BAHAMA ORIOLE: HABITAT FIND FOR A RARE GEM


Bahama Oriole, Andros (Dan Stonko / abcbirds.org)

BAHAMA ORIOLE: HABITAT FIND FOR A RARE GEM

c300 LEFT IN THE WORLD – AND ALL ON ANDROS

The future of the gorgeous endemic Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) hangs in the balance. IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’, the Oriole once lived on both Abaco and Andros. As recently as the 1990s, the species became extirpated on Abaco, leaving a small and fragile population in  fairly specific areas of Andros. These are places where the habitat is conducive to the orioles’ well-being, and in particular where they can safely breed and (with luck) replenish their depleted population.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Michael Baltz / Bahama Oriole Project)

We hear a lot about habitat loss as a grave worldwide problem for an increasing number of species. Narrow that down to one species, one island, a few defined areas, and a tiny, barely sustainable population, then add mankind and his needs to the mix. Not much habitat degradation, clearances, predation or disease is needed to reduce 300 specimens to zero.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Mary Kay Beach Dec 2018)

Which is where conservation and science come into play. The Bahamas archipelago benefits from an astonishing number of (broadly-speaking) environmental organisations that are involved in species and habitat protection, both terrestrial and marine. They range from international to Bahamas-wide and Governmental, to NFP organisations on the main islands, and on through local communities via citizen scientists to dedicated individuals. All are fighting a specific battle with a single aim; all face an increasing array of metaphorical weapons being deployed against them.

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Bahama Oriole Project FB header)

SO, ANY GOOD NEWS THEN?

Returning to the orioles – in many ways a perfect indicator bird species – recent research has led to an encouraging discovery.  The American Bird Conservancy (@ABCbirds) has just published the results of a new study in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology. This involved several organisations –  Bahamas National Trust, the Bahama Oriole Project (@BahamaOrioleProject), UMBC Biology, and Birds Caribbean. It concerns new evidence about the nesting habits and habitats of the orioles that will have “…major implications for future conservation”.

The study is the outcome of the work of a dozen conservation specialists. In a coconut-shell, the orioles were thought to nest only in the coconut palms found near the coast. However the recent intensive research program reveals that ‘multiple pairs’ breed in the pines and the thatch palms of the forests, away from the coast. The implications of these new findings are significant, not least for a possible uplift in numbers and the way in which conservation measures can be adapted to the new discovery. For those wanting something more authoritative, the short Abstract of the study is given at the end. And if you’d like to read the whole article, click on the link below.

472-Article Text-1543-1-10-20180828

Bahama Oriole Andros (C Ward BNT)

THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS

  • Lethal Yellowing Disease of the coconut palms, prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas the palms have been all but wiped out.
  • The arrival in the 1990s and spread of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species
  • Habitat loss / development
  • Forestry work / forest fires
  • Feral cats and rodents
  • Disease has also been mentioned (but I haven’t actually pursued the specifics…)

Bahama Oriole, Andros (Thomas Nierle / Bahama Oriole Project)

WHEN & WHY DID THE ORIOLES VANISH FROM ABACO?

This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a single photo of one taken on Abaco at any time in history. To be fair the option of snapping everything with wings multiple times using a digital camera with a huge chip didn’t exist then. 

ABSTRACT

The Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) is a Critically Endangered species endemic to The Bahamas and currently found only on the Andros island complex. With the elevation of the Bahama Oriole to full species status in 2011, research suggested that there were fewer than 300 individuals remaining in the global population. The Bahama Oriole was also termed a “synanthropic species” based on data suggesting that the species nested almost exclusively within anthropogenic residential and agricultural habitats in introduced coconut palms (Cocos nucifera). These conclusions were based on population surveys primarily confined to settled areas near the coasts. However, we documented multiple pairs of orioles with breeding territories deep in pine forests, and we present the first records of Bahama Orioles nesting in pine forests—in both a Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) and native understory Key thatch palms (Leucothrinax morrisii). Given the predominance of the pine forests on Andros, this newly documented breeding habitat has important implications for developing population estimates and future conservation plans for the Bahama Oriole.

