Archive for Bahamas
If birding is all about language (and it is), then it stands to reason that the best birds are those that come with the most words — and the most outlandish. No wonder we love the nightjars so much, with their stack of bizarre and mysterious names.
High on the puzzlement scale is Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot‘s Popetué Nightjar, described and illustrated in 1807 in his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l’Amérique septentrionale. Neither the engraving nor the text leaves any doubt that the bird in question is a Chordeiles nighthawk: though he asserts the identity of his bird with Catesby’s Carolina Goatsucker, our Chuck-will’s-widow, Vieillot’s description clearly indicates that this bird has a whitish throat, barred underparts, black flight feathers crossed by a white bar, and a forked tail with a white band, all characters well shown, too, in the plate by J.G. Prêtre.
And what about that crazy name? Baird, unaware of Forster’s earlier binomial, adopted Vieillot’s popetue as the epithet for this species in 1858. But he wasn’t happy about it:
It is much to be regretted that the name of Vieillot should be of so barbarous a character, since it is the first one that can be used.
Coues agreed: not only did the word violate the standards of linguistic purity and good form, but both its meaning and pronunciation were unknown. (In the final edition of the Key, he pronounced himself “glad to follow the A.O.U. Committee in dropping the objectionable popetue” and re-instating Gmelin’s virginianus.)
What the Americans failed to understand was that Vieillot had in fact explained that barbarous word.
The name I have given this nightjar is derived from the call that it utters when perched; that call has seemed to me to say “Popetué.”
Surely both Baird and Coues read that sentence; but they must have dismissed it as nonsense. The Common Nighthawk, as everyone knew, buzzes and booms, peents and woofs, but it doesn’t say “pup – eh – tiu – ey.”
Vieillot writes that nowhere in North America has he found this bird as abundant as in Nova Scotia — a poignant observation given the species’ recent decline in Atlantic Canada. But Nova Scotia was not where our author first made the acquaintance of the nighthawk.
On the bicentennial of Vieillot’s birth in 1948, Paul H. Oehser gathered what little is known of the ornithologist’s life. As a young man, Vieillot shipped out to Hispaniola, where he looked after his family’s business interests — and where he became a naturalist.
And where he must have got to know the nighthawk. Only back then, and through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, no one knew that the chittering bird of the West Indies was in fact not just “The Nighthawk.”
Of the many echoic folk names given the nighthawk over the years, those from the Caribbean stand out: a striking number of them are three- or four-syllabled, just like “popetué.” Ninety years ago, Thomas Barbour noted that “its call has given rise to the excellently imitative name of Querequeté” in Cuba; working on Hispaniola in the 1920s, Wetmore collected the local names “Querebébé” and “Peut-on-voir.” In a 1947 article in The Auk, McAtee gathered the vernacular names, English, French, and Spanish, from the islands:
Wetmore argued in 1931, based on the differences in the call, flight display, and egg characters, that George Lawrence’s gundlachii, long consigned to the subspecific dustbin, was in fact distinct at the level of species from the nighthawks of continental North America. The formal “split” finally came in 1982, when the Thirty-fourth Supplement to the A.O.U. Check-list recognized the Antillean Nighthawk as a full species.
Vieillot couldn’t know that. But we do, and the funny name that bothered Baird and Coues so much makes sense to us, a commemoration of the French ornithologist’s first happy days in the tropics of the New World.
Next time I’m in The Bahamas, I’m going to think of Vieillot and I’m going to call the nighthawks by their name: Popetué.
Everybody’s celebrating Mark Catesby lately. It was 300 years ago this year that the young naturalist left Britain for America, where his explorations would eventually lead to the publication of the continent’s first great illustrated book, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.
The title of this work, which contains the first illustrations and descriptions of many plants and animals from the New World, is significant. The Bahamas, lying not 200 miles off the Florida coast, were part of Catesby’s natural America, and the living things of those islands were included a a matter of course in his lavish catalogue of the continent’s treasures.
