The WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER Melanerpes superciliaris is one of Abaco’s specialist birds. Islanders and regular visitors will be familiar with the sight – and indeed the raucous sound – of these beautiful birds. They are commonly found throughout Abaco and the cays. Possibly their rarity across the wider Bahamas is underestimated. The only other island where these birds are found is San Salvador. Formerly resident on Grand Bahama, they are believed to be extirpated there. Abaco is very fortunate to enjoy their noisy company.
The MANGROVE CUCKOO (Coccyzus minor) is one of three cuckoo species found on Abaco and in the wider Bahamas. The yellow-billed cuckoo is another; and the noisy black smooth-billed anis are cuckoos by species though not in appearance.
You will notice that some of the birds shown have got fat insects in their beaks. Their preference is for caterpillars and grasshoppers, but they are happy to eat other insects, spiders, snails, lizards and (with a nod to an all-round healthy diet) fruit.
These cuckoos are shy birds and fairly hard to spot in the coppice unless they are on the move. You may see one flying across a track ahead of a vehicle, flashing its distinctive tail. Here are a couple of recordings of their call, described in various ways, for example as “gawk gawk gawk gawk” or “gauk gauk”. I’m not sure I hear it quite like that but I can’t think of a sensible way to write it out phonetically…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Bahamas
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.
Four principal so-called ‘tyrant flycatchers’ (Tyrannidae) are found on Abaco: the loggerhead kingbird, the gray kingbird, theLa 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.
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.
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
Photo Credits: Keith Salvesen at Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas
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
The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) – aka Cemetery Bird – is the third member of the cuckoo family found on Abaco, the others being the MANGROVE CUCKOOand theYELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO. You can (it’s voluntary) find out more about them in an earlier article HERE.
I have returned to these engagingly gregarious birds and their raucous ways because Paul Harding has recently captured a sequence of a small group of anis behaving so endearingly that they are irresistible. Not for them the oddly incompetent fluttering flight, nor the disorganised, unbalanced landing technique. It’s simply a matter of getting settled on a branch, and then making room for one more in the middle (or perhaps resisting it…).
There were 4 on the branch…
Hey – make room for another one…
Budge up, guys, I mean C’mon…
Yay, I’m in… a bit squished but…
Um… guys, I can’t breathe…
That’s better… all settled now….
Let the racket begin!
Credits: all terrific pics, Paul Harding; sound files, Xeno Canto
It’s warbler time of year on Abaco, and a good time to take a look at the Black-throated blue warbler Setophaga caerulescens. This small warbler has very particular breeding and overwintering ranges. In the summer they are found in the forests and woods of eastern North America. As the Fall approaches, they start to migrate south to the Caribbean and Central America. Abaco is one of their winter homes, as well as a likely transit stop on their way further south. Right now sightings are being reported on the mainland and the Cays.
WHAT DO I LOOK OUT FOR?
Males and females are quite different in appearance (‘sexually dimorphic’), and could even be mistaken for distinct species. Males are a deep slate-blue above (hence caerulescens) with a striking black face and throat, and white underparts. They are unmistakeable, and unlikely to be confused with any other warbler. Females are basically grayish-olive above and pale yellow underneath. For ID, look for a white stripe above the eye, a pale arc below it. In addition, both sexes have a diagnostic white patch on the the wing.
The bird cartoon site Birdorable as usual has a spot-on comparison of the sexes
These pretty warblers can be seen in gardens, coppice, and woodland. Although mainly insect-eaters, sometimes catching them in flight, they also eat fruit and seeds especially in winter. BTBWs are territorial, and will defend their chosen space against all-comers, including their own species.
WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?
One source asserts:“The bird’s song can be described as a buzzed zee-zee-zeeee with an upward inflection. Its call is a flat ctuk”. See what you think…
SONG Etienne Leroy / Xeno-Canto
CALL Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto
ARE BTBWs THREATENED?
BTBWs are fairly common birds within their range, with a large population. The usual stuff is happening with them in terms of habitat destruction & co at both ends of their migration. For some already threatened species (e.g. Kirtland’s Warblers), habitat degradation at either end of the migration (let alone both) presages a downward spiral in population. With BTBWs, I have read both that the population is decreasing; and in another source, slightly increasing. For now, let’s regard the welfare of the species as being stable. However, the current causes of species decline will doubtless continue, and many regard increasingly evident climate change as being a determining factor for the well-being of migratory species. The birds are not yet out of the woods, so to speak… and maybe never will be.
CREDITSPhotos: Gerlinde Taurer (1, 2); Becky Marvil (3); Bruce Hallett (4); Blaine Rothauser / CWFNJ (5); @daxroman / Birds Caribbean (7); Paul Reeves / Birds Caribbean (8). Range Map, Wiki; Cartoons, Birdorable; Video, Cornell Lab for Ornithology