BAHAMA ORIOLE: ABACO’S LOST ENDEMIC SPECIES


Bahama Oriole ABC : D. Belasco

BAHAMA ORIOLE: ABACO’S LOST ENDEMIC SPECIES

FEWER THAN 300 LEFT IN THE WORLD – AND ALL ON ANDROS

Having just posted about the endangered NASSAU GROUPER and its protection by the introduction of a 3-month closed season, it’s time to focus on a rare, beautiful and vulnerable bird, the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi). It is IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. ENDEMIC to the Bahamas, this bird lived only on Abaco and Andros. Not any more. Now you’ll only find them on Andros, the species having been lost to Abaco in very recent memory. The 1990s, in fact. And on Andros, this lovely bird is now struggling against the threat of extinction and is found only in limited areas in very small numbers. The most optimistic population estimate I have found puts the total as fewer than 300 individuals… the consensus puts the likely total in the region of 250.

Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)1

Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)2

THE SPECIES

In 2010, the Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis was separated by the AMERICAN ORNOTHOLOGISTS’ UNION into 4 species, one being the Bahama Oriole. As the BNT wryly put it, “New species are always a source of excitement… but in this case the intrigue is overshadowed by a sense of alarm and urgency”. For by then this new species ‘in its own right’ was limited to certain parts of Andros, in small and diminishing numbers. It had already vanished from some areas – especially in North Andros – were it had formerly been abundant. The best estimates suggested 250 individual birds.

Bahama Oriole - Harold Brewer (via PM) - Version 3

WHEN & WHY DID THEY VANISH FROM ABACO?

This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a photo of one taken on Abaco, although to be fair the option of snapping everything with wings several times using a digital camera with a large chip didn’t exist then. In the next para a number of crucial factors in the more recent decline of the Andros population are given; but as far as I can determine, some at least did not apply in the 1990s, or certainly not to the same extent. Maybe it was a combination of a degree of habitat loss and the gradual decline of a small population that could not breed prolifically enough to sustain the future population **.

Bahama_Oriole (Mxmerce Wiki)

THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS

Lethal Yellowing Disease of the coconut palm, prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas on Andros (e.g. Staniard Creek), the palm has been all but wiped out. 

The arrival and spread of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species such as the yellow warbler, the black-whiskered vireo… and the oriole. The cowbird reached Andros in the mid-1990s. The first Abaco report that I have found is from 1999 (so presumably, as the oriole was already gone from the island by then, they were not a factor).  The cowbird is a summer resident on Abaco, though still relatively uncommon; and its range continues to expand northwards. Some might argue that the cowbird should be discouraged from spreading on Abaco right now for the sake of the indigenous warbler and vireo populations – before it is too late.

Habitat loss / island development (although Birdlife International notes “…the planting of coconut palms in residential areas has allowed the species to spread into human settlements”).

Other factors put forward include forestry work, forest fires, diseases, rodents and feral cats – problems that affect many other birds such as the Abaco parrot.

Bahamas Oriole (BNT / Carlton Ward)

The photo below is a pleasure to include in this post. It was taken earlier this year on Andros by Christopher Johnson of Nassau. And here’s the thing. He is 13, and an avid birder. I’m sure he likes his X-Box time, but he certainly knows plenty about birds too. He’s quick off the mark with offering IDs – correct ones – for birds online, and when he saw this bird he knew the significance of it and managed to get some good shots too. This is my favourite, the oriole ‘vocalising’. See below for its song. Here is Christopher’s brief but enthusiastic field report: Awesome trip to Andros this past weekend! Was amazed to see the Bahama Oriole and its nest — feeling great”. Bahama Oriole, Andros (Christopher Johnson) 2

 Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

A GLIMMER OF HOPE?

In the same way that urgent conservation measures were put in place to halt and then reverse the critical decline of the Abaco parrot population, similar projects are in place for the Bahama Oriole on Andros. One proposal is to establish a ‘captive breeding’ program leading to reintroduction and reinforcement of the wild population. According to the American Bird Conservancy, this could even include reintroduction on Abaco… So perhaps in a decade or two, this fine bird will once again become firmly established as one of the birds of Abaco.

Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)3

As I said in my Nassau Grouper post, a country’s attitude can to a degree be gauged by the pride with which it features its wildlife and natural resources in its stamps (I used North Korea for adverse comparison). In 2009 The Bahamas Postal Service even issued a ‘Rare Birds’ set featuring the Bahama Oriole.. I rest my case.

Bahama Oriole Stamp birdtheme.org

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WHO WAS THE EPONYMOUS MR NORTHROP?

