BALD EAGLE ON THE ABACO MARLS: EXTREMELY RARE SIGHTING
On March 22nd a friend of ours, James, was bonefishing far out on the Abaco Marls when he was astounded to see the unmistakable appearance of a bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus flying above him. His boat partner and guide Joe also saw the bird. James is a very experienced birder, and has seen plenty of bald eagles over the years. He was not to know, at the time, what an exceptionally rare sighting this is. The location was in the area of Big Pine Point.
If you are out on the Marls and see this bird, please can you add a comment to this post or contact me at email@example.com, giving the date, time, approximate location… and if possible attaching a photograph. Any reports will add important data to the archive for the birds of Abaco, and of the Bahamas generally.
PREVIOUS ABACO SIGHTINGS
I checked Tony White’s compendious checklist compiled for BIRDS OF ABACO that contains all species recorded for Abaco since 1950. He categorised the Bald Eagle as a ‘V4’, indicating a vagrant species with a handful of irregular sightings – ever. I then contacted Bahamas bird guru Woody Bracey to check the details of earlier sightings. The answer is:
“Bald Eagles were sighted on Abaco three years running 2000-2002. In each instance it was over the Christmas Holiday period (12-20-1-10). I saw one in 2002 from the overlook near Treasure Cay looking out over the marls. Betsy (Woody’s wife) saw one over the chicken farm fields in 2001 but I missed it”.
Some people might mistake the Caribbean subspecies of Osprey (an all-white head) for a Bald Eagle but as Woody points out, “their flight and shape are very different”.
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR? A large raptor with a dark body and wings, and a distinctive white head and tail
HOW CAN I TELL IT FROM AN OSPREY? By comparison with this Abaco Osprey
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
Image / audio credits: open source / David R Tribble / Craig Nash (Osprey)
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)
The Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor is one of 6 heron species found on Abaco, and is a permanent breeding resident. To which can be added 4 sorts of egret to complete a line up of expert fishers, all equally at home hunting in the water or from the shore, or surveying the scene from nearby vantage points like bushes and trees.
A distance shot… and it was 20′ up, above the pond
The heron and egret species of Abaco
A long neck, a long bill and long legs make this heron species ideally adapted for wading. Like other herons and egrets, it will stand stock-still waiting for the perfect fish to swim into range. However they are also active hunters, and will stalk prey or chase it by striding quickly through the water in pursuit. They eat fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and insects.
On a mission…
The tricolor has a wide resident breeding range, shown in green on the map
Coming in to land…
Breeding plumage: smart blue bill and a fish to put in it
The magnificent Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia is the world’s largest tern species, with an adult wingspan of about 5 feet. These birds are widely distributed throughout the world, though on Abaco and in the Bahamas generally they are classed as a very uncommon transient species, classified as T4 signifying a mere handful of reports. Ever.
However Keith Kemp, redoubtable beach monitor for piping plovers, recently saw 2 on Winding Bay beach, Abaco. Moreover he managed to photograph them in flight (see header and above image).
Keith’s are not the first Caspians to be photographed on Abaco. Bird wizard Woody Bracey managed to take one (below), which duly found its way into the ‘The Birds of Abaco‘. Sadly it could only be included in the single-bird supplement: we needed at least two images of a species for it to qualify for a spread in the main part.
Caspians have black legs, which usefully distinguish them from the tern species with orange or yellow legs. Note the heavy red / orange bill, which has a dark tip that is more noticeable in the breeding season. These large birds feed mainly on fish, and use their spectacular bills to good effect, hovering and then plunge-diving onto their prey.
Caspian terns are found on 5 continents. The transient birds that pause in the Bahamas are on their migration to the West Indies and Gulf. Or on their way back, of course.
In the late c18, a specimen bird was found on, in or beside the Caspian Sea and was promptly named after it. The distribution map above suggests they still breed in the area. How fortunate it wasn’t found by the Dead Sea…
WORRYING WIKI FACT OF THE DAY
In 2016, a nest of the Caspian tern was found in the Cape Krusenstern National Monument in northwestern Alaska, 1,000 miles further north than any previous sighting. This development was part of a general trend in Alaska of species moving to the north, a tendency ascribed to global warming.
Credits: Keith Kemp (1, 2); Dmitry Mikhirev (3); Woody Bracey (4, 7); Dick Daniels (5); J J Harrison (6); planetofbirds (range map)
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
SANDWICH TERNS: NO LINK TO BREAD SLICES, SAY SCIENTISTS
Have you noticed how newspapers and periodicals increasingly seize every opportunity for a headline ending “…say Scientists”. It lends a spurious authority to any tenuous assertion, like “astronauts unlikely to find cheese on moon, say Scientists” (suggesting at least the faint possibility of some mature cheddar lodged in a crater). Or “Frooty-pops cereal may protect against ingrown toenails, say Scientists”. To which the proper response is: “research reference please”. But it seems 37.9% of people are actually prepared to believe this tendencious stuff… say Scientists.
But I digress. To the business in hand. The Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) is a smart-looking medium-sized tern. Its clearest ID signifier among terns is a sharp black beak with a yellow tip. Also, its black legs helpfully distinguish it from other tern species that have orange legs.
