A while back I wrote a post about the mysterious population of Cuban parrots in Nassau. The mysteries being, how and when did they get there; and how and especially why is the population slowly increasing when there is scant evidence of nests, fledglings or juveniles; and no equivalent secluded location for cave-nesting, as the Abaco parrots do in the limestone holes in the Abaco National Park.
STOP PRESSMelissa Maura comments“I was brought a wounded juvenile years ago, and raised and successfully released it here along with a wild flock of 5 or 6. They ARE nesting in the odd large tree cavity in undisclosed parts of Nassau. I’m pretty certain the original pair escaped from a cage within the garden of people associated with the BNT many years ago. They may have been re-habilitated youngsters, originally requiring human help. At any rate our precious birdies are thriving – along with the odd impostor!”
I won’t expound the theories again – if you are interested you can check out the original article HERE. You’ll find I have since incorporated quite a few very informative comments that were made in response, touching on the above mysteries but with differing theories.
HOW BIG IS THE NASSAU POPULATION?
In the summer, when I last researched this, the maximum reported number was about a dozen. It’s not clear whether those were all seen at the same time – obviously an important evidential factor, since it precludes double counting. It has now become clear that there are a minimum of 15 birds, because recently a flock of 15 were all sighted together. As I added to the previous post:
STOP PRESS On 6 October 2016 New Providence was in the direct path of Hurricane Matthew. Despite the power of the storm, by the following day there was a report of a sighting in Nassau. Today, 9 October, comes a report of a group of 15 – as far as I am aware the highest number sighted together. Maybe they all came together for solidarity… In any event, the sighting confirms that, at least as far as the parrots are concerned, the hurricane has not caused any problems.
Posing prettily for photos – though maybe a bit ‘snooty supermodel whatevah’ in the second…
The photos in this post were all taken in the last couple of days by Nassau Resident Lynn Gape, of the BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST. Some of them show very clearly the bright blue on the wings of these lovely birds – a colour that is much more evident in flight.
You can keep track of the Nassau parrots on a dedicated Facebook pageBAHAMA PARROTS OF NASSAU LOCATOR. This is a well-used resource, with many local people adding their sightings (in some cases, just the ‘hearings’) of these lovely (but raucous) birds. From the reports I was able to draw up a rough map for the main area of sightings (red oval), and the hotspot from which most reports are made (orange oval). There are outliers, of course, mainly to the south.
Like all parrot species, Cuban parrots are gregarious. And the more that are gathered together, the louder the party. And other psittacine species are happy to get in on the act. The image below and image #2 above show a black-headed parakeet mixed in with the parrots. I’ve seen earlier photos where he is hanging out with them. There seems to be no animosity between the species.
So there we have it. The population is rising and there is no definitive explanation. Releases of captive birds are unlikely, since these parrots are now a protected species. The smart money must, I think, be on a the colony nesting in tree holes somewhere secluded. Parrot awareness has greatly increased on New Providence, and no doubt the issue will eventually be resolved. But in many ways I rather hope it remains a mystery.
Where did they come from, and when did they arrive on New Providence? And how? The conventional wisdom is that the Cuban Amazon or rose-throated parrots (Amazona leucocephala) exist in the Bahamas only on South Abaco (from Marsh Harbour down to the National Park) and Inagua. The species is arguably (but not as yet officially) divisible into two subspecies. On Inagua, the parrots behave as you’d expect, including in their breeding and tree-nesting habits. Conversely, the parrots of Abaco nest underground in limestone holes and crevices in the National Park at the southern end of the island. This very distinctive habit makes them vulnerable to predators of course. On the other hand, there is good protection from the forest fires that pass rapidly and harmlessly through the scrub above them, yet which would make tree-nesting extremely hazardous. It would be interesting to know if the parrots of Abaco have always done this; or whether they were originally tree nesters who adapted their behaviour to meet changed conditions in their habitat.