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_Northrop

The comprehensive answer is provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine  illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies:

The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist).

Icterus Northropi illustrated in A Naturalist in the Bahamas (plate 1)

RELATED MATERIAL

“Rediscovering the Bahama Oriole” Erik Gauger, author of the excellent Notes from the Road and photographic contributor to the Birds of Abaco has a good tale of the pursuit of the apparent sighting of a Bahama Oriole on Abaco 2o years after its (supposed?) extirpation. You can read it HERE

The Auk Read more about this journal and the birding history of the Bahamas HERE

There is a Care2Action ‘Save the Bahama Oriole Before It Is Too Late’ petition HERE. It seems to have stalled somewhat, so it would be good to generate some more signatories.

** Mathematically inclined? Find out about the application of the stochastic process to the oriole’s situation. In a nutshell, this concerns the combined effect of several random adverse factors on sustainability, given that the oriole’s already very small population, very limited range and particular habitat requirements militate against breeding expansion, and therefore increase the likelihood of extinction. We can only hope this is not an inevitability…

Image, audio and research credits: American Bird Conservancy, Binkie van Es, BNT / Carlton Ward, Birdlife International, Christopher Johnson, Cornell Neotropical, Harold Brewer, MxMerce, birdtheme.org, Wiki, Xeno Canto / Paul Driver; Uni of Glasgow / Roger Herriott

NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED


Nassau Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy

NASSAU GROUPER: VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED… & NOW PROTECTED

The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is one of a number of Caribbean grouper species found generally in the Northern Bahamas and specifically in Abaco waters. Others include the Black, Tiger, and Yellowfin groupers, the Red Hind,and the Graysby. The Nassau grouper is special, however, not least because (unlike the others) it is on the IUCN Red List as an Endangered Species and is also a US National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern. It is considered the most important of the groupers for commercial fishing in the Caribbean, and the IUCN listing data suggests that a population decline of 60% occurred over the last three generations (27-30 years), a startling rate. The current population size is estimated at >10,000 mature individuals.

Nassau Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy 2

The Nassau Grouper is a creature of the coral reefs in the Caribbean and adjacent seas, though it can also be found in deep water. It feeds in the daytime on small fish and small crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs and lobsters. It lurks in caves and recesses in the reef, sucking in the prey that passes unsuspecting by. The coloration of an individual fish may vary considerably with conditions, and it can adapt its colour to its surroundings as camouflage.  

Tiger grouper meets Nassau grouperNassau & Tiger Grouper ©Melinda Riger @ Grand Bahama Scuba  copy

Spawning takes place in December and January as the seawater cools, always at full moon, and always in the same place. In the moonlight, huge numbers of the grouper gather together to mate in a mass spawning aggregation. This may continue for several days. However, the species is slow breeder, which is why overfishing is particularly damaging to the population as the depleted stock cannot readily be replaced.

3846_aquaimages Wiki

CONSERVATION ISSUES

There are other besides factors commercial overfishing that make the Nassau grouper so vulnerable, including fishing during the breeding season; taking undersized fish; pollution and reef decline; habitat loss; and invasive species. The spawning areas are especially vulnerable to exploitation. In the Bahamas, as elsewhere,  the government has now instituted a closed fishing season for the Nassau grouper. Here is the BREEF  flyer, just circulated – and in fact the reason for this post, which reminded me that I had planned to write about this fish! 10382222_10152869346685953_7443797899832698038_o

THREATS

The Bahamas National Trust sums up the multiple threats in this uncompromising way:

Nassau grouper is eaten by barracudas, lizard fish, dolphins, sharks and other large predators of the reef community. But the predators that have the biggest impact on the grouper population are humansPeople are fishing groupers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce. Sex change may also cause a problem. In undisturbed areas there are usually equal numbers of male and females. In heavily fished areas there are often three or more times more females than males. This means many eggs will not be fertilized during spawning. Other threats include, habitat destruction, coral breakage from divers, siltation from construction, runoff from logging and agriculture, dredging, sewage, oil spills and other contaminants that harm coral reefs where Nassau Groupers live.

grouperEpinephelus_striatus_2

There’s an extent to which a country can be judged on its attitude to wildlife from the stamps it chooses to issue. It’s something to do with appreciation and promotion of the country’s natural resources. For example, North Korea rates nil in this respect, with stamps involving scary weaponry, flags, marching and eerily glowing leaders – not a single sparrow to be seen.  By fortunate contrast the Bahamas and its Postal Service score very highly in celebrating the diversity of the wildlife of the islands. The Nassau Grouper was first featured on Bahamas stamps as long ago as 1971, some 25 years before the IUCN Red Listing, and probably before the sharp decline in population numbers had even begun.

