YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS


Yellow-headed Blackbird (R. Welker / Wiki)

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD: A NEW SPECIES FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

In the aftermath of the awesome (in its original meaning) power of the hurricane, Abaco is slowly rising from the remnants of its peaceful slow-paced beauty. The loss of human life, and the damage to survivors, to animals, to property and to precious possessions is unimaginable. By way of contrast, in the UK a flood that inconveniences a SUV owner in an affluent area may well make the local paper*; and possibly local TV news if the wait for a tow-truck takes an hour or so.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Alan Vernon / Wiki)

BIRDS are providing some cheer and a welcome diversion for many islanders. On SocMed there are plenty of chats** going on daily about the parrots, emerging winter warblers, occasional shorebirds and so on. Feeders are back in use with seeds and nuts (nb please no peanuts). Photos are being taken, shared and enjoyed.

Over the last few days, red-winged blackbirds have been a visible and indeed audible presence in various settlements. Their characteristic ‘rusty gate-hinge’ call is unmistakeable, whether in the coppice or heard deep in the mangroves 4 miles off-shore from a skiff in the Marls. Let’s progress to a great discovery and a most perfect example  of ‘birds of a feather’ literally ‘flocking together’.

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD

THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACOYellow-headed Blackbird, Little Harbour Abaco (Bernard Albury)

The photograph above was taken on October 20 in Little Harbour, Abaco by Bernard Albury. A pair of red-winged blackbirds, male and female, were on the feeder in his garden. With them was a rather more colourful blackbirdy-type bird – a juvenile yellow-headed blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Bernard’s photo is the perfect example of how a quick shot with a phone can make all the difference between a vague description of a bird for ID (oriole? bobolink? weird warbler?), and having clear visual clues to work with.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Tom Kerner / Wiki)

A NEW SPECIES REPORTED, YOU SAY? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY TELL?

The news of this exciting sighting quickly reached bird scientist Ancilleno Davis of (among many organisations) Birds Caribbean. ID was established, and the news soon spread via FB shares. This bird was a very long way east of its normal range, and I thought that it might possibly be a first for the entire Bahamas; probably a first for Abaco itself; and almost certainly the first photo of a YHBL. Then it was a question of cross-checking data in books such as Tony White’s comprehensive guide; online in specialist bird websites; and with the Bahamas bird experts such as Woody Bracey and author Bruce Hallett.

Tony White, [random], Bruce Hallett, Woody Bracey

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

Simple. Bernard Albury has, in his own garden in Little Harbour, discovered the first Yellow-headed Blackbird ever recorded for Abaco. Furthermore, his photo is very probably the first-ever image (by which I mean only image) of a YHBL for the entire Bahamas. 

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Sibley)

BUT HOW CAN YOU TELL THERE HAVEN’T BEEN LOTS OF OTHERS?

The first step is to check an authoritative range map of the species in question. Audubon and Cornell are the go-to authorities for this purpose, though tbh  there’s a great deal to be said for using Wiki as a first port of call for a new bird and its details. People rarely bother to mess with the avian articles on Wiki, there’s not a lot of fun it it. For the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the sheer distance to Abaco makes a visit from one highly unlikely. The second step is to check online sightings reports uploaded to eBird by birders ranging from the enthusiastic amateur to the vastly experienced professional. For an unusual bird, the reports are invaluable in establishing relative rarity. The previous online reports for YHBL in the Bahamas were of a couple of sightings of single birds in the Freeport / West End area of Grand Bahama. These were in 2006 by bird expert Woody Bracey; and in 2012.

Map: incidence of Yellow-winged Blackbirds in Bahamas

Finally, cross-check in the most thorough bird guides of the area. In this case, Tony White included GB sightings YHBLs in his meticulous chart but none for Abaco. No other authority – Bruce Hallett for example – has noted a sighting report for Abaco; Woody also believes this to be a first, and he should know, having found the first ever Bahamas one in 2006.

I KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR NOW, WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

First, here’s the familiar call of a red-winged blackbird

Here are two examples of the much harsher call of the YHBL, described variously as “the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”; and “an awful sounding raspy whine”.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Dan Hackley Cornell / eBird)

Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’

Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong

Audubon's Blackbirds

CREDITS: First and foremost to Bernard Albury, but for whom… and Ancilleno Davis for his ID and initial shares; generally: Audubon, Cornell, eBird, Merlin, Xeno-Canto, Bird guys.

