THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION


Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THE BAHAMA NUTHATCH & THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION

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

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

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

Bahama Nuthatch (Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly Article)

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

Bahama Nuthatch (Birdlife International)

THE KEY SIGHTINGS

JUNE 2016

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

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

MAY 2018

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

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

Bahama Nuthatch (Matthew Gardner UEA)

JULY 2018

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

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

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

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

Bahama Nuthatch, Grand Bahama (Bruce Purdy)

THREATS TO THE SPECIES

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

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

SOME LINKS TO THE STORY 

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

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

BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…


brown-headed_nuthatch-david-hill-sc

BAHAMA NUTHATCH: TINY, RARE, A HOP AWAY FROM ABACO…

The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis) is one of the rarest birds in the Bahamas and – like the similarly rare BAHAMA ORIOLE on Andros – it is confined to one island only, Grand Bahama.  At best about 1000 – 1200 mature birds may inhabit the pine forests though current estimates vary, and that number may be optimistic. What is clear is that, for all the usual reasons (see below) the population is likely to be decreasing rather than growing.

bahamas_nuthatch-birdlife-org

Despite its  scarcity and size – this little bird is one of the smallest in the nuthatch family – the BANU is subject to much scientific debate in bird circles. Until a dozen years ago, it was simply considered to be a brown-headed nuthatch, a familiar enough bird in south-eastern USA. Then a research paper was published, which led to the bird being awarded subspecies status as the Bahama nuthatch S. p. insularis. Some argue further, that it should be considered a fully separate species and split from its cousin (as, recently, with the Bahama and Inagua woodstars in 2015). Others write as though this has already happened but as far as I can make out, it has not – though it might possibly happen once further researches have been completed and submitted (polite correction on this point welcome…).

bahama-nuthatch-owl-hole-rd-grand-bahama-bruce-purdy

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES TO JUSTIFY SEPARATE STATUS?

Close investigation of the Grand Bahama population showed a number of significant differences between the island and the US populations. Having read and digested all the relevant research (NOT! Abstracts, maybe…), I discovered that the main distinctions are:

  • A longer, heavier bill (compare the header image of a brown-headed nuthatch in South Carolina with the second one of a Bahama nuthatch).
  • Shorter wings
  • Whiter belly
  • Distinctively different vocalisations

bahama-nuthatch-grand-bahama-robert-norton

IUCN RED LIST STATUS

Whether the BANU is a sub-species of brown-headed nuthatch or a fully separate species, the bird is incredibly rare. The population may be unsustainable without intervention (as implemented to save the Abaco parrots) – and the threat of extinction looms even as the bird begins to attract international interest. In 2016 the IUCN listed the BANU as ENDANGERED, meaning essentially that it faces extinction. ‘Critically endangered’ is the only higher category. The main reasons given for the listing were the small population, found on only one island, and likely to continue declining as a result of habitat loss & invasive species

brown-headed-nuthatch-erika-gates-bahamas-weekly-article

 WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO THE SPECIES, I MEAN SUBSPECIES?

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

brown-headed_nuthatch-matt-tillett-md_

HOW DO THESE BIRDS BEHAVE?

A few years back, Erika Gates, well-known Grand Bahama birder and guide, wrote an excellent article in her ‘Bird Talk’ column published in the Bahamas Weekly. It includes this description:

The Bahama Nuthatch exhibits several highly unusual and endearing behaviors. It is one of the very few bird species that conducts co-operative breeding, in which young males assist with nest construction, nest sanitation as well as feeding of the female sitting on the eggs, nestlings and fledglings. It is also one of the few birds known to utilize a tool. On occasion, it uses a bark chip, held in its bill, to pry off bark portions during foraging for insects and grub.

brown-headed_nuthatch-dick-daniels-nc-wiki

SO IF I’M IN THE PINE FOREST ON G B, WHAT DO I LISTEN OUT FOR?

Sadly, there are no available recordings of a BANU**. As their vocalisation is one of the factors that differentiates them from the brown-headed nuthatch, it’s clearly not very helpful to illustrate what the latter sound like. But I am going to anyway, because they can’t be that different. It’s probably just a Bahamian accent. I have read somewhere that it sounds a bit like a squeezed rubber duck toy.

Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

** Feb 2018 I have just been contacted by Jeff Gerbracht, who has very kindly sent me a recording he made on Grand Bahama in 2011 on a trip with Bruce Hallett (a familiar name to regular readers of this site) and uploaded to the indispensable Macaulay Library. I must have overlooked it when I wrote the post. The links below are to the recording and to the species checklist from that occasion, including a photo taken by Rudy Sawyer, the third member of the party.

And yes, comparison shows that the 2 nuthatches do indeed have “distinctively different vocalisations” (see above); and that the Bahama nuthatch does not sound anything like a squeezed rubber duck…

brown-headed_nuthatch-matt-tillett-md_5

WHY MIGHT THESE BIRDS TURN UP ON ABACO?