bahamas-1971-nassau-grouper-sg-363-fine-used-19448-p

In 2012 the Bahamas Postal Service released ‘a new definitive 16 stamp series’ depicting the marine life of The Bahamas. The Nassau has been promoted from 5c in 1971 to 70c in 2012. That’s inflation for you.

bahamas-marine-life-stamps2

Finally in 2013 BREEF’s 20 years of marine conservation was commemorated with a distinguished and colourful set of 8 stamps, noting in their release: ‘Two of the new stamps feature the Nassau Grouper, a now endangered species that has experienced severe population decline throughout the region… BREEF is well known as an advocate for an annual closed season for the iconic Nassau Grouper during its winter breeding period. The push for the closed season was based on scientific evidence of population collapses throughout the region due to overfishing. BREEF is calling on the government to implement a fixed closed season for the Nassau Grouper in order to protect the species and the fishing industry. The closed season traditionally runs during the spawning season from December 1st until February 28th, to allow the fish to reproduce.  BREEF is calling urgently for the announcement of this year’s Nassau Grouper closed season….’ And so it came to pass… Not only is the Nassau grouper now worth 2 x 65c; it is strictly protected for 3 months during its breeding season. Maybe philately even had a hand in getting somewhere…

BREEF_Comemorative_stamps_PastedGraphic-3

Nassau Grouper (Rick Smit wiki)

Credits: Melinda Riger, Rick Smit, Open Source, BNT, BREEF, Wikimedia, Bahamas Postal Service

COMMON YELLOWTHROATS ON ABACO: CHEERFUL WINTER WARBLERS


Common-yellowthroat, Abaco (Erik Gauger)

COMMON YELLOWTHROATS ON ABACO: CHEERFUL WINTER WARBLERS

Abaco is fortunate to be home to the endemic BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT Geothlypis rostrata, a striking bird with a dashing black mask and bright yellow body in the male. You can see it with its fellow endemics HERE. But there is similar winter resident species, the COMMON YELLOWTHROAT Geothlypis trichas, that can be seen on Abaco between October and March. Now is a very good time to look out for them. However, the two species are easy to confuse.

Common Yellowthroat (male)Common Yellowthroat, Gilpin Pond, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

Bahama Yellowthroat (male)Bahama Yellowthroat (M) BH IMG_0675 copy

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

  • SIZE – the BW is slightly larger and sturdier than the CW
  • BEAK – larger in the BW, and some might say it tends to be decurved
  • COLOUR – the BW is more colourful, with more extensive yellow underparts and mask
  • FEMALES – both species lack the mask and are duller; the female BW has a greyer head
  • HABITAT – both are found in the same areas; the CW prefers denser vegetation near water
  • DEBATEABLE – it seems to me the pale stripe behind the mask is usually less prominent in the BW

Common Yellowthroat male with conspicuous pale head-stripe800px-Common_Yellowthroat_by_Dan_Pancamo

Both yellowthroat species are an endearing mix of shy and inquisitive. These birds are responsive to ‘pishing’, and once lured from cover they may remain nearby on low branches or shrubs watching you with interest as you watch them. Their song – similar in both species – is fairly easily imitated (or at least approximated), which may also bring them into the open – a source of great satisfaction to the amateur birder when it works. Unless it’s just coincidence, of course… The songs of the two species recorded below sound almost indistinguishable (except that the first one is professional and the second notably amateur…).

COMMON YELLOWTHROAT 

Todd Wilson / Xeno Canto

BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT

RH own recording

Female Common Yellowthroats are unassuming and quite delicate little birds. The first of these two images shows an immature bird, with its front beginning to become yellow. The second is a mature female.Common Yellowthroat (f, imm) Bruce Hallett IMG_9435Common Yellowthroat (f) Bruce Hallett IMG_4057

Two more male Common Yellowthroats to admire…Common Yellowthroat (m) Bruce Hallett IMG_4232  Common Yellow-throat, Abaco (Becky Marvil)

Photo Credits: Erik Gauger (1); Tom Sheley (2); Bruce Hallett (3, 5, 6, 7); Dan Pancamo /Wiki (4); Becky Marvil (8) Audio: Xeno Canto; RH

DIVERS VIEWS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (4)


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DIVERS VIEWS: ABACO’S ASTOUNDING UNDERGROUND CAVES (4)

The birds have had a very fair share of posts for the month so I am returning to some of Brian Kakuk’s astonishing images from his dives of the underground cave systems of Abaco.

