PLOVER APPRECIATION DAY 2018: ABACO’S 6 TREASURES


Wilson's Plover Chick, Abaco, Bahamas (Tom Sheley)

PLOVER APPRECIATION DAY 2018: ABACO’S 6 TREASURES

Every day of the year, or so it seems, at least one worthy creature has been awarded an ‘Appreciation Day’, a special day when a particular species has its profile raised and awareness spread around. It certainly seems to be the case with birds; I’m going to assume that it applies to all the other classes of animal – mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, each with their own worthy candidates for recognition. Except for no-see-ums, obviously. And fire ants, I hope. You’d think standing on a nest while taking photos just once in a lifetime would be a lesson. I’ve done it twice… Anyway, yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day 2018.

PLOVERS ON ABACO

Until recently Abaco had 33 recorded shorebird species but since the first-ever sightings of a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER in 2016, the number has risen to 34. Of these, a mere 6 are plovers: 

  • Black-bellied Plover                        Pluvialis squatarola                      WR 1
  • American Golden Plover                 Pluvialis dominica                         TR 4
  • Wilson’s Plover                                Ochthodromus wilsonia             PR B 2
  • Semipalmated Plover                     Charadrius semipalmatus            WR 2
  • Piping Plover                                    Charadrius melodus                     WR 3
  • Killdeer                                              Charadrius vociferus                    WR 2

The codes tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5)

The best-known of the 6 Abaco plover species is the Wilson’s Plover, because it is the only permanent resident. The American Golden Plover is a rare transient, but we luckily have a photo of one (below) taken on Abaco. All the others are winter residents and easy to middling hard to find.

The Piping Plover is the most interesting species, with a mere 8000 left in the world. There is a vigorous conservation program to protect them and their habitat, both in their breeding grounds in the North and their southern overwintering grounds. Their summer breeding range is in Canada and the Great Lakes, north-central US, and the eastern seaboard. In winter they migrate south, many to the Bahamas – and Abaco is one of their preferred homes. We count as many as we can between August and February, report the banded ones, and find out their origins and histories

BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER  Pluvialis squatarola   WR 1

Non-breeding plumage (as you would see normally it on Abaco, without the black belly)Black-bellied Plover intermediate plumage. Marls. Abaco Bahamas. Tom Sheley

 Breeding plumage – and the reason for the nameBlack-bellied Plover (breeding plumage), Bahamas (Linda Barry-Cooper)

AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER  Pluvialis dominica  TR 4

American Golden Plover, Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)

 SEMIPALMATED PLOVER Charadrius semipalmatus WR 2

Semi-palmated Plover, Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Semipalmated Plover (f nb), Abaco - Bruce Hallett

KILLDEER Charadrius vociferus WR 2

Kildeer, Abaco - Bruce Hallett

PIPING PLOVER  Charadrius melodus WR 3

Piping Plover, Bahamas (Tony Hepburn)Piping Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Peter Mantle)Piping Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen)

WILSON’S PLOVER Ochthodromus wilsonia  PR B 2

This permanent resident plover is a year-round presence on the Delphi Club beach, where in summer they nest and raise their tiny fluffball chicks. They are especially significant on Abaco as the only breeding plover species – it’s the only chance we get to see plover nests and chicks… (see header image and below).

Wilson's Plover, Delphi Club Beach, Abaco - Craig NashWilson's Plover, Abaco 12

RELATED POSTS

PIPING PLOVERS

50 WAYS TO PLEASE YOUR PLOVER

WILSON’S PLOVERS (1) ‘Dream Plover’

 WILSON’S PLOVERS (2) Nest Protection

 WILSON’S PLOVERS (3) Scrapes, Chicks & Broken Wings

SEMI-PALMATED PLOVERS

Photo credits: Tom Sheley (1, 2); Linda Barry-Cooper (3); Tony Hepburn (4, 5, 8); Bruce Hallett (6, 7); Peter Mantle (9); Keith Salvesen (10, 13); Sandy Walker (11); Craig Nash (12); Charmaine Albury (14)

