THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BAHAMAS: A FIELD GUIDE


Roseate Spoonbill, New Providence Bahamas (Elwood 'Woody' Bracey)

Roseate Spoonbill, New Providence – Dr Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BAHAMAS: A FIELD GUIDE

On October 15th Cornell University Press publishes the first-ever comprehensive field guide to the terrestrial natural history of the Bahamas*. This monumental study has been years in the devising, researching, writing and production. The five authors are all eminent natural scientists in their specialist fields, and well-known far beyond the Bahamas. They combine to bring authoritative yet accessible scholarship to the pages. This book will undoubtedly become the go-to standard field guide for the Bahamas for decades. Furthermore, its breadth of scope will reach adjacent territories beyond the archipelago. *With a few exceptions for ‘signal species’, ocean-life is not included

The new guide comprises an encyclopaedic 464 pages with 768 colour photos plus line drawings, maps, charts and tables. The subject-matter begins with a detailed introduction that encompasses Geology, Climate, Habitat, Biogeography, Human History and Conservation. This establishes the wider context for the pages that follow.

Merlin, Abaco Bahamas (Becky Marvil)

Merlin, Abaco Bahamas – Becky Marvil

The guide is then divided into discrete sections that cover Fungi, Flora / Plants, Invertebrates, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals (of which there are very few in the Archipelago, and few of those endemic). As a general observation, you simply will not believe how many species and subspecies there in some of the categories.

Wild Pig or Hog (f) on Abaco Bahamas (Dana Lowe)

Wild Pig or Hog (f) on Abaco Bahamas (Dana Lowe)

In expressing my enthusiasm for the new guide, I ought to declare my interest. From a fairly early stage of the project, I helped in two ways: sourcing / supplying images; and helping with proofing / editorial work of the sort common to all such diverse reference works.

Nassau Grouper, Grand Bahama (Melinda Riger)

Nassau Grouper, Grand Bahama (Melinda Riger)

Right now, in the aftermath of the disastrous impact of Hurricane Dorian, the northern Bahamas (Abaco & Grand Bahama) are still at the very earliest stages of a return to normality. Some areas are still without reliable water or power. The extent of the devastation suggests that the new ‘normality’ will inevitably be rather different from the past. It is sobering to consider that, since this field guide went to press, the balance of nature on two of the most diverse islands for wildlife in the archipelago has already changed significantly – and in some instances that change may well be for good.

Gull-billed Tern in flight, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

Gull-billed Tern in flight, Abaco Bahamas – Alex Hughes

I have a hope – and there are some signs already – that people’s interest in the wildlife around them provides a degree of comfort in hard times. Further south in the Bahamas, the other islands will each have had their own similar extreme weather experiences many times. The wildlife is varied but with similarity throughout the extensive chain of 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, with a vertical length of over 500 miles and covering more than 8000 square miles of land and sea. The familiarity of many of the plants, trees, butterflies, and birds binds the diverse islands together to create a common experience.

West-Indian Manatee, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

West-Indian Manatee, Bahamas (Charlotte Dunn / BMMRO)

For more information on this new publication CORNELL U P FIELD GUIDE

Credits as captioned, with thanks to all concerned

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (1): PRAIRIE WARBLER


BEAUTIFUL BIRDS OF ABACO, BAHAMAS (1): PRAIRIE WARBLER

The increasing flow of reports of recent bird sightings on Abaco seems to confirm the theory that in times of crisis and of recovery from disaster, people gain strength from the natural world that surrounds them. The bright flash of a parrots wings; the hoarse squawk of a West Indian Woodpecker; the unmistakable cheery call of the thick-billed vireo; the ‘peep’ of a shore-bird – all these can bring comfort in troubled times. 

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

Right now, social media on Abaco, and radiating far beyond, is alive with more encouraging news after the storm, not least about the gradual re-establishment of normality as utilities and services are restored, movement becomes more possible, and plans for repairing the past and designing the future can begin to be made.

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

This post features photos of Prairie warblers taken on Abaco by Gerlinde Taurer, contributor to THE BIRDS OF ABACO. It is the start of a short series that will focus on a single species and feature gorgeous photos, all taken on Abaco. These bright little warblers are common winter residents and in normal times their Fall arrival would be well under way – along with some 30 other species of warbler that make Abaco – and the Bahamas generally – their winter home. 

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

The rich diversity of the avian life of Abaco is truly astonishing: from residents to migratory species, from tiny to huge, from frequently encountered to very rare. Every bird (yes, even the reputedly ‘dull’ black-faced grassquits) has its own beauty and character. Even a small brown bird may have a lovely song.  In non-storm circumstances, it would not be unusual for an amateur birder to encounter upwards of 40 species during half a day in the field – especially with binoculars. I hope that on a shattered island, appreciation of the lively and varied birdlife is already making a small yet positive contribution to the recovery.

