CHRISTMAS-COLOURED BIRDS 2: ABACO PARROT
A VERY HAPPY TO ALL FOLLOWERS OF ROLLING HARBOUR…
…AND TO EACH AND EVERY RANDOM DROP-BY TOO!
SEE YOU NEXT DECADE!
Credit: Nina Henry, photographed on Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”
The Great Egret is actually a heron rather than an egret. It’s a Great Heron. All egrets are members of the heron family Ardeidae, but the converse is not true. As long ago as 1758, Linnaeus awarded the bird the binomial name Ardea alba i.e. ‘Heron white‘. Why it should have been so hard to stick to that authoritative nomenclature, I can’t imagine. Perhaps in time all heron and egret species became so hopelessly confusing for people that it ceased to matter much what they were called.
Maybe it was that type of carelessness that led to people from the mid-c19 onwards eyeing up GREGs as a source of hat feathers and other decorative necessities. As with flamingos and many other beautiful avian species, mankind’s millinery and other fashion needs were satisfied at the expense of gorgeous plumage. Actually, at the cost of the birds’ lives: they were simply shot in huge numbers.
Healthy populations were decimated; for some species they never recovered. For others, the great egret among them, the passage of time and the passing of fashions – backed in many cases with conservation programs – have successfully restored the populations. In 1953 the National Audubon Society, which was formed at least in part to discourage the killing of birds for their feathers, took a decisive step in the cause of the great egret by making the bird the emblem of the organisation.
Photo Credit: Nina Henry photographed all the egrets in this post. Her wonderful images made a significant contribution to the “BIRDS OF ABACO” project.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!)
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
To be honest, I haven’t done these fine birds justice. Barely a mention of them for 3 years. Too much else on the land and in the water to choose from. I posted some of my photos from an outing to Sandy Point HERE. And the kestrel kinsman MERLIN got some attention a while later. Time to make amends with some more AMKE.
As many or most of the images show, utility wires (also posts) are a favourite perch for kestrels. They get an unimpeded view of the only thing that really matters in their lives – outside the breeding season, of course – PREY.
In my experience it’s quite rare to see AMKEs on the ground – unless they are in the act of ripping up some hapless rodent pinned to the earth. I was with photographer Tom Sheley when he captured this fine bird in the grass.
Treasure Cay and its surrounding area makes for a good day’s birding. Although South Abaco, below Marsh Harbour, is the go-to location, TC has plenty of scope for a great variety of species from shore birds to songbirds – including the occasional Kirtland’s warbler. The golf course pond at hole #11 is well worth checking out (with permission at the club house, rarely declined unless there’s an event of some sort). So is the large brackish lake system where you may well find herons and egrets. There’s been a rare (for Abaco) pearly-eyed thrasher there recently. And you may find yourself being watched by a kestrel from a vantage point.
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
One of Leonard Cohen’s standards, and a song covered by almost everyone from Johnny Cash to Heathen Gonads*, Bird on the Wire was on the album Songs from a Room (1969). It was a favourite of Cohen’s, who once said “I always begin my concert with this song”. Covers range from the excellent via good, interesting, and strange to outright bizarre. Joe Bonamassa’s take on it (as Bird on a Wire) on Black Rock, is certainly… unusual**.
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 10); Charles Skinner (2); Peter Mantle (3, 9); Tom Sheley 4, 5, 6); Nina Henry (7); Tom Reed (8)
*not really . **shows originality & ingenuity -vs- dents his purist bluesman credentials
Majestic. Soaring. Graceful. Revolting. That’s the Turkey Vulture. It’s quite a while since I posted about them: you can read all about them and their disgusting habits in the post CARRION SCAVENGING. You’ll discover 10 essential facts, their unpleasant little ways with urine and puke, the sound they make, some sex-tips and a Metallica video.
