Tag Archives: Bermuda birds


Phaethon lepturus catesbyi

Bermuda Longtail  (image: HCL)

Bermuda Longtail
(image: HCL)

Long tails are everywhere this month and my daughter has taken some pretty amazing photos so it seemed apposite to write a post about them.

The full latin name is Phaethon lepturus catesbyi

Phaethon was the son of the Helios and Klimene who kept pestering his father to be allowed to drive the chariot of the sun, but when the sun god finally gave in predictably the young demigod lost control of the vehicle and thus set fire to the plains of Africa – there is a lesson there somewhere, one I certainly took a long time to learn (penknife to 10 year old son? hamsters as pets?) but at least my mistakes didn’t set the earth on fire.

lepturus, although a Latin word here, comes from the Greek meaning “thin tail”

Mark Catesby was an English naturalist who, in 1722, travelled to Virginia and the Caribbean to study the wild life.  He was sponsored by the Royal Society of London and paid an annual salary of £20, which was pretty generous in those days especially as he stayed with his sister who lived in Virginia so didn’t have to fund his own board and lodging.  He was one of the first academics to describe bird migration and in 1747 he published a book “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas” in which appears the following plate of a long tail:

Catesby's engraving of a Longtail bird (image from eBay, source unknown)

Catesby’s engraving of a Longtail bird (image from eBay, source unknown)

The original plates and preparatory drawings are apparently held in Windsor Castle Library.

Catesby's description of a long tail tropic bird

Catesby’s description of a long tail tropic bird

The common name for them is “white-tailed tropic bird” and they are different from but related to the red-tailed and red-billed versions of the tropic bird.  Some sources claim there are just three species but a recent survey in Australia suggests some inter-species breeding and birds with mixed features.

You can, I presume, work out how to recognise them – they have long tails! These are two very long feathers trailing out behind the bird, used in the aerial courtship displays.  Juvenile birds don’t have them, but after two years at sea they return to their breeding place with impressive long tails of their own.

Longtail at Horseshoe Bay (image: HCL)

Longtail at Horseshoe Bay (image: HCL)

The nests are holes in the cliffs, some pretty close to the ground or sea level and the egg is laid on bare ground, the parent birds don’t actually make a nest as such. The single egg, a beige colour with purplish and reddish blotches, is incubated by either parent for 40-42 days and hatches in June or July.  Juveniles have yellow bills and less distinct black markings and they are fed, again by both parents, on baby squid and small fish. I actually saw 5 tiny baby squid a week ago when snorkelling and was looking for them yesterday but now I realise they have probably been eaten as we have several pairs of nesting long tails on the islands in Harrington Sound.

A long tail bird in a nest (image:HCL)

A long tail bird in a nest (image:HCL)

After around 65 days the young bird will fledge, taking off from the rock face it is a “fly or float” experience – most succeed but every year the local zoo takes in some birds who have failed to reach take-off velocity, returning them to the wild once they have learned the basics.  Then they don’t return for the next two years, they fly for the most part all the time and even sleep on the wing.

Taking flight (image:HCL)

Taking flight (image:HCL)

The markings include a black surround to the eyes which is nature’s equivalent to sunglasses, reducing the glare an reflection from the water so they can see the fish more easily.  They do plunge into the surface waters to catch fish but often pick out small fish as they break the surface of the water – flying fish.

The wings from the top have a black V-shaped marking and the wing tips are also black.

Bermuda Longtail (image:HCL)

Bermuda Longtail (image:HCL)

The pictures I have are all probably adult birds since they have reddish beaks and the youngsters have yellow beaks.

Historically they were named the “Bosun bird” because their call is akin to the bosun’s whistle.  Wikipedia describes the call: keee-keee-krrrt-krrt-krrt .  I hope you got that – don’t get the spelling wrong the extra r in the third word is most important! I can hear them out there this morning, but haven’t yet worked out how to attach a sound recording to the blog.