Well, I’m being a bit romantic and optimistic here. But let’s look at the official distribution map from Birdlife International. Not so very far for even a small bird to travel. There are even some small cays as stepping stones. And just think of the thousands of acres of pine forest on Abaco, much of it remote and completely undisturbed. Maybe… if a breeding pair could just… you catch my drift? 

bahama-nuthatch-distribution-birdlife-org

Here is another instructive map, this time from eBird. These are the only BANU sightings ever recorded, and all since 2010. These birds are tiny. There are very few of them, spread over a wide area. They live in pine trees, and are to an extent camouflaged against them. You’d be very very fortunate to find one at all, let alone get a decent photo of it… Let’s hope you can spot one while they are still around.

screenshot-2017-01-04-22-42-20

ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?

I have written elsewhere (in fact, HERE) about the ornithologist James Bond and his connection with Ian Fleming’s hero. The very rare first edition** of Bond’s seminal Birds of the West Indies was published in 1936. In it, he described the BANU and suggested it was a subspecies of the brown-headed nuthatch. A man way ahead of his time. 

PLEASE STOP NOW. ANY LAST WORDS?

“The species may become extinct unless Bahamians are willing to take action to save it. As the rarest bird in the Bahamas, and one of the rarest birds in the world, the nuthatch will become a high-profile symbol of conservation efforts (or their failure) in the Bahamas”. RESEARCHGATE

Photo credits: David Hill (BHNU) 1; Birdlife.org (BANU) 2; Bruce Purdy (BANU) 3; Robert Norton (BANU) 4; Erika Gates / Bahamas Weekly (BANU) 5; Matt Tillett (BHNU) 6, 8; Dick Daniels (BHNU) 7

Sound: Paul Marvin / Xeno-Canto

Addendum Feb 2018: Jeff Gerbracht for a BANU sound recording and species checklist

Research credits: Birdlife International /Birdlife.org; Birding Community E-Bulletin, Nov 2008; Research Gate; IUCN; The Bahamas Weekly / Erika Gates; eBird; American Birding Association (and a bonus point for its brown-headed nuthatch behaviour article wittily entitled “Sex in the Sitta”)

**The edition of James Bond usually described as the first edition (indeed in the book itself) was published in 1947. You might pick one up for $100 or so (try Abe.com), as I did. Don’t get one without a dust-jacket. It’s a treasure, and an affordable slice of avian history. A 1936 edition will probably be well north of $2000… 

WOOD STORKS ON ABACO? CLOSE BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH…


Wood stork in flight (Huhnra, Wiki)

WOOD STORKS ON ABACO? CLOSE BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH…

I very rarely write about birds that you can’t find on Abaco, especially ones that have never been recorded there. In fact, I don’t think I have ever done so. The nearest was the critically endangered endemic BAHAMA ORIOLE, until quite recently available on Abaco. For the familiar and depressing reasons it was deemed extirpated in the 1990s and is found now only in very specific area of Andros. Its future is very uncertain: another species a feather’s width from extinction.

Which brings me to the Wood Stork Mycteria americana, a fine bird with a breeding population in Florida. Yet the last one recorded for the Bahamas was 51 years ago – and not on Abaco. It’s surprising that the species is not driven across the stretch of sea to the northern Bahamas by curiosity or more plausibly by storms (as with other vagrant species).

Wood Stork Fl. (Mehmet Karatay, Wiki)

The first Bahamas sighting of a Wood Stork since 1964 occurred on September 4th at the unromantic-sounding ‘Freeport Dump’ on Grand Bahama, when naturalist and birding guide Erika Gates found one. The bird was still there on September 7th when Woody Bracey flew over from Abaco and joined Erika to check. Here it is.

Wood Stork, Grand Bahama (Erika Gates) copy

Woody took a date-stamped shot for future reference

IMG_4529

The distance from Freeport to Marsh Harbour, Abaco is about 100 miles as the stork flies. But from the eastern end of Grand Bahama to the nearest point on Abaco is much closer – 35 miles or so. So with a following wind perhaps it won’t be another 51 years until the next Wood Stork is seen in the Bahamas. And maybe next time it will fly as far as Abaco…

Wood Stork, Florida (Googie Man, Wiki)

I sometimes feature photos by Florida photographer PHIL LANOUE, whose website is a must for anyone with an interest in birds. Among his specialities are the wood storks in his area, and I have chosen 4 outstanding WS images to end with (thanks as always to Phil for use permission).

Wood Stork in Flight, Florida (Phil Lanoue)Wood Stork landing, Florida (Phil Lanoue)Wood Stork in Flight, Florida (Phil Lanoue)Wood Stork in water, Florida (Phil Lanoue)

Credits: Erika Gates, Woody Bracey, Phil Lanoue, ‘Huhnra’, Mehmet Karatay, ‘Googie Man’