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

EARLY BIRDS ON ABACO: CHARLES CORY’S EXPEDITIONS 1891


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EARLY BIRDS ON ABACO: CHARLES CORY’S EXPEDITIONS 1891

Before the explorations of the american ornithologist Charles Cory towards the end of the c19, there had been few if any serious attempts to record the birds of the Bahama Islands, especially the sparsely populated ones such as Abaco. The english naturalist Mark Catesby had published his  wonderful The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands as early as 1754, which of course included some birds, but it was far from avian-specific. During the 1880s, Cory forsook the golf course (his other passion – he even competed in the 1904 Olympics but, as it is intriguingly put, “…did not finish…”) to concentrate on birds. He commenced his research for his List of the Birds of the West Indies, published in 1886. The scope was wide, including Antilles, Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola and the Bahamas. The book simply listed birds by family, giving the bird names in Latin, and the locations where they were found. It’s scarcely an enticing read, and the ‘print on demand’ copy I obtained for about $15 is frankly horrid.00199p1

In 1891, Cory and his colleague Mr C.L. Winch paid more specific attention to the Bahamas, visiting several islands, taking specimens and recording their findings. Cory subsequently published these in the ornithological journal of record, The Auk, established in 1884 as a quarterly peer-reviewed scientific journal and the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU).  I’m not clear whether Cory actually accompanied Winch throughout the voyages, or whether they covered the islands separately. In any event, the first visit to Abaco took place in March 1891, when Mr Winch took specimens and recorded the species he encountered.00161p1

Cory : Winch 1891 March jpg

To save you the bother of taxing your brain with Latin  taxonomies (in some cases out-of-date), the species recorded are shown below. Every one of these species might be seen during a March visit nowadays.

COLUMN 1 Semipalmated Plover; Common Ground Dove; Turkey Vulture; Smooth-billed Ani; Belted Kingfisher; Hairy Woodpecker; Bahama Woodstar; Cuban Emerald; La Sagra’s Flycatcher; Loggerhead Kingbird; Greater Antillean Bullfinch; Black-faced Grassquit; Western Spindalis; Thick-billed Vireo; Black-whiskered Vireo

COLUMN 2 Bananaquit; Black & White Warbler; Kirtland’s Warbler; Yellow Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Bahama Yellowthroat; Northern Waterthrush; Ovenbird; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; Gray Catbird; Northern Mockingbird;  Red-legged Thrush

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In June they were back on Abaco; or at least, Mr Winch had returned. This time, the list of species was somewhat different, as one might expect in the summer season. It contains one particular curiosity: the Bahama Oriole. This fine bird was sadly extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s, and may now only be found on Andros. There are reckoned to be only about 300 left, so the species is on the brink of extinction.Bahama Oriole.jpg (Wiki)

Charles Cory 1857 – 1921Charles Barney Cory 1857-1921 (Wiki)Cory List copy jpg

COLUMN 1 Red-tailed Hawk; Mourning Dove; Common Nighthawk; Cuban Emerald; Bahama Woodstar; West Indian Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; La Sagra’s Flycatcher; Cuban Pewee; Loggerhead Kingbird; Gray Kingbird; Bahama Oriole; Red-winged Blackbird

COLUMN 2  Greater Antillean Bullfinch; Western Spindalis; Thick-billed Vireo; Bahama Swallow; Bahama Yellowthroat; Pine Warbler; Olive-capped Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Bananaquit; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; Northern Mockingbird; Red-legged Thrush

Cory published his findings in The Auk
The Auk 1891

A regrettable ‘print-on-demand’ purchaseCory

Illustrations by John James Audubon 1785 – 1851 (who never visited Abaco)00422p1

For anyone with eyelids still open, you can read more about Bahamas birds and The Auk journal HERE

‘THE AUK’ JOURNAL: SUMMER BIRDS ON ABACO & IN THE BAHAMAS 1905


THE AUK

A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology

 

THE AUK is a quarterly journal published by the AOU specialising in promoting the scientific study of birds by means of original peer-reviewed reports. It has been in continuous publication since 1884, and can lay claim to be a (the?) foremost journal in its field. Here is the front page of  the first volume of the journal

The 1905 Vol 22 No. 2 contains a 22 page study by Glover M Allen entitled SUMMER BIRDS IN THE BAHAMAS. If you aren’t a particularly dedicated birder, my advice is ‘look away now’ and move on to a page, post or other occupation that interests you more. For the remaining 2 of you, stay tuned in. I thank you both. It will be worth it…

The article was published at a time when ornithological survey of the Bahamas was in its infancy. Cory’s famous list of birds collected from the islands had been published a mere 15 years earlier. Allen details his time spent with 2 companions – much of it on Abaco – as they investigated birdlife and recorded their findings. That aspect comprises the first part of the article. The second part is equally  fascinating: their list of bird species, with commentary, remarks and comparisons thrown in, together with some of the local names for the birds. Some of these are still in use, others perhaps long-forgotten. Is a Least Tern still known as a ‘Kill-‘em-Polly’? Here are some highlights for busy people:

FLAMINGO / SPOONBILL Of particular interest is the recording of the apparently imminent loss of the flamingo (“fillymingo”) from the Northern Bahamas – a single colony only still surviving on the Abaco Marls by 1905. Allen and his group found only one roseate spoonbill, also on the Marls (we were also lucky enough to see a single spoonbill on the Marls in June)

BAHAMA PARROT Those who follow the fortunes of these fine birds on this blog or elsewhere will be especially interested in the following extract, which suggest that at the start of the c20, the species had all but died out on Abaco: “Amazona bahamensis (Bryant). We were interested to learn through the captain of our schooner, that a few parrots still exist on Great Abaco. He told us of having seen a flock near Marsh Harbor the year before (1903) and in previous years had some- times observed a flock in late summer at that part of the island. We learned that at Acklin’s Island about 14o miles south of Nassau, parrots still nest in numbers and the young birds are regularly taken from the nest when fledged,and bronght to Nassau to be sold as pets” I will be posting about the parrots later this month, but suffice to say here that the current estimate for Abaco parrots is now around 4000 birds, a significant increase since conservation measures and a predator control program were started some years ago.

BAHAMA WOODSTAR These endemic hummingbirds, now taking second place to the in-comer Cuban Emerald, were plainly everywhere then: “On all the islands and cays, wherever there was bush or tree growth, this humming- bird occurred” 

“PARAKEETS” There seems to have been a significant population of these, known then as ‘Bahama Grassquits’. What species were – or are -these? The description doesn’t quite match the ‘quit family candidates we are familiar with today.

OTHER SPECIES Avian taxononomy, with its frequent official changes of classification, is a confusing area… but it seems that in 1905 there were then 2 distinct species of Spindalis (now, one); and 3 Mockingbird varieties (now, two). But of course there may simply have been a naming adjustment since the article was published…

For those who have stayed awake till now, your prize is the following link to the whole 22-page (small pages!) article

BAHAMAS BIRDS PAPER 1905