Today, September 6th, is World Shorebirds Day. Every year, a Shorebird of the Yearis 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 3
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 OYSTERCATCHER Haematopus palliatus PR B 2
GREATER YELLOWLEGS Tringa melanoleuca WR 2
LESSER YELLOWLEGS Tringa flavipes WR 3
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 storyHERE.
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)
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“.
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.
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)
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
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…).
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
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
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.
WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?
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.
The header image is of a Bahama mockingbird recently photographed by keen-eyed Abaco birder Keith Kemp. It is a thing of wonder and beauty, exceptionally rare and possibly unique. I can find no other example of a leucistic bird of this species online.
This is not Keith’s first leucistic bird discovery on Abaco either – a while back he found a leucistic Western spindalis. You can read more about leucism and its distinction from albinism, and see a number of other examples of leucism including a white turkey vultureHERE
Even more astonishingly, Keith managed to get a photo of the ‘white’ bird and a ‘normal’ bird together (above). The difference is startling. Below is a fine photo by Peter Mantle of a Bahama mockingbird, as you would expect to see one – basically brown with a pale, flecked front / underside.
LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?
I’ll recap what I wrote in the earlier post linked above. First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. For example:
Albino Fwuffy Bwunny Wabbit
WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?
Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused by pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally pale or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected – so, not pink. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.
KK’s leucistic Western spindalis, an example of partial or ‘pied’ leucism
So there you have it: another extreme rarity for Abaco, and a further example of how rewarding – and surprising – birding on Abaco can be. To repeat the link to the more detailed article on leucism in birds, you can find with (*distraction alert*) some music and inappositely comedic material thrown inHERE
All photos Keith Kemp except the ‘normal’ bird, Peter Mantle
I recently posted about the sighting of an entirely new bird species for Abaco, the CINNAMON TEAL. Almost at once, another species was sighted – not a new one, but in the next category of rarity, the V5 and V4. ‘Vagrant’ birds that have been credibly recorded on Abaco / in Abaco waters fewer than 5 times – and maybe only once – are classified as V5 or ‘accidentals’. Birds seen a few times more than that, but irregularly and unpredictably (‘casuals’) are V4s. One such is the fine black-legged kittiwake, also known as the seahawk and a close relative of gulls.
During the Abaco Christmas Bird Count in December, avid birder Keith Kemp and a small group were checking the beach at Crossing Rocks. In due course he uploaded a list of birds seen, with selected images, to the excellent eBird site. This included a royal tern. Or make that “royal tern”.
It wasn’t long before sharp-eyed Bruce Purdy from Cornell contacted Keith to say “You shot a picture of an adult non-breeding black-legged kittiwake!!!!!!!!”. This was confirmed by Bruce Hallett, author of the definitive field guide to the birds of the Bahamas.
As Bruce Purdy commented:
“This is the first kittiwake reported that I know of in the last 20 years.Tony [White] shows a few reports but I don’t know if they were documented.Probably not since most people just started carrying cameras, so you may have the first documented kittiwake…It is a great find”.
So you are looking at (almost certainly) the first photographs of a kittiwake ever taken on Abaco. Actually, make that the Bahamas – no others are shown on eBird for the whole region; the nearest being a handful of sightings on the Florida coast.
STOP PRESSKeith’s sighting was in December 2017. The very day I pressed ‘publish’ on this post, January 30, two people immediately contacted me to say they had seen this bird in the Crossing dock area in Marsh Harbour! Thanks to Philip Sawyer and Nancy Albury for their sharp eyes and immediate response. Neither managed to get a photo, but two independent witnesses on one day in the same location make for a compelling ID. I imagine this is the same bird (rare enough as a single – the first in over 20 years – so exceptionally unlikely as a pair). Maybe there are rich fish pickings to be had in the MH harbour area.
Any further reports would be most welcome; a photo would earn the theoretical Kalik reward…
These kittiwakes are a pelagic species, birds of the open sea. They spent most of their time over the ocean, where they live on fish. However, they return to land to breed – often on cliffs, and in large, noisy, nesting colonies. Here’s a very short idea of what that might look and sound like.
Keith’s Kittiwake was way out of its normal range. This map shows just how far.
I always like to include an image of a species under discussion, as it was depicted by one of the early pioneers such a Mark Catesby or (as here) Audubon.
I’ll round off the story with another great source for comparative images – especially as between sexes, ages and seasons – the Crossley guide. The image below comes from the guide to Britain & Ireland, where kittiwakes are not uncommon locally where there are cliffs. Keith’s bird was in winter (non-breeding) plumage, as seen below, top left.
Credits: Dick Daniels / carolinabirds.org (1); Yathin S Krishnappa (2); Keith Kemp (3, 4, 5); RSPB Britain (video); Audubon (OS) (6); Crossley Guide (OS) (7); range map Wiki
THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published very nearly 4 years ago. At the time, the checklist of species recorded for Abaco at the back of the book, so meticulously compiled by Tony White and Woody Bracey, was definitive for as long as records have existed (in practical terms, since 1950). The final new species included in the book was a Black-browed albatross amazingly spotted in Abaco waters from the BMMRO research vessel by a keen-eyed intern the previous summer.
Brown Thrasher Nov 2014
Within 3 months of publication, the checklist had been rendered out of date. A totally new species had touched down on Abaco – a small flock of 6 black-bellied whistling ducks. They worked their way up South Abaco from down by Crossing Rocks up to MH Airport via Schooner Bay, Delphi and Bahama Palm Shores. By then, numbers were down to 2. Soon even they disappeared, heading presumably from wherever the flock had intended to go in the first place. Maybe they got tired en route. Maybe their internal Satnav suffered a collective failure. Maybe senior BBWD had had a bright idea for a shortcut…
Masked Booby January 2015
We are not talking here of rarities in global terms, but species that have never been seen before on Abaco. Or, if seen, went unremarked. Or, if remarked, without awareness of the significance! The advent of the current enthusiasm for birding in the Bahamas plus the ease with which a quick photo can be taken – on a phone for example – as evidence of a sighting and to aid a clear ID, may well increase the number of new species sightings in the future.
