KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

KIRTLAND’S WARBLERS ON ABACO

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“. 

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

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.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Bruce Hallett)

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)Kirtland's Warbler, 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 Kirtland's Warbler, Ohio (Tom Sheley)

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…).

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Rolling Harbour / KS)

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 Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

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

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

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.

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco Bahamas (Woody Bracey)

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 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.

**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). Special thanks for all use permissions for images of this rare bird.

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LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS ON ABACO

LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHERS ON ABACO

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.

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 TO LISTEN OUT FOR

 Hans Matheve @ Xeno-Canto

A hint of a crest is visible in this photo

WHO WAS ‘LA SAGRA’?

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.

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris

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…

Photo Credits: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 4); Tom Reed (2, 6); Keith Salvesen (3, 5, 11); Charles Skinner (7, 8); Peter Mantle (9); Tom Sheley (10); Ramon and stamps, open source

MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS aka MAN-O-WAR BIRDS

Magnificent Frigatebirds (m) - Michael Vaughn

You can read about Fregata magnificens and their courtship displays, gular pouches, nesting habits, names, uses to mankind (if any), and 10 magnificent facts about them at my Rolling Harbour site HERE. These birds are sky-pirates, stealing fish in the air from other birds. Tropicbirds are a particular target. They catch fish and keep them in their gullets as they fly back to the nest to feed their young. The frigatebirds will swoop on them, catch them by the leg and hold them upside-down until they regurgitate the fish. Often the frigate bird will manage to release the tropicbird and dive to catch the fish before it hits the water.

     CLICK LOGO TO VIEW A BBC / DAVID ATTENBOROUGH CLIP OF AN AERIAL ROBBERY magnificent-frigatebird

Film clip: Female FB has TB by the leg & shakes it until the fish  (circled) drops outMagnificent Frigatebird steals fish from Tropicbird (BBC clip)

A MAN-O-WAR GALLERY

A male in flight (a most unusual shot, taken from above)Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Juveniles being delinquentMagnificent Frigatebirds (juv) - Michael Vaughn

A female in flight: the white front is the invariable distinguishing featureMagnificent Frigatebird (f) - Michael Vaughn

magnificent-frigatebird

10 FACTS ABOUT FRIGATEBIRDS

  • The largest of several frigatebird species around the world
  • Found in tropical and subtropical waters
  • Females have white fronts – easily distinguishable from males in flight
  • Adult wingspan is 7+ feet = largest wing-area / bodyweight ratio of any bird
  • Can remain in flight and far out to sea for many days
  • KLEPTOPARASITES – will rob other seabirds of their food
  • Diet: mainly fish & squid from the water’s surface; seabird chicks
  • Nest in colonies, producing a single egg every other season
  • Don’t land on water, as they can’t float; and feeble at walking on land
  • One of the earliest depictions of a frigatebird is by Eleazar Albin in 1737. He was a naturalist contemporary of MARK CATESBY & pre-dated AUDUBON

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

Credits: Michael Vaughn for all photos; Birdorable cartoon; TV CLIP bbc.co.uk  © copyright 2009 BBC

Magnificent Frigatebird (m) - Michael Vaughn

YELLOW WARBLERS ON ABACO

Yellow Warbler at sunrise. Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy

YELLOW WARBLERS ON ABACO

Of the 37 WARBLER SPECIES recorded for Abaco, 25 are mainly or partly yellow. So talk of a ‘yellow warbler’ can as easily be a general description matching any one of a number of species, as a particular description of the one and only Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia. This small sunny bird is a common permanent resident on Abaco, one of only 5 resident warblers. The other 4 don’t help the situation much, by dint of all being yellow to a greater or lesser extent. 

Yellow Warbler male3.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom SheleyDendroica-petechia-001 (MDF)

My general rule of thumb is that the Yellow Warbler out-yellows all the rest (though the winter-resident PROTHONOTARY gives it a run for its money), with the adult males bright and cheerful all over and the females rather less glaring but still demonstrably yellow from beak to tail tip.