WHEN DID THE PARROTS ARRIVE IN NASSAU?
The BAHAMA PARROTS OF NASSAU LOCATOR group was set up on Facebook in early 2012 by Shelley Cant-Woodside. Lynn Gape of the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) was also involved from that early stage. The stated purpose of the group was “to help locate the increasing reports of parrot sightings on NP in general and Nassau in particular”. This suggests an increased awareness of an existing intrusion of the colourful and noisy Cuban parrots, a species hard to mistake or ignore. At the other end of the time-scale for their arrival on NP, when omniscient and much-missed ornithologist Tony White published his comprehensive checklist for each Bahama island in his Birder’s Guide to the Bahama Islands (inc. TCI) in 1998, no record existed of a sighting of a Bahamas parrot on NP. Abaco and Inagua, yes. But nowhere else. So that gives less than a 14-year window for a parrot influx.
SO HOW DID THEY GET TO NP?
There are realistically two possibilities. Either two or more captive parrots on NP (including a male and a female!) escaped or were released on NP; or were brought to NP and freed. Alternatively, says another theory, a flock of parrots in the Abaco National Park were caught up in a hurricane, and involuntarily relocated to the nearest land in the confusion. It could of course be both (Helpful Reader: “…or neither?”). Shelley tells me: “I know thatARDASTRA GARDENS(Nassau Zoo) positively identified Bahama Parrots on New Providence as early as 2004, which is when I worked there. We were told at the time that some folks had purposely released them. I doubt that it is related to hurricanes”.
This theory is by far the most likely one, and is supported by anecdotal evidence. Even so, it is not entirely straightforward. I don’t know what protection was afforded the parrots in the Bahamas in the early 2000s, but certainly there were captive birds; and indeed there was and is a market for this species of Amazona further afield – Cuba for example, and (to my huge surprise) the UK, where a single bird may be had for £380 ($500). But even assuming the existence of a few males and females, they would have needed to breed. And there are few, if any, contemporary reports of parrot nests in trees; or of chicks or juveniles. If these bright, noisy birds were new to Nassau around 2004, they must surely have attracted some attention if they were breeding and spreading from then on.
I have taken a look at several Bahamas hurricanes and tropical storms between 2004 (the Ardastra ID) and 2012 (Locator page founded). Tracking and intensity information rules out most of them. It’s fair to say that the paths of the storms are almost invariably from the south / east veering west / northwards. You might think that a parrot flock could not be carried by hurricane 50 miles in the opposite direction, from the south of Abaco to New Providence. But perhaps disorientation and self-preservation play their parts – a psittacine instinct to fly away from the danger, in the opposite direction from its path, towards where the weather is calmer.
Hurricane Irene tracking path
WHAT’S THE ANSWER, THEN?
To check the rival theories, I asked well-known scientist and parrot expert Caroline Stahala for her views. This authoritative opinion leads to the conclusion that the Parrots of Nassau result from escape, or release from captivity, perhaps supplemented by later importation.
“I know people like the ‘hurricane’ theory but there isn’t much support for it, especially since we did get reports through-the-grapevine that someone had released these birds. They did show up after a serious hurricane season Frances/Jeanne etc  but thats probably because their housing in Nassau was damaged or the person who had them couldn’t take care of them properly. During hurricanes, parrots don’t fly away, they hunker down and ride out the storm. Amazon parrots absolutely do not like flying over large bodies of water, their wings are designed to be super manoeuverable in forests, not for distance flights, so the chance that they would fly over water during a hurricane is very very slim. Not to mention a whole group of them (6-12)”.
On the other hand, it’s not that simple. Lynn Gape (BNT) comments: “I heard the hurricane theory differently. I was told that someone thought that the parrots flew to Nassau with a flock of White Crowned Pigeons after one of the hurricanes. The thought being that although they do not like to fly over water, they were really in need of food and felt there would be strength in numbers for the flight”.
WHERE CAN I FIND THEM?
