Photo: Tom Sheley, taken at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco
This wonderful and mood-brightening photo was taken by Tom while we were compiling an archive for my book BIRDS OF ABACOIt is one of the most memorable images of the very large number of photographs featured. Every one of them was taken on Abaco (photos taken ‘off-island’ were ruthlessly excluded); and each one in natural surroundings (no seed-trails, recorded calls and so on). Sadly the edition sold out well before Hurricane Dorian so we have been unable to replace any of the many lost copies. However, I am contemplating producing a pdf version of the pre-print draft (a Covid displacement activity). If that goes ahead I will devise a way to distribute it simply, and possibly in return for a modest donation towards the work of Abaco wildlife organisations.
I very rarely – almost never – publish single or pairs of images, not least because I enjoy the bits of research and writing that cover a topic more thoroughly. However, today I was going through the photographic archive from my book BIRDS OF ABACOand came across these RUTUs photographed on the Marls by contributor Tom Sheley.
TBH turnstones are among the easiest shorebirds to photograph. They are pleasingly tame, so you can get quite close to them without ruffling their feathers. They aren’t tiny and they are pretty and quite colourful. And they are fairly abundant and so not hard to locate… but they make it hard to get a really good bright, clear photo. Or is that just me…? Anyway, Tom definitely has the camera skills required.
Black-necked stilts Himantopus mexicanus may be the most elegant shorebirds you will ever see. They are permanent residents on Abaco and not uncommon where they are found. It could be on a beach; more likely it will be in or around brackish ponds. It won’t be in the pine forest or coppice.
The rather disorganised stilt flying in the header image rather undercuts my claim for elegance, I realise. The image above of the bird at full stretch against a background of waves gives a much better idea of the beauty of this species.
Gilpin Pond is a good place to see stilts, and in summer they nest around the perimeter. A word of warning: they may be aggressive in the breeding season. I got too near a nest once and the female shouted at me then flew straight at my head. I hadn’t even realised there was a nest there until this happened, so her actions rather give the game away.
In common with some smaller shorebird species – for example, plovers and killdeer – the stilts have another defensive method to protect their young, a so-called ‘distraction display’. When their nest is under threat, one of the adults will pretend to have a damaged or broken wing and so be unable to fly. It will flutter feebly along the ground, moving further and further away from the nest, diverting attention from it. It’s an amazing sight to watch the tactic in action. Check out this video to see examples of this behaviour.
Credits: all photos by Alex Hughes, one of the photographic contributors to The Birds of Abaco; video Nat Bel
Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) are small, colourful, and delightful birds of the coppice and garden. Besides their obvious attractiveness, the birds have in recent years enjoyed an uniquity: the status of being the sole species in the family Coerebidae.
However this singular status has really been a kind of avian parking place due to past, present (and doubtless future) uncertainty of the right category for these birds. Like so many avian species these days, they are subject to the rigours and vagaries of continual reclassification by the ornithological powers-that-be.
Bananaquits are, broadly speaking, passerines – essentially birds that perch. The nominal ‘passer’ was specifically awarded to sparrows by BRISSON, a contemporary of Linnaeus. Recently, bananaquits have suffered mysterious migrations of their classification ranging from the generalised ‘passerine‘ to the vague incertae sedis (= ‘uncertain group‘) to uncomfortable inclusion with tanagers / emberizids.
The debate over the appropriate classification for this pretty little bird (of which there are many subspecies in the broad Caribbean region) – rumbles on. A new way to confuse the issue is the suggestion that the bananaquit should be split into 3 species. In some areas, I believe this has happened at least informally.
Elsewhere there are doubters, sceptics, and champions of other group inclusions. The most obvious beneficiaries of all this will be dedicated birders, who may end up with two extra species to add to their ‘Lifer’ lists. Personally I’d like to think that the birds themselves will stay ahead of the curve in their own category, maintaining the mystery of their precise status while humans argue about what to call them.
CREDITS: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1); Gerlinde Taurer (2); Craig Nash (3, 7); Tom Sheley (4, 5); Erik Gauger (6). All birds photographed on Abaco, Bahamas
Bananaquit perched on yellow elder, the National flower of the Bahamas
CLAPPER RAILS Rallus crepitans are elusive birds of mangrove swamp and marsh, more frequently heard than seen. They tend to lurk around in foliage and are easy to overlook. They are creatures of the margins rather than open ground. You may come across one foraging secretively, beak-deep in the mud.
