ABACO BAHAMAS POST-DORIAN: HOPE & THE ICONIC PARROTS
As the intensive Hurricane Dorian relief operation continues on a devastated Abaco, the extent of the destructive power of the huge storm is all too evident. Gradually restored communications and the availability of social media have circulated far and wide the awful photos and aerial views of the smashed island, and the tragic stories of loss and desolation. Accounts of astonishing courage, determination and generosity are for all to see. And, nearly 4 weeks later, we have early signs of recovery and grounds for hope in a stricken land.
For the last 10 days or so, inquiries about Abaco’s birds and other wildlife have begun and are increasing daily. I take this as a sign that people are at last able to look slightly beyond the immediate horrors of the storm to the brighter horizon of the future. The iconic parrots are the principle concern, and finally – finally – I have some good news to bring. Here it is, in all its glory.
I have been waiting anxiously to pick up the first reports of parrot sightings – or even of their raucous squawks. This iPhone photo was taken yesterday at Bahama Palm Shores by Tara Lavallee. You are looking at the first photograph of the parrots since the end of last month. This pair were apparently wary and jumpy – quite unlike the unselfconscious rowdy birds with which we are so familiar. There was a sighting near Casuarina, too. It looks as though the parrots are returning.
WHERE HAVE THE PARROTS BEEN IN THE MEANTIME?
The parrots live and breed in the Abaco National Park right down in the south of the island. This is a vast area of pine forest that gives way to scrubland as it nears the coast. The assumption is that the approaching storm will have driven the parrots deep into the forest where, happily, they will have been some distance away from the destructive path of the hurricane. Many creatures can sense the approach of bad weather from changes in the air around them. This may trigger an instinct to head for home some time before the threat arrives.
ONCE THEY GET THERE, WHAT DO THEY DO?
They lie low. The parrots have an additional and most unusual way to stay safe. They can avoid the dangers of adverse weather and even forest fires because they live and nest underground in limestone caves deep in the National Park.
HOW RARE IS THAT?
The Abaco parrot (as opposed to its tree-nesting cousins in Inagua and in small numbers in Nassau) is unique in this respect, certainly in the northern hemisphere. There are half-a-dozen mostly inter-related species in the Antipodes that nest underground, but that is all. Even if the caves get flooded, limestone is a permeable rock and water will dissipate. And as for fires, the holes are deep enough for the flames to pass over them. Tree-dwellers are far more vulnerable.
DOES THIS MEAN THE PARROTS ARE ALL SAFE?
It’s much too early to judge, because there is another vital component in their survival: the availability and sufficiency of suitable food. This is the factor that most worries those concerned with the parrots’ welfare – the BNT, the scientists and naturalists who helped to bring the species back from the edge of extinction, and organisations further afield such as Birds Caribbean. So it’s a question now of where they will find to feed; and beyond that, how they respond if they find their usual feeding haunts trashed.
Feeding on Gumbo Limbo berries, a favourite snack
The signs are that the parrots are now emerging and looking for food. With luck their presence will become more noticeable. This is an important moment for collecting stats. They will help research into the effect of Dorian on the population including the wellbeing of the birds, their flocking behaviour, and the locations they now find to their liking. The fact that parrots have been seen at BPS, the parrot hotspot, is encouraging.
If anyone sees or even hears parrots over the next couple of weeks I’d welcome a report either directly or indirectly. The most helpful details are date, time, location and approx numbers (1, pair, a few, lots). Beyond that, behaviour notes are of interest – feeding, chattering, hanging round, being unsettled and so on. A photo is always a bonus, even a phone one.
Do not doubt the resilience of these beautiful birds. Now that the threat of extinction has been removed through skilled conservation, management and predator control, they will win through. If you doubt it, just look at this image below. It shows a nest in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Irene, with its occupant safe and sound as the parents forage for food and parrot scientist Caroline nips in with her camera.
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)
LIMESTONE CAVES ON ABACO: WELL WORTH LOOKING INTO…
I have written several posts in the last few months featuring Brian Kakuk’s amazing photos of the underwater caves of Abaco. These caves, mostly beneath Abaco’s pine forests, are fabulous treasures of rock and crystal. A recent post example can be seenHERE. I have also featured some of the famous Blues Holes of Abaco from time to time, for example HERE. So now it’s time to turn attention to ‘land caves’, the dry(ish) limestone holes and caverns that are dotted around Abaco, especially in the South, and bear witness to aeons of geological development through erosion.