Almost all reported sightings have been in East Nassau. Occasional sightings have been reported outside that area but the overwhelming majority are within the RED oval on the map below, with the hotspot area within the ORANGE oval. I base this both on the Locator page and also the somewhat sporadic eBird reports.
SO THE NASSAU PARROTS MUST BE BREEDING, RIGHT?
Parrot sighting reports are increasing but that fact, as I have discovered on Abaco, does not necessarily suggest an increasing population. Increased citizen enthusiasm and awareness is also linked to increased bird reporting, as is the advent of simple reporting systems such as social media posts, eBird and so forth. However the impression I get from reading the Locator posts is that, while evidence of actual population growth is unclear, numbers may be being maintained despite an inevitable attrition rate. The Locator has sad images of 2 known casualties, causes of death unknown.
WHERE ARE THEY NESTING, THEN?
It seems that, unlike Abaco, there is no secluded forested area on NP with suitable limestone terrain to provide underground caves. Therefore the parrots must be finding other suitable cavities, the most obvious being in trees. As far as I can make out, there have been very few – if any – reports of juvenile parrots being seen. For that matter, there have been none of nesting behaviour either – a pair of parrots in a tree preparing a nest, taking turns on the eggs, foraging for food for the chicks, or squawking flying instructions at the fledglings**. So perhaps there is an unfrequented area of coppice on NP, some distance from the bustle of Nassau, where all this takes place in midsummer. By the time they put in an appearance in the town, they have already grown to young adulthood.
**COMMENTOn the question of evidence of nesting behaviour, Lynn Gape says: “I have seen four parrots in my garden, and they exhibited behaviour similar to what I have seen with adult and juvenile parrots on Inagua – calling for food, and adults feeding them. So possibly there may have been some successful breeding”.
This recent photo (below) by Ian Coerbell shows the sort of tree cavity that according to Caroline Stahala might be a possible nesting site. She says:
“I did document a nesting pair of Abaco parrots in Nassau. The nest was in a tree cavity. However, as long as the birds have been there, the numbers do not seem to have increased. For some reason they aren’t very successful on NP. Melissa Maura rehabbed a young Abaco parrot that was found malnourished & dehydrated in Nassau. She ended up releasing it but we don’t know what happened to it.”
Cat Binks has commented that she believes there is a nesting location in an overgrown lot adjacent within the ‘hotspot’ area. She sees them most evenings, sometimes as many as six. Cat also confirms that “enthusiasm and awareness has increased… I’m getting daily feedback about fly-overs [in the hotspot area]”.
A parrot and chick in a limestone cave nest on Abaco
HOW MANY OF THEM ARE THERE?
The BNT gave this estimate of numbers a few years ago:“There is a very small population (less than ten individuals) on the island of New Providence”. I suspect it is difficult to make a reliable estimate of numbers now. The birds are unbanded, and there is a considerable risk of double-counting when the sightings are of 2 or 3 at a time, in different locations over a very small area. I think it’s probable that the number has reached double figures, and that in any event it is not diminishing despite some casualties.
STOP PRESSOn 6 October 2016 New Providence was in the direct path of Hurricane Matthew. Despite the power of the storm, by the following day there was a report of a sighting in Nassau. Today, 9 October, comes a report of a group of 15 – as far as I am aware the highest number sighted together. Maybe they all came together for solidarity… In any event, the sighting confirms that, at least as far as the parrots are concerned, the hurricane has not caused any problems.
Caroline points out that there is a good chance of interbreeding between feral Amazon species in Nassau that ‘hang out’ with the so-called Abaco parrots:“That would basically make the Bahama parrot population a hybrid and not of much conservation use. Having said that, I still think its really neat that the birds are there and I hope everyone enjoys seeing them in a natural setting. Hopefully we can find out more about them in the next few years”.