But things changed. It has been 250 years now since the birds of the Bahamas were included in any guide to the “North American” avifauna, an omission that is at least in part to blame for the precarious conservation status of some of the commonwealth’s most appealing species. If “we” — traveling birders, spiritual descendents of Catesby — don’t know about the birds, neither will we care if they exist or not.
I propose that we start to follow more closely in Catesby’s footsteps, treating the Bahamas’ birds as if they were (and they are) North American. Let’s put them back in the field guides.
The practical objections are trivial. I count less than two dozen native species and well-established exotics that aren’t already included in the latest edition of the National Geographic Guide, and a number of those ought to be on Florida birders’ lookout lists in any case. All of them could easily be accommodated in just one more signature, and the presence in the book of such beauties as the Cuban Parrot, the Cuban Emerald and the Bahama Yellowthroat could hardly fail to whet birders’ appetites, especially birders stuck in the cold damp gray of a northern late October. The conservation payoff could be tremendous: the more birders visit The Bahamas, the more attention will be paid to the islands’ birds and their beleaguered habitats.
Already it was my last full day in the Bahamas, and much as I was looking forward to another day out and about with Carolyn, I’ll admit that after such great days on Grand Bahama, Abaco, and Andros, I expected the birding on New Providence–home to nearly 3/4 of the entire commonwealth’s population–to be relatively bland.
Like most heavily developed places, New Providence, even the city of Nassau itself, still preserves some wonderful pockets of habitat; the secret is having someone who knows where they are. Within five minutes of picking me up at my hotel, Carolyn had us birding some excellent pine forest–forest that I would never have found on my own. Northern Bobwhites, introduced but still irresistibly charming, ran down the trails ahead of us, and a La Sagra’s Flycatcher came in to give me the best look all week at that “Florida” rarity. The usual assortment of migrant and resident warblers was carefully watched over by one of the beautifully pale local American Kestrels–until the tables were turned and a small but ferocious mob of Black-throated Blue and Prairie Warblers and American Redstarts put the falcon to flight instead. Being a predator isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We’d pegged the day’s itinerary to visits to each of the island’s jewel-like national parks, but made a very important stop at Carolyn’s feeders first. Red-legged Thrushes were scooping up grain from the ground, and soon enough three Bahama Woodstars, two males and a female-plumaged bird, were buzzing the sugar water. Even prettier than in the books!
And then it was off to the parks.
Primeval Forest absolutely lived up to the promise of its name. It’s a small park, but the deep darkness of the coppice and the size of the trees it preserves made it easy to forget the subdivisions and golf resorts coming to surround it.
There are boardwalks and bridges to make the sinkhole-studded terrain safer, but this is still one of the wildest and most rugged sites I got to visit. The birding was good, too, from the Bahama Mockingbird at the entrance gate to the Key West Quail-Dove that serenaded us, invisible, for most of our walk. And I saw the largest mahogany tree I think I’ve ever encountered.
Bonefish Pond National Park could not have been more different: a long series of tidal ponds and lagoons, with access from a wide boardwalk.
The views were mesmerizing, lunch was revivifying, and the Yellow Warbler that worked its way through the mangroves to check us out was delightful. A visit early in the morning, and on a rising tide, should produce even more birds, including the Clapper Rails that were no doubt lurking just out of sight.
Much more productive, though somewhat less scenic, was the cumbersomely-named Harrold and Wilson Ponds National Park.
Carolyn told me that the park’s eponymous small lakes used to offer exceptionally good birding, but that the abundant typha has started to choke the open water, making it much less attractive to wintering waterfowl. I thought it was still pretty good. Pied-billed and Least Grebes breed in the cattails.
And even better, this seems to be the only place at the moment on New Providence, or any of the islands I visited, where the flocks of American Coots tolerate a cousin.
The photo isn’t as good as I thought it would be, but if there is such a thing as a Caribbean Coot, this was one.
In the field, the high, unmarked facial shield showed a clear tinge of creamy yellow and no hint of a red dot. This species had been one of my most-wanted for the trip, and I was delighted to see it–and on New Providence at that.