Sadly they are threatened by erosion of rocks, predators such as rats and cats, flooding and building works. Although protected in Bermuda by the Protection of Birds Act 1975, I am not convinced the act is enforced with any regularity on the island. There could be a conflict of interests – once the unofficial bird of Bermuda, the longtail was ousted from this distinction by the cahow in 2003 and the newer igloos are apparently designed to favour cahows and prevent long tails from nesting in them.  Igloos are man-made nesting boxes that one can install on your coastal property. Our landlord has made special holes in the rock walls alongside the dock and slipway and although I don’t think there are any nesting this year we do try to keep away from them when we are on the water. Personally I think the longtails are prettier birds than the cahows.

This one took me by surprise (image:HCL)

This one took me by surprise (image:HCL)

One Cahow and lots of not-cahows

Yesterday morning over breakfast I came across the live webcam feed from the Cahow nest on Nonsuch Island.  A comment beneath said that “anytime soon” a chick was expected to hatch.  So for half an hour or so I watched the non-moving-is-it-really-live image and finally gave up to busy myself with housework (the cleaner is due this week).  Of course I missed it, the actual birth, as I learned this morning when I tuned in.  It isn’t the first birth I have missed – at medical school in year 1 we were assigned a pregnant mother with the expectation we would be around for the delivery and subsequent parenting challenges, but my “mother” must have changed her mind about the whole viewing idea, before she met me I hasten to add, and I similarly learned of the new arrival one day too late.  By the end of med school I had seen enough deliveries to be able to hold back the tears, at least to see enough to be able to catch the baby, but I have never seen a Cahow chick hatch and will now probably have to wait until next year. Actually I have never seen a Cahow – thought I did once when a greyish plumpish bird flew across Harrington Sound but then I learned that the adult birds are nocturnal so I had probably just seen a juvenile tern.

Cahow: Image from Bermuda Conservation (creative commons licence)

Cahow: Image from Bermuda Conservation (creative commons licence)

The Cahow is much talked about in local conservation groups, rediscovered sometime in the 1950s after presumed extinction it is now protected to the extent it has its own island where people rarely tread.  According to history when the first people found themselves on Bermuda in 1609 the Cahow was so plentiful as to provide regular suppers for months:

A kinde of webbe-footed Fowle there is, of the bignesse of an English greene Plover, or Sea-Meawe, which all the Summer we saw not, and in the darkest nights of November and December (for in the night they onely feed) they would come forth, but not flye farre from home, and hovering in the ayre, and over the Sea, made a strange hollow and harsh howling. They call it of the cry which it maketh, a Cohow.

The quote comes from William Strachey’s account of the shipwreck in 1609. In 1901 a professor from Yale University questioned the veracity of the species, suggesting a petrel doesn’t actually taste very nice.  David Wingate has written more comprehensively about the cahow and its rediscovery, his knowledge based on breeding and habits of the bird rather than taste!

Being so very short sighted I was never attracted to bird watching – they are mainly black specks in the sky looking as far as I can tell exactly like a small child’s depiction of a bird, a slightly curved v-shape.  But when we sit on our dock in the late afternoon, perhaps feeding the fish, the birds have taken to arriving in hopeful swoops, close enough that even I can see some detail.

P1120818 P1120817 P1120812 P1120811 P1120804 P1120803 P1120802 P1120801 P1120799 P1120797 P1120795 P1120794

Rather like the flowers in the previous post, I need some help in identifying them.  I do know that none of them are Cahows!

Photos by HCL, taken on a rather grey day over Harrington Sound.

Feed the birds ….

….It costs more than tuppence

Hungry Sparrow

Hungry Sparrow

My mother had a bird table outside her living room window, which given that she kept cats as well seemed a little harsh, but despite the cats her bird table was visited by hundreds of birds. I used to be vaguely interested when I visited, but never to the extent of setting up a bird table of my own. Yes we had one in the garden, what family with young children doesn’t at some point, but it was more of a support for the creeping bindweed than hungry birds. But it seems I have reached that age – I have developed an interest in feeding the birds. And I have a garden that is perfect for doing this.



