SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

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

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Kaderin Mills)

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.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

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.

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

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 coltSnadhill Crane (birdphotos.com)

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)

Sandhill Crane, Abaco Bahamas - a first-ever sighting (Elwood Bracey)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS


Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO: A FIRST FOR THE CAYS

I last wrote in April about the rare Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii that, in very small isolated numbers, overwinters on Abaco. You can get to the article HERE. You’ll find plenty of information, a range map, notes about the eponymous Mr Kirtland, and lots of good photos (none mine except the joke one – I messed up my one chance out of 4 birds encountered in the National Park). So I won’t go over the ground again…

I’m returning to this near-threatened species now because there has been a very exciting development for Abaco for the KIWA. Towards the end of last month, 2 birds were found over a couple of days at a location on Green Turtle Cay. Having now checked all reported sightings for Abaco since time immemorial (or at least from when eBird began), I believe that this may be the first time a Kirtland’s warbler has been reported on any of the cays. Certainly when we were researching The Birds of Abaco, we found no evidence of KIWA reports from the cays. Sightings are anyway few and far between (not even annual), and mostly on a ‘right place right time a hunch and a large slice of luck’ basis.

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The first sighting of the season, on Ocotober 27,  was (surprisingly) at Sandy Point, when Woody Bracey took a party of 3 birding for the day. Most KIWA sightings are in south Abaco, with selected areas of the huge National Forest being much the most likely places. There were in fact 2 birds seen – here’s a photograph of one of them. Sandy Point was an unexpected location, but they were on the mainland and in the south – a great ‘get’ by any standards, but not unique for the area.

Kirtland's Warble, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas (Roger Neilson)

AN EXCITING SIGHTING

On November 22 at 08.30, Sally Chisholm was birdwatching on GTC when she suddenly came across an unmistakeable KIWA, seeing it closely and clearly: “gray back with dark striping, gray head with white broken eye ring, pale yellow breast with small dark spots”. It was pumping its tail (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond) characteristically, and eating the berries from a palm tree (see header image). Sally heard its repeated “chip” call, typical of the KIWA. Furthermore, a second bird was returning the call, though she could not see it.

KIWA CHIP CALL Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

Two days later, in the early morning on November 24, Sally returned to the same location and saw a single bird, clearly one (or perhaps the other) of the two birds already seen / heard. She got a fine clear shot this time, too. 

Kirtland's Warble, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a Kirtland’s expert (not even a bird expert, if I’m honest). The photos seem to me to show a young bird (compared with ones I have seen) and I wonder if they are juvenile adults (as it were) on their first migration from the jack pines of Michigan. Comments on this remark invited and welcomed… No matter: the great thing is that, whatever the age of the bird, photo #1 is, as far as I can tell, the first visual confirmation of a KIWA sighting on an Abaco cay. It’s a privilege to be able to give it a wider audience.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?

  • Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species
  • Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again. Check out the very limited range of the KIWA and you’ll see the point at once

Credits: Sally Chisholm (1, 2, 4, 5) with special thanks for use permission for her terrific photos; Rodger Neilson (3); Paul Driver / Xeno Canto, sound file; Birdorable, cartoon; Usual (range map); BPS (stamp)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)


Bald Eagle Juvenile (Audubon)

ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AN EYRIE COINCIDENCE (GEDDIT?)

I absolutely knew this would happen. In a sense, I rather wanted it to happen. And now it has, and I have got my comeuppance. Bigly. Hugely. No sooner had I pressed ‘send‘ on my post 2 days ago bemoaning the absence of bald eagles in 2018 than corrections began to come in.

  • Harsh Judgemental Reader: “Do you mean you were wrong?”
    • Contrite Writer: “Yes.”
  • HJR: “Did you check eBird before you fired off your intemperate post?”
    • CW (in a small apologetic voice): “No.”
  • HJR: Well then, what have you got to say for yourself?”
    • CW (*hangs head*): I’m very sorry, everyone. I’ll try to do better this time. Here goes:”

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S) OF 2018: IN NO WAY AWOL!

SIGHTING ONE

On October 25th legendary Bahamas birder Elwood Bracey and a party of 4 were looking out over the Marls from Sunset Ridge when they saw 4 birds flying high. Two were unmistakably turkey vultures; one was a magnificent frigatebird (ie totally non-eagle-ish); and the fourth was much larger, looking like a juvenile bald eagle. Any remaining doubts were dispelled when it dropped into a steep dive and smashed into the water, catching a fish in its talons, much like an osprey. There’s no room for confusion here: Woody has vast experience on Abaco and beyond – and besides, he had a powerful spotting scope and 4 birding witnesses. The ID is, as they say, solid. And it was posted on eBird. Which I should have checked. But didn’t. As Julia Roberts (qua Vivian Ward) actually did say, “Big Mistake. Huge!