Are you unaware of vultures? Well, today is their day. These dedicated bird days come thick and fast at certain times of year. Tomorrow we celebrate World Shorebirds Day, so I’m giving the vultures their time in the sun today. On Abaco you could hardly fail to be aware of the ubiquitous TVs, and I have chosen a selection of photos, all taken on Abaco, to make a gallery for their day.
Let’s start with some of the more glamourous ‘in-flight’ shots. This is when TVs look their best, as they wheel round floating and swooping on the thermals – singly, in pairs or in flocks.
At closer quarters TVs are till impressive, though arguably less attractive… TVs often use utility wires (header image) or posts to perch on, scope out the territory, or simply to dry their wings
TVs will never be truly adorable. The final image (by Irish photographer Craig Nash) is truly ‘warts and all’… Ah, but look at the sweet little hairs on its head!
Talking of adorable, this is the perfect place for a shout-out for the wonderful BIRDORABLE site. For this special day they have put all their vultures together in one helpful chart. They have a load of fun at Birdorable HQ. You can download birds for children to colour in. Or even get a T-shirt with your favourite bird on it (mine’s a PIPL).
Credits: Craig Nash (1, 7); Nina Henry (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4); Charlie Skinner (5); Keith Salvesen (6); the incomparable Birdorable
These small birds Columbina passerina are also known as tobacco doves. Although they sometimes perch in the branches of trees, you are more likely to encounter them on the ground, where they forage for seeds, fruit, and insects.
They will often fly in front of a person or vehicle in short fluttering stages, keeping out of reach but never going too far ahead.When they fly, their undersides flash reddish-brown (sometimes described as chestnut) – hence (I presume) the tobacco dove name.
The common ground dove is one of the world’s smallest doves – roughly 6 inches long. Its beak has a black tip, and its feathers have a pinkish tinge. The feathers on the head and the breast look rather like scales. Females are similar to males but tend to be greyer.
Common ground doves mate with their partner for life, and a pair may have 2 or even 3 broods a year. Both parents feed the young birds until they are ready to feed themselves. Rather amazingly, hatchlings can fledge in 11 days.
Here’s the sound to listen out for, a (frankly) rather monotonous and subdued little ‘whoop’.
Andrew Spenser / Xeno Canto
My own attempts to photograph a CGD satisfactorily have been rather feeble. I have taken plenty of photos of them on the ground, but nothing memorable, let alone useable. However the one below surprised me by flying onto a branch quite near me, and I had time to squeeze the trigger before it flew off again. Far from perfect compared with others on this page, but I’m not going to let that little detail prevent me from showing it…
Photo Credits: Tom Reed (1), Tom Sheley (2, 3), Nina Henry (4, 5, 6), RH (7); Audio – Andrew Spenser / Xeno Canto
HUMBLE HOUSE SPARROWS ON ABACO… & EVERYWHERE ELSE!
The House Sparrow is one of the most successful, adaptive and prolific species in the world. THE most, in fact. It is found on every continent (except Antarctica… but I bet there are in fact a few of them pecking around the Ross Ice Shelf for crumbs). It is indigenous to Europe and Asia, and has been introduced elsewhere. So to any birds or people that say house sparrows are boring and common, I would point out that they are world record-holders…
People tend not to photograph house sparrows. Their domesticity and familiarity have rather tended to breed contempt. Besides, there are more impressive birds to capture. In compiling BIRDS OF ABACO, it was surprisingly hard to get hold of sparrow images. We had to take some ‘in-house’ photos as back-up. Although the house sparrow comes into the broad birding category ‘LBJ’ (‘Little Brown Job’), it’s really a bit unfair. The males in particular deserve a second look (then you can go and find some painted buntings if you wish…).