The coppice and extensive pine forests are pitted with holes of widely varying sizes. I’m way out of my depth here, geology-wise (polite corrections invited), but this sort of landscape is I believe known asKARST. This term presumably includes Abaco’s ‘dry’ holes, the blue holes and the substantial network of underwater caverns. Small examples can readily be found in easily accessible places such as non-dense coppice. We were very surprised when we pushed our into the coppice bordering the Delphi Club guest drive and took a closer look at a hole. Although the weather was hot and dry at the time, you will see that the hole has some form of micro-climate, with damp walls and interior and wet-climate plants like small ferns and forms of what I take to be moss and algae.
ONE OF MANY LIMESTONE HOLES BESIDE THE DRIVES AT DELPHI
A HOLE NEAR HOLE-IN-THE -WALL – LARGER INSIDE THAN IT LOOKS
THE CAVE-DWELLERS OF ABACO: THEFABULOUSPARROTS
Among the best-known special residents of Abaco are the ground-nesting parrots, gorgeous birds that I have often featured in the past – see the parrot page HERE. Not so long ago, their numbers had reduced to an unsustainable population – fewer than 1000 – that faced extinction. The creation of the National Park covering the pine forests where they breed, coupled with a vigilant and intensive conservation program, have reversed the trend. There is now a sustainable breeding population again, exceeding 3000 birds.
The only other breeding Cuban parrot population in the Bahamas is found on Inagua, where they nest conventionally in trees. There is a very small non-breeding population on New Providence. Abaco’s cave-dwelling subspecies of the cuban parrot is unique. Here’s an insight into how they live, deep in the pine forest, during the summer breeding season, with many thanks to Caroline Stahala, the scientist who spent some 10 years researching and protecting the parrots.
PARROT NEST HOLES: VULNERABLE TO PREDATORS, PROTECTED FROM FOREST FIRES
PARROTS MAY NEST DEEP – OR SHALLOW.
THE BREEDING SEASON: NEST, EGGS, HATCHLINGS, FLEDGELINGS…
HOW BIG DO THE ‘DRY’ HOLES GET?
TBH my personal experience is somewhat limited. I believe there are large, sea-scoured caves along rocky parts of the south coast, but those are rather different from the eroded ground holes discussed here. As so often I rely on Mrs RH – far more intrepid than me – and her exploring skills. The cave shown below is right down at the far south of Abaco, at Hole-in-the-Wall, hidden in the coppice along the ‘Soldier Road’ from the T-junction (we are talking rough tracks here – very – not proper roads) towards the lighthouse.
The rock is far more colourful than you might expect
Credits: Caroline “The Parrot Lady” Stahala; Mrs RH for investigating the last cave and taking the camera with her; RH the rest; Woody Bracey for our great day of birding at Hole-in-the-Wall and his local knowledge of the area…
The dawn of a New Year shimmers just below the horizon, with all its bright promise for the future. It provides a convenient excuse to peer symbolically into the limestone holes of the remarkableABACO PARROT to take a peek at some newly hatched eggs and the tiny chicks that will, by next spring, look like the handsome bird at the top of the page…
This website is not overly preoccupied with stats, but I have had a quick look to see which posts were the most popular during 2013. Here, for better or worse (I didn’t make the choices…), are the top dozen, introduced by the cutest chick of the year, a Wilson’s plover calling for its mum…
So! Farewell then 2013. Like the Curate’s egg, you were good in parts – indeed, many parts of you were excellent. Now, like Raphus cucullatus, you will become extinct, leaving remains and memories behind you… Thanks to all loyal followers of this site for sticking with it and its eccentricities (especially the musical digressions). If you wound up here by chance, mistyped g@@gle search or sheer misfortune, cheers… A very Happy New Year to you all!
