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)
HAWKSBILL TURTLES: A RARE FIND & SWIMMING WITH ANGELS
There is something unusual about this juvenile hawksbill turtle peacefully noodling round some impressive elkhorn coral with the grunts and sergeant majors. He’s a rarity. He was found at West End, Grand Bahama (just 67 miles swim from West Palm Beach Fl.), a place where hawksbills are very scarce. Loggerheads, they have. And there are plenty of hawksbills elsewhere in Grand Bahama waters. But not at the western tip. So finding this little guy and getting some good photos was a particular pleasure for Linda Cooper. And maybe the presence of a juvenile is a sign that hawksbills may begin to populate the reefs of West End, as perhaps they did historically.
Linda and her husband Keith run West End Ecology Tours.They have a comprehensive website HEREand a Facebook pageHERE. Check it out to see how much there is to explore at West End. The birds, the corals and reef life, the starfish – and a speciality, swimming with rays. To which can now be added the chance of seeing a hawksbill turtle…
A DOZEN HAWKSBILL FACTS TO CHEW OVER
All sea turtles are classed as reptiles (something that always surprises me, somehow)
The top shell (carapace) consists of scales that overlap like roof shingles
The yellowish bottom shell is called the plastron
Adult hawksbills weigh around 100 pounds
Sea turtles sleep at night, and can stay underwater for a hours without breathing
Hawksbills are omnivorous, eating algae and seagrass but also sponges, urchins and small fish
Females lay about 100 eggs like ping-pong balls, and then at once return to the sea for good
The sex of baby turtles is determined by relative nest warmth – females from the top eggs
Baby turtles hatch almost simultaneously: all must work to dig their way out.
They tend to hatch at night and head straight for the sea’s phosphorescence…
…except that artificial lights confuse them & lead them away from the sea to likely death
As I was writing this, another fact about hawksbills popped into my head. I checked through my archive – mainly Melinda Riger’s wonderful shots from elsewhere on GB – and yes, it is true. There seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the turtles and angelfish. They are often found feeding together. A bit of research confirms this general observation, without giving a clear cause for it. Maybe it is simply that they eat some of the same food; and that there is plenty of it on healthy reefs so there is no cause for aggression on either side. It’s fine for a hawksbill to share with an angel.
NOTE The Hawksbill is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN red list of Threatened species as its populations have declined dramatically throughout the world and especially in the Caribbean region. It is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on the InternatIonal Trade of Endangered SpecIes (CITES) meaning that Hawksbills are near extinction or very endangered. All marine turtles are now protected under Bahamian law, as is the taking of eggs.
Credits: West End Ecology Tours / Linda & Keith Cooper (photos 1, 2, 3); Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba, all other images;BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST for their very useful fact-sheet (one of many) which I have adopted and adapted; Aquoflite for the vid.
Today the NOAA and other worldwide ocean guardian organisations are celebrating World Oceans Day. Looking at the websites and FB pages, one message is clear: People Are Rubbish. To put it another way, the global pollution of the oceans is caused solely by humans. The pristine seas and beaches of the world were unsullied until, say, the last 200 years. In 4 or 5 generations, all that has changed irreversibly.
My rather (= very) negative intro is counterbalanced by some more positive news: there are plenty of good guys out there working hard to make a difference to the rising tide of filth polluting the oceans. Clearing seas and beaches of plastic and other debris. Collecting tons and tons of abandoned fishing gear. Rescuing creatures trapped, entangled, injured and engulfed by marine debris and pollutants. Educating adults and – far more importantly – children and young people by actively involving them in their campaigns. Conducting research programmes. Lobbying and protesting. And a lot more besides.
A marine garbage patch: the sea creatures’ view (NOAA)
Abandoned fishing gear: a monk seal that was lucky; and a turtle that wasn’t (NOAA)
Four shearwaters killed by a cone trap. A fifth was rescued (NOAA)
The NOAA and sister organisations carry out massive programmes of clearance of marine debris, with working parties of volunteers who do what they can to deal with an intractable problem.
