BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

A while back, Black-faced Grassquits Tiaris bicolor were honoured by the American Ornithological Union with a classification change from emberizid to tanager. For the reasons that follow, the species regarded this both as scientific promotion and as merited status elevation. I invited an authoritative Spokesquit to explain why.

*******************

Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit  and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGs, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described by you 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. Maybe check out these images for a start.

black-faced-grassquit-adult-male-eating-berry-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheleyblack-faced-grassquit-foraging-berry-2-abaco-bahamas-tom-sheley

Unsurprisingly we were very excited when the perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we saw it anyway. For many years we were classified under the heading emberizidae. 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Black-faced Grassquit, Abaco (Tom Reed)

We kept company with some buddies like the handsome Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Annoyingly chirpy, for a start.

Black-faced Grassquit - Treasure Cay, Abaco (Becky Marvil)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Peter Mantle)

And so we officially became a type of tanager. They even reckon (rather late in the day, in my view) that we are closely related to Darwin’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…

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Gerlinde Taurer)

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.

Black-faced Grassquit female, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

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 assessment)

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Alex Hughes)

THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG 

THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG 

Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Tom Reed)Black-faced Grassquit male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

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); Larry Towning (13). Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)

Black-faced Grassquit (m) Lubbers Quarters, Abaco (Larry Towning).jpg

PIPING PLOVERS: ABACO’S RARE WINTER RESIDENTS

Piping Plover Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett / Keith Salvesen)

PIPING PLOVERS: ABACO’S RARE WINTER RESIDENTS

‘ON A BEACH NEAR YOU’

PIPING PLOVERS Charadrius melodus are specialist shorebirds on Abaco. For a start, they are very rare – the IUCN listing suggests a population of only 8000 mature birds in the world. They are both scarce numerically and limited geographically.

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

These tiny plovers breed only in a few defined areas of North America – areas that are rapidly reducing mostly for all the usual depressing human-derived causes, for example the exercise of man’s alienable right from time immemorial to drive vehicles all over the nesting sites in the breeding season. The birds are unsurprisingly IUCN listed as ‘near-threatened’. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

Piping Plovers breed and nest in the north and produce their chicks. The chicks soon learn to be independent and to fly. From about mid-July, those adults and chicks that have avoided the wheels of the SUVs, the unleashed  dogs in the areas set aside for nesting, and the more natural dangers from gulls, start to get the urge to fly south for the winter. The range of their winter grounds is shown in blue on the range map above. It includes the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular.

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

Q. WHY ARE THEY CALLED PIPING PLOVERS? A. BECAUSE OF THIS!

Paul Turgeon

I will return soon to the significance of the safe, clean beaches of Abaco and the healthy habitat for the survival of this remarkable little bird. For now, I’ll simply say that loss of habitat, and an increase in the nature and / or extent of environmental threats at either end of the migration, may seriously damage the survival of the species. It follows that habitat degradation at both ends of the migration could see the IUCN listing progress rapidly to vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered and… well, the next category is ‘extinct in the wild’. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

If you are interested in shorebirds, in bird migration, in research into bird movements, and in the reason migratory birds are banded, you can find out more at ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH (see note below).This is the only season-long research project in the Bahamas, and involves Citizen Scientists on Abaco in the south working with partner Proper Scientists in the breeding grounds in the north. Early next month I will write a follow-up post on these topics. 

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

The photographs in this post were taken in early 2020 on the long crescent of beach at Winding Bay, Abaco by Lisa Davies. Her contribution is precious because the APPW project mentioned above was for many reasons in danger of stalling as the result of the devastating effects of Hurricane Dorian on almost every aspect of island life. Lisa’s discovery of a small flock of a dozen plovers in the sunshine has given impetus to the project – and has resulted in some superb photos.

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

ABACO PIPING PLOVER WATCH: A POSTSCRIPT

This piece was posted in early January 2020, when no one could have predicted the current worldwide crisis. By then, Abaco Piping Plover Watch had all but stalled on Sept 1 when Dorian wrought its havoc with maximum force early in the season. By the end of the season, the Watch had been in action for 5 years and collected plenty of valuable migration data in conjunction with the breeding grounds. My own connection with Abaco had already lessened. Covid spread. It became clear, sadly, that the time was right to end the project.

Felicia FB – one of several loyal 4-year returners

Credits: All photos by Lisa Davies except header image Bruce Hallett; audio call, Paul Turgeon / Xeno-Canto; range map from WIKI

Piping Plovers, Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas (Lisa Davies)

 

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER

Kirtland's Warbler Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ENDANGERED SPECIES ON ABACO, BAHAMAS (2): KIRTLAND’S WARBLER

The rare Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is rightly prized both in its very specific breeding grounds and in its winter migration locations. Abaco is fortunate to be one of these, but they are extremely difficult to find, even with local knowledge. The latest IUCN Red List assessment of numbers of adult warblers (2018) gives a figure of 4,500 – 5,000. The species is categorised as ‘near-threatened’. Numbers are gradually increasing, thanks to a major recovery plan and intensive conservation measures in areas where they nest. 