Images: R. Welker, Alan Vernon, Birdorable (cartoon), Bernard Albury, Tom Kerner, Sibley’s Guide online; Dan Hackley / Cornell / eBird, JJ Audubon, Brian Sullivan / Cornell / Macaulay Library

Sounds: Jim Berry, Xeno-Canto; Ted Floyd, Xeno-Canto

Yellow-headed Blackbird (ALLABOUTBIRDS CORNELL© Brian Sullivan / Macaulay Library )

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, ABACO, BAHAMAS


red-winged-blackbird-male-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley.jpg

I’m away for a few days on the Emerald Isle, leaving my trusty computer many miles away (on purpose, I mean). I’ve just got my iPhone, but writing posts and inserting images on such a small screen / keyboard is a fool’s errand. So I’ve pre-loaded a couple of beautiful bird images to post this week. Here is a wonderful red-winged blackbird male taken by photographer Tom Sheley while we were getting together some images for The Birds of Abaco deep in Abaco backcountry.

Photo credit: Tom Sheley

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO


Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS ON ABACO

The sounds are unmistakeable – a discordant chorus of soft chuckling noises like tongue-clicks as the RWTs flock into a bush, interrupted by harsh, metallic calls like rusty metal gate-hinges being forced open. Or maybe a lone bird mournfully repeating its eerie call from the mangroves far out on the Marls as the bonefishing skiffs slip silently along the shoreline. No other species sound quite like Agelaius phoeniceus.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley)

The handsome males sport flashy epaulets, most clearly visible in flight or in display – for example to impress a prospective mate. Again, they are unlikely to be confused with another species.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The females, as is often the way, are less showy. I have just read that they are ‘nondescript’, which is unnecessarily harsh I reckon. Here are a couple of examples.

And the darker brown ones that are clearly not handsome black males? These are young males in their first season, before they move on to the full adult male plumage. Previously I had designated them females (as I had assumed) until very gently corrected by the legendary Bruce Hallett. Not only was Bruce an essential part in the production of the Birds of Abaco, he also keeps a benign eye on my posts and occasionally steps in to clarify IDs etc.  I took the first male juvenile at Casuarina, when I also made the sound recording (below). The second was at Delphi – and with some ‘light’ issues, I notice…

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Fledglings are kind of cute…Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Tom Sheley))

SO WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

You may need to turn up the volume a bit. You will also here a lot of dove noise and, in the background, the sound of waves lapping onto the shore.

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 4, 5, 8); Alex Hughes (3); Keith Salvesen (6, 7, 9 & audio)

 

“FOUR CALLING BIRDS…” CAN YOU FIND ONE ON ABACO?


Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

“FOUR CALLING BIRDS…” CAN YOU FIND ONE ON ABACO?

The Winter Solstice arrives today. The shortest day followed by the longest night of the year… then the serious business of Christmas. And some quality frivolity with it. So this will probably be my last post before then and possibly until next year, depending on available time, relative sobriety and other seasonal variables too numerous to mention…

Red-winged Blackbird.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom SheleyCALLING BIRDS? WHAT ARE THEY, EXACTLY?

“The Twelve Days of Christmas “is an old, old song, supposedly written in 1780, and popular ever since. Over time, the words have altered somewhat from the original. The ‘Calling Birds’ were originally ‘Colly (or Collie) Birds’, meaning, black birds. The word derives from the word ‘coal’. The change to ‘calling birds’ wasn’t noted until the early c20. One version I learnt as a child a few years decades later used ‘colly birds’. However the quaint usage quickly died out during the pernicious excesses of the 1960s which I obviously don’t remember because I wasn’t there…

European BlackbirdEuropean Blackbird (wiki)

Colly birds were – are – European blackbirds, song birds that bring joy. There are other black birds of course, but crows, ravens and the like have from medieval times been viewed as birds of ill-omen (lots of examples in Shakespeare). Hardly a Christmassy gesture to give one of them to your True Love, far less four. 