Piping Plover, Abaco Bahamas (Charmaine Albury)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 15: SCORPIONFISH


Caribbean Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 15: SCORPIONFISH

The WTF? series is aimed at shedding light on fishes that are unusual. Or very unusual. Or puzzling, dangerous and maybe less than elegant in appearance. The scorpionfish is one such. It belongs to a large family, the Scorpaenidae, and many types are found throughout the world, especially in the Pacific and Indian oceans. LIONFISH, the newcomers to the western Atlantic, are a species of scorpionfish. 

Just another rock on the seabed…Caribbean Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

WHY ‘SCORPIONFISH’? THEY LOOK SCARY. ARE THEY DANGEROUS?

One feature common to many scorpionfish species is that they are highly venomous. As the name suggests, a sting is involved. Or several stings. These come from the creature’s sharp spines, which are coated with mucus, and are to be avoided. If you want to pet one, the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins are the ones to steer clear of – these all have venom glands at the base. The spines act like injection needles. Scorpionfish aren’t naturally aggressive (except to prey), but they know how to defend themselves if need be. If you get ‘got’, you are in for “extreme pain and burning sensation”.

Caribbean Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

DO THEY HAVE ANY OTHER TRICKS TO WATCH OUT FOR?

As many have written, scorpionfish are ‘Masters of Camouflage’. They are able to disguise themselves very effectively. Their appearance is a remarkably adapted to their surroundings, as if covered in a raggle-taggle of colourful algae. They can change colour to aid concealment. They can flick sand over themselves as they settle on the seabed. These ploys enable them to lie motionless on a coral reef or on the seabed, ready to ambush their prey. This consists mainly of small fishes and crustaceans, but really anything edible that will fit in their mouths is fair game. 

Concealed against coralCaribbean Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

HOW DO THEY FEED?

The large mouth of scorpionfishes has a particular function. They don’t have teeth because they have no need. A scorpionfish can open its mouth and its gills simultaneously, thereby creating an instant vacuum that will suck in its prey in a flash. I have seen this described as “a nearly imperceptible split-second movement (15 milliseconds)”

Caribbean Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop)

THESE SCARY MONSTERS MUST BE HUGE, RIGHT? I’M KEEPING OUT OF THE WATER

Not so fast. When all is said and done – and in my view, most disappointingly – adult Caribbean Scorpionfish grow in the range of… erm… 7 – 14 inches. So now you are reassured, here’s a great short video from Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop, who kindly shared it on YT. I’ve used a couple of illustrative stills from it too.

ANYTHING ELSE WE NEED TO KNOW?

I can do no better than to turn to Card 81 to the excellent Monsters of the Deep‘ series of trading cards (the link is to my MotD page). I do realise that this is a rather unscientific approach. On the other hand these guys pack memorable information into a very short space, and do it well. Note that you can get a reflex sting from a scorpionfish for up to a week after it has died. Eat dust, earthbound scorpions.

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 3, 4,); Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop (video from YT, 2 stills); Wierd (sic) Creatures / Monsters of the Deep (O/S)

Scorpionfish, Bahamas (Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop)

COOTS FIGHTING & THE CARIBBEAN COOT DEFEATED


Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)

COOTS FIGHTING & THE CARIBBEAN COOT DEFEATED

These coot fight images are from Phil Lanoue, whom I have featured before. He is a master of bird sequences, magicking a whole avian story or drama in a few clear, sharp photos. These types of image are well beyond my skills and my camera limitations. Here are 2 males battling over a female which, by the final aggressive image in which dominance is asserted, has disappeared for the picture…

Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)Coots Fighting (Phil Lanoue)

The other battle in Coot World occurred in 2016 when the endemic Caribbean Coot (formerly Fulica caribaea) was defeated by the combined forces of the American Coot (Fulica americana) and the all-powerful AOU, official arbiter of bird categorisation. They are now joined as a single species, the differences between the two types being considered insufficient to warrant separate species status. The familiar American version looks like this (note the red area on the shield above the beak):

