In mid-December, Kaderin Mills of the Bahamas National Trust saw Abaco’s first-ever reported Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) in the Fox Town area of North Abaco. Woody Bracey was quickly onto the news and in the afternoon he took photos of the bird. I posted about this exciting (because a new species is always exciting) event, with details about its significance plus facts, maps etcHERE
Six weeks later, the crane is still in residence. In the meantime a number of birders have been to see the new novelty bird for Abaco in what has become a small but significant birding hotspot right at the top end of the island, in area round the Church, the Primary School, and the Clinic. The crane is now firmly on the eBird map for the Bahamas.
This elegant visitor seems to be quite tame and unfazed by its new fame. People watch while it forages for invertebrates in the grass, pausing to check on bystanders before resuming its feeding. It tolerates the presence of humans without showing fear, let alone flying away.
The call of the Sandhill Crane sounds like this:
To test its reaction, a recording was played and immediately the crane responded and called out to the (apparent) co-crane. The bird has also (rather sadly?) been seen by locals by the door of the Church, looking at its reflection and even making pecking motions at it. A lonely crane, maybe.
This bird is likely to remain disappointed by any expectation or hope of company. With any luck in the Spring, the instinctive call to the north (Canada and nearby US) will persuade it to migrate back to sandhill habitat to join a flock in the summer breeding grounds.
It is always a somewhat melancholy occurrence when a fine bird like this – or like last season’s lone BALD EAGLE– takes a wrong turn on their migration or perhaps get blown off course and finds itself on its own, species-wise. This bird seems to be taking it in its (longish) stride, however, and it has become something of a celebrity avian for the local folk. It will be interesting to find out when the migration urge finally encourages its flight away from its unusual overwintering habitat.
Credits: Chris Johnson (1); Erika Gates / Martha Cartwright (2, 4); Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (3, 5, 6); Audubon (7); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon); and a tip of the hat to the School Principal, to Kadie Mills, and to Uli Nowlan who uploaded her sighting to eBird.
SANDHILL CRANE: ANOTHER NEW BIRD FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS
Still they keep arriving, the new birds that have never before graced the shores of Abaco Recently it was a Canada warbler, at the lower end of the size scale. The elegant sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) is the 10th new species for Abaco since the publication of The Birds of Abaco in March 2014. If you are wondering why the bird is not called Grus canadensis any longer, it’s because the genus of the bird was reclassified by the ABA in 2016. Out with dreary old Grus and in with exciting Oedipus’s daughter (or was she his half-sister? They… erm… had the same mother… Discuss, using both sides of the exam paper) in Greek mythology…
As the crane’s canadensis suggests and as range map shows, these are birds of North America, breeding mainly in Canada. In winter they head south to the warmth, reaching Florida as winter migrants. As you can see, the northern part of Florida and also Cuba have small year-round breeding populations. Zero zilch zip nada in the Bahamas.
THE ABACO SIGHTINGS, DECEMBER 2018
At 9.00 am on December 13, the bird above was photographed by Kaderin Mills (of the Bahamas National Trust) on Little Abaco, at the Fox Town Primary School, Crown Haven. The day before, the 12th, the school Principal Mrs Curry had seen the bird in the school grounds feeding on the grass. A couple of phone ‘sighting shots’ were taken before it flew off. Next day it returned, word spread and Kadie Mills recorded the bird officially and put it on eBird to give the newcomer some due publicity. By the early afternoon, Woody Bracey had been told about the bird, and went to take photos. He saw it in the same place the next day too.
OK, FIRST FOR ABACO – AND THE BAHAMAS TOO?
The strict answer is, no. Many years ago, there was a single report of a Sandhill Crane on Andros. It’s not known if the sighting was officially confirmed, but according to expert Bruce Hallett there was a photograph, and the late Tony White, then ‘recorder’ for the Bahamas, saw it. There are no available records, but Tony’s authority on issues around Bahamas birds was (and remains) absolute.
12 CAREFULLY SELECTED SANDHILL CRANE FACTS
These cranes are social birds, usually living in pairs or in family groups
Their calls are loud and far-reaching, like a huge crows with a sore throat (below)
Mated pairs engage in ‘unison calling’, standing close and duetting amorously
Hatchlings are fully-formed and can leave the nest within a day.