WHAT ABACO BIRD SHOULD I GIVE MY TRUE LOVE AFTER 5 GOLD RINGS?

Undoubtedly red-winged blackbirds. They are undeniably black birds. They have festively flashy markings. True, their ‘metal-gate-with-very-rusty-hinges’ grating call is not exactly melodious (and 4 red-legged thrushes on vocals would suit the occasion much better). But what a handsome present to give someone already trying to cope with the burden and general commotion of sundry Lords a’Leaping, Maids a’Milking, Drummers Drumming and so on. Much easier to deal with.

Red-winged Blackbird male 2 .Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

HOW MANY GIFTS WILL MY TRUE LOVE EXPECT FROM ME?

I’m afraid it will be 364 in total, with some items on the list becoming increasingly difficult to source. The breakdown (note in passing the mathematical symmetry of the increasing and correspondingly diminishing numbers) is as follows:

  • 12 partridges in pear trees
  • 22 turtle doves
  • 30 french hens
  • 36 calling birds
  • 40 golden rings
  • 42 geese a laying
  • 42 swans a swimming
  • 40 maids a milking
  • 36 ladies dancing
  • 30 lords a leaping
  • 22 pipers piping
  • 12 drummers drumming

But with any luck your TL would be happy to share a Kalik in the sunset instead of having all that palaver…

Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Happy Christmas** to all people kind enough to follow this blog or read it from time to time, and – why not – all the people who don’t and / or have no idea of its existence… Time to let Kermit & Elmo to take over. 

Photo credits, Tom Sheley (2, 3), Keith Salvesen / RH (1, 4), Wiki for the Eurasian blackbird

**The term ‘Christmas’ is used as a broad term to cover the midwinter holiday period – or indeed non-holidays for many – and is intended to include in a benign way those of any faith or none. I don’t ‘do’ Winterval, sorry…

GILPIN POINT, ABACO: A ‘2 HOURS, 40 SPECIES’ BIRDING HOTSPOT


Black-necked Stilt, Abaco (Alex Hughes) copy

GILPIN POINT, ABACO: A ‘2 HOURS, 40 SPECIES’ BIRDING HOTSPOT

Got  a spare couple of hours? Reluctant to go birding on the bird-reliable yet ambience-lite town dumps, where careful cropping will be needed to avoid including post-apocalyptic scenery in your hard-won photos of a Little Mulligatawny Owl? Then read on. I have mentioned Gilpin Point before as a great place for birding, and listed many of the species to be found there. It benefits from a large pond, a pristine shoreline, and a coppice environment with some pine forest thrown in. All the makings of an excellent birding location, with suitable habitat for a wide variety of species. Blue-winged Teal, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

On November 21st Reg Patterson, well-known Abaco birder and guide, was up early, and by 07.00 he was at Gilpin Pond where  he spent a couple of hours . He recorded 40 species in that time, from very large to very small. His checklist reveals a great cross-section of the birdlife to be found on Abaco. There might easily have been parrots there too, since Gilpin has become one of their daily chattering spots for a frank exchange of news and views. Sadly it seems that the beautiful and (now) rare SPOONBILL recorded there in early October has moved on.

Willet, Abaco

Here is Reg’s checklist, which I have illustrated with a variety of photos of the species he found, all taken on Abaco and many actually taken at Gilpin Point. There are plenty of other species that might easily have been seen there then – or perhaps later in the day (e.g. snowy egret, yellowlegs, kestrel, turkey vulture, red-legged thrush, cuban emerald, not to mention shorebirds and seabirds if some time was spent on the shore).

CHECKLIST

Blue-winged Teal (16) (see above)

White-cheeked Pintail (20)

White-cheeked Pintail, Abaco 1 (Keith Salvesen)

Green-winged Teal (1)

Great Blue Heron (1)Great_Blue_Heron_Wading_2

Great Egret (1)

Little Blue Heron (2) 

Tricolored Heron (2)

Green Heron (2)Green Heron, Gilpin Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)05

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (1)

Turkey Vulture (7)

Common Gallinule (1)

Black-necked Stilt (1) (and header)

Black-necked Stilt, Gilpin Point, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Spotted Sandpiper (1)

Willett (1) (see above)