American Coot - Bahamas - Great Abaco - Gerlinde Taurer

The ex-Caribbean Coot, has white frontal shield that extends to the top of the head. When I was compiling ‘Birds of Abaco‘ in 2013, there was already a question mark over the separate species status, with many regarding it as a sub-species of the American Coot. I wrote: There is an intriguing debate, a small book in itself, about the existence as a distinct species of the Caribbean Coot, with its white frontal shield. Many field guides include it separately, some with the rider that it is ‘unrecorded in the Bahamas’. The Bahamas Bird Records Committee does not recognise it, and Hallett, among other experts, views it simply as an American Coot variant. The image below of the two coots together is included to illustrate the visible difference between the birds. The genetic debate is fortunately outside the scope of this book”. That said, I pigheadedly went ahead and included it as a separate species anyway… 

An ex-Caribbean coot, with its white frontal shield.  Since 2016, just another coot'Caribbean' (now American' Coot - white frontal shield - Abaco, Bahamas. Woody Bracey

The research that led to the reclassification was based on the fact that breeding biology suggests that different species favour their own species for breeding. Research by Douglas McNair and Carol Cramer-Burke indicated that there is little or no ‘reproductive isolation’ of the sort to be expected in different species. The coots had no particular preference in their choice of mate. Also, they sound alike.

American Coot (Keith Salvesen)

RELATED POSTS

COOT AND GALLINULE  FEET: THE (BIG) DIFFERENCES

HOW THE MOORHEN (= GALLINULE) GOT ITS NAME

American Coot.Treasure Cay, Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley

Credits: Phil Lanoue (1 – 4); Gerlinde Taurer (5); Woody Bracey (6); Keith Salvesen (7); Tom Sheley (8). Research inc. eBird Caribbean – an excellent resource to check out

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY – ABACO’S 33 SPECIES (1): LARGER BIRDS


Whimbrel numenius phaeopus (Andreas Trepte / wiki)

WORLD SHOREBIRDS DAY – ABACO’S 33 SPECIES (1)

LARGER BIRDS

Today, September 6th, is World Shorebirds Day. Every year, a Shorebird of the Year is selected by the organisers of this global event, and this year they have gone ‘large’. Perhaps in response to the declining populations of curlew species, they have chosen a fine representative – the whimbrel. Inconveniently – and although the whimbrel is a worldwide species – it is extremely rare on Abaco. In the definitive Abaco Checklist (see below), it is coded a TR4, i.e. a very uncommon transient with a handful of sporadic reports. Until last year, sightings were very few and far between. Then suddenly last autumn, they made a small migratory comeback. You can read about it HERE.

BLACK-NECKED STILT  Himantopus mexicanus  PR B 3Black-necked Stilt, Abaco - Tom Sheley Black-necked stilt, Abaco - Alex Hughes

Abaco is home to 33 shorebird species. Like the human residents of the main island and cays, some are permanent; some are winter residents arriving from the north to enjoy a warmer climate; and some are transients – visitors that pass through a couple of times a year on their way from and to their nesting habitats. 

CHECKLIST OF ALL 33 SHOREBIRDS

The definitive checklist of Abaco’s birds was compiled especially for the BIRDS OF ABACO by Bahamas Birding author and authority, the late and much missed Tony White, with Abaco’s bird expert Elwood Bracey. Below is the shorebird list, with a photographic selection of the larger and/or longer-billed shorebirds in checklist order. Yes, including an Abaco whimbrel.

The codes will tell you, for any particular bird, when you may see it (P = permanent, WR = winter resident, TR = transient, V = vagrant); whether it breeds (B) on Abaco; and your chance of seeing it, graded from easy (1) to vanishingly unlikely (5).