On your first visit to Bermuda you might be forgiven for thinking the only bird around is a Kiskadee. They are noisy. Not endemic to the island, they were brought across from Trinidad in 1957 to control the anolis lizard (which itself was imported to control a fruit parasite). For the most part Kiskadees ignored the lizards and preferred insects and berries both plentiful so now we have lots of lizards and lots of Kiskadees. They don’t need any help from me to find food.

Non-lizard-eating kiskadee

Non-lizard-eating kiskadee

What we do have in Bermuda are sparrows – the same ones you saw when growing up but not now so common in UK. I was going to insist that the sparrows we have here are Old World Sparrows, not the American Tree Sparrow, but having looked at various images on the web I am not so certain about this – maybe one of my friends from the Bermuda Audubon Society will put me right.

Male Northern Cardinal At Feeder

Image from wikipedia, but if you come back to my blog later in the year maybe i will have one of my own!

But the bird I am trying to attract to my feeder is a Red Cardinal. I know he is close by, my neighbour ( the lemon-drizzle-cake-one) has him calling at her table and I am determined to get him to come round the corner.

So I set off to a garden centre to find a bird feeder. Actually I set off to first find a garden centre. To save you the petrol costs of a round-the-island drive, it is actually just off the roundabout in Paget, the one where Johnny Barnes greets the morning traffic. Don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before, right opposite the National Trust offices at Waterville.

Here I made two mistakes: firstly I bought cheap seed feeders and secondly I baulked at paying $30 for a large tub of bird seed.

The tub would have been a good idea – bird seed is around $5 per litre and the tub was at least 10 litres, bargain. But I didn’t know that then. A stubborn streak prevented me from returning later so I ended up at another store with 5 litres of proper bird seed, 5 litres of scratch mix and another 5 litres of sunflower seed at the grand total of $54 (Bermuda cost of living is high, no less so for the birds). Plus of course the large plastic box with lid.

The lesson of the cheap feeders was short and brutal – first one disappeared overnight, then the second on the next night. Note, “disappeared”, not “fell off the hook” or “broke”, plain disappeared. Clearly I needed either a substantial feeder on a big hook or a roll of duct tape – I now have both. I have absolutely no idea what can have carried off my cheap feeders, cat? cockroach? heron?

The Red Cardinal comes from Virginia, likely deliberately introduced in the late 17th century, not this time to eat lizards, but probably as a caged bird, to look pretty. They certainly are very pretty. It is about the season for them to be mating and then they will build messy nests, lay brown mottled eggs and be conscientious parents with the young hatching in April. This from the “Guide to the Birds of Bermuda” by Eric Amos, a 1990 copy of which I found in the library. He begins with a statement that ornithology began in the mid 1800s when military men exchanged their shotguns for binoculars.

Apart from sparrows and maybe a cardinal I can expect a few starlings, mourning doves (a posh name for a small pigeon) and maybe a grey catbird that reportedly has a “long rambling introspective song” (no idea). It is unlikely that I will see the other birds – bluebirds and vireos – both populations declined with the loss of cedar trees in the mid 20th century.

Redshank island  - at the bottom of the garden :)

Redshank island – at the bottom of the garden 🙂

We are fortunate to have a waterfront garden onto Harrington Sound and from the dock if I sit quietly I can see an assortment of water birds – herons, egrets and terns in the main, but in the summer there are white-tailed tropic birds or long tails – it seems the whole neighbourhood has created nesting holes for them and last year at least two pairs were successful in breeding. I don’t need to feed these birds but if I take some bread down for the fish the birds soon appear.

So how am I getting on with my bird feeding project?

Non-Disappearing bird feeder

Non-Disappearing bird feeder

No birds?
While I can watch them from the safety of the sofa, they won’t pose for photographs!

OK, it may be wishful to place it so close to the house, but we shall see....

OK, it may be wishful to place it so close to the house, but we shall see….

But look what they have done to my table – that is for my coffee, not random bird seed, what a mess!

Bird table?

Bird table?