One of the strangest birding features in the UK in the last 20 years has been the virtual elimination of the house sparrow from London and its inner suburbs. Until recently, there were loveable ‘Cockerny Sparrers’ everywhere. Then suddenly the population began to decline, and the rate of loss accelerated quickly. I haven’t seen one in London for years – not in our garden, not in the green squares, not in the trees, not in noisy squawking crowds in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. Suddenly a bird that was so common that its presence was taken completely for granted has now become high on any birder’s ‘get’ list for London, and a joy to see… To read a short article on the possible reasons for the decline CLICK HERE. The trouble is that most theories could be applied to other major cities where there are still thriving populations – New York, for example.
It has to be said that the female house sparrow is undeniably less… er… flamboyant than the male, as is the case with most (all?) avians. But they are still pretty birds, in much the same way that a female black-faced grassquit has subtle coloration if you look closely. I took the photo below at MH Airport while hanging around for a plane. The bird wasn’t perched at a very good angle for a memorable shot, or so I thought until I noticed its little wrinkly feet and sharp claws…
Credits: Nina Henry x 2, Peter Mantle, Moi, Bruce Hallett, Charles Skinner
In 2012 I wrote a post about the comparative rarity of the American Robin on Abaco, which had surprised me. They overwinter in Florida, and they might conceivably range further more often than they do. It turned out that one or two may be reported one year, none the next. I listed a number of sightings and some comments by Woody Bracey, but I lacked any photos of these birds taken on Abaco. I had to make do with wiki and bad ones taken in the US by me (including stuffed ones in the Natural History Museum, NYC – an act of desperation!). You can see the post HERE
Nina Henry, a photographic contributor to BIRDS OF ABACO, had some good fortune last March 2014 when she found these 3 birds during her trip to Abaco. Maybe March is a good time for them – perhaps a few call in as they start to make their way north for the summer.
Many past sightings have been on the Cays rather than the main island. Here’s a recent photograph taken by Charmaine Albury on Man-o-Way Cay
Meanwhile I have been able to improve slightly on the tiny distant AMRO I posted before, with one taken more recently – still not on Abaco but in NYC. Closer, but definitely no cigar yet…
Credits: Bruce Hallett (header), Nina Henry x 3, Charmaine Albury, RH
The Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis is a common winter gull, familiar to all in its adult form because of its… er… ringed bill that distinguishes it from all the other gull species found in the northern Bahamas. There are other differences, obviously, but this beak-related signifier provides the easiest method of ID. To be honest, you may find one anywhere – out to sea, on the shore, inland, or perhaps hanging out at one of the dumps that they are attracted to. This last preference is one shared with many species, but while the dumps may provide good birding venues, the photographic backgrounds and general ambience may be somewhat unattractive… Here are 3 great photos by Nina Henry of these gulls where they look best, near the shoreline.
STOP PRESS Nov 18 Woody Bracey reports from Treasure Cay “I had my first for the fall here in Treasure cay yesterday – one adult and 1 immature. It’s nice to have them back”. So keep an eye out – the ring-billeds are back on Abaco…
The Latin name of these gulls refers to the Delaware River, Pennsylvania, which is on their migration route. But there must have been dozens of other towns along the route with equal claim to have a bird named after them. Why Delaware took the honours, I cannot explain… and thinking about it has inserted the old song in my brain “What did Delaware, boys? What did Delaware? She wore a brand New Jersey…” etc etc**. So I’ll get on and show some more RBGs to get it out of my head. Here are 3 stages of development from Bruce Hallett.
Laughing Gulls are gregarious creatures, and are quite often found in a group with some other seabird in the middle of the crowd – often a larger one. Here is a ring-billed gull standing proudly in the throng, while the laughing gulls snooze in the sun on the jetty.
Photo Credits: Tony Hepburn (1), Nina Henry (2,3,4), Bruce Hallett (5,6,7), Peter Mantle (8)
** If you want to remind yourself – or inflict on yourself for the first time – the entire US-State-related pun-encrusted jingle CLICK DELAWARE DITTY
It’s been a while since the parrots of Abaco got a look-in hereabouts. Time to put that right. At the end of this gallery I will add some links to posts about the unique ground-nesting parrots of Abaco. Newcomers to this blog (I thank you both) may be interested to know that intensive conservation measures have brought this subspecies of the Cuban Parrot back from the brink of extinction – fewer than 1000 – to a sustainable and expanding population of around 4000.