Lynn comments: “With regards to the interbreeding with feral parrots that does not seem to be a problem at this time – we did at one time see them with a Yellow Nape Amazon but that bird has disappeared; and according to Caroline Stahala they will not breed with the Black-headed Parakeet. We thought that the birds did nest in a large tree right on Parliament Street. Caroline Stahala and Predensa Moore investigated but did not find conclusive proof. However the timing would correspond with the time when Melissa found and took care of the young parrot”.
WHAT ARE THE HAZARDS FOR THE PARROTS?
Numerous, as you’d imagine, especially in an urban setting, though the birds may have adapted their behaviour to an extent to avoid some of the obvious dangers. There is evidence that some birds are already adapting to urban life, as this recent photo shows. Two parrots have teamed up with a black-hooded parakeet (presumably escaped or released from captivity) to investigate a vehicle and maybe play with the windshield wipers…
STOP PRESS Parrot in a Gumelemi tree, Skyline Heights, Nassau. A great shot by Linda J Clews, with thanks. The parrots have sadly stopped coming to her property since the clearance of coppice to make way for the golf course of the Baha Mar development – an example of the effects of habitat loss on wildlife.
ARE THEY PROTECTED, OR CAN WE CAGE THEM OR SHOOT THEM?
Yes, and no, and definitely not. According to the Bahamas National Trust “Bahama Parrots are protected under the Wild Birds (Protection) Act. It is illegal to harm or capture or offer this bird for sale. The Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) list the Bahama Parrot in Appendix 1 meaning that it is a species which is near extinction or very endangered”.
If anyone would like to know what a flock of these wonderful but uninhibitedly raucous birds sounds like, this is a short recording I made at Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco (an excellent hotspot for them incidentally).
Credits: Shelley Cant-Woodside and Caroline Stahala for information and advice; Locator page members for active or tacit use permissions; photos by Melissa Maura (1, 2, 5); Lynn Gape (3, 7); Sandy Cunningham (4); Neill Pritchard (6, 10); Ian Coerbell (8); Caroline Stahala (9); Tim Colclough (11); Linda Clews (12); Keith Salvesen (13)
Occasionally I feature birds photographed elsewhere than on Abaco – GRAND BAHAMA, for example. Almost always they are birds that are recorded for Abaco but are rarely encountered there (and even more rarely photographed). The ROSEATE SPOONBILL, for one. Or they may be birds that have come very close to Abaco but not quite reached the island… the WOOD STORK for example.
Today, I am showcasing some birds photographed on Abaco by Duncan Mullis during a trip from Grand Bahama. My selections from his trip are chosen to showcase colourful birds, endemic birds, and favourite birds of mine. Yours too, I hope.
The other new species for Duncan was the PEARLY-EYED THRASHER. Until last March, this species had never been recorded on Abaco. Then one turned up in Treasure Cay and has stayed there ever since. It is the latest of several ‘new species’ found on Abaco in the last couple of years. To read about the discovery by Woody Bracey click on the link above or below.
ABACO PARROTS: BRIGHT GREEN, RED & BLUE = HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU
Painted buntings in the last post. And now some Abaco parrots. To adopt the joyous strangled yell of Noddy Holder (Slade, 1973, “Merry Christmas Everybody”)** “It’s….. CHRISTMASSSSSSS“. Abaco’s famous and unique ground-nesting parrots are about as seasonally festive as you could wish for. Bright, colourful, noisy and impossible to ignore. The run-up to Christmas is the perfect moment for a gallery of these fine birds that are making a very promising recovery from near-extinction thanks to intensive conservation measures over the last few years. There’s a caption competition at the end, too. Post your idea as a comment and there even may be something it it for the winner…
It’s Christmas. Season of Good Will. But what on earth is going on here…?
