Credits: Gerlinde Taurer & Nina Henry: photographed on Abaco, Bahamas for “The Birds of Abaco”
‘TERN, TERN, TERN’: THE UN-NOTORIOUS BYRD COUSINS
There are twelve 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. The rest are migratory or just passing through.
ROYAL TERNS Thalasseus maximus PR1
MIGRATORY TERNS: SUMMER
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
BRIDLED TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2
ROSEATE TERN Sterna Dougallii SR B 2
SOOTY TERN Onychoprion anaethetus SR B 2
GULL-BILLED TERN Gelochelidon nilotica SR 3
SANDWICH TERN Thalasseus sandvicensis SR 4
MIGRATORY TERNS: WINTER
There is one very rare winter resident migratory tern species, with few records of sightings for Bahamas and until early 2019, no photographic record for Abaco until Sally Chisholm saw one at Treasure Cay and managed to capture it for posterity.
FORSTER’S TERN Sterna forsteri WR 4
OCCASIONAL & RARE VISITORS
A further four tern species are very much occasionals that drop by. 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 Caspian tern below was photographed on Abaco. 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
The remaining species are the transient black tern and common tern; and the vanishingly rare vagrant Arctic tern. No photos of any of these I’m afraid. Here’s a handy checklist of all the tern species.
ELECTIVE MUSICAL DIGRESSION
Written by Pete Seeger, Turn x 3 was released in 1965, the title track on the second album by The Byrds. At a rather febrile time in US history (Vietnam, draft riots, 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)
WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER Melanerpes superciliaris
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.
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
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.
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.
The collective names for a group of kingbirds are: a Court, a Coronation, or a Tyranny
LAUGHING GULLS ON ABACO, BAHAMAS
A humorous conversation
A rather wind-blown gull in non-breeding plumage
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.
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 CUCKOO and the YELLOW-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…).
Let the racket begin!
PALM WARBLERS: ‘HEADS-UP FOR BUTTERBUTTS’
I realise that the title of this post has its unattractive aspects. This is a family blog, and we try to keep references to ‘butts’ and so forth to a minimum. But like it or not, the Palm Warbler is one of two species** that have acquired the nickname ‘butterbutt’. They weren’t even consulted; birders just went ahead with it without checking how they’d feel about it.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this minor linguistic outrage came about. It’s there for all to see, right under the bird’s… erm… stern. That flash of vivid yellow, together with the pale speckled front, a rusty brown cap and striking eye-stripe, is diagnostic for this Abaco winter resident species.
The ‘heads-up’ is because right now they are among you. In the gardens, on the grass, on the tracks, in the coppice, in the casuarinas. And they have an endearing habit of bobbing their… tails, let’s say, as they forage. Palm Warblers are inclined to be fairly inquisitive and tame, so if you are careful, they may stay around to let you watch them.
The PW above must, I think, have been photographed at the very end of the winter season, just before it headed north from Abaco. The strong colours suggest this guy is getting into the breeding mood. Compare him with the picture below, taken by the same photographer during the same period, of a slightly less garish stage of breeding plumage. But it’s on its way…
As often as not, a palm warbler will be fairly easy to spot. Not always, though. You may have to work a bit to locate one half-hidden in foliage. Its posterior may not even be visible.
Luckily, PWs are common enough in winter to give you a chance to shoot them in the open, as it were. Perched on a branch works just fine to capture the essential characteristics.
Keep an eye out for these pretty little warblers. They are enjoyable to watch, and relatively easy to get a photo of at close quarters. Just make sure you get the butterbutt into the picture.
** The other butterbutt bird is the descriptively-named YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, though its buttery bits are on the topside so there’s no risk of confusion (I photographed this one as a distance shot at the top of a tree with a small camera – but it captures the essentials!)
Credits: Bruce Hallett (1)*; Gerlinde Taurer (2, 7); Nina Henry (3, 4, 5); Peter Mantle (6); Keith Salvesen (8, 9)
* Possibly Tom Sheley – all I have got on the filename is ‘Fruit Farm’ so I can’t be sure of the photographer’s ID – apologies
GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH: ABACO’S “POLICE BIRD”
Following my last gloomy post about the widely-reported die-off of the poor, exhausted migratory great shearwaters, let’s turn with relief to a cheerful bird known to all and admired in coppice and garden: the Greater Antillean Bullfinch Loxigilla violacea. These pretty birds are easy to find and to identify. They love feeders, and they are responsive to ‘pishing’, that irritating (?) noise that birders make to unseen avians in the coppice to persuade them to reveal themselves. Adult males are black with bright red accessories (hence “police bird”); females are paler with orangey accessories; and juveniles look a bit scruffy and patchy. Here’s a GAB gallery to enjoy.
Credits: Erik Gauger (1); Alex Hughes (2, 3); Tom Sheley (4, 6); Keith Salvesen (5); Charles Skinner (7); Gerlinde Taurer (8); Bruce Hallett (9)
BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS ON ABACO: AN UPGRADE…
Hi, human friends, I’m a black-faced grassquit Tiaris bicolor and I have a couple of observations to make on behalf of BFGS, if I may. First, we seem to be universally described 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.
And I have some news for you. The perceptive classifications committee of the American Ornithological Union recently gave us an upgrade. That’s the way we see it anyway. For many years we have been classified under the heading Emberizidae.
We kept company with buddies like the Greater Antillean Bullfinches, but also with a lot of New World sparrows, with whom we (frankly) never felt entirely comfortable. Too chirpy, for a start.
Last year, it became official. We are really a type of Tanager. They reckon 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…
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.
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’s assessment)
THE EVERYDAY TWITTERING SONG
THE DISPLAY BUZZING SONG
STOP PRESS The day after I had pressed the ‘publish’ button on this post, I came across a great shot by Larry Towning of a BFG on Lubbers Quarters Cay, Abaco (think ‘Cracker P’s Restaurant’). An excellent addition of a bird from a small cay, showing its bright lower-wing flash.
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) plus Larry Towning. Other Credits: ABA, AOU, Whatbird? (sound files)