I’d been to The Retreat, right in the city of Nassau, a few days earlier, but our walk through that spectacular palm garden had been cut short by rain. On this second visit, Carolyn and I stepped out of the car to find a Worm-eating Warbler busily dismantling clusters of dead leaves right in the parking lot. I like that species a lot, but I was still distracted by the beautiful, exotic Red-legged Thrushes bouncing in and out of the foliage.
My dilemma–a very cool wood warbler from the north, or a very cool thrush from the Caribbean–will be familiar to anyone who has birded these beautiful islands. Everywhere you look there are birds, and birds in a wondrous combination of the familiar and the exotic and new. But best of all, there are birders to show them to you and to enjoy them with you. I can’t imagine a better place to spend a couple of weeks than The Bahamas.
Daylight revealed a fine view from my Nassau hotel, but I was glad to have got up early–much earlier than in this photo–when an Antillean Nighthawk flew low over the roof and actually called. I took it as a very good sign.
Carolyn picked me up at dawn and it was back to my old friends at the airport. We flew across the bright blue waters to Andros Island, where Sharon was there to meet us, and within five minutes we were birding.
The well-engineered and beautifully maintained South Andros Blue Hole and Nature Trail features plenty of both, but we were at it before we even had the car doors closed. A fantastically inquisitive male Bahama Yellowthroat popped out of the bushes to welcome us; I was prepared for the striking plumage differences from Common, but what hadn’t really sunk in until this was just how big this species is. I got to see several males over the days of my visit, but–and this is a complaint only a birder would register–I’ll have to wait for my next visit to make the acquaintance of the female of the species.
As I oohed and aahed over the yellowthroat, a male American Kestrel of the ghostly Cuban race sparveroides peered down at us from the wire. Above all the rare birds and specialties, above all the novel habitats and exotic landscapes, this may have been the moment when I felt most “away,” most out of my element, most Caribbean.
The trail itself, as we found once I tore myself away from the parking lot, winds through some lovely dark coppice and past a number of very impressive caves and blue holes.
The topography is rugged, as one would expect on a limestone island that gets a lot of rain, but the designers of the trail have included bridges, boardwalks, platforms, and benches, making the area accessible even to old flatlanders like me (but not to wheelchair users, who will probably find themselves birding the productive roadside).
The vegetation lining the trail is dense, ancient, and varied. I was surprised to find tall columnar cactus, this one a Pilosocereus with an alarming English name:
Once actually in the woods, we found the birding relatively slow-paced and absolutely high-quality. Cuban Emeralds and a Mangrove Cuckoo gave us long, close looks, and a fair variety of northern wood-warblers was moving through the trees. We didn’t find any swallows (both Bahama Swallow and Caribbean Cave Swallow nest locally), but any misses were immediately forgotten when we heard the croaks and screeches of the day’s most desired species. This first one somehow eluded us, slipping away when it seemed we must be just a few feet away; but the second of the day’s Great Lizard Cuckoos was incredibly obliging, foraging in the low tangles and a couple of times even on the ground as we watched from a distance down to fifteen feet. This is a huge animal, nearly twice the length and twice the mass of what suddenly seemed the scrawny Mangroves; as it chased bugs on the ground, it reminded me of another woodland ground cuckoo, the Lesser Roadrunner.
More than happy with what we’d seen, we left the trail and stopped in Congo Town for refreshment, then birded up and down the coast.
An Osprey wouldn’t normally draw even a second look, but we were in the Caribbean, and this was the first time I had seen the breeding race, Ridgway’s Osprey. “Normal” northern birds had already arrived here and there, but this was the real thing, white-headed and small.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches at Nathan’s Lodge, a great little place set just above the beach in some fine brushy habitat. If I ever run a pick-up trip to the Bahamas, I’ll certainly spend a couple of nights here: the rooms are large and clean, each with its own spic-and-span bathroom. The beach is a few steps away, and I can’t think of anything nicer than having lunch interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Blue Grosbeaks, the only individuals of that species I saw all week. Definitely recommended.