Tom Sheley’s wonderful photos featured here of a preening clapper rail were taken during our backcountry explorations to locate and photograph species for BIRDS OF ABACO. By being both patient and an early riser, Tom managed to capture this fine bird engaging in some quality grooming. The one below is ‘vocalising’ – known in rails as ‘rousing’ – in mid-preen.
Clapper rails are capable of swimming and even of flying if they choose to. However the most likely activities you are likely to observe will be skulking, picking their way through marginal vegetation, or (if you are lucky) doing some beak-deep foraging in the mud. Occasionally they run, a process that looks endearingly comical and which possibly gives rise to their name.
It almost goes without saying nowadays, but the biggest threat to these rather charming inoffensive birds is habitat loss. Which is to say, mankind either directly or indirectly. Drive the bulldozers through the mangroves and marshland of sub-tropical coastal areas, chuck down a few acres of concrete… and the clappers will very soon become clapped out. As they will if the climate we are unarguably changing ruins their unobtrusive lives.
COMPULSORY LINGUISTIC STUDY
When I last wrote about this species its binomial name was Rallus longirostris ie simply ‘long-beaked rail’. Since then the increasingly frenetic annual turmoil of official AOU shuffling species about and messing with their names has resulted in the clapper rail being re-designated Rallus crepitans or ‘rattling / rustling rail’, I assume from the call. There are other rail-name innovations that, reading about them just now, made me crack open a beer instead of wanting to tell you about them.
OPTIONAL LINGUISTIC DIVERSION
“TO RUN LIKE THE CLAPPERS”. This phrase seems to be fairly recent, most likely originating as military (?Air Force) slang early in WW2 or possibly from earlier conflicts. Some suggest it is a rhyming slang bowdlerisation of ‘run like hell’ with ‘clapper(s)’ standing for ‘bell’, along the lines of the Cockney “I bought a brand new whistle” (whistle and flute = suit). Almost all plausible explanations relate to bells, and some argue that it simply reflects the rapid speed of the clapper of a vigorously rung handbell. This derivation as a link to the bird seems tenuous at best.
Photo credits:Tom Sheley, Sandy Walker, Erik Gauger, University of Amsterdam (print).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, until 1 September 2019 when Dorian struck, Abaco was a prime birding location in the Bahamas archipelago, an island chain that stretches from the lower reaches of the temperate zone to the more exotic sub-tropical region. The judgement for ‘best birding location’ is both objective and subjective, and the criteria are flexible. However on any view Abaco scores highly in all avian categories: resident species, endemics, migratory birds, speciality species, vulnerable species, and extreme rarities.
We’ll have to wait some time before it is possible to tell what effects the devastating storm has had on the wildlife of the island and on its birding credentials…
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Tom Sheley
The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project (now in new & expert hands) – was Peter Mantle. The book showcases the work of 30 photographers, including some outstanding contributions by islanders. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager (= Mrs RH, then of YUP) and from the top Bahamas bird experts – Woody Bracey, Tony White, Bruce Hallett, and Tony Hepburn, to name but 4. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.
Cuban Emerald (f) – Keith Salvesen
The book project was something of a gamble. When planning began, social media – and the facility to reach a wide audience – was significantly less active than it was soon to become. The book was launched at Delphi to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, but the extent of the interest (and sales) that might be generated more widely was unknown. We predicted it might be a slow-grower, so we were astonished by the immediate positive response to the guide. Perhaps it helped that there was a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco’s rich birdlife – we donated copies to all Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations for educational purposes. A significant percentage of the profits was set aside for local wildlife causes and duly distributed.
Moving on just 5 years to this summer, the limited edition of 500 had all but sold out; and around 100 free copies had been donated – or deposited (as required by UK Law) in specified institutions: British Library; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; and Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
Brown Pelican – Tom Sheley
PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE?
Six weeks after Dorian, a semblance of normality is returning to the stricken island. Daily snippets of optimism are of great significance: a lost pet found after many days; a trashed plant defiantly putting out a flower; a pair of parrots screeching past; a boat recovered; a building slightly less damaged than feared. Recovered possessions from flooded houses have brought mixed emotions – heart-rending losses of precious items, yet also the unexpected recovery of possessions believed lost or destroyed. And in that context but far less emotionally, I have now had quite a few requests for replacement copies of “Birds of Abaco”.