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History – there’s also a dodo skeleton in the Oxford University Museum of natural History
Credits: Parrot nests – Caroline Stahala (the scientist i/c parrots); the rest – RH
‘Rolling Harbour: The Blog’ had humble beginnings – a dodgy structure built on foundations formed of an unpromising mix of ignorance and incompetence. Gradually it has come together, to the extent that it has just passed the 125,000 visits mark. Abaco is a small and uncrowded island, so the audience demographic [to use biz-speak] isn’t large. However the wildlife, scenery and lifestyle have turned out to have a wider appeal. 1/8 of a million people (or perhaps 1 crazy punter with repetitive strain injury from checking in unhealthily often) deserve a few of Abaco’s unique parrots in return.
I THANK YOU ALL
WHERE IT ALL BEGINS – AN UNDERGROUND NEST DEEP IN THE NATIONAL FOREST
EVENTUALLY THE CHICKS HATCH…
IN DUE COURSE THEY ARE READY TO BE CHECKED OVER AND RINGED
THEY HAVE NO FEAR OF THE ‘PARROT LADY’, SCIENTIST CAROLINE
SOON THEY ARE INDEPENDENT AND DISCOVERING THE JOYS OF GUMBO LIMBO BERRIES
KEEPING A BEADY EYE OUT…
…BUT NOT ALL THE TIME
‘HOW DO I LOOK AGAINST A BRIGHT BLUE SKY?’
PARROTS HAVING AN EARLY EVENING GET-TOGETHER AT BAHAMA PALM SHORES
‘GOODNESS ME, IS THAT THE TIME? I MUST FLY…’
Credits: Caroline Stahala, Melissa Maura, RH; recording and video RH
Time to write some more about Abaco’s most famous bird, the unique ground-nesting Amazon / Cuban parrot sub-species that makes Abaco its home, and breeds in the pine forests of the Abaco National Park in the south of the island. You’ll find lots of information and photos on the dedicated page ABACO PARROTS.
This post covers the 2012 breeding season, and highlights the success of scientist Caroline Stahala and her team in helping to secure the future of these rare endangered birds. The population had shrunk to around 2500 (or fewer) some years ago. More recently it had risen to 3000. An intensive conservation program, including anti-predation measures, has proved effective; and a systematic ringing program has enabled the team to keep a close eye on recovering parrot numbers. Caroline says that the population is now in the region of 4000, confirming an encouraging reversal of a dismal decline towards extinction for these beautiful birds.
ABACO PARROTS IN THE PINE FOREST
The parrots breed only in the pine forest, where they nest in quite deep holes in the limestone rock. This makes the nests and the areas round them vulnerable to predation from feral cats and rodents etc; but conversely it offers protection from the forest fires that would destroy tree nests.
The holes are often well concealed in the undergrowth and take some searching for…
Both parents are involved in the nesting and later chick care. The female lays 2 – 4 eggs.
The chicks hatch after an incubation period of around 26 days
Some of the nest holes are remarkably deep: the parent parrots clamber up and down the sides
The chicks grow the beginnings of feathers, remaining quite unattractive except to their parents
By coincidence, as I was producing the post above, Craig Layman at THE ABACO SCIENTIST was also ruminating on the topic of Abaco parrot breeding. He posted the comments below, which raise the very interesting question whether the Abaco parrots, with their increased population, may be starting to breed outside the National park. Caroline can probably answer this (see COMMENTS), but does anyone have any direct evidence to suggest a wider breeding habitat? I guess there would need to be a suitably pitted rock structure for the nests, and an absence of the usual cat- and rat-type predators that one might find nearer human populations. Answers welcomed via the comment box…
(Sort of) A Bahama Parrot Study
Posted by laymanc 26 Nov 2012
It isn’t really much of a study, but the only “science” I have been able to do over the last week with the continued turbidity of nearshore waters.
The Bahama parrot (more informationHERE andHERE)is one of the iconic Bahamas animals, and the main factor behind the establishment of theABACO NATIONAL PARKin southern Abaco. But my study has been conducted instead from my desk in Little Harbour. My main finding is simple: the range of the parrot has clearly expanded; it has now been a full calendar in which parrots have been in the area. Just a few days ago two dozen were squawking around the harbour. The key will be whether they begin nesting here as well – I havent heard reports of that yet. But if they do, the expanding nesting range will substantially increase long term viability of the parrot on Abaco. That ends my first ever Bahama parrot study (I really need more time in the water when I come back).