Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Bahamas Birding Breeze: White-crowned Pigeon, Thick-billed Vireo and Cuban Emerald

[Freeport, Grand Bahama. April, 2014]

A quick sojourn in Freeport in the form of a cruise ship stop afforded a short window of birding opportunity to check out the local avifauna. The species observed were:

Local specialties:
  • Thick-billed Vireo
  • White-crowned Pigeon
  • La Sagra's Flycatcher
  • Cuban Emerald
  • Red-legged Thrush
Neotropical Migrants:
  • Ovenbird
  • Black and white Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Laughing Gull
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Common Ground Dove
This list, of course, should not be taken as representative of the avian wealth of the islands -- indeed, the Bahamas boast spectacular species such as the Bahama Parrot (aka Cuban Amazon), Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Crow, Olive-capped Warbler and endemics such as the Bahama Woodstar and Bahama Swallow. The islands are also famous for the 60,000 resident flamingos. However, to make a significant dent in the country list would require much more time than afforded by this trip.

Starting with the local specialties:

Thick-billed Vireo

Thick-billed Vireo seen at Rand Nature Center

With a song sounding similar to our White-eyed Vireo, the Thick-billed Vireo is found on just a few islands in the Caribbean with its stronghold being the Bahamas. Two white wing bars are notable and the bill is prominent. It is a rare vagrant to Florida.

Unlike the Thick-billed Vireo, the White-crowned Pigeon is regular in Southern Florida (especially the Keys).

White-crowned Pigeon seen at Port Lucaya

A striking species, the White-crowned Pigeon is distributed widely in the Caribbean; however, its population trend is negative due to hunting and it tends to be very skittish when approached; it is classified as "Near Threatened".

La Sagra's Flycatcher

La Sagra's Flycatcher is another vagrant to Florida; however, its normal distribution encompasses Cuba and the Bahamas. It was earlier considered conspecific with the Stolid Flycatcher (profiled here when it was observed in Hispaniola). The flycatcher's name commemorates a former director of the Havana Botanical Gardens, Don Ramon de la Sagra.

Cuban Emerald (female) seen at Rand Nature Center

Other than the endemic Bahama Woodstar, the Cuban Emerald (found exclusively on Cuba and the Bahamas) is the only other hummingbird found on the islands. The male is a brilliant green (hence "emerald").

Red-legged Thrush

Red-legged Thrush is a common thrush found across the Caribbean; indeed, in addition to the Bahamas, the author has observed them on Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. It's Latin name, turdus plumbeus, doesn't refer to the red legs, but rather to the thrush's lead-colored plumage. Interestingly, the Bahamaian race of the Red-legged Thrush has a black chin while the one in Puerto Rico shows a clean white throat with black streaking (see here).

The Rand Center is only about 15 minutes away from the Harbor at Freeport. In addition to the local specialties, it also held some wintering warblers which will, in a matter of weeks, be soon elevated to "Neotropical Migrants" as they arrive on the US mainland.


Black-and-white Warbler

Palm Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Grand Bahama is merely 56 miles away from Florida; small wonder, then, that the following species are seen equally well States-side:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Laughing Gull

Red-winged Blackbird

Northern Mockingbird

Common Ground Dove

Familiar yet exotic, the Bahamas is a great place to start or enhance your Caribbean list of species. In addition since Cuba is off-limits to US birders, it is the only place to see Cuban specialties such as Cuban Emerald and La Sagra's Flycatcher.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ghosts of the Swamp: Barred Owl at Corkscrew

[Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida. April 2014]

There are 2 pair of breeding Barred Owls at Corkscrew Swamp which start nesting in February. By April, the young have fledged and the Owls are busy attending to the demanding appetites of their fledglings.

This means that both mother and father owl are hunting round the clock -- even during the day. This fact affords a wonderful opportunity at owl observation of these otherwise nocturnal creatures.

 Barred Owl -- note the deep set eyes in the dual-conical face

 Barred Owl

Barred Owl seen at Corkscrew Swamp; note the remarkable flexibility in the neck

Barred Owl pair perched together before setting off on the hunt.

Barred Owl has historically been an Eastern species. In relatively recent times, however, the range of the Barred Owl has expanded Westwards. Their success in the West unfortunately has come at the expense of the Spotted Owl which is being outcompeted by the resourcefulness of their Eastern cousins; sadly, the Spotted Owl is now classified as "Threatened".

Barred Owl: note the vertical streaks ("bars") on the breast (a disambiguating feature from the otherwise similar Spotted Owl).

Barred Owl is an opportunistic feeder -- preying on rodents, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians. It is completely silent in flight; flying like an avian ghost through the woods.

Barred Owl listening intently for prey; it later dropped to the ground to catch a crayfish from a pool of water

Strix Varia is a fairly large owl; just slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl. In the Eastern US, it is unlikely to be confused with any other species: it is the only Owl with dark brown eyes (all other owls have yellow eyes).

Completely oblivious of the small multitude of onlookers, the Barred Owl proceeded to alternately perch, glide and hunt. Eventually, the hunt was successful:

Barred Owl with prey item (a crayfish)

Having caught a crayfish, the dutiful owl proceeded to feed it to the fledgling; perched much higher up on a nearby cypress.

Owls weren't the only birds livening up the Swamp; it's April and the Northern Parula can be heard everywhere -- emphatically proclaiming their presence through song.

Northern Parula singing at Corkscrew Swamp

This is one of our smaller warbler (outdone in smallness only by Lucy's Warbler) and is strictly an Eastern warbler species. The female is similar to the male but duller and lacks the orange breast-band. The broken eye-ring, green patch on the back, grey upperparts with yellow throat and breast and white belly all help to make this tiny warbler one of our most distinctive.

Northern Parula seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Corkscrew Swamp is one of the few places in the US where Northern Parula can be observed year round.

Northern Parula. The green patch on the back is clearly visible from this angle.

While the word parula comes to us from the Latin for the birds in the tit family, the Northern Parula is not a tit (Linnaeus classified it as such in 1758) but the name has stuck. However, what is taxonomically a tit is the next bird: the Tufted Titmouse:

Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse is one of over 50 species of tits globally; this family is particularly well represented in the Old World and only 5 species are found in North America. This is a familiar bird to anyone living in the Eastern US.

From a tiny warbler to an imposing Owl, the woods at Corkscrew Swamp never fail to surprise and delight the patient observer.

================= Addendum: additional photographs ====================

Barred Owl after finishing swallowing prey item

Barred Owl preening

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Carolina Wren

A series on Black-and-White Warbler:

The Owl (again):
The Parula (again):
Red-shouldered Hawk:

A couple of herons were also observed:

Little Blue Heron

 Black-crowned Night Heron

Purple Gallinule always delights:

Purple Gallinule -- this species is not regular at Corkscrew
A gorgeous Swallow-tailed Kite circling just before the entrance of the Swamp:

Swallow-tailed Kite

Of course, the Barred Owl and Parula again:

Barred owl
Northern Parula