Short-billed dowitchers – Bruce Hallett
SO, ARE THERE ANY REPLACEMENT BIRD BOOKS LEFT?
The position in a conch-shell is this:
There are now no copies still available on Abaco. Former HQ (and book storage / fulfilment facility) The Delphi Cub changed hands a year ago, and no longer carries a stock of the books.
In the UK, Peter Mantle and I have about a dozen between us that are, in one way or another, ring-fenced.
That’s it, I’m afraid.
Bridled Tern – Bruce Hallett
ARE YOU PLANNING TO REPRINT?
For several reasons, no – it’s not a viable proposition. Specifically:
the size & print-costs of such a large heavy (2 kgs) book
the specialist printing (eg in Italy) needed to retain the quality; and the associated shipping costs
the lack of any viable storage and / or fulfilment facilities on Abaco, or anywhere else suitable
the lack of a prominent ornithologically-minded literary-leaning benefactor with a kind smile & deep pockets
Black-throated blue warbler – Gerlinde Taurer
CAN I STILL GET THE BOOK IN SOME OTHER FORM?
Yes! I hope. We are kicking around the following ideas in a general and inchoate way:
first, avoiding any system requiring storage or fulfilment (so, not a physical reprint)
using existing production material to create a Print-on-Demand book
turning the guide into an eBook (may be difficult / impossible with non-standard format)
most likely producing a full PDF (or similar) version for download and possibly printing
selecting sections – eg the definitive checklist – as individual downloads
considering other suggestions!
At the moment this is in the basket marked ‘non-urgent’, but the alternatives will be under active consideration.
Clapper Rail – Tom Sheley
The original flyer for the book
Painted Bunting Tom Sheley
Photos: Alex Hughes (1); Tom Sheley (2, 4, 9, 10); Keith Salvesen (3, 11); Bruce Hallett (5, 7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Charmaine Albury, para-breakers
It’s Friday. I’ve just nixed for wild brown trout on the River Frome in the rain. I need a beer and I’ve run out of week. You can read more about the attractive little Hairy Woodpecker – Abaco’s small counterpart to the larger and noisier West-Indian Woodpecker –HERE. Have a good weekend!
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 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.
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.
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…
Fledglings are kind of cute…
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.
Photo Credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2, 4, 5, 8); Alex Hughes (3); Keith Salvesen (6, 7, 9 & audio)
Yesterday an Abaco friend asked me to ID a striking-looking bird photographed in the coppice by their house. It was a Bahama Yellowthroat, one of the 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas. The bird was not clear enough for use here, but I’ll take any reason to feature these lovely creatures, with their trademark Zorro masks.
The other endemics are the Bahama Woodstar, Bahama Warbler and Bahama Swallow – all found on Abaco. The fifth is the endangered Bahama Oriole. Sadly these fine birds are now only found in very small numbers on Andros. They once lived on Abaco too, but have not been recorded there since the 1990s, and are considered extirpated. You can find out more about all these endemic birds HERE.
The Bahama Yellowthroats have a cousin, the Common Yellowthroat, that is a winter visitor on Abaco. There is some scope for confusion between the two birds, although a close look will reveal several differences. But let’s not get into that kind of detail right now… it would slightly detract from this little ‘gallery of gorgeous’.
One reason for my fondness for the yellowthroats is that it is one of the few species that I am able to imitate with sufficient accuracy to draw one from the depths of the coppice to the front of stage. It’s usually described as a ‘wichety-wichety‘ call, and the talent to mimic it has no other uses in life. Here’s a short recording I made – the Yellowthroat is the first and last call of the sample, with other species in between.
These are curious birds, and are not afraid to pose for a while, watching the watcher. They are also very vocal birds. You’ll see that many of these photos show them singing (‘vocalising’). You can even see their tiny tongues!
A couple of these images feature in THE BIRDS OF ABACO. This is a good moment to mention that we still have some remaining books, and right now we have a seasonal offer on them of a festive $88 plus shipping. A drop in MH can be arranged. Interested? Let me know or email the Delphi Club direct at email@example.com
Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 3); Bruce Hallett (2, 5); Tom Reed (4); Charles Skinner (6); Tom Sheley (7); sound recording Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour
There are two grebe species recorded for Abaco. The LEAST GREBE is the most common; the pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) is rarer. These small birds, often called dabchicks, are marsh and pond dwellers. They are sometimes found in brackish or even salt water.
