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The Vampire Diaries: Searching for Seabird Blood in the Sunny Caribbean

Roseate tern chick, ready for sample collection. (Photo by Paige Byerly)
Roseate Tern chick, ready for sample collection. (Photo by Paige Byerly)

In the pursuit of wildlife research, I’ve climbed cliffs, dodged black bears, ridden in tiny planes through turbulent mountain air, jumped into surging ocean waters, and hiked alone through remote wilderness. None of these activities have scared me as much as handling my first Roseate Tern chick, a delicate ball of fluff just hours from the egg, as I prepared to take a blood sample. Hands shaking, trying to ignore the shifting of my colleague, Daniel, as he moved to a better vantage point, I carefully stretched out the chick’s back leg, searching for the threadlike femoral vein. Anxious tern parents called and swooped above us in the early morning sky, and the chick peeped quietly in my hand. I angled the needle and, taking a deep breath, slid it gently in. My reward was a perfect bead of red blood. I transferred the blood into a vial of storage solution, handed Daniel the chick to return to the nest, and leaned back to savor the short moment of victory. One sample down, 29 to go.

Paige taking time to enjoy the moment in the LeDuck island colony, chick in hand. (Photo by Chris Pavlik)
Paige taking time to enjoy the moment in the LeDuck island colony, chick in hand. (Photo by Chris Pavlik)

This spring I started my first full field season researching Caribbean Roseate Terns. These gorgeous larids are an especially challenging seabird to study, as anyone who’s tried will be quick to tell you. Like many seabirds, Roseate Terns nest on small islands, which offer a relatively predator-free habitat to raise chicks. Unlike many seabirds, they move colony sites almost yearly, for reasons we haven’t yet been able to determine. In the Virgin Islands, which host ~50% of the Caribbean population, Roseate Terns have over 26 potential nesting cays that they choose from. That means that any research activities must first involve locating the birds, then figuring out a plan for that unique colony site. Caribbean Roseate Terns are also easily disturbed, and are prone to colony abandonment. Too much research activity in the colony could lower their reproductive success, which is the opposite goal of our efforts. For all these reasons, determining colony success through means such regular nest checks is not possible for this population, forcing us to get a little more creative.

Adult roseate tern couple displaying courtship behavior in the LeDuck island colony. (Photo by Daniel Nellis)
Adult Roseate Tern pair displaying courtship behavior in the LeDuck island colony. (Photo by Daniel Nellis)

Because Roseate Terns have such a large range, and aren’t too interested in country boundaries, effective conservation planning for this species requires collaborating across borders. I’ve teamed up with researchers from several organizations in the Caribbean for this project, chief among them Susan Zaluski from the British Virgin Islands’ Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society and Daniel Nellis from the US Virgin Islands Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In addition to developing a standardized monitoring plan to use between the two territories, we’re working to answer some of the basic questions regarding Roseate Tern ecology in the region. Because nesting cays are so difficult to regularly access, we’re using motion-activated game cameras installed at nests to be our eyes in the colonies. This year, we have cameras in six active colonies. We’re hoping that the images from these cameras will help us better understand the role of predation in colonies, as well as incubation behavior and hatching success.

 The USVI Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s trusty boat, the R/V Bananaquit, waiting for us at a colony site. (Photo by Paige Byerly)
The USVI Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s trusty boat, the R/V Bananaquit, waiting for us at a colony site. (Photo by Paige Byerly)

Roseate Terns are declining across the Caribbean, and we don’t know why. Are population declines due to low nest success at colony sites, or to low adult survival on wintering grounds? The breeding season is only part of a Roseate Tern’s year, and come August they will leave the Virgin Islands. Band returns have indicated that the birds travel to wintering grounds in South America, but we know very little about their non-breeding movements. Roseate Terns are smaller and lighter than other terns, and this has made following their movements using technology like satellite tags difficult. To answer some of the larger questions regarding population health and movement, we’re turning to another source: DNA. Caribbean Roseate Terns aren’t alone in North America—there is also a well-studied population in New England. These two populations are believed to share wintering grounds, but aren’t thought to interbreed. Such isolation is unusual for such far-flying seabirds, particularly as it’s thought that the migratory pathway of the Northeastern population takes them through the Caribbean. We’re partnering with agencies in the US to determine relatedness between Caribbean and Northeastern Roseate Terns through genetic analysis. Genetic information will give us a better idea of the population health of Caribbean Roseate Terns, and will provide some intriguing clues on who they’re mixing with on their wintering grounds, which might better help us understand where they’re going.

Vial of precious roseate tern blood, ready for analysis! (Photo by Paige Byerly)
Vial of precious Roseate Tern blood, ready for analysis! (Photo by Paige Byerly)

Which brings us back to that first morning of sampling. It’s best to get blood from chicks less than 3 days old. Younger chicks are easier to catch, and their skin is thinner and easier to pierce with a needle. They also seem to heal more quickly, with bleeding stopping within seconds—sometimes too quickly for me to get a full sample. All these sampling considerations make geneticist researchers like myself sound particularly, well, bloodthirsty, and have led to us being characterized as “vampires.” It’s a nickname I’ll proudly answer to, knowing as I do all the amazing secrets hidden in that remarkable substance. Unlike mammal blood, avian blood is nucleated, meaning that every blood cell contains copies of DNA. That DNA can tell us the history of an entire species and beyond, if only we can find exactly the right questions to ask and the right tools for answering them.

