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