At the Mic: Woody Bracey
Elwood D. Bracey, MD, is a retired physician who now lives in Treasure Cay, Bahamas, where he is very active in the birding community.
January of 2012 started auspiciously. The early part of the month saw several productive Christmas Bird Counts and some rare birds in The Bahamas. And I watched the film The Big Year. Those circumstances persuaded me to challenge Tony White's single-year record of 198 species, and by the end of January, I was already up to 155, a new monthly record for me.
A rough road trip to Hole in the Wall in southernmost Abaca gave us three Kirtland's Warblers. And the good birds just kept popping up.
All the expected wintering species were joined by a Swainson's Hawk (a first for the Caribbean, well photographed by Bruce Hallett at left) and a Horned Lark. The Horned Lark required a trip to Nassau, where the bird was feeding in the short grass of a golf course with Palm Warblers and Least Sandpipers.
A highly unusual Greater Scaup was well documented on Hobby Horse Lake, and the lone Anhinga on Paradise Island, later photographed by Linda Huber, may have been the last survivor among the birds that once bred there. I also added a Gadwall at Harrold and Wilson Ponds, a female Shiny Cowbird at Rainbow Chicken Farm, and the Cuban Grassquits and Pied Imperial Pigeons of central Nassau; those latter two species, introduced many years ago, are now well established, as is the Caribbean Dove, originally imported from Jamaica for hunting—and smart enough now to spend most of its time hiding in the dense understory of the Bahamas National Trust Botanical Garden.
The free-flying exotic waterfowl kept by Pericles Maillis in the western suburbs of Nassau often attract wild migrants, among them the beautiful male Northern Pintail that joined the Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal and White-cheeked Pintails on the pond.
More controversial was the Caribbean Coot, with its high white frontal shield, found on the abandoned Shark Golf Course; though the AOU recognizes this species, others, including David Sibley, have their doubts. I counted this species, and in fact found another good candidate later in the year on the pond at the Treasure Cay Golf Course; both were photographed by Tony Hepburn. A Black-headed Gull, present as an immature in 2010-2011, returned in 2012 as a handsome adult, molting into its dark-headed breeding plumage during its stay.
Back on Abaco, the Organic Vegetable Farm maintained its status a the best place to see Bahama Yellowthroats (hundreds!). We also had a Chipping Sparrow, a second White-throated Sparrow, American Pipits, and a young male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Nine Barn Owls crowded into a single large ficus tree overlooking a recently plowed field, attracted by the same mice and rats that kept the Swainson's Hawk there all winter, too.
Several early February deepsea fishing trips turned up Magnificent Frigatebirds and Audubon's Shearwaters, but no Manx, which are possible at that time of year. A favorite spot for sparrows, the Big Bird poulty Farm south of Marsh Harbor produced such good wintertime finds as Lincoln's, Savannah, and Grasshopper Sparrows, along with American Robins, American Pipits, Dickcissel, Blue-headed Vireo, Nashveille Warbler, and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Most frustrating was a Swainson's Warbler that popped up for Bruce Hallett to photograph while I, just ten feet away, missed it. Nothing would bring that skulker back out again.
Spring migration can be a non-event in The Bahamas. But 2012 was different. I'd never seen so many migrants, especially thrushes and seed-eating birds. After a cold front with rain on April 24, I counted 20 Veeries, 24 Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and 2 Swainson's Thrushes at Angelfish Point. Later that day I had a Wood Thrush along the Treasure Cay sewage outfall. Four migrant thrush species in one day is a once-in-a-lifetime thing in The Bahamas!
Swallows were numerous, too, including Bank and Cliff among the commoner Tree, Barn, and Bahama Swallows. A lone Chimney Swift was seen high above the coppice, where I found Red-eyed Vireos and Eastern Kingbirds and yet more thrushes along a narrow trail. Our backyard feeder was a riot of color with Painted and Indigo Buntings galore, two Blue Grosbeaks, and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The grosbeak stayed for a week, but a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was a one-day wonder. That same last week of April saw such summer residents as Gray Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, and Bahama Mockingbird return and set up territories, while Blackpoll Warblers continued to pass through until mid-May.
In early May, Bridled, Sooty, Roseate, and Common Terns followed the Least Terns back to The Bahamas. Then came the White-tailed Tropicbirds, the Antillean Nighthawks, and the Great, Cory's, and Sooty Shearwaters. Finally, on May 12, after hearing the birds deep in the coppice, I saw my first Key West Quail-Dove for the year at Angelfish Point.
June is the month for fishing tournaments and deepsea trips. We continued to see good numbers of pelagic species, including a Black-capped Petrel fifteen miles off Munjack Cay. Most exasperating was the mid-afternoon revelation one day by the mate that he had seen a "Jesus Bird" cross our wake earlier in the day; I never saw a Wilson's Storm-Petrel on a single one of the ten or more deepsea trips I made in 2012.
Abaco was quiet for the rest of the summer, but trips to other islands really helped my list. With the help of Ed Rahming and Lewis Phillips, my late-June adventure on South Andros added Great Lizard Cuckoo, Indian Peafowl, Bahama Oriole, and eleven Cave Swallows. In July, my wife, Betsy, and I added Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Red-footed Booby on San Salvador, where surprises included a Purple Martin, an American Avocet, and lots of Gull-billed Terns.