Juveniles are known as colts (whichever their gender, it seems)
They have an impressive wingspan as adults, from about 5′ to 7′ 6″
They are able to soar in flight, using thermals to obtain lift and stay aloft for hours
Flocks of cranes may be huge – sometimes estimated at over 10,000 individuals
Their ancestors are among the oldest fossils of any bird species, at around 2.5 M years
Vagrants have been found as far off piste as Britain (1981, 1991 only), China and Japan
Many predators call them dinner; but they can kick and stab with their bills in defence
The sandhills of Cuba form the smallest breeding population, around 300
(Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto)
On the map: Abaco’s first ever sandhill crane
Adult with its cutely ungainly, yellow-legged colt
Credits: firstly, to School Principal Mrs Curry for a truly excellent spot; Kaderin Mills (2) – the 1st usable image; Elwood ‘Woody’ Bracey (1, 3, 4, 6); http://www.birdphotos.com / wiki (5); Cornell (range map); Ian Cruickshank / Xeno Canto (audio); Birdorable (cartoon)
It is a year since I last wrote about the Abaco Bald Eagle(s) of 2017. The bracketed ‘s’ signifies the absence of firm evidence that there was just the one. Equally, there was no indication that there were ever two. All reported sightings were of a single bird, seen at a distance. The likelihood is that it was a lone visitor. The bald eagle is classified as a very rare vagrant on Abaco, and I gathered together as many reports since 2000 as I could find (see below). Not many, in summary, and never two.
Last year, a bald eagle was sighted around to coast of Abaco over a period of several months. There were 8 sightings in all, and I had hoped that the bird might stay around for 2018. Sadly, not so. The photos featured here come from a sequence by photographer Phil Lanoue. They were not taken on Abaco of course, so don’t be confused. But they illustrate the magnificence of this iconic bird as it prepares for its landing in a pine tree. We do have wonderful ospreys of course, but the occasional eagle makes for a rare treat.
As I said last year, the 2017 sightings were most likely all of the same lone bird that had somehow strayed over to Abaco and found the available prey good, and the location congenial. As undisputed king of the skies, its daily hunting range was a wide one which would explain the varied sighting locations. I ended: “I’m sticking with this theory unless and until 2 eagles are seen together”.
BALD EAGLE SIGHTINGS REPORTED ON ABACO SINCE c1950 (= ‘ever’)
Here is the list of sightings. They start in 2000, because there are no known reports for Abaco prior to that from when they started to be kept in the 1950s. If anyone has others, I’d be pleased to hear from you.
2000 December, location unknown – info from Woody Bracey
2001 December – Chicken Farm area – Betsy Bracey
2002 December – over Marls opposite Treasure Cay – Woody Bracey
2004 Autumn – south of Lynard Cay (after hurricane) – Cheryl Noice
2014 Date unknown – circling the power plant – LC
2017 March – Big Pine Point, Marls – James Cheesewright
2017 Early May – Power plant area – LC
2017 May – Marls – Danny Sawyer
2017 May – Lubbers / Tahiti Beach area – ‘Kelly’s mom’
2017 September – Cross Harbour – Carol Rivard Roberts (with photo)
2017 November – Cherokee Road – Howard Pitts
2017 November – Bahama Palm Shores / 8-mile beach – Steve Roessler
2017 November – Tilloo Bank – Laurie Schreiner (with photo)
Italics = report in comments on Danny Sawyer’s FB page; Blue = added reports to me
The first-ever bald eagle photo on Abaco Sept 2017
Carol Rivard Roberts
The last bald eagle photo on Abaco Nov 2017
Credits: all brilliant ‘eagle landing’ photos, Phil Lanoue with many thanks for use permission; Abaco eagles by Carol Rivard Roberts and Laurie Schreiner; amusing cartoon, Birdorable; thanks to all spotters and reporters.
SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: AN “IF ONLY” BIRD FOR ABACO
About 3 years ago, there was great excitement when a new bird species was recorded on Abaco. Not just recorded, but actually photographed too – the best of evidence. This was a fork-tailed flycatcher, and to no one’s great surprise another one has never been seen since. So sadly the STFC must go down in the records as a V5, a one-off vagrant. Until another one turns up, anyway. But there will never be another ‘first STFC ever‘ on Abaco. You can read about the new species HERE.