Bald Eagle Juvenile (Wiki)

The problem here – you are ahead of me, aren’t you – is that a juvenile bald eagle does not resemble an adult. Rather than the familiar and symbolic look, they are dark brown with white flecks and mottling that changes as they grow older. A juvenile won’t even begin to look like a bald-headed adult until it is around 4 years old. Here are two comparisons of the confusing ages and stages.

SIGHTING 2

Within the last couple of weeks, a resident of Man-o-War Cay saw a huge brown bird – not an osprey, turkey vulture or red-tailed hawk – hunting chickens in the area. He told his family and identified the bird from looking at a photo of a juvenile bald eagle. I received this report – the first in time – from Charmaine Albury. Her brother was the sharp-eyed spotter. Had that been the only report, in the absence of a photo I might have had at least some doubt. Then Woody’s report arrived, a definite juvenile bald eagle only 3 weeks before, over the Marls. From there, with its spectacular eyesight it could practically have seen the individual chickens on Man-o-War. So it’s a good fit for ID.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

I’d say that right now on Abaco we have a single juvenile bald eagle. It’s a vagrant, away from its usual hunting ground but unchallenged in the skies where it has ended up. There has been the usual autumn extreme weather (though Abaco has dodged the worst of it) to throw a young bird of course in the last couple of months. So, rather late in the day, we really do have an Abaco Bald Eagle for 2018.

A juvenile bald eagle – not at all like its parents to look at

Credits: Woody and Char for the sighting reports; header image (1), Audubon; (2) wiki; (3) Allaboutbirds.com; comparative drawing, Birdwatchers’ Digest; (4) FB, source unknown (and a credit or take-down as you wish if it’s yours); cute cartoon, the most excellent Birdorable

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018


Bald Eagle in flight (Phil Lanoue)

THE ABACO BALD EAGLE(S): AWOL IN 2018

It is a year since I last wrote about the Abaco Bald Eagle(s) of 2017. The bracketed ‘s’ signifies the absence of firm evidence that there was just the one. Equally, there was no indication that there were ever two. All reported sightings were of a single bird, seen at a distance. The likelihood is that it was a lone visitor. The bald eagle is classified as a very rare vagrant on Abaco, and I gathered together as many reports since 2000 as I could find (see below). Not many, in summary, and never two.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

Last year, a bald eagle was sighted around to coast of Abaco over a period of several months. There were 8 sightings in all, and I had hoped that the bird might stay around for 2018. Sadly, not so. The photos featured here come from a sequence by photographer Phil Lanoue. They were not taken on Abaco of course, so don’t be confused. But they illustrate the magnificence of this iconic bird as it prepares for its landing in a pine tree. We do have wonderful ospreys of course, but the occasional eagle makes for a rare treat.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue) Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

As I said last year, the 2017 sightings were most likely all of the same lone bird that had somehow strayed over to Abaco and found the available prey good, and the location congenial. As undisputed king of the skies, its daily hunting range was a wide one which would explain the varied sighting locations.  I ended: “I’m sticking with this theory unless and until 2 eagles are seen together”. 

BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)

Here is the list of sightings. They start in 2000, because there are no known reports for Abaco prior to that from when they started to be kept in the 1950s. If anyone has others, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

  • 2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
  • 2001  December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
  • 2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
  • 2004 Autumn – south of Lynard Cay (after hurricane) – Cheryl Noice
  • 2014  Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
  • ===================================
  • 2017  March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
  • 2017  Early May – Power plant area – LC
  • 2017  May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
  • 2017  May  – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’
  • 2017  September – Cross Harbour – Carol Rivard Roberts (with photo)
  • 2017  November – Cherokee Road – Howard Pitts
  • 2017 November – Bahama Palm Shores / 8-mile beach – Steve Roessler
  • 2017 November – Tilloo Bank – Laurie Schreiner (with photo)

Italics = report in comments on Danny Sawyer’s FB page; Blue = added reports to me

The first-ever bald eagle photo on Abaco Sept 2017

Carol Rivard Roberts

The last bald eagle photo on Abaco Nov 2017

Laurie Schreiner

Credits: all brilliant ‘eagle landing’ photos, Phil Lanoue with many thanks for use permission; Abaco eagles by Carol Rivard Roberts and Laurie Schreiner; amusing cartoon, Birdorable; thanks to all spotters and reporters.