Pearly-Eyed Thrasher March 2015
There’s the added benefit from the ease with which photos can be taken and distributed – people will no longer have to do any of the following:
Shoot birds and take them as samples (hello, J.J. Audubon & historical cohorts)
Pack a sketch pad & crayons to draw birds before they fly away (or from memory)
Rely on scribbled notes made in low light and a light drizzle
Listen to, or read, a query about a “sort of brownish medium sized bird with maybe a bit of yellow on the wings, and a black tail I think, but I didn’t get a very good look and oh yes it had sort of beady eyes and sounded a bit like ‘Kalik Kalik Kalik’ “.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper Oct 2016
Over the 4 years, there have been a few birds that, although not ‘first evers’, are second or third ever – and the first ones with supporting photos. These include the fabulous scissor-tailed flycatcher; and the bald eagle that was sighted several times over south Abaco last year. I’ll return to these rarities another time. Let’s see the sixth new bird, from late last year.
Scaly-naped pigeon Nov 2107
To complete the set, so to speak, 2017 ended with another gorgeous duck, the cinnamon teal. You can read more about all these birds using the following links to the relevant posts.
We have to face the facts here: this is absolutely the worst time of year to be a turkey. First, Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. It seems everyone wants a piece of you. Literally, I’m afraid. You could get very cut up about it. So this is not perhaps the most tactful time to mention that there are turkeys to be found on Abaco. Wild ones, though. Ones that lack the lavish feeding regimes enjoyed by the plump domestic turkeys that are integral to the festive season. And anyway, the Abaco turkeys – like the PEAFOWL of Casuarina – are harmless additions to the landscape and to the rich avian variety to be found on Abaco.
Wild Turkey Hen, Abaco, Bahamas
I don’t know the origin of the Abaco wild turkeys, but I assume a few were introduced in the past and have become feral (again, just like the peafowl) . They may be flattered to know that they fall into a class called ‘exotics’. I note that we omitted to list them in THE BIRDS OF ABACO, where they would have kept company with muscovy ducks, mallards (a slightly harsh ruling maybe), chukars, red junglefowl, thepeafowl, cockatiels, budgies, and a couple of macaw species. All these have been found on Abaco but do not strictly count as birds of Abaco. On the other hand, some introduced species such as the bobwhite have slipped under the radar and become fully accredited Abaco birds.
Wild Turkey Hen, Abaco, Bahamas
Adult male turkeys are called toms or gobblers; females are hens; juveniles are jakes; and the chicks are poults. In the breeding season, Toms engage in a great deal of strutting and fluffing-up-of-feathers business when they are trying to impress the hens – and frankly, they are notably free with their attentions. Promiscuous, one might say.
Historically, wild turkey populations in North America were decimated or destroyed by over-enthusiastic hunting. In many areas, conservation measures helped to restore the turkey populations. Still, the fact remains that they are potential food; and they are a (relatively) easy large target (cf turkey-shoot). Wild turkeys can fly short distances (which the domesticated variety cannot), but their body-weight somewhat limits the chance of escape by flight.
Audubon’s charming depiction of a turkey hen with her chicks
STRANGE BUT TRUE
Benjamin Franklin was unimpressed by the proposal of the Bald Eagle as national bird (and by the British, clearly…) As he wrote in letter to his daughter,“…in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on”.
I’ve heard reports of Abaco wild turkeys seen north of Marsh Harbour; in the Little Harbour area; and in the far south of the island. I’d be pleased to learn of any recent sightings – it would be interesting to know how many small groups there are on the island. You can either comment here, DM me on FB, or email me. And perhaps I should add, let’s just map the turkeys, not eat them…
WHAT SORT OF WILD TURKEY SHOULD I CONSUME FESTIVELY?
Credits: Audubon (1, 4); Ali & Bob Ball (2, 3); D. Gordon / E. Robertson (5); Birdorable (cartoon); Etsy (soft bird); some random drink ad
There’s a category of bird in the Bahamas known as a ‘V5’. The V stands for vagrant: a ‘foreign’ bird that ends up on Abaco by pure mischance. Whether through meteorological mishap (a storm for example) or navigational error, a bird that ought by rights to be found elsewhere turns up. That’s the first part of the rarity. The second part is that someone actually sees it, knows what it is (or may be) and reports it.
The 5 part of V5 means that historically there may have been one, perhaps two previous reports of that species. Ever. More than 5 separate sightings, and the bird slips into the far less exclusive V4 category. The only category rarer than a V5 is an H. This stands for hypothetical, a bird that has been ‘credibly reported’ but where further confirmation is needed. Often, that never comes.
The lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) is a fairly large sparrow, familiar enough in parts of the US and Canada. Until this August, there had only been a couple of reports on Abaco since records began. I’m not aware of any photographs from those sightings. Then in August, birder Keith Kemp was at Bahama Palm Shores bird-spotting with his keen-eyed nephew Christopher, who saw a sparrow-like bird fly into low grass near the beach. Keith managed to take a couple of photos of it, and later on checked his bird guides for ID… and lo! a lark sparrow. These are most likely the first photos of the species ever taken on Abaco – and there’s nothing like a photo, however hard to take, to provide confirmation of a sighting.
Photo Credits: NaturePicsOnline / Wiki (1); Francesco Veronesi / Wiki (2); Keith Kemp with Christopher Johnson, Abaco (3, 4)