The sighting came quite soon after the publication of The Birds of Abaco, and instantly rendered the comprehensive checklist in the book out of date. In all, 6 new bird species have now been sighted on Abaco and in due course I need to amend the checklist to reflect the changes. And add ‘wild turkey’ to the also-ran column ‘Exotics Seen on Abaco.’
The scissor-tailed flycatcher is another so-called ‘tyrant flycatcher’ with long streaming tail forks. I had a look at the checklist to see if the species was recorded for Abaco, and sure enough it is included as a V4, which is to say a very rare vagrant with maybe half-a-dozen sightings over the years. I’m not aware of any photos of one taken on Abaco. However, birding and photography authority Danny Sauvageau occasionally encounters these magnificent birds in Florida. His recent photos of the scissor-tailed flycatcher are so beautiful that you just have to see them. How wonderful if this exotic creature could find its way to the northern Bahamas more often. Until it does, it will remain what I term an ‘if only’ bird – one that is regretfully absent…
All fantastic flycatcher fotos: Danny Sauvageau with many thanks – check online, you won’t see a better collection than this…; cartoon, Bordorable
Abaco continues to enhance its reputation as a prime birding destination. New species. Rare species. Unusual species. Endangered species. Surprising species. Every year they turn up, whatever the season. And those, of course, are only the ones that get seen by someone who knows what they are or anyway what they might be. This is where the digital camera – or even a modern phone camera – trumps (oops… stepping into a political minefield) the old-fashioned method of collecting and identifying specialist birds. Which was, shoot them…
Woody Bracey, Abaco’s ornithological eminence grise, is currently hosting a party of birders on Abaco. On a visit to one of the excellent birding hotspots of South Abaco, the group of 5 came across an totally unexpected wading species mixed in with a group of yellowlegs. At first, they were thought to be Marbled Godwits. Further consideration confirmed the 2 birds to be equally rare Hudsonian Godwits Limosa haemastica (HUGOs for short). Since then, at least one of the birds has been seen in the same location by birder Keith Kemp.
SO JUST HOW EXCITING IS THIS SIGHTING?
Extremely! Both species of godwit are exceptionally rare on Abaco and indeed in the Bahamas. They are officially classified as V5, which is to say vagrant / accidental visitors outside their normal range, with fewer than five records since… records began. In practical terms, the baseline is considered to be 1950. There must have been at least one previous sighting of a HUGO on Abaco, but Woody has never seen one before, nor does he know when the report was made. And he knows his godwits – he is the person who, some years ago, saw the MAGO on Abaco that accounts for its existence as a V5 in the complete checklist for Abaco.
WHERE DOES HUGO LIVE?
These large shorebirds – a species of sandpiper – with their long, upturned bills, breed in Arctic or tundra regions, and winter in southern South America. Note in the photo above the contrast in size, bill and leg colouring compared to the yellowlegs they were mixing with. The Cornell range map below shows how remote the HUGO summer (red) and winter (blue) habitats are. And you can see clearly the two main migration routes – in the simplest terms, the central flyway and the eastern flyway. Neither route takes the birds directly over the Bahamas, although one can see how the occasional one might be blown off course and need a rest during its journey.
HOW OFTEN HAVE THEY BEEN SEEN IN OR AROUND THE BAHAMAS?
I checked the invaluable database EBIRD for HUGO reports over the last 10 years. The only previous report for the entire Bahamas was made by Bruce Purdy, who saw one one Grand Bahama (Reef Golf Course)… in 2007. Sightings in Florida over the period are scant. The most notable feature of the map clip below is that Bermuda has had a couple of HUGO visits, perhaps suggesting off-course birds finding an area of land to rest on in a vast expanse of open sea. Further afield, the birds are rare vagrants to Europe, and even to Australia and South Africa.
WHY ‘GODWIT’? OR HUDSONIAN? OR Limosa haemastica?
‘Godwit’ is said to derive from the bird’s call, in the same way as ‘Bobwhite’ and ‘Killdeer’ – so, these are birds that say their own name… The Hudson Bay area is one of the summer breeding grounds, and a place where the birds congregate for migration. ‘Limosa‘ derives from the Latin for mud (see header image); and ‘haemastica’ relates totheir red breeding plumage, from the Ancient Greek for ‘bloody’. Bloody muddy. It’s not a great name, in truth. Let’s move swiftly on to what they sound like…
Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto
STOP PRESS As mentioned earlier, Keith Kemp found one of the HUGOs at the same location a couple of days later – a “lifer” for him and everyone else! Here are three images he posted on eBird.