Credits: Melissa Maura (1, 2, 9), Peter Mantle (3), Keith Salvesen / RH (4, 8), Craig Nash (5), Bruce Hallett (6), Tom Sheley (7); Audio recorded by RH & Mrs RH at Bahamas Palm Shores
Well here’s a rum do. About four years ago, this somewhat minority interest blog emerged ‘mewling and puking’¹ into the world, guided by an incompetent male midwife whose basic training had been about 4 weeks of exposure to Abaco, its fishing, its wildlife, its geography and its history. ‘Bananaquit’ might as well have meant taking up a plantain-free diet. ‘Grassquit’ might have been the local word for ‘keep off the lawn’. And that’s before all the flowers. And the reef fish. And everything else that turned up during the storm-wracked voyage of discovery via polydamus swallowtails, manatees, spider wasps and batfish that led slowly to the calmer waters of ‘rather better informed (if no wiser)’.
Anyway, at midnight last night some unknown person kindly made the 250,000th visit to the blog, a target that once seemed inconceivable. In the past month, the 1000th person also signed up as a follower, another source of amazement. The reality is that despite Abaco being a sparsely-populated microdot island in a huge world, there are a great many people on the island or associated with it who are passionate about it and its extraordinarily diverse natural history. That knowledge makes curating this blog both easy and pleasurable.
I checked my stats for the last year to find out where hits from the top 10 countries – and for fun the bottom 1o – came from. Here’s the answer. Rather shamefully there was also a country I had never knowingly heard of, Palau (Micronesia). There follows a selection of a few photographs that have been popular over the years, mostly my own but the underwater ones are from Melinda Riger and Virginia Cooper of Grand Bahama Scuba.
Top 10 Bottom 10
The most popular searches – omitting posts about hurricanes, which always generate a lot of traffic – have concerned Abaco Parrots, Lignum Vitae, Sea Glass, the Loxahatchee poster series, Tarantula Hawk Wasps, Sea Biscuits / Urchins, Yellow Elder, Parrotfish, Shipwrecks, Hutias, Hole-in-the-Wall, Lionfish, Remora, and Abaco Maps. The most leftfield search of all was‘How dispose of dead bodies?’, by someone who had clearly strayed into the wrong category of website…
It would be strange to end this little celebration without a tip of the hat to Peter Mantle, old friend and genial doyen of the Delphi Club, for his wholehearted encouragement and support for the production and publication of THE DELPHI CLUB GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ABACO. This hefty tome, published in March 2014, showcases the wonderful and varied avian life on Abaco and has proved very popular – indeed well beyond our expectations. Although I appear nominally as author on the cover, it is in fact an extraordinary collaborative effort by some 30 people. The book’s success further demonstrates the commitment of Abaconians and other who love the island to Abaco’s rich natural heritage in an age of rapid change; and provides another good incentive for me to continue with the blog. Next stop: 500,000!
THE CARIBBEAN ENDEMIC BIRD FESTIVAL (CEBF) is a Caribbean-wide festival that aims to heighten awareness for birds generally in the region. It is sponsored by the excellent BIRDS CARIBBEANorganisation – click the link to see what it is all about. Birds, obviously, but from the points of view both of promoting and of preserving the rich avian variety throughout the Caribbean.
As part of the CEBF celebrations this month, a birding group from New Providence came to Abaco to explore the birdlife. The expedition group included several well-known local bird experts, all the better for locating and identifying species and ensuring a comprehensive checklist could be compiled. Also in the group was photographer Linda Huber, whose photos you will undoubtedly have seen in Bahamas publications, including the recently published small guideBEAUTIFUL BAHAMA BIRDS(click to see my review and further details – highly recommended for any birder from novice up). Here are a few of Linda’s photos of some of the birds seen during the expedition, a gallery that shows the extraordinary diversity of species to found in a short time on Abaco.
Apologies to those who received a ‘false start’ draft of this post. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, I pressed ‘Save Draft’… or thought I had. Why is the ‘Publish’ button so close? Oh. Right. I see. It’s not its fault, it’s mine…
Western Spindalis Spindalis zena Abaco Parrot Amazona leucocephala bahamensis
2 or 3 introduced or domestic species (if that Muscovy Duck was at Gilpin Point it’s a pet!)