The pied-billed grebe is somewhat larger than the least grebe. In the breeding season, they have a distinctive black beak-ring. In the header image, the bird is just starting to acquire the ring. Their dark eyes also distinguish them from the golden-eyed least grebe; and their beaks are pale rather than dark.
Least grebe with golden eyes and dark beak
Pied-billed Grebe for comparison
These birds have lobes on each toe rather than webbed feet. This helps them to paddle and to dive – which is how they mainly forage. They can stay under water for up to half a minute, often surfacing some distance from the entry point. This is one method they use to avoid danger – especially as they don’t fly with much enthusiasm.
Grebes rather endearingly carry their young on their backs until the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. The main threat to the species is habitat loss, especially of wetlands. The decline in local populations of this once-prolific bird is such that in some places they classified as threatened or endangered.
The pied-billed grebes’ call has been rendered thus: a “whooping kuk-kuk-cow-cow-cow-cowp-cowp.” If that helps you at all. If not, try this clip:
Michel St Martin / Xeno-Canto
Credits: Tom Sheley, Tony Hepburn, Keith Salvesen (least grebe), Linda Barry-Cooper, MDF / wiki, Dori / wiki; Sound file, Xeno-Canto; Cartoon, Birdorable
Just over 3 years ago, THE BIRDS OF ABACOwas published and launched at the Delphi Club. The book was intended to showcase the wonderful and varied bird life on Abaco – home to endemics, permanent residents, seasonal residents, and a wide variety of migrating transients. The book has been most generously received and supported – though I have to report that already its definitive checklist (dating from 1950) has become outdated with the recording of 6 additional species on Abaco, featured elsewhere in this blog.
Tom Sheley was one of the main photographic contributors to the book, and I had the good fortune to coincide with one of his trips to Abaco, when he was armed with significant photographic weaponry; and to accompany him on some of his photographic day trips (not including the early morning ones, in my case). This clapper rail is one of my favourites of his photo sequences of a bird being a bird – preening, stretching, calling – in its own habitat.
My one regret about my involvement in producing the book (it took 16 months) and more generally in the wildlife of Abaco is that I have entirely failed to progress to sophisticated (expensive) photographic equipment capable of producing images the quality of Tom’s. Yes, I’ve moved on from compacts (ha!) to bridge cameras (Panasonic Lumix + lens extender), and some results ‘make the cut’. But my move up to a Canon SLR was mainly disastrous, and when eventually I inadvertently drowned it (I overbalanced while photographing shorebirds from breaking waves. Total immersion. Total stupidity.) I felt an unexpected sense of relief. A blessing really – I never understood it, nor in my heart of hearts (if I’m honest) really wanted to… But my feeble struggle made me realise and appreciate the enormous skill of those like Tom who take ‘National Geographic’ quality photographs. It’s not just the equipment – it’s knowing exactly how to use it, and often in a split second…
Photos by Tom Sheley – with thanks for the adventures
The LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER(Myiarchus sagrae) is a common resident breeding species of flycatcher on Abaco, and these very pretty small birds can be seen in many habitats – pine forest, scrubland, coppice and gardens, for example. They are insectivores, as the name suggests, but they also eat seeds and berries.
As a ‘tyrant flycatcher’, this little bird is a member of the large passerine order that includes kingbirds, pewees and phoebes, with which they are sometimes confused. I last wrote about LSFs in the infancy of this blog, illustrated with my own rather… ahem… ‘simple’** photos. Time to revisit them and to do them justice with some new, improved images.‘
‘Simple’ photo from a less complex era, taken with a 2mp ‘Cheepo’™ camera
Magnificent photo by Gelinde Taurer that you can actually enlarge (click pic– see?)
Unlike many bird species, adult LSFs are very similar in appearance in both sexes. Whatever the gender, they are sometimes confused with their cousins the Cuban Pewees, but those have a very distinctive eye-crescent.
Cuban Pewee – note eye-crescent, absent in the LSF
Both species have a tiny hook at the end of the (upper) beak – to help trap insects, I assume
Another thing to notice about LSFs is the amount of rufous brown in their plumage, particularly on the wings and tail – and even at the base of the beak. This coloration is absent from their larger cousin kingbirds, the loggerhead and the gray.