I always check a new species to see if it was depicted by Audubon. I didn’t expect him to have included the HUGO but I was wrong. He did, and with his characteristic slightly exaggerated elegance.
This post is rather special, because these are almost certainly the first photographs of a Hudsonian Godwit taken on Abaco – or indeed in the entire Bahamas. And very good they are, too. So even if a lone HUGO was noted on Abaco 40 years ago pausing briefly on a rock before continuing its journey to Argentina, I consider this qualifies as a new sighting. It certainly does for the c21.
Hudsonian Godwit (Crossley ID Guide, Eastern Birds)
Credits: special thanks to Woody Bracey, Roger Neilson, and Keith Kemp (Stop Press) for photos, information and use permissions; Cornell Lab – Range Map; open source Audubon; Doug Hynes / Xeno-Canto; Crossley ID Guides; wiki and sundry standard sources for snippets
The Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia is a small owl found in the open landscapes of North and South America. Their natural habitat is in grasslands, agricultural areas, and other open dry areas with low vegetation – even deserts. They nest and roost in burrows. Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are often active during the day, though they do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn when they can make use of their excellent night vision and acute hearing.
On Abaco, this little owl is a rare vagrant, presumably visiting from Florida which has the nearest resident population. There have been few reported sightings; and for ‘The Birds of Abaco’ we were unable to locate a photo taken on Abaco. The main images featured here were taken by me of a rescue bird that is used in wonderful free-flying displays. As you can see, it is in prime condition.
ABACO SIGHTINGS REPORTED SINCE THIS POST
STOP PRESS Sept 27Alison Ball from Little Harbour, Abaco has kindly contacted me to say “I saw a burrowing owl sometime during the first week of October last year here in Little Harbour. I was watching some parrots eating the berries in the top of a large ficus tree by the edge of the road, and suddenly realized that the owl was sitting on a lower branch of the same tree, right at my eye level and only about 8 feet away. We stared at each other for at least a minute – plenty long enough to get a definite identification – then he flapped off into the woods. It was about 8 a.m.” Any other reports of sightings would be very welcome.
STOP PRESS Nov 5Keith Kemp, with his sharp-eyed daughter Emily (11), saw one at the side of the road near Cherokee after dusk – possibly the Little Harbour one? It was Emily – already a promising birder, I gather – who first said ‘…it’s a little owl – he’s so cute’. Spot-on, too, Emily. The only other candidate for Abaco, the Barn Owl, could not be described as ‘little’.
STOP PRESS 2016 NEW POST Burrowing Owls on Elbow Cay HERE
In the next photos you can see the bulging eye lenses
A DOZEN QUICK BURROWING OWL FACTS FOR SHORT ATTENTION SPANS
They have spectacular eyebrows above their piercing yellow eyes
When hunting, they use a perch to spot prey, then swoop down on it; or ‘hawk’ for insects in flight
Their long legs enable them to chase prey on the ground when hunting in open terrain
Burrowing owls mainly eat large insects and small rodents and reptiles
Unlike other owls, they also eat fruits and seeds
When agitated or excited, they bob their heads
They are one of the few avian species that benefit from deforestation
The owls often return to the same burrow nest each year
A major cause of mortality is vehicle-strike as they cross roads
Prehistoric fossil remains have been found in the Bahamas, showing they were once resident
There are many subspecies including a Floridian one, where they are ‘of special concern’
Florida Atlantic University campus is a National Audubon Society designated burrowing owl sanctuary
Show us, I hear you ask, a burrowing owl in a typical burrow for which it is named
Burrowing Owls may get quickly fed up with being photographed…
“Oh, do stop. I’ve had enough of you”
“Right. I can’t see you anymore. You are sooooo gone”
The Burrowing Owl featured in a 1991 Bahamas bird stamp series
I rather like this woodcut by Andrea Rich
If anyone has seen one of these little guys anywhere on Abaco, I’d love to know when and where… [Now see the 2 stop press sightings near the start of this post]