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole Stamp birdtheme.orgCredits: Dan Stonko / American Bird Conservancy, Michael Baltz / Bahama Oriole Project; Mary Kay Beach; Bahama Oriole Project FB header; C Ward / BNT; Thomas Nierle / Bahama Oriole Project; Bahamas Postal Service; BNT; D Belasco / American Bird Conservancy

          ↑ Mr Northrop with his BirdBahama Oriole, Andros (D Belasco / abcbirds.org)

PIONEER NATURALISTS & ABACO BIRDS: POTTED BIOGRAPHIES


Wilson's Plover, Abaco (Craig Nash)

Wilson’s Plover, Abaco (Craig Nash)

PIONEER NATURALISTS & ABACO BIRDS: POTTED BIOGRAPHIES

Who were all the people – all men, I’m afraid – who are immortalised in the names of birds they first discovered or recorded or collected specimens of or wrote about? In various previous birds posts I have given brief bios of the naturalist for whom the particular species under consideration is named. I’ve decided to bring all those who specifically relate to Abaco together in one place. There is not (as far as I know) a collective term for ornithologists, so may I introduce a “Scope” or “Twitch” of them…

ALEXANDER WILSON 1766 – 1813

Mr WilsonWilson’s phalarope, plover, snipe, storm-petrel, warbler

Alexander Wilson was a scottish poet and writer. He specialised in ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. The latter got him into trouble when he overstepped the mark by making a vicious written attack on one mill owner. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to burn the work in public (fair enough, perhaps) and imprisoned (somewhat harsh). After his release, he sensibly emigrated to America in 1794.

Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Wilson became a teacher in Pennsylvania, and develpoped his interests in ornithology and painting. His ambitious plan was to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America. He travelled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions to fund a nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated, 26 had never previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord. Wilson predated John James Audubon (though not by many years) and  is generally acknowledged to be the founder of American ornithol0gy.

For examples of Wilson’s American Birds, check out the excellent Virginia University records HERE 

Wilson's Phalarope (Craig Nash)

Wilson’s Phalarope (Craig Nash)

CHARLES LUCIEN BONAPARTE 1803 – 1853

Bonaparte, Charles Lucien (1803-1857)Bonaparte’s gull, Zenaida dove

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, 2nd Prince of Canino and Musignano was a French biologist and ornithologist. He was nephew of the Emperor Napoleon. He married his cousin Zenaïde, by whom he had twelve children. They moved from Italy to Philadelphia, by which time Bonaparte had already developed a keen interest in ornithology. He collected specimens of a new storm-petrel, later named after the Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson (see above).

Bonaparte studied the ornithology of the United States, and updated Wilson’s American Ornithology. His revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. He was a keen supporter of a (then unknown) ornithologist John James Audubon. Rather sweetly, he created the genus Zenaida, after his wife, applying it to the White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica,  Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. He himself was later honoured in the name ‘Bonaparte’s Gull’.

Bonaparte's Gull, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Bonaparte’s Gull, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

RAMON LA SAGRA (1798 -1871)

Mr La Sagra La Sagra’s Flycatcher

Ramón Dionisio José de la Sagra y Peris was a multi-talented man, being a Spanish botanist and also a writer, economist, sociologist, politician, anarchist, and founder of the world’s first anarchist journal El Porvenir (“The Future”). He lived in Cuba and became director of Havana’s Botanical Garden; his name lives on arguably more significantly in ornithological than in anarchist circles (actually, an ‘anarchist circle’ must surely be a contradiction in terms…)

La Sagra's Flycatcher, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

A Cuban stamp commemorates the death of Juan Gundlach, the nauralist who chose La Sagra’s name to bestow on the flycatcher, and who himself is honoured in the name of the Bahama Mockingbird Mimus gundlachii Cuba Stamp La Sagra's Flycatcher

WILLIAM JOHN SWAINSON (1789 – 1855)

Mr SwainsonFor Abaco: Swainson’s Hawk, Thrush & Warbler

Swainson was an English ornithologist, entomologist, conchologist, natural historian, and a gifted illustrator of the natural world. He was a pioneer of the new lithographic technology, which enabled quicker reproduction of his work than engraving. Swainson lent his name to a number of avian species, three of which may be found on Abaco – the Swainson’s Hawk, Thrush and Warbler. The hawk is a rare visitor; the thrush is a transient, passing through the Bahamas during migration; and the warbler is a hard-to-find winter resident. Below is the only known Swainson’s Hawk to be photographed on Abaco.

Swainson's Hawk, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

Swainson’s Hawk, Abaco (Bruce Hallett)

JOHN ISIAH NORTHROP (1861 – 91)

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_NorthropBahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)

John Isiah Northrop, for whom the endemic BAHAMA ORIOLE Icterus northropi is named, entailed a bit more research. The link above will take you to my post about this very beautiful species that is sadly on the brink of extinction. Until recently it was found only on Abaco and Andros, but is now extirpated from Abaco and exists only in certain enclaves on Andros.

Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)

Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)

I can do no better than regurgitate the info provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine  illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies:

The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist)”.Icterus Northropi illustrated in A Naturalist in the Bahamas (plate 1)

 

JARED POTTER KIRTLAND 1793 –1877

260px-Jared_Potter_Kirtland_1793-1877Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)

Jared Potter Kirtland was a naturalist, malacologist and politician, most active in Ohio where he served as a probate judge, and in the Ohio House of Representatives. He was also a physician and co-founder of a University Medical School. Kirtland became one of America’s leading naturalists, with a particular interest in horticulture and sea shells. He published numerous natural history articles, and was a founder and president of the Kirtland Society of Natural History and the Cleveland Academy of Natural Science.

Somewhere in amongst all this, he discovered or at least studied the warbler that was named after him. This rare bird is found in small numbers only in certain areas of Michigan; and overwinters in the Bahamas including on Abaco. They a very hard to find, and harder still to photograph. This year we made an expedition into remote backcountry and found 4, more of which another time…

Kirtland's Warbler, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

Kirtland’s Warbler, Abaco (Woody Bracey)

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785 – 1851)

John James Audubon never went to Abaco. The nearest he got was probably in 1820, when he made a field trip to the southern states, including Florida; or in the 1830s when he made at least one trip to Key West. One technique that set him apart from contemporaries was his method of producing naturalistic (as opposed to ‘stuffed bird’) drawings. It involved killing birds using very fine shot, and then using wires to pose them naturally, according to his field sketches. This contrasted with the usual technique of using a stuffed specimen as a model.

Although no Abaco birds are specifically named for Audubon, it is almost impossible to dip a toe into ornithological history without immediately stubbing it on Audubon’s name. Hence his inclusion in this piece, bringing it to a conclusion.

Audubon’s master-work was his renowned Birds of America, arguably the most famous bird tome ever. There are about 120 sets of the original book still in existence. They were incredibly expensive to produce in contemporary terms; and in modern times a set sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s London in 2010, setting the unbeaten record for the world’s most expensive book sale. Recently there was great excitement over the sale of another set at Christie’s New York, but the sale price was far lower, a mere $7,922,500… 

Audubon Birds of America.jpg

Credits: Bird pictures as shown; Encyclopaedia of Cleveland History, University of Glasgow Library, The Auk, Audubon Society, Wiki, Magpie pickings

BAHAMA ORIOLE: ABACO’S LOST ENDEMIC SPECIES


Bahama Oriole ABC : D. Belasco

BAHAMA ORIOLE: ABACO’S LOST ENDEMIC SPECIES

FEWER THAN 300 LEFT IN THE WORLD – AND ALL ON ANDROS

Having just posted about the endangered NASSAU GROUPER and its protection by the introduction of a 3-month closed season, it’s time to focus on a rare, beautiful and vulnerable bird, the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi). It is IUCN Red Listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. ENDEMIC to the Bahamas, this bird lived only on Abaco and Andros. Not any more. Now you’ll only find them on Andros, the species having been lost to Abaco in very recent memory. The 1990s, in fact. And on Andros, this lovely bird is now struggling against the threat of extinction and is found only in limited areas in very small numbers. The most optimistic population estimate I have found puts the total as fewer than 300 individuals… the consensus puts the likely total in the region of 250. Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)1 Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)2

THE SPECIES

In 2010, the Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis was separated by the AMERICAN ORNOTHOLOGISTS’ UNION into 4 species, one being the Bahama Oriole. As the BNT wryly put it, “New species are always a source of excitement… but in this case the intrigue is overshadowed by a sense of alarm and urgency”. For by then this new species ‘in its own right’ was limited to certain parts of Andros, in small and diminishing numbers. It had already vanished from some areas – especially in North Andros – were it had formerly been abundant. The best estimates suggested 250 individual birds. Bahama Oriole - Harold Brewer (via PM) - Version 3

WHEN & WHY DID THEY VANISH FROM ABACO?

This is a classic ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Various sources I have looked at use a formula such as “…became extirpated from Abaco in the 1990s”, or “disappeared for unknown reasons in the 1990s”. I’ve found no clear clue as to the cause – nor even when the last sighting of an oriole on Abaco was made. I haven’t found a photo of one taken on Abaco, although to be fair the option of snapping everything with wings several times using a digital camera with a large chip didn’t exist then. In the next para a number of crucial factors in the more recent decline of the Andros population are given; but as far as I can determine, some at least did not apply in the 1990s, or certainly not to the same extent. Maybe it was a combination of a degree of habitat loss and the gradual decline of a small population that could not breed prolifically enough to sustain the future population **. Bahama_Oriole (Mxmerce Wiki)

THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE CRITICAL DECLINE ON ANDROS

Lethal Yellowing Disease of the coconut palm, prime nesting habitat for the oriole. In some areas on Andros (e.g. Staniard Creek), the palm has been all but wiped out. 