AMERICAN AVOCET Recurvirostra americana   WR 4
American Avocet, New Providence - Tony Hepburn

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER  Haematopus palliatus PR B 2American Oystercatcher, Abaco 5.1 Tom Sheley

GREATER YELLOWLEGS  Tringa melanoleuca   WR 2Greater Yellowlegs LR. Abaco Bahamas.Tom Sheley.2.12 copy 2

LESSER YELLOWLEGS  Tringa flavipes  WR 3Lesser Yellowlegs.Evening on the Marls.Abaco Bahamas.2.13.Tom Sheley small2

WHIMBREL Numenius phaeopus TR4 (an Abaco one)

HUDSONIAN GODWIT Limosa haemastica [V5]

Like the whimbrel, this bird is another special bird to be able to include. Until last October, it was categorised as a V5, meaning that one or perhaps 2 vagrants had ever been seen on Abaco. Then one appeared on a pond and was spotted by Woody Bracey and, a few days later, by Keith Kemp – who even took confirmatory photos. You can read the story HERE.
Hudsonian Godwit, Abaco (Stewart Neilson)

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER  Limnodromus griseus  WR 1Short-billed Dowitcher (NB), Abaco - Bruce Hallett 

LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER  Limnodromus scolopaceus   WR 4Long-billed Dowitcher Mike Baird Wiki

WILLETT  Tringa semipalmata  PR B 2Willet.Abaco Bahamas.2.13.Tom Sheley small

WILSON’S SNIPE  Gallinago delicata   WR 3Wilson's Snipe, Abaco - Woody Bracey

RELATED POSTS

WHIMBREL

WILLET

BLACK-NECKED STILT

AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER

HUDSONIAN GODWIT

YELLOWLEGS

DOWITCHERS

Photo Credits: Andreas Trepte / Wiki (1);Tom Sheley (2, 5, 6, 7, 13); Alex Hughes (3);Tony Hepburn (4); Charmaine Albury (8, 9); Stewart Neilson / Wiki (10); Bruce Hallett (11); Mike Baird / Wiki (12); Woody Bracey (14)

FORAYS WITH MORAYS (4): THE GOLDENTAIL


Goldentail Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

FORAYS WITH MORAYS (4): THE GOLDENTAIL

The Goldentail Moray Eel Gymnothorax miliaris is one of the half-dozen moray species found in Bahamas waters. Adults range in length from about 1.5 to 2.5 feet, and they are creatures of the reefs and rocks of the western Atlantic. As far as I can make out, the goldentails are rather less common than green or spotted morays, the two main eel species of the Bahamas.

Goldentail Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Like their moray cousins, goldentails likes to keep themselves to themselves, and lead largely solitary lives. That said, sometimes they have been observed hunting in a group. They live in holes, clefts, and caverns which they leave both during the day and at night to hunt for prey along the reefs, aided by an acute sense of smell. Their diet is mainly of crustaceans, mollusks, and small fishes. 

goldentail-moray-eel-istock-getty-images-2

ARE GOLDENTAILS DANGEROUS?

Like many other eels, goldentails secrete a protective mucus that contains a toxin, making them unattractive prey for large predators such a groupers and barracudas. They are also associated with ciguatera poisoning, the active ingredients of which are found in the mucus coating. They are sometimes found in aquariums – the associated sites give a warning of painful bites, because they have backwards-pointing teeth (aka prey traps) – see header image for a clear view of this.

Goldentail Moray Eel (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)
 
CAN YOU EAT THESE FISH?

Well I wondered that too, so I checked. The answer seems to be yes, if you real really want to. Comments on forums include:

  • “Yes they are edible, I just ate one few weeks ago. Some parts are little bony and skinning it is a bitch. But the meat is very soft and white, delicious. Deep fry works”. 
  • “After eating our moray eel something changed. The next morning, we were decidedly feeling ill. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say that “gastrointestinal effects”
  • “…symptoms (of ciguatera) include gastronomic effects, and neurological effects which include headaches, numbness, paresthesia, muscle ache, and even hallucinations”.
  • “Before you can eat one you have to kill it. They are amazingly hard to kill. I would skip it.”
  • “I would rather eat a shoe”

So I’ll be moving straight on to the next course, please. Or just a Kalik would do, thanks.

goldentail-moray-eel-istock-getty-images-3

RELATED POSTS

SPOTTED MORAY EELS

GREEN MORAY EELS

goldentail-moray-eel-istock-getty-images-1.