Common Ground-Dove (1)

Smooth-billed Ani (8)

Bahama Woodstar (1)Bahama Woodstar (m), Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Belted Kingfisher (1)

West Indian Woodpecker (7)

Hairy Woodpecker (1)Hairy Woodpecker, Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

Peregrine Falcon (1)

Loggerhead Kingbird (4)Loggerhead Kingbird, Abaco - Tom Reed

Thick-billed Vireo (7)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1)Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Red-legged Thrush (1)

Gray Catbird (4)

Northern Mockingbird (2)Northern Mockingbird, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Ovenbird (1)

Northern Waterthrush (6)

Bahama Yellowthroat (1)

Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco (Charles Skinner)

Common Yellowthroat (1)

Cape May Warbler (3)

Black-throated Blue Warbler (1)Black-throated Blue Warbler (m), Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Palm Warbler (2)

Prairie Warbler (2)

 Bananaquit (1)Bananaquit & palm, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

 Black-faced Grassquit (6)

 Greater Antillean Bullfinch (4)

 Western Spindalis (7)

 Red-winged Blackbird (X)Red-winged Blackbird Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Gilpin Map 1 Gilpin Map 2 Gilpin Map 3

Credits: Alex Hughes (1 / header); Keith Salvesen (2, 4, 6, 7, 11, 12, 15 , 16); TBC (3, 5); Bruce Hallett (8, 14); Tony Hepburn (9); Tom Reed (10); Charles Skinner (13)

 

A QUARTER OF A MILLION GLIMPSES OF ABACO…


Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Abaco, Bahamas  (Keith Salvesen)

A QUARTER OF A MILLION GLIMPSES OF ABACO…

Well here’s a rum do. About four years ago, this somewhat minority interest blog emerged ‘mewling and puking’¹ into the world, guided by an incompetent male midwife whose basic training had been about 4 weeks of exposure to Abaco, its fishing, its wildlife, its geography and its history. ‘Bananaquit’ might as well have meant taking up a plantain-free diet. ‘Grassquit’ might have been the local word for ‘keep off the lawn’. And that’s before all the flowers. And the reef fish. And everything else that turned up during the storm-wracked voyage of discovery via polydamus swallowtails, manatees, spider wasps and batfish that led slowly to the calmer waters of ‘rather better informed (if no wiser)’. 

Anyway, at midnight last night some unknown person kindly made the 250,000th visit to the blog, a target that once seemed inconceivable. In the past month, the 1000th person also signed up as a follower, another source of amazement. The reality is that despite Abaco being a sparsely-populated microdot island in a huge world, there are a great many people on the island or associated with it who are passionate about it and its extraordinarily diverse natural history. That knowledge makes curating this blog both easy and pleasurable. 
RH Stats clip

I checked my stats for the last year to find out where hits from the top 10 countries – and for fun the bottom 1o – came from. Here’s the answer. Rather shamefully there was also a country I had never knowingly heard of, Palau (Micronesia). There follows a selection of a few photographs that have been popular over the years, mostly my own but the underwater ones are from Melinda Riger and Virginia Cooper of Grand Bahama Scuba.

Top 10                                                                   Bottom 10
Top 10 countries jpg   Bottom 10 countries jpg

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Bananaquit & palm, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas  (Keith Salvesen)Western Spindalis, Abaco, Bahamas  (Keith Salvesen)Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco, Bahamas  (Keith Salvesen)Brown Pelicans, Sandy Point, Abaco  (Keith Salvesen)Reddish Egret, Crossing Rocks, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)French Angelfish (juv), Bahamas (Melinda Riger)Four-eyed Butterflyfish ©Melinda Riger @GBSCowfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB ScubaOctopus ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama ScubaNassau Grouper, Bahamas (Melinda Riger)Blacktip Shark ©Virginia Cooper @ G B Scuba copy 2Curly-tail Lizard, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Atala Hairstreak Butterfly, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitzia) Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Hibiscus : Polydamus Swallowtail, Delphi Abaco (Keith Salvesen)Yellow Elder Hope Town, Abaco, Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