For an overview of these lovely birds, I’ve made a slideshow presentation of a small booklet I put together in conjunction with scientist Caroline Stahala, who devoted several years to the research and protection of the parrots. Contents: parrots, nests, eggs, cute chicks, info, Sandy Walker with a fledgling on his lap.
Here is the noise of a flock of parrots at Bahama Palm Shores, an excellent place to find them. It’s one of the less raucous recordings that I have made! We normally go to the main (north) turning, drive straight down to the end, cut the engine and listen. I’ve usually been lucky in that immediate area around 5.00 p.m., though others may have discovered other good times of day.
ABACO PARROTS Unique parrots in pictures, video & sound
ABACO PARROTS Rare nesting footage
ABACO PARROTS Conservation & anti-predation programs
Credits: Melissa Maura (brilliant header!), Gerlinde Taurer, Craig Nash, Tom Sheley, Peter Mantle, RH, Nina Henry, Bruce Hallett, Charlie Skinner, and Caroline Stahala
Abaco has six ‘true’ heron species (putting aside the various egrets): Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The Green Heron Butorides virescens is a permanent resident and is easily distinguishable from the other heron species. The header picture by Tom Sheley is one of many wonderful photographs he took for THE BIRDS OF ABACO, and is one of the most striking. This is a bird actively hunting, keeping very low with eyes fixed on the water, waiting for the chance to use that long sharp bill to snaffle its prey – small fish, frogs and aquatic insects.
There are thought to be 5 sub-species of green heron within the range, but this is a matter for anguished debate (not by me). However, the resident variety in the Bahamas has been designated Butorides virescens bahamensis since 1888 (Brewster), so I’m going along with that.
Green Heron are known to drop food, insects, or small objects such as stones on the water’s surface as bait to attract fish or other tasty creatures. They are thus classified as one of the animal kingdom’s 44 (?) TOOL-USING SPECIES, considered a sign of superior intelligence.
The Golf Course at Treasure Cay is an excellent place to go bird-watching. There is always plenty of bird life on the 3 ponds there, the one on hole #11 being the biggest and most abundant. If you are going to bird there, call in first at the Clubhouse and ask for permission: they are very kind about it, but they do need to know who is out on the course. And since the pond is alongside the fairway, keep your wits about you – you are a potential target for the sliced drive… (ok, ok left-handers – hooked, then).
The 2 images above are from Charlie Skinner, and show a green heron adult and chick putting the Golf Course drainage pipe to good use. Captions invited for the top one. Birds often seen at this particular location include green heron, white-cheeked pintail (lots), common gallinule (moorhen), coot, Canada goose, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, and blue-winged teal. You may also see little blue heron and smooth-billed anis. Once I found a least bittern in the background of a teal photo – I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I checked the photos there it was in the reeds behind the ducks. Another good place to bird if you are in the TC area is White Sound.
Credits: Tom Sheley, Woody Bracey, Nina Henry, Tom Reed, Rick Lowe, Peter Mantle, Charlie Skinner, Wiki
POSTSCRIPT I’ve just commented HERE on the supposedly phonetic call-sounds attributed to birds to render them recognisable by man – the “What’s-for-dinner-Martha, what’s-for-dinner” and the “Give-me-a-drink-please…NOW” and so on. So when I was borrowing the range map from Wiki I was amused to see this: “The green heron’s call is a loud and sudden kyow; it also makes a series of more subdued kuk calls. During courtship, the male gives a raah-rahh call with wide-open bill, makes noisy wingbeats and whoom-whoom-whoom calls in flight, and sometimes calls roo-roo to the female before landing again. While sitting, an aaroo-aaroo courtship call is also given”. So there you go.