Credits: All photos taken by Gerlinde Taurer on Abaco (my own are suppressed for being, frankly, dross in comparison)

Prairie Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer / Rolling Harbour)

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF


Abaco (Bahama) Parrot - Melissa Maura

‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’: HURRICANE DORIAN RELIEF

ABACO, BAHAMAS has been all but destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The horrendous scale of the disaster in human terms alone is only now becoming clear as the days pass and new tragedies are revealed. Many established relief funds – international, national and local – are being very generously supported for the benefit of those who have suffered so grievously. I am adding to the number through my specific link to Abaco and its wildlife.

Black-necked Stilt, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

GO FUND ME BIRDS

For obvious reasons, the GFM page (in edited form here) has a rather more formal , explicatory tone than I would usually use.

Sally and I were founder members of the Delphi Club, Abaco and retain strong connections with the island and the community. I run a conservation program for rare migratory plovers that overwinter on Abaco; and I am involved with BMMRO & its marine mammal research.



‘THE BIRDS OF ABACO’, of which I am the author, was published in 2014. The book was designed by Sally and published by Peter Mantle / The Delphi club. By the end of last year the edition had sold out, and all planned educational donations to schools, libraries and relevant organisations had been completed. 

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)
However, I have a couple of dozen books left in the UK.  Through this fundraiser, I am offering a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of $150 (or the equivalent). The resulting fund (minus the cost of fulfilment from the UK) will be added to the funds achieved by the Delphi Club through their DORIAN RELIEF FUND .

A higher donation is of course encouraged; and please note, it is not compulsory to receive a bird book.  Smaller donations are extremely welcome too, and for those of $50+ I will offer the donors a high-res PDF of a bird of their choice from a selection of several significant species found on Abaco; or a PDF of the complete bird species checklist for Abaco. That’s voluntary too.

Cuban Pewee, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)


The original price of this large photographic book was $145. It showcases the wonderful birds of Abaco with contributions from 30 photographers. Almost all are either residents of Abaco, or have strong connections with – and affection for – the island and its cays. 

The books can be sent to Bahamas, USA, Canada and Europe. For any other destination, please contact me before you make a donation. Books will not be dispatched before October.

Reddish Egret, breeding colours - Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)
Please note that the Delphi Club does not have a stock of books and is not directly involved with this fundraiser. Please contact me with any inquiries, even though the Club details are shown on the pre-publication flyer below.

Keith Salvesen

Rolling Harbour Abaco

Photo Credits: Melissa Maura – Abaco Parrot (1); Alex Hughes – Black-necked Stilt (2); Sally Salvesen – book jacket (3); Tom Sheley – Olive-capped Warbler (4); Keith Salvesen – Cuban Pewee; Reddish Egret in breeding plumage (5, 6)

STAR ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

STAR ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) – aka Cemetery Bird – is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOO and the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. You can (it’s voluntary) find out more about them in an earlier article HERE. 

I have returned to these engagingly gregarious birds and their raucous ways because Paul Harding has recently captured a sequence of  a small group of anis behaving so endearingly that they are irresistible. Not for them the oddly incompetent fluttering flight, nor the disorganised, unbalanced landing technique. It’s simply a matter of getting settled on a branch, and then making room for one more in the middle (or perhaps resisting it…).

‘A COMMOTION OF ANIS’

There were 4 on the branch…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Hey – make room for another one…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Budge up, guys, I mean C’mon…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Yay, I’m in… a bit squished but…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Um… guys, I can’t breathe…Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

 That’s better… all settled now….Smooth-billed Anis, Bahamas (Paul Harding)

Let the racket begin!

Credits: all terrific pics, Paul Harding; sound files, Xeno Canto

GREAT EGRETS: NOBLE (YET MISNAMED) HERONS


Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

GREAT EGRETS: NOBLE (YET MISNAMED) HERONS

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.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

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. 

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

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.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

Photo Credit: Nina Henry photographed all the egrets in this post. Her wonderful images made a significant contribution to the “BIRDS OF ABACO” project.

Great Egret, Bahamas (Nina Henry)

COOTS FIGHTING & THE CARIBBEAN COOT DEFEATED


Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)

COOTS FIGHTING & THE CARIBBEAN COOT DEFEATED

These coot fight images are from Phil Lanoue, whom I have featured before. He is a master of bird sequences, magicking a whole avian story or drama in a few clear, sharp photos. These types of image are well beyond my skills and my camera limitations. Here are 2 males battling over a female which, by the final aggressive image in which dominance is asserted, has disappeared for the picture…

Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)

The other battle in Coot World occurred in 2016 when the endemic Caribbean Coot (formerly Fulica caribaea) was defeated by the combined forces of the American Coot (Fulica americana) and the all-powerful AOU, official arbiter of bird categorisation. They are now joined as a single species, the differences between the two types being considered insufficient to warrant separate species status. The familiar American version looks like this (note the red area on the shield above the beak):

American Coot - Bahamas - Great Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer

The ex-Caribbean Coot, has white frontal shield that extends to the top of the head. When I was compiling ‘Birds of Abaco‘ in 2013, there was already a question mark over the separate species status, with many regarding it as a sub-species of the American Coot. I wrote: There is an intriguing debate, a small book in itself, about the existence as a distinct species of the Caribbean Coot, with its white frontal shield. Many field guides include it separately, some with the rider that it is ‘unrecorded in the Bahamas’. The Bahamas Bird Records Committee does not recognise it, and Hallett, among other experts, views it simply as an American Coot variant. The image below of the two coots together is included to illustrate the visible difference between the birds. The genetic debate is fortunately outside the scope of this book”. That said, I pigheadedly went ahead and included it as a separate species anyway… 

An ex-Caribbean coot, with its white frontal shield.  Since 2016, just another coot'Caribbean' (now American' Coot - white frontal shield - Abaco, Bahamas. Woody Bracey

The research that led to the reclassification was based on the fact that breeding biology suggests that different species favour their own species for breeding. Research by Douglas McNair and Carol Cramer-Burke indicated that there is little or no ‘reproductive isolation’ of the sort to be expected in different species. The coots had no particular preference in their choice of mate. Also, they sound alike.

American Coot (Keith Salvesen)

RELATED POSTS

COOT AND GALLINULE  FEET: THE (BIG) DIFFERENCES

HOW THE MOORHEN (= GALLINULE) GOT ITS NAME

American Coot.Treasure Cay, Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

Credits: Phil Lanoue (1 – 4); Gerlinde Taurer (5); Woody Bracey (6); Keith Salvesen (7); Tom Sheley (8). Research inc. eBird Caribbean – an excellent resource to check out

PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO


Smooth-billed Ani, TCGC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

PRESENTING A LARGE BILL… ANIS ON ABACO

The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOOand the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. Anis range from Florida and the Bahamas in the north, down through the Caribbean to South America, where they are widespread.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 2a

Unlike their shy and retiring cuckoo cousins, anis are extrovert shouty birds that like to hang out in noisy gangs and family groups. They can often be found in low scrub, bickering and squawking, and fluttering around. You’ll probably hear them from some way off, sounding like this:

Smooth-billed Anis_Abaco - Tony Hepburn

Anis have advanced social, parenting and chick-rearing skills. They build a communal nest for the group, and all share in egg incubation and chick-feeding duties They may raise up to three broods in a season, which keeps the numbers up. Rather touchingly, the young of earlier broods help to feed more recent chicks.

It follows from this that unlike many other cuckoo species, the ani is not a brood parasite. So the species does not lay its eggs in the nests of other, smaller birds which then unwittingly rear the interloper(s), who in turn push the legitimate hatchlings out of the nest and get all the food and attention.

Smooth-billed Anis Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer d

I have tried to discover why an ani’s beak is as it is, without much success. Very often beak shape relates directly to the feeding habits and preferences of a species, but it is hard to see how a diet consisting mainly of insects and small reptiles such as lizards would account for such a prominently protuberant proboscis. Here is a close-up of the item in question.
On Abaco (and indeed elsewhere) Anis are sometimes known as ‘Cemetery Birds’, no doubt because of their all-black appearance (though their raucous tendencies would be quite inappropriate for a graveyard). However although at a distance these birds may look completely black, catch one in the sun at the right angle, and you’ll find that the plumage is far more varied, and with some intricate patterning.

Smooth-billed Ani. Abaco Bahamas Tom Sheley

Look for Anis in low scrubland and coppice, cultivated areas, perched in unsteady noisy rows on utility lines, or foraging on the ground.

Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco. Gerlinde Taurer c

The appearance and flying abilities of Anis are wonders to behold. As I wrote in The Birds of Abaco, “Their curious heavy beaks, their clumsy flight and their untidy take-off and landing routines suggest a design fault”.

Smooth Billed Ani, Abaco - Nina Henry 1a

“One… is the loneliest number…” Oh, hang on a moment…Smooth-billed Ani Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer a

…”two of us…standing solo in the sun…”Smooth-billed Ani, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer) b

The Philatelic Bureau of the Bahamas Postal Service is commendably committed to featuring the natural history of the Bahamas. Although probably not in the top-ten of anyone’s bird list, the ani nevertheless got its own stamp in a 1991 bird issue.

As far as I know, there is not yet a collective noun for a group of anis. There should be. Any suggestions welcome. Meanwhile I put forward A Commotion of Anis”

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

Credits (all photos taken on Abaco): Becky Marvil, Nina Henry, Tony Hepburn, Gerlinde Taurer, Roselyn Pierce, Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Keith Salvesen; sound files from Xeno Canto and FMNH; range map from IUCN; hat tip to the always excellent Aimee Mann.

This post is a revised, corrected and expanded version of one I wrote nearly 4 years ago.

Smooth-biled Ani, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)