Red, green, blue, and a touch of snowy white. The colours of Christmas, sort of. We are past all that for another year, but for those on Abaco the unique, ground-nesting Abaco parrots Amazona leucocephala flash those same colours throughout the year.
These birds have cousins on Inagua that nest conventionally; and there are now a handful of NASSAU PARROTSon New Providence, of uncertain origin (click link for more on these).
The parrots are only found in South Abaco, between Marsh Harbour and the National Park where they live and breed in limestone holes in the forest floor.
You are most likely to hear these birds before you see them, as they make their way daily north in the morning and back again in the evening.
Despite the racket they make, finding the parrots in the National Park is a bit ‘needle-in-haystack’. Instead, try the Gilpin Point point area, and coppice areas to the north. They pass back and forth over Delphi, pausing to squabble noisily, almost daily. I have made several recordings of them – here’s one example.
Far and away the best location is Bahama Palm Shores, where the mix of dense coppice with their favourite gumbo limbo trees and the open gardens is much to their liking. And frankly, it’s a great place for birding anyway, even if you blank for the parrots.
Just think: a dozen years ago, these fine birds were sliding towards extinction, with an unsustainable population of fewer than 900. Conservation efforts and in particular attention to habitat protection and predator control have resulted in population increases year-on-year, and the total now stands at around 5000 adults.
I’ve posted quite a lot about these parrots over the years, so if you are already familiar with them, I hoped you felt free to skip the text, and simply to admire these wonderful creatures.
Credits: Gerlinde Taurer, Craig Nash, Tom Sheley, Caroline Stahala, Keith Salvesen, Peter Mantle, Nina Henry, Erik Gauger; audio recording Keith Salvesen
For tens of thousands of people, the past 2 weeks have been dominated by one cruelly aggressive female: Irma. In terms of a lucky escape, Abaco’s gain was elsewhere’s pain. Recently, only the vivid Wunderground trackers I have posted have stood out from the bleakness of the ominous clouds, pounding waves, and sluicing rain. With the prospects for Hurricane Jose wandering around in the mid-Atlantic looking increasingly good, it’s time for a look at something more cheerful.
Birds can lighten the spirit. As yet, I’ve seen few reports of how the birds on Abaco have fared, but the ones I have seen have been encouraging. A west-indian woodpecker back on his usual tree; a piping plover foraging on the beach at Winding Bay, even as the storm raged; bird business more or less as usual at Delphi. No news yet of Abaco’s iconic parrots, which will have most likely headed to the National Park for cover. They usually manage OK. The header image is a tip of the hat to them, their raucous beauty, and their healthy recovery from near-extinction over the last few years.
Here’s a small gallery of some of Abaco’s most colourful and striking birds for some light relief. Have a nice day!
Photo Credits: Abaco (Cuban) Parrot, Melissa Maura; Painted Bunting, Tom Sheley; Bananaquit, Keith Salvesen; Western Spindalis, Craig Nash; White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Keith Salvesen; Cuban Emerald (f), Keith Salvesen; Bahama Woodstar, Tom Sheley; Black-necked Stilt, Tom Sheley; Cuban Pewee, Keith Salvesen; Osprey, Tom Sheley; Bahama Yellowthroat, Gerlinde Taurer. Storm tracker, Wunderground
To be honest, the header image is not the sort of ‘fruity’ I had in mind, which was intended to have an entirely dietary connotation. I’m not quite sure what these two are up to – not procreation, I think, in that precarious situation. It looks non-aggressive… so maybe just having fun and… er… hanging out together.
Here are some Abaco parrots doing what they love to do in between group squawking sessions: gorge themselves on fruit, and getting at it any which way.
Upside down is really just a different angle to get at fruit
Noshing on berries
One in the beak, next one ready in the claw
Tackling something more substantial
And eventually out on a limb…
All great parrot photos by Melissa Maura, with thanks as always for use permission
New Providence, Bahamas – specifically in Nassau itself – now has a small population (c.15) of Cuban parrots. Their origin is debated, since the only known Bahamas breeding populations of these birds are on Abaco (underground nesting in limestone caves) and Inagua (conventional nesting). There’s more on the (probable) provenance of the New Providence birds HERE and HERE.
Whatever the location, the nesting arrangements or the precise origin, one fact is certain: these beautiful birds are prodigious eaters of fruit. Here are a couple of the Nassau parrots tucking in with relish on a sunny day. Soon they will fly off to other fruit trees nearby, emitting their loud excited squawks, to continue their day of feeding…
Note the wide businesslike spread of the claws
All photos: Melissa Maura, with thanks as always – and for a great new parrot header image…
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)
Abaco is spoilt for birds. What other island in the word has its very own population of ground-nesting parrots? (Clue: none). How many others provide a secluded winter home for the rare Kirtland’s Warbler? Or a safe habitat for piping plovers – more than 300 individual birds recorded last year, nearly 4% of the total population? Or host 32 warbler species in the winter to supplement the 5 resident species? Or record a visit from a black-browed albatross? Or enjoy 4 out of 5 of the Bahamian endemic species (no longer the Bahama Oriole sadly, now confined to specific areas of Andros).
A while back I held a poll for Abaco’s favourite bird, with about 10 contenders. Some were quick to point out that their own personal favourite was not an option, but I had to take a fairly broad brush approach. On the podium, gold went to the Bahama Woodstar; silver to the parrot; and bronze to the western spindalis. I’m in a genial mood today, having caught a fair-sized wild brown trout on my third (part) day of stalking it (over 2 weeks), on the smallest fly in my box (size 18). I put it straight back of course. Respect! So in a spirit of cordiality, here are some epic shots of Abaco’s democratically elected favourite bird… at least according to the poll.
The two images above were taken by the legendary Bruce Hallett, author of the go-to field guide for the Bahamas, which no birder should be without. Many of his wonderful photos appear in THE BIRDS OF ABACO, and he was a steady guiding hand during the preparation of the book.
This brilliant photo of a female woodstar was taken by Tara Lavallee of Bahama Palm Shores, and for composition, clarity, colour and sheer charm it was a must for inclusion in the book.
Another major photographic contributor was Tom Sheley. I had the pleasure of spending time on Abaco with Tom during expeditions deep into backcountry to find and photograph birds. He had two cameras, one with a long lens. The other had a very long lens. The results he obtained – showcased in the book – were outstanding. His woodstar graces the front cover.
Tom also took a delicate little study of a female woodstar feeding, one of my favourite photos