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.
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’.
THE FIRST EVER SIGHTING & PHOTO ON ABACO
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Sample Headline* – ‘Deluge Ordeal “intolerable” says Local Financier’
Chats** – where the standard disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ would be wrong
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
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