Yellow Warbler (f) Bruce Hallett

Q. ARE THEY ALWAYS EASY TO SEE? A. SEE BELOW, GO FIGUREYellow Warbler male.Cherokee Sound.Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

Q. CAN YOU SHOW MORE PRETTY FEMALES? A. BY ALL MEANSYEWA_Bahamas-Great Abaco_5204_Yellow Warbler_Gerlinde Taurer copyYEWA 2_Bahamas-Great Abaco_5165_Yellow Warbler_Gerlinde Taurer copy

Q. SO YEWAs ARE COMMON? HAVE YOU EVER PHOTOGRAPHED ONE? A. ONLY HOPELESSLYYellow Warbler, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Q. DO THEY HAVE AN ATTITUDE PROBLEM? A. ONLY VERY RARELYYellow Warbler male2.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

A THREAT TO THE SPECIES Shiny Cowbirds, luckily still rare on Abaco, favour yellow warbler nests for their parasitic egg-laying, with sadly predictable results. These cowbirds properly belong in South America, but they are gradually spreading north through the Caribbean, and have now reached Florida. I’m beginning to take a (purely personal) hard line on invasive species where they diminish and destroy indigenous species: eradication. The feral peacocks of Casuarina, now several generations down the line from their original introduction as exotic pets, do no harm and are undeniably decorative. But would you prefer the pretty yellow warbler and its fledglings in your garden, or the shiny cowbird that displaced them?

240px-Dendroica_petechia_map.svg

Credits: Tom Sheley (1,2,5,9); MDF (3)Bruce Hallett (4); Gerlinde Taurer (6,7); RH (8)

And finally… the song that out-yellows all other songs with the word ‘yellow’ in the title – it is the only song called just that one word! 

    Yellow Warbler at sunrise.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy copy                Yellow Warbler at sunrise.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy copy                Yellow Warbler at sunrise.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy copy                Yellow Warbler at sunrise.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy copy                Yellow Warbler at sunrise.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley copy copy

OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLERS ON ABACO

Olive-capped Warbler 3.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLERS ON ABACO

Abaco has a recorded 37 warbler species. Of these, most are winter residents and some are rarer migratory transients. Only 5 are permanently resident on Abaco: the Bahama Warbler, Bahama Yellowthroat, Olive-capped Warbler, Pine Warbler and Yellow Warbler. You can read about all 5 HERE 

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

I realise that I haven’t posted about OCWs in their own right; and that as a species they have been unfairly lumped in (by me) with more general warbler posts. Time to put that right by showing some exclusively OCW photos.

Olive-capped Warbler.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

OCWs have an unusually restricted range, despite which they remain IUCN-listed ‘Least Concern’. These pretty birds are native only to the western and eastern ends of Cuba, Grand Bahama, and Abaco. Their natural habitat is pine forests and to a lesser extent in mixed forest and coppice areas.

Olive-capped Warbler 6.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

If you are lucky enough to see an OCW on Abaco, it’s worth thinking about the rich and unspoilt habitat that ensures its survival there. These little birds, along with other important bird species, enjoy a safe haven in the vast acres of pine forest.Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Olive-capped Warbler, Abaco (Tom Reed)

Photo credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2, 3, 6); Tom Sheley (4, 5); Tom Reed (7)

BAHAMA WOODSTAR HUMMINGBIRDS

Bahama Woodstar (m), Abaco (Bruce Hallett)Bahama Woodstar (m), Abaco (Bruce Hallett)  Bahama Woodstar (m), Abaco (Tom Sheley) Bahama Woodstar (m), Abaco (Tom Sheley)

The above birds with the purple ‘gorgets’ are males; below are two females

Bahama Woodstar (f), Abaco (Tara Lavallee)

A Woodstar in the coppice at Delphi – I had about 5 seconds to get this (not very good) shot!Bahama Woodstar (f), Delphi, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Bruce Hallett (1, 2); Tom Sheley (3, 4); Tara Lavallee (5); Keith Salvesen (6)

COMMON GALLINULE (MOORHEN)