Elsewhere, some tackle the problems caused by particular types of trash, balloons being an excellent example. I have posted before about BALLOONS BLOW, the brainchild of two sisters who learnt of the serious consequences to wildlife caused by mass balloon releases. Their work has been so effective that increasing numbers of mass releases are being cancelled in favour of other forms of celebration. A minus for balloon-makers of course, but a big plus for wildlife. The BB sisters also keep their own beach clear of the junk brought in on every tide.
And on an individual basis, any old fool can make a tiny difference to a local beach. Here is one such doing just that…
A tangle of balloon strings on Delphi beach
Guinea Schooner Bay: little visited, rarely cleaned. Plastic crap from a 10 foot radius
“TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL”: WHERE CONSERVATION BEGINS
“Catch ’em young”. The perfect plan with children. On Abaco, wonderful work is continually being done with young children on the mainland and on each cay to teach them how precious their environment is, how fragile, and how important it is to take good care of it. The huge enthusiasm of the youngsters casts a beam of light onto the rather dark global picture of habitat destruction, pollution and ecological neglect that we have become depressingly accustomed too.
Education and training is carried out in schools; field work is done involving children of all ages; and camps are organised. FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT carries out this invaluable and rewarding task on an almost daily basis, offering students an astounding range of environment-based activities. Even the very youngest are catered for: the “Sea Beans Club” is an after-school club for ages 3-5, which introduces young minds to their environment through educational activities and outdoor play.
Students and researchers from CWFNJ survey the beach to make sure that their activities will not disturb any plovers feeding in the area
Students and volunteers selectively remove small invasive Casuarinas, which were encroaching on plover roosting habitat. By removing the invasive plants, native plants will be able to flourish and help stabilize the beach.
The BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST, too, plays its part in educating children about the fascinating yet frail world around them. For example, Scott Johnson’s snake protection work, in which he demonstrates to small kids that Bahamas snakes are completely harmless and to be respected not feared, is a wonder to behold.
BNT’s Scott Johnson visits a school with his non-scary snakes
In addition there are strong partnerships with organisations many miles away from the Bahamas, of which the CONSERVE WILDLIFE FOUNDATION OF NJis the prime example. Todd Pover, Stephanie Egger and the team take their remit beyond their well-known piping plover conservation work by engaging with the pupils of Abaco’s schools each year and inspiring them.
Much of the work is done in the field, getting the children interested in birds, the shoreline, the vital ecological role of mangroves, and the problems of marine debris. Other important work can be done in the classroom.
(A quick shout-out to Tom Reed, who I know took the piping plover photo!)
The clear message being sent out to the schoolchildren on Abaco is this: you are never too young to learn how to appreciate, respect and look after your environment. And they are responding with intelligence and enthusiasm. We are lucky that these kids are the future.
Stephanie Egger of CWFNJ writes:“This year, we’ve reached over 120 students through the Shorebird Sister School Network Program, both from the Bahamas and in the United States. We hope to foster a greater appreciation for wildlife, especially for the Piping Plover and its habitat, and inspire students to help now — and later on in their lives as adults — ensuring the recovery and survival of the bird for years to come”.
VOLUNTARY MUSICAL DIGRESSION
“Teach your Children” is the second track of Déja Vu, the 1970 CSNY album. Nash wrote it much earlier, when still with the Hollies, then stored it in his musical lumber room. Just as well: it fits perfectly with the rather fey hippy vibe of the rest of Déja Vu.
Credits: huge thanks for general use permission for material to FotE, BNT and CWFNJ; and to all the individual photographers concerned
WHEN A BIG BILL JUST MAKES YOU SMILE… WILSON’S SNIPE ON ABACO
Wilson’s snipe Gallinago delicata is a plump little bird that is classified as a shorebird. But unlike some, it is not confined to the shore and immediate hinterland – marshland or brackish pond regions are also favoured habitats. Until recently (2003) the Wilson’s was treated as a subspecies of the widespread Common Snipe, before being accorded its own species-status. Something to do with white on the wing edges and a couple more tail feathers. If you want to know who Mr Wilson was (who also ‘owns’ other birds such as a plover and a phalarope) you can find outHERE.