WHAT SHOULD I LISTEN OUT FOR?
“A high pitched single or double noted sound described as ‘wink’... ” Or it might be ‘bip‘. Or ‘weep‘. Or (on one recording I listened to, complete with sonograph) it sounded like ‘chi-chitty chew‘. But it may have been a misID.
Hans Matheve @ Xeno-Canto
A hint of a crest is visible in this photo
ANY IDEA WHAT LA SAGRA CHICKS LOOK LIKE?
Well, as it happens, yes. By good fortune Abaco photographer and piping plover monitor Rhonda Pearce happens to have had a nest at hand this very season. So, happy to oblige…
WHO OR WHAT IS A ‘LA SAGRA’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME?
Mr La Sagra was a multi-talented Spanish botanist. Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris(1798–1871) was also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (‘The Future’). At one time he lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden. His name lives on more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, ‘anarchist circles’ must be a contradiction in terms… that should be ‘anarchist disorganised squiggles’)
I note in passing that La Sagra is a provincial area in Spain, an Italian festive celebration, a chocolatier, and a small comet… All these meanings may have to be negotiated online before you get to the flycatcher…
Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris
Continuing this blog’s philatelic natural history theme, here are stamps from the Cayman Islands and Cuba featuring the La Sagra’s Flycatcher. The Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the man who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on this bird. And Gundlach’s name lives on in the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii…
** ‘Simple’, as in ‘not completely disastrous for an amateur effort but frankly not the sort of standard we have come expect around here’.
Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 4); Tom Reed (2, 6); Keith Salvesen (3 [!], 5, 12); Charles Skinner (7, 8); Peter Mantle (9); Rhonda Pearce (chicks) 10; Tom Sheley (11); Ramon and stamps, open source
Six more sleeps. That’s all. Suddenly, a trip that seemed ages away is rushing towards us. Or, to put it more plausibly science-wise, we are rushing towards it. Abaco beckons, with bonefish, rays, sharks, reef fishes, whales, dolphins, birds and butterflies to investigate. Plus Kaliks to consume.
Idly thinking along those lines and vaguely plotting the first few days, took me to Sandy Point, home of the BMMRO(Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation) and of course the legendary Nancy’s, the restaurant at the end of the road. From where it is a short step to the dock on which the pelicans gather and use as a launch pad for their fishing dives.
I photographed this bird at the end of the SP dock, looking rather bedraggled after a dive
Note the significant plumage differences between the male (above) & this female
I recently read somewhere that the brown pelican is (or has become) quite uncommon in the Bahamas. On Abaco it is a permanent resident breeding species, so a drop in numbers equals fewer nests, fewer chicks and… fewer numbers. It’s a classic cycle towards serious population decline and all that is implied. Has anyone noticed an apparent reduction in numbers, I wonder? Comments welcome.
The pelicans above were all photographed on Abaco. The two below were not, but are both by exceptional photographers. One, Phil Lanoue, specialises in dramatic sequences, and his work features elsewhere in this blog. The final image was sportingly uploaded by Alan Schmierer from Flickr into the ‘public domain’.
Coming in to land…
While we are on Abaco, I plan to keep posting as and when, subject to connectivity (always a proviso in the Bahamas). My big hope is that the piping plovers that were on the beach last year and returned this season, will have resisted the increasingly insistent call to fly north to the breeding grounds. If they could just hang on for just a few more days…
Credits: Tom Sheley (1); Tony Hepburn (2); Keith Salvesen (3, 4, 6); Woody Bracey (5); Phil Lanoue (7); Alan Schmierer (8); Birdorable (cartoon)
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described as ‘common’, whereas we are actually quite refined in our behaviour. Secondly, the words most used to portray us are ‘dull’ and ‘drab’. And ‘stubby’. Well, excuse me… I – we – ask you to give us a second look.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon we are closely related toDarwin’s finches(so, we are “common”, huh?).Now we get to be with other birds that are dome-nesters like us. And how about this – we’ll be in the same list as some really cool birds…
How’s this for a colourful gang to be joining: scarlet tanager, summer tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting – these are our new cousins. BFGs “dull” and “drab”? I don’t think so.