SEARCH TERMS

The most popular searches – omitting posts about hurricanes, which always generate a lot of traffic – have concerned Abaco Parrots, Lignum Vitae, Sea Glass, the Loxahatchee poster series, Tarantula Hawk Wasps, Sea Biscuits / Urchins, Yellow Elder, Parrotfish, Shipwrecks, Hutias, Hole-in-the-Wall, Lionfish, Remora, and Abaco Maps. The most leftfield search of all was ‘How dispose of dead bodies?’, by someone who had clearly strayed into the wrong category of website…

A FEW OF THE MOST POPULAR POSTS / PAGES
SEA SHELLS
SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS: DON’T MESS WITH THESE GUYS    
ABACO FACTS (including likelihood of adverse shark encounter or shipwreck)    
ABACO MAPS    
LIGNUM VITAE – BAHAMAS NATIONAL TREE    
YELLOW ELDER – THE BAHAMAS NATIONAL FLOWER    
SEA URCHINS & SEA BISCUITS – BEACHCOMBING TREASURES ON ABACO    
ABACO FOOD & DRINK (cook hog / bonefish; clean a conch; sip an Abaco cocktail / Goombay Smash)
ABACO & HOLE-IN-THE-WALL, BAHAMAS: A SHORT HISTORY IN MAPS    
PINEAPPLES: SYMBOLS OF WELCOME & WEALTH (ALSO, DELICIOUS)    
ABACO ISLAND BOA: THE ONLY ABACO SNAKE    
WHALES & DOLPHINS    
ABACO PARROTS    
FLORA

It would be strange to end this little celebration without a tip of the hat to Peter Mantle, old friend and genial doyen of the Delphi Club, for his wholehearted encouragement and support for the production and publication of THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO. This hefty tome, published in March 2014, showcases the wonderful and varied avian life on Abaco and has proved very popular – indeed well beyond our expectations. Although I appear nominally as author on the cover, it is in fact an extraordinary collaborative effort by some 30 people. The book’s success further demonstrates the commitment of Abaconians and other who love the island to Abaco’s rich natural heritage in an age of  rapid change; and provides another good incentive for me to continue with the blog. Next stop: 500,000!

¹ © W. Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet Act 2 Sc. 7

dcbg2ba-jacket-grab-for-pm-v2-copyShark Gif

“A WHALE OF A YEAR”: 12 MONTHS FROM ROLLING HARBOUR ABACO


Whale Tailing, Bahamas (BMMRO)

“A WHALE OF A YEAR”: 12 MONTHS FROM ROLLING HARBOUR ABACO

 JANUARY

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco

Red-winged Blackbird, Abaco Backcountry

FEBRUARY

French Angelfish (juv)

French Angelfish (juvenile), Bahamas

MARCH

Publication & Launch of “The Birds of Abaco”

dcbg2ba-jacket-grab-for-pm-v2-copy

book-launch-1 Author signing copies, with Bahamas birding gurus Tony White, Bruce Hallett & Woody Bracey

1900063_10152069487394482_984358031_n flyer-21

APRIL

20130106_Bahamas-Great Abaco_4846_Bahama Yellowthroat_Gerlinde Taurer copy

Bahama Yellowthroat, Abaco

MAY

Bananaquit & palm, Delphi, Abaco, Bahamas 7

Bananaquit, Delphi Club, Abaco, Bahamas

JUNE

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Abaco : WWT - RH 3

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Abaco – first recorded sighting

JULY

Octopus ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba

Octopus, Bahamas

AUGUST 

Bobwhite pair 2.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley cr

Bobwhite pair, Abaco, Bahamas

SEPTEMBER

Black-necked stilt Alex Hughes, Abaco

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco

OCTOBER

White-winged Dove, Abaco Bahamas - Tom Sheley

White-winged Dove, Abaco, Bahamas

NOVEMBER

Exploring Dan's Cave, Abaco

Exploring Dan’s Cave, Abaco

DECEMBER

Piping Plover, Abaco - Charmaine Albury

Piping Plover: a precious winter visitor to Man-o-War Cay, Abaco

All the best for 2015 to Rolling Harbour’s regular, occasional and random visitors

Credits: BMMRO, RH, Melinda Riger, Gerlinde Taurer, Tom Sheley, Alex Hughes, Brian Kakuk, Charmaine Albury