A Wilson’s Snipe on Abaco (but not on the shore…)
The snipe, in common with several species such as the woodcock, willet and dowitcher, has a notably long bill. The header image is one of the best I have come across that clearly illustrate it, and comes from the extensive archive of the excellentBIRDS CARIBBEAN. The naturalist concerned noted “…check out this remarkable bill. If you have not held a shorebird like this in your hand, the bill is pliable, flexible, and innervated. The snipe feels its way through the muck and then plucks the worm out like tweezers”.
SNIPES AND SNIPERS
The snipe has the misfortune to be a game bird. In the c19, its populations began to reduce due to habitat destruction – especially the draining of marshland – to which it is still vulnerable, of course. But more serious was its increasing popularity with hunters as a difficult bird to shoot, with its fast, jagging flight. A hunter skilled enough to shoot snipe successfully became known as a “sniper”, a usage coined some 200 years ago. I imagine the verb ‘to snipe (at)’ a person derives from this usage, meaning to fire off a quick, accurate, possibly hurtful remark.
Despite these drawbacks, there are enough snipe for the species to remain IUCN-listed ‘least concern’. In the Bahamas, they can be hunted between autumn and spring. This is the relevant page from the BNT HUNTERS’ GUIDE
WILL I SEE WISNs ON ABACO?
Although the Wilson’s snipe is one of the most widespread shorebirds in North America, they are far less readily found on Abaco. For a start, they are migratory in the Bahamas, and only resident in winter (broadly, October to March), their non-breeding season. So don’t expect to find them during your pleasant stay in June. Secondly, they are classed as ‘rare’, one grade harder to find than ‘uncommon’. Thirdly, they are shy and well-camouflaged. Unless they choose to be out in the open – foraging in water, or maybe standing on a post – they can be very hard to see. And in winter it seems they tend to hunker down more and fly less than in the breeding season. Maybe they show more in summer because they know it’s the closed season for hunting… Compare the next two images, one taken on Abaco in winter, and one (cheers, Wiki) elsewhere in the summer.
A winter snipe on Abaco – shy, retiring and blending in with its surroundings
Wilson’s snipe in summer, confidently on a post in summer (closed season for hunters…)
DO SNIPES HAVE A DISTINCTIVE CALL THAT I WILL INSTANTLY RECOGNISE?
Not really, I’m afraid. Not easy for an amateur (me). They have a variety of vocalisations – calls, flight calls, and songs. They also make a sound called ‘winnowing’ with their tails while in flight. Here are a few short examples.
CALL / SONG Harry Lehto Xeno Canto
CALL /SONG Pasi Pirinen Xeno Canto
CALL Richard E Webster Xeno Canto
FLIGHT CALL Paul Marvin Xeno Canto
Now that the wonderful Crossley Guide ID bird images are available ‘open source’, I shall be including them in future species posts. When I remember. Their advantage is that in one image you can see all aspects of a paricular species – gender, breeding plumage, typical ‘poses’, in flight and so forth. A truly great resource for bird identification.
Credits: Birds Caribbean, Charles Skinner x 3, BNT, Alan D. Wilson, Woody Bracey, Sean Breazeal, Xeno Canto, Crossley ID Guides, Wiki, Audubon, Cornell and sundry worthy OK sources…
We do not generally do sad or sombre at Rolling Harbour. It’s a beautiful and happy place, and the Delphi Club is a haven of good fellowship and good craic (stemming no doubt from its Irish connections). But I have to report on a sad occurrence on the beach at Delphi and, as it turns out, at many other Abaco locations (and beyond) during June – a notable number of shearwaters being found dying or dead on beaches or else in the sea, their bodies in due course being washed in on the tide.