Abaco caves map jpg

Here, he explores Dan’s Cave, one of several huge caves beneath the pine forests of the west side of South Abaco. This complex cave system is within the proposed South Abaco Blue Holes Conservation Area, one of four designated Protected Areas that I wrote about recently HERE SABHCA.

Abaco Caves Ralph & Dan jpg

You get a good idea of the massive size of this column in comparison with the diversDan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk) Dan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk)

‘Rooms’ are connected by narrow tunnels or passagesDan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk) Dan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk) Dan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk)

Individual caves have memorable names. This is the ‘Fanghorn Forest’ full of HelictitesHelictites, Fanghorn Forest, Dan's Cave, Abaco

Stalagmites or stalagtites? ‘Tites’ hang tight to the ceiling so they don’t fall off…Dan's Cave, Abaco (©Brian Kakuk)

All photos © Brian Kakuk, with thanks for use permission

A NEW BIRD SPECIES FOR ABACO: BROWN THRASHER


 Brown Thrasher, Judy Howle / DigiDiva - WunderPhotos

A NEW BIRD SPECIES FOR ABACO: BROWN THRASHER

The third new bird species this year has been found on Abaco by bird authority Woody Bracey.  After the excitement of 6 BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING DUCKS in June and a FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER in October comes the very recent sighting (with photos) of a BROWN THRASHER, hitherto unrecorded for Abaco. It was seen near Treasure Cay, at the site of a derelict restaurant.

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the same family that includes mockingbirds and the catbird – Mimidae. Its normal range includes Florida where it is resident,  so there’s only 200 miles of ocean to cross to reach Abaco. Easier still with a stop-over on Grand Bahama. However I’ve checked for other Bahamas sightings, and so far I have found one recorded for Grand Bahama, and one for Eleuthera. So this first sighting on Abaco is possibly only the third for the Bahamas, suggesting that the Thrasher is generally not a great adventurer.  

220px-Brown-Thrasher-rangemap

Here are some images in case you happen to see a strange brown speckled bird…Brown Thrasher (Manjith Kainickara wiki)

ADULT AND JUVENILE
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum, Virginia - cbgrfx123 wiki

And here are Woody’s evidential images of his sighting. They may not be such close shots as the others but they are conclusive for the record.P1070843P1070844

BESIDES ONE BIRD VISITING ABACO, WHAT’S  INTERESTING ABOUT THE THRASHER?

  • They are known to have more than 1000 types of song, one of the largest bird repertoires
  • They repeat phrases 2 or 3 times before moving on to another (somewhat like Mockingbirds)

Rick Wigh / Xeno Canto

  • They are omnivorous, eating insects, snails, worms etc; and balancing that with fruit, seeds and nuts
  • They are shy birds, but can be very aggressive when defending territory or a nest site
  • They used their slightly decurved beaks to thrash around under leaves and ground debris as they forage – hence the name

YES INDEED, BUT IS THERE ONE REALLY MEMORABLE FACT ABOUT THEM?

  • OK. Their necks are extremely flexible and they have more vertebrae than camels or (get this!) giraffes.
Brown_Thrasher (Ken Thomas wiki)AUDUBON’S DEPICTION OF A ‘FERRUGINOUS THRUSH’, AS IT WAS THEN KNOWNJohn James Audubon - Ferruginous Thrush

Credits: Judi Howle, Manjith Kainickara, Anon (wiki), Woody Bracey, Ken Thomas; Wunderphoto, Wiki, Xeno Canto

“ABACO’S GOT TALONS”: THE OSPREY


Osprey, Abaco (Jim Todd 2)

“ABACO’S GOT TALONS”: THE OSPREY

The magnificent Osprey Pandion haliaetus is one of the world’s most successful raptors and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

220px-Pandion_haliaetus_global_range.svg

Osprey, Abaco Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

On Abaco the Osprey is a permanent breeding resident, and while certainly not an ‘every day bird’, the chances of seeing one are reasonable. They are fairly often seen flying over the bay at Delphi, or out on the Marls. A pair recently nested at Sandy Point close to Nancy’s restaurant.