Common Gallinule.Abaco Bahamas.6.13.Tom Sheley

WHAT’S IN A NAME? COMMON GALLINULE aka MOORHEN

Names can be a hassle. My own, when not my alter ego Rolling Harbour (from a long line of Harbours), was a act of Baptismal Folly for which I cannot be held responsible. I could have changed it by Deed Poll were I seriously bothered, but I am aware that there are far worse names out there and at least mine reflects my scandi-scottish origins I suppose.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

The Moorhen has had a far worse time of it. Over many decades its name has been changed, changed back and changed again. Partly it’s to do with a continuing debate over the New World and Old World subspecies – or as it now stands, separate species. Even that status has changed around over time. It’s enough to give the poor creature an ID crisis.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7551_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

The Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata, as it has been known since 2011, is a bird of the rail family. The AOU decreed its divorce from the Common Moorhen after due consideration of the evidence and it is now lumbered with the less familiar and user-friendly Gallinule name.

Common Gallinule, Abaco - Peter Mantle

Note the yellow legs and large feet (unwebbed)

Moorhens (I’m using this as a comfortable nickname, aware that I am flying in the face of progress) are usually seen swimming serenely around ponds or picking their way through marshy ground as they forage. They have an aggressive side, hissing loudly if they feel threatened and fighting to preserve their territory or nest. Nestlings have been observed clinging to a parent as it flies to safety with its offspring as passengers.

Bahamas-Great Abaco_7536_Common Gallinule_Gerlinde Taurer copy

WHAT IS A ‘GALLINULE’ WHEN IT’S AT HOME

I wondered what the word ‘Gallinule’ actually means? What is the derivation? The BINOMIAL NOMENCLATURE (basically = scientific name in Latin) of most species is largely unintelligible unless you have some knowledge of Latin. But most birds end up with a useful, often descriptive, everyday name. Red-tailed Hawk. Least Tern. Yellow Warbler. Painted Bunting. You know what to expect with those. But a ‘Gallinule’ could as easily be a french cooking receptacle or delicious dish. Or a grim and slimy horror from Tolkien. Or maybe something / someone out of Harry Potter. Sleuthing online reveals that the word is a modern Latin construct of the c18, derived from the Latin diminutive word for a ‘hen’. So it’s simply a hen. As in Moorhen.

Common Gallinule, Abaco Woody Bracey

WHAT IS A ‘MOOR’ WHEN IT’S ATTACHED TO A HEN?

This does not refer to a wide swathe of open upland country, often covered in heather and gorse, where in the UK (especially in Scotland) every August 12 thousands of grouse are traditionally shot. It stems from an honest Old English word for a marshy or swampy area, Mor. It was used from early mediaeval times and itself comes from Saxon and Germanic roots. So perhaps calling the Common Gallinule a [Common] Marsh Hen would be more helpful… Or – hey! – why not have American Moorhen and Eurasian Moorhen, a perfectly valid differentiation used quite satisfactorily for other species…?

Common Gallinule (nonbreeding adult).Abaco Bahamas.2.12.Tom Sheley

Adult non-breeding plumage

There’s more on the naming of birds generally and Moorhens specifically in a couple of amusingly-written sources I came across. The first is from NEMESIS BIRD written by Alex Lamoreaux in 2011, called Goodbye Moorhen, Hello Gallinule. The second is from the excellent 10000BIRDS.COM entitled Moorhen Mania – the splitting and renaming of the Common Moorhen

Common Gallinule (Leucistic?) - Tony Hepburn

The bird above with a striking colouring and orange beak was photographed by the late Tony Hepburn. He believed it to be an unusual LEUCISTIC moorhen with reduced pigmentation, a condition that has similarities with ALBINISM

BAHAMAS - Common Gallinule, Abaco, TC GC Hole 11 - Becky Marvil

At some stage I am planning a companion Coot post. I won’t need to go on and on about that name. It may not be descriptive but it is short and simple, and everyone knows where they stand with it. Until they decide to rename it a Cotellinule…

Gallinule © Hans Hillewaert

Credits: Tom Sheley, Bruce Hallett, Peter Mantle, Gerlinde Taurer, Woody Bracey, Tony Hepburn, Becky Marvil, Hans Hillewaert, Nemesis Bird, 10000birds.com

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