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba (1, 2, 4); iStock / Getty Images (3, 5, 6)

 

 

 

 

CANADA WARBLER: A NEW BIRD FOR ABACO & BAHAMAS


Canada Warbler Cardellina canadensis - Abaco Bahamas (1st record) - Christopher Johnson

The first Canada Warbler recorded for Abaco AND Bahamas (Christopher Johnson)

CANADA WARBLER: A NEW BIRD FOR ABACO & BAHAMAS

As reliable as seasonal clockwork, the migratory warblers are swarming south from their summer breeding grounds to warmer climes for the winter. In the case of Abaco, this amounts to 32 warbler species to add to the 5 resident breeding species (Bahama Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Olive-capped Warbler, Pine Warbler & Bahama Warbler. 37 warblers in total.

Abaco's 37 warbler species - permanent residents (Keith Salvesen)

Well, now make that 38. On August 28th, young birder Christopher Johnson was out with well-known birding sage Woody Bracey when he saw something small and yellow hopping about in the coppice. On closer examination – and he took the photos to prove it – it was not just one of the many familiar yellowy winter warblers, but a completely new species recorded for Abaco and (more significantly) the entire Bahamas. It was a Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis (Linn. 1766) aka Wilsonia canadensis.

Canada Warbler Cardellina canadensis - Abaco Bahamas (1st record) - Christopher Johnson

The photo above is one of 3 that Christopher managed to take. In many respects it is typical of a field photograph: a small bird, at a distance, zero’d into focus through a small gap in the leaves and branches of thick coppice. Sharp bird, blurry surroundings. The trick is not to end up with a wonderful clear shot of a green leaf on its twig, with a small yellow blur in the background. (I perfected this ill-advised technique with my only photo of a Kirtland’s warbler).

Canada Warbler - Birdorable

WHERE WAS THIS BIRD DISCOVERED?

One of the features of the excellent birding to be found on Abaco is that some of it can be carried out in unexpected places. Town dumps are a classic example, though photos have to be taken with care to avoid unsightly rubbish-based settings. The Abaco Big Bird Poultry Farm area is another. This little bird was found there.

Abaco Map - Little Harbour / Marsh Harbour / Bird Site (KS)Canada Warbler Cardellina canadensis - Abaco Bahamas (1st record) - Christopher Johnson

Canada Warbler - Birdorable

SO WHERE WOULD IT NORMALLY BE FOUND? 

In summer, roughly 80% of CAWAs live and breed in Canada; 20% in the northern US. They spend a relatively short summer there. In the early Fall they fly down to South America. From the range map below, it looks as though their flight path would naturally take them right over the Bahamas to get to their destination. In fact, their journey is quite different. Following the central ‘bend’ of the Americas, they fly at night along a southwesterly route to the Texas coast, then on to southern Mexico and beyond.

I suspect that, as with many migratory birds, the occasional specimen takes a wrong turn on its route south, or is blown off-course by a storm. Maybe a few such vagrants pass through further east – even over the Bahamas perhaps – each year, as ‘vagrants’. But in reality their tiny size in the dense foliage of the land masses means that only a fluke sighting could result. So Christopher’s sighting will be recorded as a V5 – a vanishingly rare vagrant with only a single sighting (cf Abaco’s BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS).

canada-warbler-f-emmett-hume-wiki1

Canada Warbler - Birdorable

Q. DO MALES & FEMALES LOOK MUCH THE SAME? A. NO

Based on the Macaulay Library pictures below, the Abaco CAWA must be a female or an immature male. In comparing photos of this species (which I had never come across before) I have noticed one thing. The yellow lore (the area between the base of the beak and the eye) extends to include the top of the bird’s otherwise white eye-ring. This is found in both the male and the female. Now I need to check other eye-ringed species to see if this feature is a unique identifier or not…

Canada Warbler - Birdorable

WHAT DO I LISTEN FOR (JUST IN CASE…)?