This time, unfortunately, we didn’t have a couple of days. Sharon got us back to the airport just in time to watch two Barn Swallows–not the fork-tailed beauties we’d been looking for–pass over, and then it was back to Nassau again. After such a great day on Andros, I expected New Providence to feel bland and boring the next.
The delightful evening with Betsy and Woody had only one drawback: arriving in the pitch of night, I didn’t realize how beautiful the surroundings were at Pelican Beach, and so made no effort to rise early to check the area out before Ricky picked me up that morning. It hardly mattered, though. We were off, and quickly found each other kindred spirits as we headed out to bird southern Abaco.
We stopped off first at the Abaco Neem Farm, where a good variety of northern migrants and resident “specials” threatened to keep us from our major target, the spectacular Bahama Cuban Parrot. Ricky knows these birds like no one else, and I was impressed at how easily he found them–and especially at how thoroughly he knew their habits; the slightest grunting screech from a distant bird was enough to tell him what the flock was doing and where we should place ourselves for the best views.
Once located, the parrots didn’t seem to mind at all being watched, and we spent a long time with them as they fed and preened, sometimes out in the open against a blue sky, sometimes just a few feet away in the foliage.
All that white–the inspiration for the specific epithet leucocephala, of course–is actually feathers, but even knowing that, even seeing that, I couldn’t shake the impression that the birds exhibited an odd avian sort of Geheimratsecken.
Charming, friendly birds, and not at all troubled by the precarious conservation status their species, Cuban Parrots on Abaco nest in limestone cavities in the ground. This habit, thought to be an adaptation to breeding in pine forests where fires are frequent and fierce, has probably been the species’ salvation on Abaco, allowing them to survive the extensive logging that might well have wiped out a tree-nesting parrot.
Captivating as the parrots were, there was much more to see, including mixed flocks of migrant and resident passerines all up and down Palm Shores Road. The first Greater Antillean Bullfinch I saw was actually feeding in the same tree as a small gang of parrots. West Indian Woodpeckers, birds I had very much hoped to see on this trip, fussed and fumed at the parrots, but to no apparent avail.
And there was much more: a Magnificent Frigatebird soaring over the forest, flocks of warblers and Black-faced Grassquits, and plenty of grumpy little Thick-billed Vireos, perhaps my favorite bird of the entire trip. I’d seen the vireo before, but never this many, never this well.
One organism I had not seen before was the poisonwood.
A congener of our familiar poison ivy, this handsome plant was the protagonist of many a tale I was told over the week, and I learned to recognize it and to avoid it, not always easy given the wide variation in its growth habit, from small shrub to medium-sized tree. It’s found throughout the pine forests and coppices of the Bahama islands, and worth keeping an eye out for as you bird those habitats.
After our session with the parrots, Ricky and I went into the pines and, carefully, through the poisonwoods in search of other birds. We found them, too; it was here that I had spectacular eye-level looks at Olive-capped Warblers, and it was here, against a backdrop of forest and blue holes, that we finally ran across an obliging family of Bahama Mockingbirds.
Both parents were feeding a noisily begging juvenile, and one or the other of the adults occasionally broke out into song. This is a hulking big bird, but skulky and thrasher-like, and I was very happy to have such good views; on our drive back out, the little family was gathered in a bush just below eye level on the side of the road, providing the best, most lingering looks at the species I would have all week.
The airport was waiting for us, again, but I really wanted to see the American Flamingo a bit farther south on the island. So we zoomed down that way and through the gate to which Ricky had a key; local connections matter in birding. And there was the bird, huge and pink and skittish. Apparently a half dozen birds of this species escaped during a hurricane a decade ago, and so there is doubt about this individual’s wild provenance, but still, just in case….
The last stop of our day was at the Lofty Fig, a nifty complex of neat villas right in Marsh Harbour. And then back out over the turquoise waters to New Providence!