WHERE THEY LIVE

SPRING & SUMMER Mostly, the KIWA population lives and breeds in very specific areas of Michigan and Ontario, where jack pines are found. As numbers have increased, the range has expanded more widely into Wisconsin and Ohio.

A Kirtland’s Warbler in the jack pines of Michigan (Vince Cavalieri)Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan (©Vince Cavalieri)

FALL & 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.

Kirtland's Warbler Range Map wiki

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 by development is a major concern (as with so many species everywhere)
  • KIWAs are vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds in the breeding areas
  • Their winter habitat is mostly in remote or protected areas, but on Abaco a proposed development in the National Park where they live will probably wipe them out, if built   
  • Overall, habitat degradation at one end of the migration – in particular the breeding grounds – poses a serious risk to the species; at both ends, extinction could loom again

Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

WHAT TO 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

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

WHAT DO THEY SOUND LIKE?

Some say ‘chip-chip-chip-too-too-weet-weet’. Elsewhere I have found it claimed that they produce ‘a loud tchip, with song an emphatic flip lip lip-lip-lip-tip-tip CHIDIP‘ (Arnott). I’m not a big fan of phonetic spelling for bird sounds. Here’s a sample for you to assess:

 Ross Gallardy / Xeno-Canto

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

WHO WAS MR KIRTLAND?

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877) portrait

Jared Potter Kirtland (1793-1877)

Jared P. Kirtland (1793 – 1877) was an Ohio scholar, doctor, judge, politician & 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 & also in a couple of snake species.

The Bahamas Postal Service is commendably active in producing wildlife stamps

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 5, 6); Vince Cavalieri (2); Tom Sheley (3); Tony Hepburn (4); 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.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

 

BANANQUITS – ABACO BAHAMAS

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

BANANAQUITS: AHEAD OF THE CURVE?

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.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Gerlinde Taurer)

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.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

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. 

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

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.

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

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. 

Bananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Erik Gauger)

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 BahamasBananaquit, Abaco Bahamas (Craig Nash)

 

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S ENDEMIC RESIDENT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes) 

BAHAMA WARBLER: ABACO’S ENDEMIC RESIDENT

I was looking at the list of the dozens of Abaco bird species I have featured over the years, when I was struck by the complete omission of one of Abaco’s most significant small birds – the Bahama Warbler Setophaga flavescens. This warbler species is of the most important in the Bahamas for several reasons, any one of which should have prompted me to showcase this lovely bird before now.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

A SPECIALITY BIRD

The Bahama warbler is a significant species with a near-unique status in the Bahamas:

  • Found only on Abaco and Grand Bahama
  • One of only 5 bird species endemic to the Bahamas
  • One of only 2 endemic warbler species on Abaco (with the BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT)
  • One of only 5 permanent year-round resident warblers (33 others are migratory), the other 3 being the OLIVE-CAPPED, YELLOW, and PINE warblers.

Bahama Warbler Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Until 2011, the BAWA was classified as a subspecies of the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER. The ornithological powers-that-be then recognised that the two species were distinct in both appearance and in vocalisation, and split them into separate species (this splitting / amalgamating process occurs annually and plays havoc with the precious ‘Life Lists’ kept with such rigour by ardent birders**.

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Alex Hughes)

The BAWA has such a confined range that even the extensive reach of the wonderful Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not got as far as this bird. The info sections of the otherwise comprehensive website for Neotropical Birds are blank and waiting for someone to upload some details. Here are a few facts in one of a very good series of info-graphics produced by the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST.

BNT infographic Bahama Warbler

** I have never even started a Life List, which demonstrates just how lightweight I am as a bird person

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Credits: Alex Hughes (1, 4); Bruce Hallett (2, 6); Woody Bracey (3); Tom Sheley (5); Range Map, Cornell; Info G, BNT

Bahama Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

SANDERLINGS: WAVE CHASERS & TIDAL POOLS

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

Waves and incoming tide – a little too close for comfort on the edge of the pool…

One of the joys of being a sanderling is that rock pools fill and empty diurnally. At some time during daylight, there’s the certainty of a quick dip. I was lying on the beach when I took this short video, so that I didn’t spook the birds. I was equipped with a smallish camera (I drowned it the following day. By mistake I mean) but I kept my distance rather than try to get closer and spoil their joyful bathing.

I caught these little birds at a critical moment. You can tell that the tide is coming in fast. The peeps are becoming edgy, and weighing up the joys of immersion in a pool with the less enjoyable prospect of being washed out of the pool by the next wave. Within a minute or so, they had all flocked down the shoreline for a foraging session.