6 UNDULL FACTS ABOUT BFGS
Make grassy dome-nests (like Bananaquits) and line them with soft grasses
Both sexes build the nest together
Both share egg-sitting duties and later chick-feeding & maintenance
Though quite gregarious by day, for some reason they tend to roost alone
They have a short ‘display’ flight with vibrating wings and a strange buzzing call
Otherwise, their flight is ‘weak, bouncy & fluttering’ (Whatbird’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
Photo Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 10); Tom Sheley (2, 3); Bruce Hallett (4, 9); Tom Reed (5, 11); Becky Marvil (6); Peter Mantle (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Keith Salvesen (12) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)
To be honest, I haven’t done these fine birds justice. Barely a mention of them for 3 years. Too much else on the land and in the water to choose from. I posted some of my photos from an outing to Sandy Point HERE. And the kestrel kinsman MERLIN got some attention a while later. Time to make amends with some more AMKE.
As many or most of the images show, utility wires (also posts) are a favourite perch for kestrels. They get an unimpeded view of the only thing that really matters in their lives – outside the breeding season, of course – PREY.
In my experience it’s quite rare to see AMKEs on the ground – unless they are in the act of ripping up some hapless rodent pinned to the earth. I was with photographer Tom Sheley when he captured this fine bird in the grass.
Tom also took this outstanding photo, on an overcast day, of a kestrel feeding its fledgeling a large insect.
Treasure Cay and its surrounding area makes for a good day’s birding. Although South Abaco, below Marsh Harbour, is the go-to location, TC has plenty of scope for a great variety of species from shore birds to songbirds – including the occasional Kirtland’s warbler. The golf course pond at hole #11 is well worth checking out (with permission at the club house, rarely declined unless there’s an event of some sort). So is the large brackish lake system where you may well find herons and egrets. There’s been a rare (for Abaco) pearly-eyed thrasher there recently. And you may find yourself being watched by a kestrel from a vantage point.
A richly-coloured specimen
A kestrel in streamlined flight, with its feet tucked tightly under its body
Bird on the Wire
OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION
One of Leonard Cohen’s standards, and a song covered by almost everyone from Johnny Cash to Heathen Gonads*, Bird on the Wire was on the album Songs from a Room (1969). It was a favourite of Cohen’s, who once said “I always begin my concert with this song”. Covers range from the excellent via good, interesting, and strange to outright bizarre. Joe Bonamassa’s take on it (as Bird on a Wire) on Black Rock, is certainly… unusual**.
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 10); Charles Skinner (2); Peter Mantle (3, 9); Tom Sheley 4, 5, 6); Nina Henry (7); Tom Reed (8)
In a box in the corner over there – no, there – are my last 6 copies of ‘The Birds of Abaco’. Peter Mantle probably has a few over here in the UK too. And there are definitely some remaining at Delphi HQ in a cupboard just a few lurches away from the surprisingly popular ‘honesty bar’. But there aren’t a great many left now, so forgive me for drawing attention to the fact that the Season of Goodwill is upon us. And… ahem… there are only 24 more ‘sleeps’ until Christmas.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Tom Sheley
“The Delphi Club Guide to THE BIRDS OF ABACO” was published in March 2014. To say “I wrote it” would be a gross distortion of the truth: it was an entirely collaborative project. The originator of the idea – as with the entire Delphi Club project – was Peter Mantle, the publisher. The work of 30 photographers is included. There was huge input from the very experienced project manager and from Bahamas bird experts. So although my name is on the cover, it is as a participant representing the contributions, camera skills and brainpower of many people.
Cuban Emerald (f) Keith Salvesen
The book launched to generous enthusiasm and support both on Abaco and beyond, which has continued ever since. We have been astonished by the positive responses to this unique publication for the Bahamas. There is a wider purpose to the book than as a photographic showcase for Abaco birds. All Abaco schools, colleges, libraries and local wildlife organisations have been given free copies for educational purposes. And a percentage of the profits is set aside for local wildlife causes.
Abaco (Cuban) Parrots Peter Mantle
Below are some facts and stats. Some people may well have seen these set out elsewhere, but a lot of new people have kindly tuned in to Rolling Harbour in the last 12 months or so, so I will repeat some of the details.
Short-billed dowitchers Bruce Hallett
The Guide showcases the rich and varied bird life of Abaco, Bahamas and features both resident and migratory species including endemics rarities and unusual sightings.