The arrival and spread of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species such as the yellow warbler, the black-whiskered vireo… and the oriole. The cowbird reached Andros in the mid-1990s. The first Abaco report that I have found is from 1999 (so presumably, as the oriole was already gone from the island by then, they were not a factor).  The cowbird is a summer resident on Abaco, though still relatively uncommon; and its range continues to expand northwards. Some might argue that the cowbird should be discouraged from spreading on Abaco right now for the sake of the indigenous warbler and vireo populations – before it is too late.

Habitat loss / island development (although Birdlife International notes “…the planting of coconut palms in residential areas has allowed the species to spread into human settlements”). Other factors put forward include forestry work, forest fires, diseases, rodents and feral cats – problems that affect many other birds such as the Abaco parrot. Bahamas Oriole (BNT / Carlton Ward) The photo below is a pleasure to include in this post. It was taken earlier this year on Andros by Christopher Johnson of Nassau. And here’s the thing. He is 13, and an avid birder. I’m sure he likes his X-Box time, but he certainly knows plenty about birds too. He’s quick off the mark with offering IDs – correct ones – for birds online, and when he saw this bird he knew the significance of it and managed to get some good shots too. This is my favourite, the oriole ‘vocalising’. See below for its song. Here is Christopher’s brief but enthusiastic field report: Awesome trip to Andros this past weekend! Was amazed to see the Bahama Oriole and its nest — feeling great”. Bahama Oriole, Andros (Christopher Johnson) 2

Bahama Oriole taken during a BMMRO research trip on AndrosBahama Oriole, Andros (BMMRO)

 Paul Driver / Xeno Canto

A GLIMMER OF HOPE?

In the same way that urgent conservation measures were put in place to halt and then reverse the critical decline of the Abaco parrot population, similar projects are in place for the Bahama Oriole on Andros. One proposal is to establish a ‘captive breeding’ program leading to reintroduction and reinforcement of the wild population. According to the American Bird Conservancy, this could even include reintroduction on Abaco… So perhaps in a decade or two, this fine bird will once again become firmly established as one of the birds of Abaco. Bahamas Oriole, Andros (Binkie Van Es)3 As I said in my Nassau Grouper post, a country’s attitude can to a degree be gauged by the pride with which it features its wildlife and natural resources in its stamps (I used North Korea for adverse comparison). In 2009 The Bahamas Postal Service even issued a ‘Rare Birds’ set featuring the Bahama Oriole.. I rest my case. Bahama Oriole Stamp birdtheme.org

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WHO WAS THE EPONYMOUS MR NORTHROP?

640px-Picture_of_John_Isaiah_Northrop

The comprehensive answer is provided by the University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe in relation to a fine  illustration from A Naturalist in the Bahamas (1910), reprinted in The Auk journal (below) at a time when Icterus northropi was still a mere subspecies: The yellow and black Bahama Oriole (Icterus Northropi) is a bird species unique to the Bahamas. The bird was named for American ornithologist and zoologist, John Isiah Northrop (1861–91); the illustration comes from an account of the trip Northrop and his botanist wife, Alice, took to the Bahamas in 1889 which was published in his memory: A Naturalist in the Bahamas: John I. Northrop, October 12 1861-June 25, 1891; a memorial volume (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910). It was edited and introduced by Henry Fairfield Osborn, professor of zoology at Columbia University where Northrop worked as a tutor and was killed in a laboratory explosion shortly (9 days) before the birth of his son John Howard Northrop (who became a Nobel prize-winning chemist). Icterus Northropi illustrated in A Naturalist in the Bahamas (plate 1)

RELATED MATERIAL

“Rediscovering the Bahama Oriole” Erik Gauger, author of the excellent Notes from the Road and photographic contributor to the Birds of Abaco has a good tale of the pursuit of the apparent sighting of a Bahama Oriole on Abaco 2o years after its (supposed?) extirpation. You can read it HERE The Auk Read more about this journal and the birding history of the Bahamas HERE There is a Care2Action ‘Save the Bahama Oriole Before It Is Too Late’ petition HERE. It seems to have stalled somewhat, so it would be good to generate some more signatories. ** Mathematically inclined? Find out about the application of the stochastic process to the oriole’s situation. In a nutshell, this concerns the combined effect of several random adverse factors on sustainability, given that the oriole’s already very small population, very limited range and particular habitat requirements militate against breeding expansion, and therefore increase the likelihood of extinction. We can only hope this is not an inevitability…

Image, audio and research credits: American Bird Conservancy, Binkie van Es, BNT / Carlton Ward, Birdlife International, Christopher Johnson, Cornell Neotropical, Harold Brewer, MxMerce, birdtheme.org, Wiki, Xeno Canto / Paul Driver; Uni of Glasgow / Roger Herriott