Bald Eagle (Phil Lanoue)

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO


Ruff, Grand Bahama, Bahamas (2015) Duncan Mullis

THE FIRST RUFF IN THE BAHAMAS

RUFF & READY: YET ANOTHER BIRD FIRST FOR ABACO

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 a CANADA 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

Ruff, (N. America) Dick Daniels

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…

Ruff (m, non-breeding) J.M.Garg

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.

Ruff (Old Print) nederlandsche_vogelen wiki

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 BahamasRuff - Grand Bahama, Bahamas (Duncan Mullis 2015)

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.

Ruff Lek (Arjan Haverkamp) wiki

This male has decided to vogue it and ‘strike the pose’ as it preensRuff - male preening (B.S.Thurner-hof, wiki)

Writing in The 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)Ruff Lek - Johannes Naumann

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…

Ruffs in India (J. M. Garg)

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

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY – ABACO’S 33 SPECIES (1): LARGER BIRDS


Whimbrel numenius phaeopus (Andreas Trepte / wiki)

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY – ABACO’S 33 SPECIES (1)

LARGER BIRDS

Today, September 6th, is World Shorebirds Day. Every year, a Shorebird of the Year is selected by the organisers of this global event, and this year they have gone ‘large’. Perhaps in response to the declining populations of curlew species, they have chosen a fine representative – the whimbrel. Inconveniently – and although the whimbrel is a worldwide species – it is extremely rare on Abaco. In the definitive Abaco Checklist (see below), it is coded a TR4, i.e. a very uncommon transient with a handful of sporadic reports. Until last year, sightings were very few and far between. Then suddenly last autumn, they made a small migratory comeback. You can read about it HERE.

BLACK-NECKED STILT  Himantopus mexicanus  PR B 3Black-necked Stilt, Abaco - Tom Sheley Black-necked stilt, Abaco - Alex Hughes

Abaco is home to 33 shorebird species. Like the human residents of the main island and cays, some are permanent; some are winter residents arriving from the north to enjoy a warmer climate; and some are transients – visitors that pass through a couple of times a year on their way from and to their nesting habitats. 

CHECKLIST OF ALL 33 SHOREBIRDS

The definitive checklist of Abaco’s birds was compiled especially for the BIRDS OF ABACO by Bahamas Birding author and authority, the late and much missed Tony White, with Abaco’s bird expert Elwood Bracey. Below is the shorebird list, with a photographic selection of the larger and/or longer-billed shorebirds in checklist order. Yes, including an Abaco whimbrel.

The codes will tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient, V = vagrant); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5).

AMERICAN AVOCET Recurvirostra americana   WR 4
American Avocet, New Providence - Tony Hepburn

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER  Haematopus palliatus PR B 2American Oystercatcher, Abaco 5.1 Tom Sheley

GREATER YELLOWLEGS  Tringa melanoleuca   WR 2Greater Yellowlegs LR. Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley.2.12 copy 2

LESSER YELLOWLEGS  Tringa flavipes  WR 3Lesser Yellowlegs.Evening on the Marls.Abaco Bahamas.2.13.Tom Sheley small2

WHIMBREL Numenius phaeopus TR4 (an Abaco one)

HUDSONIAN GODWIT Limosa haemastica [V5]

Like the whimbrel, this bird is another special bird to be able to include. Until last October, it was categorised as a V5, meaning that one or perhaps 2 vagrants had ever been seen on Abaco. Then one appeared on a pond and was spotted by Woody Bracey and, a few days later, by Keith Kemp – who even took confirmatory photos. You can read the story HERE.
Hudsonian Godwit, Abaco (Stewart Neilson)

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER  Limnodromus griseus  WR 1Short-billed Dowitcher (NB), Abaco - Bruce Hallett 

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER  Limnodromus scolopaceus   WR 4Long-billed Dowitcher Mike Baird Wiki

WILLETT  Tringa semipalmata  PR B 2Willet.Abaco Bahamas.2.13.Tom Sheley small

WILSON’S SNIPE  Gallinago delicata   WR 3Wilson's Snipe, Abaco - Woody Bracey

RELATED POSTS

WHIMBREL

WILLET

BLACK-NECKED STILT

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER

HUDSONIAN GODWIT

YELLOWLEGS

DOWITCHERS

Photo Credits: Andreas Trepte / Wiki (1);Tom Sheley (2, 5, 6, 7, 13); Alex Hughes (3);Tony Hepburn (4); Charmaine Albury (8, 9); Stewart Neilson / Wiki (10); Bruce Hallett (11); Mike Baird / Wiki (12); Woody Bracey (14)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ABACO’S RARE TREASURES


Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS: ABACO’S RARE TREASURES

This is a challenging topic that I have been (shamefully) putting off. My task is a full-scale facing-up to an extremely rare, very small, and rather adorable adversary, the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). There are probably more dedicated KIWA experts out there than there are birds of this scarce species. Estimates of bird numbers vary wildly, but if I take a consensus of the mean of an approximate average of the median as ± 5000 individuals, I’d probably be in the ballpark named “Current Thinking“. 