Ospreys, Abaco (Jim Todd)

There are few more exhilarating sights in the world of birds than an osprey swooping from a great height into the sea, emerging with a large fish held characteristically ‘fore and aft’ in its talons, and flying into the distance with heavy wing-beats. This wonderful close-up by wildlife photographer PHIL LANOUE shows an osprey that has actually managed to grab dinner for two…

osprey-flight-with-two-fish-03

This bird looks as if it is poised to dive onto some hapless fishOsprey in flight (Lake Wylie, S Carolina) - Gareth Rasberry

 10 PANDION POINTS TO PONDER

  • Ospreys are also known as sea hawks, fish hawks or fish eagles. They are almost exclusively fish-eating
  • A mature adult’s wingspan may reach 6 feet
  • They are the only members of their taxonomic family, genus and species
  • Ospreys & owls are the only raptors with reversible outer toes to grasp prey firmly
  • They can carry fish weighing more than 4 lbs
  • They dive into water feet first to grab its prey; their nostrils can close up to keep out water
  • Osprey-watch.org is a global site for mapping osprey nest locations / logging nesting observations
  • A New Jersey group has designed the optimum artificial nest platform, now an accepted standard
  • Ospreys usually mate for life
  • Osprey populations in many areas have been affected by pesticides and by egg trophy-hunters

PUTTING THE ‘PREY’ INTO ‘OSPREY’
Osprey, Florida (Danny Sauvageau)

A utility post makes a perfect perch for a bonefish snackOsprey, Abaco (Woody Bracey)  copy

CHECK OUT THE TALON…Osprey (Danny Sauvageau)

The impressive wingspan of an Abaco ospreyOsprey, Abaco (Craig Nash) copy

An osprey far out on the Marls. I managed to get some distance shots of it despite having a fishing rod in my hand…Osprey - Abaco Marls 1Osprey - Abaco Marls 2Osprey - Abaco Marls 4 Osprey - Abaco Marls 3

Osprey, by John James AudubonOsprey - John James Audubon

The Osprey is a prolific symbol in national, cultural and sporting themes, and has been depicted on Bahamas stamps. And quite right too.

Bahamas Wildlife Stamp Osprey copy

Wm Shakespeare Coriolanus

I think he [Coriolanus] will be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature… 

Credits: Jim Todd (1, 3), Tom Sheley (2), Phil Lanoue (4), Gareth Rasberry / Wiki (5), Danny Sauvageau (6, 8), Woody Bracey (7), Craig Nash (9), RH (Marls pics) – thanks for all image use permissions

ABACO’S FOUR PROTECTED AREAS: THE PROPOSALS


ABACO (CUBAN) PARROT (Caroline Stahala)

ABACO’S FOUR PROTECTED AREAS: THE PROPOSALS

The latest version of the 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BAHAMAS PROPOSAL FOR THE EXPANSION OF THE PROTECTED AREA SYSTEM OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF THE BAHAMAS has been published. It is a joint proposal by the Bahamas Government, The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust. The breadth of the scheme is very ambitious, affecting all the principal Bahama Islands. To understand the objectives and scope of the project, you can see the whole 34-page project by clicking BAHAMAS PROPOSED PROTECTED AREAS 2014 It is in pdf format, so you should be able to save it if you wish to.

Many people will be familiar with the proposals as they affect Abaco. However since the latest version appears to be a final draft, I thought it might be helpful to show the 4 proposed areas of protection and conservation in their present form. These are, in summary:

  1. THE ABACO MARLS NATIONAL RESERVE A vast area of nearly 200,000 acres (300 square miles) of mangrove flats, sandbanks, creeks and wetland habitat
  2. EAST ABACO CREEKS NATIONAL PARK 13,000 acres (20 square miles) of wetland habitat that provides a vital wildlife nursery, and includes blue holes, creeks and a significant area for recreational activities (though Pete’s Pub at Little Harbour may be just outside the zone…)
  3. CROSS HARBOUR PROTECTED AREA 14,000 acres (21 square miles) in South West Abaco, a crucial breeding area for a number of species,including bonefish
  4. SOUTH ABACO BLUE HOLES CONSERVATION AREA  A huge 34,000 acre (53 square miles) swathe of South Abaco to the west of the E D Highway, incorporating 4 inland blue holes and important cave systems, and 13 offshore blue holes. This is an area of mainly pine forest on land and low waters at sea, with an anticipated value for eco-tourism

Here are the BNT maps showing the extent of each area. Far more information will be found via the link to the report given above. 

THE ABACO PROPOSALS

Abaco Preserves 1 copy

Abaco Preserves 2 copyjpg Abaco Preserves 3 copyjpg Abaco Preserves 4 copyjpg

Credits: Parrot, (ex-)parrot protector Caroline Stahala; Maps, BNT; acres to sq m conversion, Gizmo!