The expected Snowy Plovers were nowhere to be found, but the endangered subspecies of the West Indian Woodpecker was easy to find along Jake Jones Road.
A storm in late August brought some unusual fall migrants to New Providence. Most notable were the Arctic Tern and the two Black Terns seen on the stony shores of Lake Killarney by Paul Dean and Tony White and photographed by Tony Hepburn. By the time I got there, two other much-needed birds, a Sandwich Terns and a female Boat-tailed Grackle, had left: I would have to wait 'til later in the year for them.
Back on Abaco, we had the pleasure of the company of a young American Flamingo on Maillis's Pond through the summer.
Unbanded and not yet entirely pink, this was most likely a second-year bird. The flamingo departed at the end of September, but a Wilson's Phalarope, the first for Abaco, appeared on the very same pond October 2, spinning and feeding with several Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
At the Poultry Farm we had an Empidonax Flycatcher, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, two Blackburnian Warblers, and a tantalizing thrush. Browner than a Gray-cheeked Thrush, the bird did not vocalize, and though we suspected a Bicknell's Thrush, we did not count it. The farm near Treasure Cay gave us several sightings of a Philadelphia Vireo and a Great Crested Flyatcher, a Blackburnian Warbler, several Tennessee Warblers, and a lone Cedar Waxwing were at Robert's Nursery. Most exceptional was the second Bahamas record of a Warbling Vireo, seen on October 18 near Marsh Harbor with Becky Marvil, who got diagnostic photographs of the bird.
The arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 26 was much worse than predicted. Three days later, I met Bruce Hallett and Margo Zdravokovic on Grand Bahama to look for birds blown in from the continent. An Eastern Bluebird, perhaps only the second record for The Bahamas, was feeding at West End among the distressed swallows, pipits, and Palm Warblers. The 25 Common Terns at West End Point were exceptional; among them were two Sandwich Terns, the only ones I saw all year. At McClean's Town, on the eastern end of the island, we found two Clay-colored Sparrows, well photographed by Hallett.
Back on Abaco, an Orange-crowned Warbler was in the Avocado Grove at the Big Bird Poultry Farm in mid-November, and a House Wren and a Swamp Sparrow, both extreme rarities, were photographed at the always interesting Cooperstown Dump. The next day I found a Wilson's Warbler at Robert's Nursery, and on November 23 I had a Swainson's Warbler in the exact spot at the poultry farm where Bruce Hallett had photographed the bird in the spring. That same day I watched a seemingly large, silent Myiarchus with a pronounced yellow belly. Brown-crested Flycatcher? Maybe, but it did not call, and I did not count it.
I thought I'd missed the Chestnut-sided Warbler for the year, but on November 28, one emerged from the deep coppice into plain view. Another miss avoided!
A visit to Great Inagua was essential for several species, so Hallett and I met in Nassau and went on to Matthewtown, the only settlement on the most southerly island of the The Bahamas. It had rained for two weeks straight, roads were flooded, the mosquitoes were ferocious. But we could watch thousands of courting American Flamingos, and we added Roseate Spoonbill, Snowy Plover, Burrowing Owl, and a bonus American Wigeon to my year list.
The most amazing sight was of a Peregrine Falcon nailing an exceedingly rare Greater Scaup on the ponds; the scaup survived, dazed. We were interested to find a population of Red Jungle Fowl living in the woods far from any human habitation; Warden Henry Nixon told us they had been there for years, but I listed Gallus gallus as an exotic, uncounted species.
Back in Nassau, on November 28 I saw a Caspian Tern from Tony White's deck. Tony, competitive as he is, congratulated me on breaking his Bahamas big year record—a real friend!
The end was in sight, and I made a big push in the last two weeks of the year with three Christmas Bird Counts. First up was South Abaco, where we located another House Wren. Nassau was next, with another Wilson's Phalarope loafing with the Black-bellied Plovers; a female Boat-tailed Grackel flying in front of my vehicle finallly checked off a bird I'd missed several times during the year. Two Bahama Mockingbirds, seen with the CBC compiler Neil McKinney, were also good finds for the early winter.
A sunny Christmas Day was made even more joyous when I saw my first Red-breasted Mergansers in over two years. The Green Turtle Cay mudflats were alive with shorebirds, including 52 Red Knots, an all-time high count for that species anywhere in The Bahamas.
Next morning I flew to Grand Bahama for one last shot at the scarce Brown-headed Nuthatch, which had eluded me three times during the year. On December 27, at our third and final stop, when my friend Bruce Purdy had already got back into the vehicle, I heard the call; not one but two of these little tree creepers came in close to pose for pictures, going up and down and upside-down on the Caribbean pines. What a delight, and what a brilliant end to my big year of 242 species!
New Year's Eve was a welcome end to the frenzy: it was our anniversary, and I promised my wife that she would be a bird widow no longer. Many thanks to her and to all my good birding friends for their help.