The main features are as follows:
272 pages with more than 350 photographs
163 species shown in vivid colour – nearly two-thirds of all the bird species ever recorded for Abaco
Every single photograph was taken on Abaco or in Abaco waters
All birds are shown in their natural surroundings – no feeders or trails of seed were used
Several birds featured are the first ones ever recorded for Abaco or even for the entire Bahamas
Clapper Rail Tom Sheley
A total of 30 photographers, both experienced and local amateurs, contributed to the project
The book had the generous support of many well-known names of Abaco and Bahamas birding
A complete checklist of every bird recorded for Abaco since 1950 up to the date of publication was compiled specially for the book (6 new species have been recorded since then…)
A code was devised to show at a glance when you may see a particular bird, and the likelihood of doing so. Birds found at Delphi are also marked
Specially commissioned cartographer’s Map of Abaco showing places named in the book
Least Tern Tony Hepburn
Informative captions intentionally depart from the standard field guide approach…
…as does the listing of the birds in alphabetical rather than scientific order
Say goodbye to ’37 warbler species on consecutive pages’ misery
Say hello to astonishing and unexpected juxtapositions of species
Bahama Yellowthroat Gerlinde Taurer
The book was printed in Florence, Italy by specialist printers on Grade-1 quality paper
Printing took pairs of printers working in 6 hour shifts 33 hours over 3 days to complete
The project manager and the author personally oversaw the printing
Smooth-billed Anis Gerlinde Taurer
The book is dedicated to the wildlife organisations of Abaco
A percentage of the profits is put by for the support of local wildlife organisations
A copy of the book has been presented to every school, college and library on Abaco
Piping Plover Bruce Hallett
The book is published by the Delphi Club (contact details below). The project was managed by a publishing specialist in art books. The author is the wildlife blogger more widely known on Abaco and (possibly) beyond as ‘Rolling Harbour’. Oh! So that would in fact be Mrs Harbour and myself. Well well! What were the chances?
Painted Bunting Tom Sheley
The Delphi Club at Rolling Harbour
PO Box AB-20006, Marsh Harbour, Abaco, Bahamas
Black and orange seem to have become – perhaps always have been – the colours most associated with Halloween (“Holy Evening” at one time in its history). Black, I suppose, for witches, their cats, and the night; orange for fire and pumpkins. In nature, surprisingly few creatures and plants have an exclusively black and orange livery. Some birds. A salamander of two. A few fish and butterflies. The odd flower.
I decided for no reason at all to spend (waste?) a small amount of time discovering which birds found on Abaco are true Halloween species. I had to allow for some white markings, on the spurious basis that white is not a colour but rather an absence of colour… That left 3 species (and even then some troublemakers might argue that the precise borderline between yellow and orange is debatable…).
The Redstart Setophaga ruticilla is a species of warbler and a common winter resident on Abaco. They are mostly seen in the coppice and in gardens. The males are black with orange markings; the females have yellow markings instead of orange and were therefore ineligible for this post. Sorry.
These Orioles Icterus galbula are rather less common winter visitors. A couple have recently been reported. Many are completely black and orange apart from white wing bars. However, there’s no doubt that others are more of a yellowy-orange.
The handsome, colourful Spindalis zena is one of my favourite birds. The Spindalis is a common permanent resident, and I am determined to make it qualify as a Halloween bird even though (arguably) plenty of its surface area is neither black not orange. Apologies to purists.
No birds were hexed, vexed, tricked or even treated in the making of this post
Credits: Craig Nash, Gerlinde Taurer, Tom Sheley, Keith Salvesen, pinterest, wiki & an unknown Angry Bird pumpkin carver
Abaco is spoilt for birds. What other island in the word has its very own population of ground-nesting parrots? (Clue: none). How many others provide a secluded winter home for the rare Kirtland’s Warbler? Or a safe habitat for piping plovers – more than 300 individual birds recorded last year, nearly 4% of the total population? Or host 32 warbler species in the winter to supplement the 5 resident species? Or record a visit from a black-browed albatross? Or enjoy 4 out of 5 of the Bahamian endemic species (no longer the Bahama Oriole sadly, now confined to specific areas of Andros).