There are quite a few species of shearwater worldwide, of which 5 are recorded for Abaco. The only permanent breeding resident is the Audubon’s Shearwater, a bird that is quite commonly seen out at sea though not, I imagine, on land. We never managed to obtain a photo of one for “The Birds of Abaco”. I presume there are breeding colonies on Abaco, but not that I have heard about.
As the checklist above shows, three of the other shearwaters are rare transients. These birds fly long migration routes over the ocean and so the casual birder is in practice unlikely to encounter one, let alone get a photograph. The Manx can be ignored as an aberration – the V5 means that one or two vagrant individuals have been recorded since (say) 1950.
My first inkling that something unusual was occurring came a week ago from a FB post by Melissa Maura, whose wonderful parrot and flamingo photos feature elsewhere in these pages.She said “…on my rugged Abaco ocean beach last week, were many dead magnificent seabirds – greater shearwaters (about 5) and a couple of Frigate birds… They didn’t appear to wash in on the waves, but appeared to have perished perhaps from exhaustion on the beach”. Various later comments suggested that this phenomenon had been noted periodically in the past, the last time 4 or 5 years ago.
This was followed a couple of days later by evidence from well-known birding maestro Woody Bracey that living great shearwaters were in Abaco waters, perhaps confirming that they are in mid-migration at the moment. The one in #2 was “caught” 3 miles off Great Guana Cay.
Then a couple of days ago Jane Mantle emailed me with photos of some dead birds on the beach at Delphi saying that “half- dead birds are washing up on the beach ‘only for the vultures to finish off’. We must have over 20 with more to come”. I circulated these to the ‘usual suspects’ for ID and comment.
I also posted the photos on myRH FBto see if others had seen anything similar. Many thanks to all those who ‘liked’, shared or commented on the post. Here is a summary of the responses, from which a pretty clear picture emerges of widespread recent shearwater deaths on Abaco mainland and Cays.
Delphi Club Beach – 20 plus
Bahama Palm Shores – ‘many many’ dead birds washed up on the shore
Casuarina Beach – 1
Cherokee (Watching Bay) – 3 or 4
Cherokee (Winding Bay) – 4
Marsh Harbour area – about 5
Great Guana Cay, southern end – 1 (possibly a gull)
Tilloo Cay – 13 at least on Junk Beach, more than ever seen (see photos below)
Elbow Cay – 2 + 1 Atlantic side beach near Abaco Inn
Elbow Cay – 2, North End
Green Turtle Cay beach – 2
Green Turtle Cay, offshore – “a lot in the water”
Man-o-War Cay – 1 by the roadside
Ocean 20m from HT Lighthouse – 2 in the sea
also Exuma Sound (5 birds), Briland Beach Harbour Island (“some”) and Shroud Cay (gull?”)
SIGHTINGS MAP, ABACO AS AT 09.00 JUNE 25 (2X click to enlarge)
Shearwaters at Tilloo Cay (Janie Thompson)
Shearwaters on Elbow Cay (Rudolf Verspoor)
WHAT SORT OF SHEARWATERS ARE THESE?
In the main it looks and sounds as though these are migrating great shearwaters. Woody Bracey has identified several dead birds as ‘greats’ from photos, and one as an alive Cory’s shearwater swimming in the sea off the Delphi Beach. ID is not easy, and a few of the birds found may be gulls. It’s possible that there are some Audubon’s shearwaters among the stricken birds, although since they are resident to Abaco that would go against the theory of an exhausted migratory species that has been blown of course en masse.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS THINK?
There are a few obvious contenders for the solution to the riddle of the shearwaters, ranging from the frontrunner migration exhaustion to disease and trash ingestion. The evidence of mass deaths over a wide geographical area during a short time probably rules out trash ingestion – although I’m sure the poor creatures must have plenty of plastic bits inside them. Mass disease striking suddenly over one area is seems unlikely. Once those two possibilities are ruled out, the primary cause, covering most instances of the sad and upsetting phenomenon, becomes clearer.