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

THAT SOUNDS QUITE RARE, RIGHT?

Around 50 years ago, the species was all but extinct – perhaps fewer than 500 birds in total, a barely sustainable population. In 1975, Brudenell-Bruce estimated 1000. I’ll mention some of the reasons later. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan was instituted with the twin objectives of protecting the vulnerable breeding habitat – basically large areas of jack pine; and of monitoring and management aimed at encouraging an increase in numbers. Around that time, they became IUCN listed as vulnerable, but more recently, population growth has resulted in a recategorisation to the more optimistic near-threatened category.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

AND THEY LIVE  WHERE, EXACTLY?

In spring and summer almost the entire KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. There are signs that the range has expanded slightly in Michigan and more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio as the numbers have increased.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (©Vince Cavalieri)

In the fall and winter the population migrates to the Bahamas & TCI, where they tend to choose remote scrub and coppice areas to live until the spring when they return north in April. This range map shows the extremely specialist habitat choices of these migratory birds.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

SO THEY ARE REALLY FOUND ON ABACO?

Yes – but they are notoriously hard to find. To give you an idea, I checked the eBird stats for Abaco sightings over the last 10 years: 9 successful trips reported, with 18 birds seen in all**.  There were 3 groups comprising 6, 4, and 2 birds; and the rest were single birds. Abaco ornithologist and guide Woody Bracey is the go-to man for finding these little birds. Two years ago we were in his party that saw 4 in the space of a couple of hours. I was supposedly the photographer, but unaccountably found myself in completely the wrong place for the first 3. The 4th flew off a branch and straight at my head as I raised the camera… I felt the wind as it passed on its way deep into the coppice. I’m not proud of my effort; the fuzzy lemon item beyond the twigs and leaves is a KIWA (you’ll have to take my word for it…).

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour / KS)

HAVE ANY BEEN SEEN ON ABACO THIS YEAR?

Last week, Woody took another party to the main hotspot in the Abaco National Park, a protected area at the southern end of the island. The park is huge, covering more than 20,000 acres of (mostly) pine forest. These birds are tiny, about 14 cms long and weighing 14 gms. Despite which they found a female and then a male KIWA in their favoured habitat beyond the pine forest. Those are the only 2 I’ve heard about this winter season.

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco Bahamas, 12 April 2018 Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?

  • Gray head with a blueish tinge, gray-brown back
  • Yellow throat & underside, with some dark streaking
  • Females are paler and more streaked
  • Split eye rings – white crescents above and below eyes
  • Frequent tail pumping and bobbing (‘tail-wagging’ J. Bond)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

Some would say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found they produce ‘a loud tchip, song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). You be the judge!

 Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES?

  • Mankind is the primary threat. The breeding areas are particularly vulnerable from deforestation and clearance of the jack pines that are essential for successful nesting and breeding – and therefore the survival of the species.
  • Encroachment of development is another threat, as with so many species.
  • There is a further threat of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, to which KIWAs are especially vulnerable.
  • In the winter grounds where the habitat is mostly remote or in protected areas, there is rather less of a problem from these factors – for now at least.
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk; at both ends, extinction could loom again.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877) portrait

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)

Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician and amateur naturalist. He was a man of many and varied interests and talents, not-untypical of his time. In the field of natural history, Kirtland’s name lives on in his warbler; and also in a couple of snake species.

The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps

**I realise eBird is not the be-all and end-all for sighting reports. It hasn’t been in existence for as long as 10 years, and not everyone uses it anyway. And awareness of the Bahamas as the winter home for KIWAs is a surprisingly recent development (as with piping plovers). As awareness increases, so do birder interest, habitat knowledge, and consequently reports of sightings.

Another example of the ‘twigs in the way’ problem for photographers

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3); Vince Cavalieri (4); Tom Sheley (5); Unattributable (me, in fact) 6; Woody Bracey (7, 9); Tony Hepburn (8); Lionel Levene (10); Birds of North America (range map); Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto (audio file); Birdorable (cartoon); BPS (KIWA stamp). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.