The debatable ‘Caribbean Coot’, about which it has been written** The American Coot is familiar to all, but controversy surrounds the Caribbean Coot with its all-white frontal shield. Some authorities say it is a separate species; others say it is a true subspecies of the American Coot; some claim it is simply a local variant. Bond (1947) treats them as distinct species. The image below shows the two species together. They coexist contentedly and are indifferent to the debate.
The group on a Logging Track in the Abaco National Park
The New Providence Birding Group Expedition to Abaco
CREDITS All photos Linda Huber (with many thanks for use permission) except the pair of coots (Tony Hepburn) and the singing Bahama Yellowthroat in the BNT Flyer (Bruce Hallett)
Velma Knowles is a resident of Nassau but originates from Abaco, where her grandparents lived. She is a keen photographer and birder, and recently spent a few days ‘back home’ on Abaco, staying on Man-o-War Cay during that strange ‘Christmas to New Year’ period that people have begun to refer to uncomfortably as ‘Twixmas’. Which I guess goes well with ‘Winterval’, if that neologism to describe the festive season rocks your sleigh.
Obviously, Velma had her camera with her; and a bit of quality birding was built into her schedule. Man-o-War has been having a prolific winter season, birdwise, with plenty of interesting migratory species passing through or settling there till Spring. But who would be content with a random warbler from the North, when there are Abaco’s specialist birds to encounter. Many of the birds featured – all are permanent residents – were seen on Man-o-War; others on the main island, though not actually at Delphi. Every bird shown can readily be found at Delphi, except perhaps for the Royal Tern, hence a few mentions. Let’s see how Velma did during her brief visit. (Spoiler Alert: very well indeed!).
A first ‘get’ for anyone’s Abaco checklist, and hence the header image. Not available on the Cays, so a trip to the ‘mainland’ and the wild pine forest and coppice of South Abaco is called for (they don’t venture north of Marsh Harbour). Rescued from the brink of extinction by careful conservation measures, the newly regenerating population of these unique underground-nesting parrots is gradually spreading, making them easier to find. During the day, Bahamas Palm Shores is a likely spot, as are locations to the south, including Delphi and the area around Crossing Rocks down to Gilpin Point.
Abaco’s lovely endemic hummingbird, rather pushed around by the brash incomer Cuban Emerald and therefore tending to avoid them (though both can be found at Delphi). The MALE CUBAN EMERALD has a striking purple throat aka ‘gorget’; the female (below) encountered by Velma has a more delicate colouring.
Unlike the Woodstar, these pretty iridescent green hummers are not endemic yet are more frequently encountered. They fly and change direction with astonishing speed, and are feeder-keen! Your sugar-water feeder will also attract Bananquits (pointy curved beak for the little holes) and West Indian Woodpeckers (long tongue) – and possibly Woodstars.
Splendid and occasionally noisy birds that nest in boxes under the eaves at Delphi. They produce two families a year. Velma writes “It has been a long wait but I finally saw this lifer, the West Indian Woodpecker. This bird is only found in The Bahamas, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Awesome call!”
Velma writes “One of my targeted birds, the Western Spindalis, formerly called the stripe-headed tanager. On the way from the airport we spotted him on the side-of-the-road. Now that’s island-birding!”
Velma writes“Such a beautiful call… the Thick-billed Vireo. We heard a number of these guys on our bird-walks. The Thick-billed Vireo is a Caribbean endemic, being restricted to The Bahamas, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, two islands off of Cuba and one off of Haiti (though it has been reported in Florida)”
The adult male’s striking colour patches are orange-red; the female’s are more yellow. They are greedy at the feeder and rank high up in the pecking order, where smaller birds defer to them. One local name for them is ‘Police Bird’: the adult male’s colouring matches that of a Bahamian Police Officer’s uniform.