A while back I held a poll for Abaco’s favourite bird, with about 10 contenders. Some were quick to point out that their own personal favourite was not an option, but I had to take a fairly broad brush approach. On the podium, gold went to the Bahama Woodstar; silver to the parrot; and bronze to the western spindalis. I’m in a genial mood today, having caught a fair-sized wild brown trout on my third (part) day of stalking it (over 2 weeks), on the smallest fly in my box (size 18). I put it straight back of course. Respect! So in a spirit of cordiality, here are some epic shots of Abaco’s democratically elected favourite bird… at least according to the poll.
The two images above were taken by the legendary Bruce Hallett, author of the go-to field guide for the Bahamas, which no birder should be without. Many of his wonderful photos appear in THE BIRDS OF ABACO, and he was a steady guiding hand during the preparation of the book.
This brilliant photo of a female woodstar was taken by Tara Lavallee of Bahama Palm Shores, and for composition, clarity, colour and sheer charm it was a must for inclusion in the book.
Another major photographic contributor was Tom Sheley. I had the pleasure of spending time on Abaco with Tom during expeditions deep into backcountry to find and photograph birds. He had two cameras, one with a long lens. The other had a very long lens. The results he obtained – showcased in the book – were outstanding. His woodstar graces the front cover.
Tom also took a delicate little study of a female woodstar feeding, one of my favourite photos
GREATER YELLOWLEGS: LARGER THAN THE LESSER. PROBABLY.
I’ve shied away from the whole ‘yellowlegs dimension question’ for long enough. Now that I have some brilliant photos for you, I feel I am obliged to address the issue. I was last forced into this slightly uncomfortable position while writing the captions for THE BIRD OF ABACO. We had GY photos. We had LY photos. We had none of the 2 species together, or at comparable distances from the camera. Frankly unless you are very knowledgeable and / or a regular birder where both species hang out, they are very hard to tell apart.
Both yellowlegs species are winter residents on Abaco, and neither is particularly common (though Gilpin Pond is always a good place to check for LYs). Both are very similar in almost all respects. The broad principle is that the GY is the larger, heavier bird, while the LY is more delicate and with a shorter bill in proportion to its head size.
In a more refined version, Cornell suggests: “GY’s bill appears slightly upturned and blunt-tipped, while LY’s bill is straight and sharp-pointed. LY’s bill is always dark, while GY’s bill is grayish at the base in non-breeding season. Voice is best distinguishing character: GY gives three or four piercing notes, LY two rapid, softer short whistles (sometimes three)”. But even this help depends on (a) light conditions (b) season and (c) whether the bird you are looking at is ‘vocalising’ or not…
TWO TYPES OF YELLOWLEGS ON ABACO – BUT WHICH IS WHICH?
If you saw the two birds above on separate days in different places at different distances, could you say with confidence which is which? Or maybe they are the same? Experts will probably know at once that the top bird is a GY in a ‘slimline’ stance; and the other is a LY in a ‘plump’ stance. But going simply on the ‘larger heavier bird’ and ‘bill-length principle’, I’d have said the opposite. And I’d be wrong. As usual. I suspect that the only way an amateur (e.g. me) can hope to be confident in distinguishing the two species is by seeing them frequently and preferably together.
Which takes us from Abaco, where the above birds were photographed by Tom Sheley, to Pinellas County, FL and the wonderful photos of Danny Sauvageau, an expert with the birds and also the camera. Here are some of his recent Greater Yellowlegs photographs that show the bird at its absolute best. They also demonstrate the ‘plump’ and the ‘slim’ looks of the same bird.
If anyone has any other reliable method for telling the species apart, please post a comment and I will gladly incorporate it as a STOP PRESS…
STOP PRESS 1 My thanks to blogging friend DEAR KITTY for reminding me of a video she posted that very conveniently shows a GY and a LY together, in circumstances where it is impossible not to notice that one bird is larger than the other. It’s an all-round helpful video, so thanks for this, DK.
STOP PRESS 2 Thanks again to DK for drawing my attention to a great photo by Matt Scott posted on twitter. Here are both types of yellowlegs together, in similar poses and the same distance from the camera – and the behold the difference. The very illustrative image I had been looking for, handed to me on a plate…
Credits: GY and LY on Abaco, Tom Sheley; all other photos Danny Sauvageau. Thanks to both for use permission. Also, Cornell Lab of Ornithology… And Matt Scott