Images / video: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Sanderling, Delphi Beach Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour)

TERNS: THE 12 SPECIES RECORDED FOR ABACO, BAHAMAS

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS

There are twelve (12!) species of tern – ‘swallows of the sea’ – that to a greater or lesser extent may be found on Abaco. Whether they will actually  be visible at any given time is less certain, though. For a start, the only resident species is the lovely Royal Tern, available at many locations on Abaco and the cays throughout the year.

ROYAL TERNS Thalasseus maximus PR1

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

In the slightly less commonly-found category are the summer migrant terns that, by definition, are only in residence for around half the year. Four of these are fairly common in certain areas, and actually breed on Abaco; these include arguably the prettiest of all, the bridled tern. The other two tern species (gull-billed and sandwich) are more rare and as far as I can make out do not breed locally; or perhaps only rarely. 

LEAST TERN Sternula antillarum SR B 1

LeastTern, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

BRIDLED TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)BridledTern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

ROSEATE TERN Sterna Dougallii SR B 2

Roseate Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

SOOTY TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2

Sooty Tern, Duncan Wright wiki

GULL-BILLED TERN Gelochelidon nilotica SR 3 

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

SANDWICH TERN Thalasseus sandvicensis SR 4

Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)Sandwich Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

There is one rare winter resident migratory tern species. I had to check when the last one was recorded for Abaco. It was of course only in January this year, when ace birder-photographer Sally Chisholm saw one at Treasure Cay and managed to photograph it for posterity.

FORSTER’S TERN Sterna forsteri  WR 4

Forster's Tern (Dick Daniels)Forster's Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Sally Chisholm)

The final four ‘Abaco’ terns are very much the occasional visitors. Three of them pass over the Bahamas on their longer migration, but may make a pit-stop around Abaco to take on fuel. Likelihood of sighting one? Slender but not impossible… The fourth, the Arctic Tern, is a very rare vagrant, a bird well away from its usual home or migration route as the result of storms or faulty satnav or sheer happenstance. Don’t travel to the Bahamas intent on seeing one.

CASPIAN TERN Hydroprogne caspia TR 4

Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)Caspian Tern Abaco Bahamas (Keith Kemp)

As for the remaining three species, they are the transient black tern and common tern; and the vanishingly rare vagrant  Arctic tern (the clue is in the name). No photos of any of these I’m afraid, so here’s a handy checklist instead. 

     ELECTIVE MUSICAL DIGRESSION

Written by Peter Seeger a few years earlier, Turn x 3 was released in 1965, the title track on the second album from the Byrds. At a rather febrile time in US history (Vietnam, draft riots, black civil rightists v cops and so on), this unusually palliative and thoughtful song with its religious connotations to some extent stood for peace and hope in a time of turmoil.

PS the somewhat laboured title of this post shoehorns in the name of another Byrds album, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’

Photo credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2, 3, 5, 18); Tony Hepburn (4); Alex Hughes (10, 11); Bruce Hallett (6, 7, 12); Woody Bracey (8, 13, 16); Duncan Wright (9); Dick Daniels (14); Sally Chisholm (15); Keith Kemp (17)

Royal Tern, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: LORD OF THE FLIES

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD: LORD OF THE FLIES

Four principal so-called ‘tyrant flycatchers’ (Tyrannidae) are found on Abaco: the loggerhead kingbird, the gray kingbird, the La Sagra’s flycatcher and the Cuban pewee. These are common permanent residents, except for the gray kingbird which is a summer resident only. Several other flycatcher species are found on Abaco, but they are very uncommon winter residents, rare transients, or vagrants. 

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Loggerheads seem to have two methods of observing humans and their mysteries. One is by perching on a branch or in a shrub, watching intently. They stay quite still… until suddenly launching into the air to intercept some passing insect with their hooked beaks (so-called ‘hawking’), before returning to their perch. And staring at you again. The other method is to follow you round, either flying slightly ahead as you progress; or fluttering in the coppice alongside you; or playing catch-up from behind. 

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

A typical quizzical loggerhead sideways look… all flycatchers do this

The collective names for a group of kingbirds are: a Court, a Coronation, or a Tyranny

Loggerhead Kingbird, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Photo Credits: Keith Salvesen at Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas

LAUGHING GULLS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas

LAUGHING GULLS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS

Leucophaeus atricilla

A humorous conversation

Laughing Gulls, Sandy Point Abaco Bahamas

A rather wind-blown gull in non-breeding plumage

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WHAT DO LAUGHING GULLS SOUND LIKE? ARE YOU OVERSENSITIVE?

I made a couple of short recordings of the gulls in full humour mode; also a short video of the breeding pair above. If you have never heard them before, you might want to listen to the full 30 seconds. For anyone else there’s a convenient lull at around 15 secs before they kick off again.

Breeding adult (Birdorable)

All photos, audio clip, video: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour

Laughing Gull (non-breeding adult) Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)