The origin of the name for this species is an unexpected one. The Thaleasseus (formerly Sterna) simply refers to the sea (Gk). The Sandwich part is more complicated. It’s certainly nothing to do with a tasty filling for a sliced bread snack **. Other bird species such as Branta sandvicensis, an endemic Hawaiian goose, have the name because Hawaii was historically known as the Sandwich Islands. But Sandwich terns are not found there. In fact, the name comes from the town name of Sandwich, Kent UK (sand wic OE – ‘trading post by the sea’). The ornithologist who first described the bird in 1787, John Latham, just happened to live there. (And how fortunate for ornithology that he did not come from Pratts Bottom, also in Kent).
Sandwich terns have a wide range around the world. As the range map below show, the most significant breeding area is Great Britain and northern Europe. On Abaco, the birds are uncommon summer residents. Both images above were taken on the main island, the top one at Sandy Point on the jetty (an excellent place for birdwatching, incidentally).
Like all the Thalasseus terns, the Sandwich tern plunge-dives for fish. I love the sight of diving terns. They hang high in the air as they scope out the water for fish, only to break free from the sky and smash down into the sea, often emerging with a silver prize. Here’s a wonderful photo of one that missed its meal – and one that succeeded.
An endearing characteristic of these terns can be seen during their courtship display. The male will catch a fish, then offer it to the female. Her acceptance of the gift signals her readiness to approve the male as a suitable mate.
Of the 12 tern species recorded for Abaco most are summer residents, some of which breed on Abaco. The royals are the only permanent residents; and the Forster’s are the only winter residents. The other 4 species are transient in migration, or vagrant (arctic tern).
As I have mentioned before, a very good source for easy ID to distinguish between different birds of the same family is to head off to BIRDORABLE. The drawings (cartoons!) may not be scientific, but they do highlight the most notable distinctions. Invaluable as a last resort. Or first resort, even! For similar-looking birds, compare the beaks and the legs. The composite below shows how simple it is.
Noisy neighbours? Put this short recording of a sandwich tern colony in the breeding season on a continous loop, and you have the makings of a powerful retaliatory weapon. They’ll be out within a fortnight…
Alex Lees / Xeno-Canto
** The food we call a sandwich was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He found eating while playing cards inconvenient, so asked his valet for two slices of bread, requesting “and squash a tern between them, if you’d be so very kind…” The Sandwich Islands were also named after his Lordship by Captain James Cook, as a compliment for financially supporting an expedition there, say Historians…
Credits: Danny Sauvageau (1, 4, 5); Bruce Hallet (2); Woody Bracey (3); Ken Billington (6); Alex Lees @ Xeno-Canto, Birdorable, wiki for range map & info, other magpie pickings of glistening facts
Monday was International Pigeon Appreciation Day 2016, apparently. I’m not a huge fan of limitless species being accorded their own special day each year: “Celebrate International Plankton Day – Be Kind to your Favourite Protozoa!” or “Global Millipede Day: Take an Arthropod for a Walk!”.
White-crowned Pigeon (& header image)
I’m not sure where pigeons come in all this. In many cities feral pigeons are considered vermin – yet people love to feed them, even the ones with rotted feet and one eye. Especially those ones. Pigeons may be pests in crop fields, yetHEROESin wartime. They may be decorative, yet are, regrettably, good sport and delicious.
I’ve decided to take a broad view with pigeons and doves (there’s no significant difference), and not to be sniffy about Columba and their special day. They are pretty birds and they deserve it. So I’m featuring some Abaco pigeons and doves to enjoy, representing every species found on Abaco – and a bonus dove from New Providence at the end.
Eurasian Collared Dove
The Columbidae of Abaco: all permanent breeding residents
Common Ground Dove (Tobacco Dove)
PROTECTED SPECIES From a sporting and culinary point of view, the following pigeons and doves are protected by law at all times: Common Ground (Tobacco) Dove; Keywest Quail-Dove
SHOOTING IN SEASON The following have open season from roughly mid-September until March: Zenaida Dove; White-crowned Pigeon; Eurasian Collared Dove; Mourning Dove
UNPROTECTED – NO DESIGNATED CLOSED SEASON White-winged Dove (but why? they are fairly uncommon on Abaco); Rock Pigeon.
Key West Quail-Dove
The second bird of this pair was recently photographed by Milton Harris at the north end of Elbow Cay. More details HERE
The birds shown above represent the 8 species found on Abaco. However, not far away in New Providence, there is a beautiful pigeon that has not yet made its way over to Abaco and has yet to be introduced there. I am ambivalent about the deliberate introduction of alien species, because of the frequently very real risks to native species in terms of territory, habitat, food sources and so forth. But where there is no detectable threat to the local species, perhaps there is no great harm. I’d certainly like to see these lovely birds flying around – if possible, as a protected species…
Pied Imperial Pigeon (Nassau)
Photo credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1); Alex Hughes (2); Tom Sheley (3, 7, 13); Tony Hepburn (4); Keith Salvesen (5, 8, 14); Bruce Hallett (6, 9, 10); Woody Bracey (11, 16, 17); Milton Harris (12); Charles Skinner (15)