The two sounds to listen for are the chirpy scrap of song and the ‘chip’ call.

WHAT IS THE CAWA’S CONSERVATION STATUS?

The CAWA is IUCN-listed as being of ‘least concern’. That of course is very far from saying it is of no concern at all. Surveys are already showing a gradual population decline in the breeding grounds. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the CAWA as ‘threatened’. Dull as it is to keep repeating the point, this species like most others faces all the usual threats to its existence, mostly man-made and during my lifetime…

  • Deforestation, habitat destruction and intrusion, development etc etc
  • Problems arising from acid rain and pollution
  • The uncontrolled spread of the tree-destroying woolly adelgid, an import from Asia
  • Oh, and all those damn deer browsing the understory a bit. Blame them!

Canada Warbler - Birdorable

ARE THERE ANY FUN FACTS ABOUT THIS BIRD?

Well, confusion about its name, maybe, though that’s more ‘interesting’ than ‘fun’, I think. In 1760, a French zoologist named Brisson gave a name to a warbler specimen from Canada. It was “Le gobe-mouche cendré de Canada”, ie ‘The Canadian Ash-gray Flycatcher’. Because he needed a conventional Latin name for the bird, he put together the name Muscicapa Canadensis Cinerea. This did not fit in with the binomial system of taxonomy (nor was it a very good description of the bird), and the name was accordingly rejected by the wonderfully named International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Linnaeus (to cut a longer story short) sorted it all out in his next edition of Systema Naturae in 1766, with the binomial name Muscicapa canadensis. In due course the genus Muscicapa was changed to Cardellina. 

THAT WASN’T A WHOLE LOT OF FUN. IS THERE MORE?

Well, there were more naming shenanigans when John James Audubon illustrated a female Canada warbler in Birds of America nearly a century later. Plate 73 (below) was entitled “Bonaparte’s Flycatching-Warbler—Muscicapa bonapartii.” He’d slipped in the name of ornithologist (and nephew of the more famous Emperor) CHARLES BONAPARTE, he of the BONAPARTE’S GULL. This version did not stick. However the CAWA acquired another ‘tribute’ name, an alternative that is still in use: Wilsonia canadensis. This tip of the hat is to another ornithologist ALEXANDER WILSON, of Wilson’s Plover fame. 

Canada Warbler / Bonaparte's Flycatching Warbler (J J Audubon)

canada-warbler-m-william-h-majoros-wiki

Photo Credits: Christopher Johnson (1, 2, 3); Emmet Hume / Wiki (4); Male / Female CAWAs, David Turgeon & Bob Edelen, Macaulay Library; Audubon Plate 73, OS; William H Majoros / Wiki. Sound Files, Ian Davies & Andrew Spencer / Xeno-Canto; Abaco Resident Warbler Chart, Keith Salvesen;, Cartoon by Birdorable; Range Map, Cornell U.

THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION


Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION

It’s quite a while since I posted about the Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) and the separation of its status from its cousin the Brown-headed Nuthatch HERE. I started by saying that it was one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas (or indeed anywhere), with a tiny population living only on Grand Bahama. It’s extraordinary to think that until the 1960s, these birds were common on the island. Then, for all the usual reasons, the  population began to decline “precipitously” (Tony White). By the 2000s, the most optimistic estimates suggested that about 1000 – 1200 mature birds might inhabit the pine forests. Other surveys showed far lower numbers. By now, the species had become highly vulnerable. Reports dwindled annually, and in some years only a handful sightings were recorded.

Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International, from Loma Linda Uni / Gary Slater)

Then in October 2016, Grand Bahama received a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew. It was as destructive as you might expect a violent Cat 5 storm could be. Without in any way seeking to diminish the far-reaching and devastating impact of the hurricane on the island (and elsewhere), I have to stick to the matter in hand here. The fact is that for nearly 2 years after Matthew and its trashing of the habitat, not a single BANU was sighted – this, despite many efforts to track one down in the known hotspot areas. It began to seem likely that  the little bird had simply been wiped out of existence. Since it is known nowhere else – not even on nearby Abaco – the Bahama Nuthatch had very probably become extinct.

Bahama Nuthatch (Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly Article)

Fast forward nearly two years and suddenly there is the first hint of a glimmer on the horizon for these little birds. Finding one is already a needle-in-a-haystack quest. The target is shy and tiny – about 4 ins long and 10 grams; and the search area is vast – more than 30,000 hectares. Yet this summer, amazingly, some Bahama Nuthatches have been found and photographed, a most happy – and perhaps optimistic – outcome, and a deserved return for some serious survey work. Excited publicity has spread well beyond the usual online birding resources and into the mainstream press.

Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International)

THE KEY SIGHTINGS

JUNE 2016

The last recorded sighting of the Bahama Nuthatch (2 birds) before Hurricane Matthew was made in June 2016 by well-known Grand Bahama bird expert and guide, Erika Gates.

Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates) Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates)

MAY 2018

The May sightings involved a team of ornithologists from the University of East Anglia, together with experts from Birdlife International and the Bahamas National Trust. They planned a 3-month expedition to locate this species, among others. Meanwhile another team of local scientists and students also carried out a search, led by Dr. Zeko McKenzie of the University of The Bahamas (North) with the American Bird Conservancy.

The first team eventually made a sighting in May 2018, and the elusive bird was captured by Matthew Garner of UEA on camera. They also obtained brief and tantalising video footage (below). In all, the UEA team made six nuthatch sightings, and Bahamian team independently made five sightings (including seeing what appeared to be two together). 

Bahama Nuthatch (Matthew Gardner UEA)

JULY 2018

Erika Gates, with Martha Cartwright  and Zeko McKenzie, again managed to locate a single nuthatch to add to the earlier 2018 sightings. She too managed to get some photos of the bird.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

Among the May birds – however many there were in total – one was a juvenile. Combined with 2 adults seen at one time, that makes 3 birds. The extent of the period of study and search area of the May sightings (11 in all) make it likely that more than 3 birds were seen overall. Erika’s July bird, in a slightly different location, suggests another. Perhaps no more can be said than that there may be half-a-dozen Bahama Nuthatches extant in the world. It’s some comfort.

 Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International)However, as the May operation noted, ‘We also don’t know the sex of the birds. In many cases when birds dwindle to such small numbers, any remaining birds are usually male.’ The consensus of the articles I have read is that the handful of birds seen this summer, while a thrilling discovery, should not be seen as any guarantee against extinction. Further habitat degradation, more development, another hurricane, any one of these could be fatal to the species. The recent sightings are cause for some optimism but these little, highly vulnerable birds remain on the very brink of extinction. Those few people who have seen one in the wild have had a precious experience.

Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

  • Habitat loss / degradation from development, logging, forest fires & hurricanes
  • Invasive / introduced / feral species such as corn snakes, raccoons & cats
  • Competition from other more prolific species in a limited habitat

The Bahamas National Trust has produced an excellent video account of the whole story from Shelley Cant-Woodside HERE 

SOME LINKS TO THE STORY 

Photo credits: Bruce Purdy (1, 11); Gary Slater / Birdlife.org (2); Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (3); Erika Gates (4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10); Matthew Gardner (6); Birdlife International (drawing); UEA & team (video)

Research credits include: Birdlife International / Birdlife.org; Lisa Sorenson; Tony White; Research Gate; IUCN; Bahamas National Trust; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; Loma Linda U; Science News; Sundry online publications; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)