the odd bird would misdirect to the northern Bahamas.
This example of the species is taken from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds (open source) . The bird in the centre with the long tail is clearly a male; I imagine the mature-looking one on the left is a female; and the one on the right with the comparatively stumpy tail, a juvenile.
It’s sometimes instructive to discover how John James Audubon saw a particular bird, so here is his FWF. While the bird is undeniably beautiful, I am not too certain of its proportion in relation to the size of the blossom. But then again, it seems to me that he didn’t always struggle for exactitude, preferring a broader, more relaxed approach to depict the birds as he saw them – and not afraid to exaggerate a characteristic for effect.
NEW INFO Woody Bracey has contacted me to point out that the male in the image above “is actually a pale mantled manachus subspecies from Central America, not the darker savana nominate subspecies from South America which Shirley photographed”. Which explains the colour difference.
The fork-tailed flycatcher has the longest tail relative to body size of any bird on earth (trails.com)
As the name suggests, this species feeds mainly on insects, although in winter it may also eat berries and the like. They will often perch on wires of fence posts. I’ve no idea if they ‘hawk’ for flies on the wing, but if so the sight of a male feeding must be wonderful. Here is an example of their song
[audio http://www.xeno-canto.org/sounds/uploaded/DGVLLRYDXS/TYRSAV06.mp3] Jeremy Minns / Xeno-Canto
To see a gallery of FWF photos on the excellent birding resource Oiseaux.net, click on the logo