Lynn Gape of BNT posted the view of William Mackin, a seabird biologist who looked at some of the photos and wrote“The five birds look like greater shearwaters. They breed at Gough Island in the South Atlantic. The young begin life by flying 10000 miles to Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. Some do not make it. They wash up on eastern US and Bahamian beaches. It is sad. We should monitor the numbers. The frequency is variable but possibly increasing.”
Tony White, the omniscient Recorder of Bahamas Birds and compiler of the comprehensive and authoritative checklist for the area, writes:
“The dead birds on the beach (and in the water) is a phenomenon that happens every five to ten years. According to the late Dave Lee these are young Great Shearwaters migrating from their natal home in the South Atlantic to their feeding grounds off the US and Canada, Combination of poor food supply and wind conditions in the doldrums lead to their expending all their energy and expiring. It is a normal event for this species and has been recorded many times The Great Shearwater population appears to weather the bad years and do well in the good years. Relevant articles are: Lee, D.S. 2009. Mass die-offs of Greater Shearwater in the Western North Atlantic: Effects of weather patterns on mortality of a trans-equatorial migrant. Chat 73(2):37; Seabird Ecological Assessment Network. 2007. Greater Shearwater Die-off in the Atlantic: June-July 2007. Volunteer Newsletter 3(2):2; and Watson, George. 1970. A Shearwater Mortality on the Atlantic Coast. Atlantic Naturalist 25(2):75-80.
Woody Bracey has now left an informative and perceptive comment:“It’s amazing how far(10,000 miles) these young birds have to travel to their feeding grounds so soon after being fledged. Breeding colonies are on isolated subantarctic islands of the southern hemisphere. Breeding begins in October. Incubation of the single egg lasts 55 days and it is another 105 days until the chick is ready to fly. Each loss of a bird represents much time and effort of a pair to produce a single chick which then has to fly the gauntlet through the windless, often foodless doldrums to reach its northern feeding grounds. So many hazards, so few birds! It’s sad to witness these die-offs but the species still survives. Global warming cannot be helping this species on its journey to the colder, nutrient rich more northern briny destinatioin. Lets stop setting our dumps and forests on fire here in the Abacos. Eventually it will not only affect the Great Shearwaters but us as well”.
I should add that it is reassuring to be able to confirm that, at least at present, the great shearwater is IUCN-listed “Least Concern”
Tony has asked for all available information Bahamas-wide: “It would be very useful if someone could collect some hard data on the die-off, e.g. when was it first noted and how many birds are found along a given stretch of beach? Check for other species and take a few wings as samples of the desiccated birds. In past events the number of dead birds was much greater on Crooked and Acklin Islands than Abaco. Eleuthera too should be checked if possible”.
Lynn has also asked “Please photograph and count birds found on your beaches and send images and the number counted to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will send on to William Mackin and Tony White who are keeping records of these occurrences The image with this post is a Greater Shearwater in flight…” (see above, as we would all like to think of these magnificent birds)
Or by all means contact me at email@example.com and I’ll pass on any info
STOP PRESSAn update to this post written the following week, detailing new sightings and reporting the passing of a sad fortnight of shearwater fatalities in the Bahamas, can be foundHERE
A happier great shearwater image to leave you with…
Credits and thanks to Woody Bracey, Melissa Maura, Lynn Gape, Jane Mantle, William Mackin, Patrick Coin, J J Harrison, Dick Daniels, Norvell Slezycki, Lory Kenyon,Selah Vie, Lindsey Delaphine McCoy,Turtle Cove Tilloo, Janie Thompson, Rudolf Verspoor, Laurie Schreiner,Caroline Woodson Sawyer, Steph Russell, Ashley L. Albury, Dwayne Wallas, Sully Vincent T Sullivan, Ben Albury, Abaco Bulletin, Carol Rivard Roberts, Jason McIntosh, Dale Sawyer, Barbara Trimmer, Dominique Allen, Jessica Aitken and Juana Rudzki, with apologies to anyone else who has slipped through the net…