Figuring out the best timing for our DNA sampling required four separate boat excursions to locate the most accessible tern colony and estimate when the majority of eggs would hatch. After deciding that LeDuck island would be the best candidate for sampling, we returned early one morning to swim our gear onto the islands in waterproof coolers, then hiked through waist-length thorny brush to reach the terns. I set up my sampling station on a flat boulder, and Daniel and my visiting husband worked the colony, locating the tiny chicks and bringing them to me bundled up in hats, hands, pockets, and bandanas. We moved between colony sections to allow anxious tern parents to return to their nests, working as quickly as possible to minimize stress to the colony.

 Intrepid tern biologist Daniel Nellis swims ashore with research gear. Watch out for sea urchins! (Photo by Paige Byerly)
Intrepid tern biologist Daniel Nellis swims ashore with research gear. Watch out for sea urchins! (Photo by Paige Byerly)

In all the haste, I still made sure to take a moment to breathe, look around, and enjoy the view. All that research planning, all those questions, came down to two short hours in the field and those 30 precious vials of blood. A year of collaborative effort went into my sitting on that boulder, first chick in hand, and I wanted to make sure that I took the time to appreciate it. After the Birds Caribbean conference in Cuba (hope to see you there!) I’ll be heading back to Louisiana to lock myself in the lab and get started on analyzing all this data. I’m so excited to see where these results take us, and look forward to sharing my findings with you all in the future!

Paige Byerly is a PhD student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her research investigating genetic diversity among Roseate Terns in the Virgin Islands is supported by a grant from the BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund and a research fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The Caribbean Roseate Tern, is a threatened metapopulation of Sterna dougallii dougallii, and thought to be declining across its range. Her research will help conservationists better understand the migratory ecology and population vulnerability of Roseate Terns. 

Caribbean’s Birds Featured in British Birds Journal

The journal British Birds is keen to highlight Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOT) and Crown Dependencies in the Caribbean. Developed by BirdLife International, the IBA program strives to identify, document and protect all places on earth of greatest significance for the conservation of birds.  Our members may already know how important IBAs are in the Caribbean – especially for the protection of restricted-range species and endemics. It is fantastic to see these unique areas receiving wider exposure.

Four UKOTs in the Caribbean region have already been featured in the journal: Bermuda, Montserrat, The Cayman Islands, and Anguilla. Each one provides a thorough account of bird life in the territory with over 10,000 words, numerous photos and maps, making them an excellent addition to the region’s ornithological literature. Well done to all the authors. We have included the abstracts of the four reports here; to read the full articles you can subscribe to British Birds or you can buy an individual issue at their website.

A Bermuda Petrel, also known as a Cahow. (Photo by Andrew Dobson)
A Bermuda Petrel, also known as a Cahow. (Photo by Andrew Dobson)

Important Bird Areas: Bermuda

Published on 08 March 2017
Andrew Dobson and Jeremy Madeiros

Bermuda is a UK Overseas Territory in the western North Atlantic and was uninhabited before being settled by the British over 400 years ago. It is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Despite its remoteness and its suburban landscape, it has a remarkable avian richness and history. The rediscovery of the breeding grounds of the Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel Pterodroma cahow, in 1951 made international news in an age without social media. The continuing success of the Cahow recovery programme provides hope for similar projects elsewhere. There is a globally significant population of White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus and there are proposals to confer endemic subspecies status on the locally breeding Common Tern Sterna hirundo. Current threats to Bermuda’s biodiversity include climate change, the increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and invasive species.

Important Bird Areas: Montserrat

Published on 16 February 2015
Steffen Oppel, Gerard Gray, James Daley, Stephen Mendes, Calvin Fenton, Gemma Galbraith, Shawn Daniel and James Millett

The Montserrat Oriole is endemic to the island of Montserrat and is the national bird of this UKOT. (Photo by Andrew Dobson)
The Montserrat Oriole is endemic to the island of Montserrat and is the national bird of this UKOT. (Photo by Andrew Dobson)

Montserrat is a small jewel of an island in the eastern Caribbean. After a major volcanic eruption in 1995, two-thirds of the island became uninhabitable, and today Montserrat is off the beaten track for most tourists. The island is easily accessible, however, and a range of habitats support a variety of interesting native biodiversity. Three hill ranges exist on the island, the southernmost being an active volcano and mostly devoid of vegetation. The Centre Hills, an area of semi-natural forest, is home to endemic species such as the Montserrat Oriole Icterus oberi, the Montserrat Galliwasp Diploglossus montisserrati (a skink), and the ‘Mountain Chicken’ Leptodactylus fallax (a frog). Besides the Centre Hills forest, there are dry scrublands in the northern hill range, coastal cliffs, and some unspoilt beaches with scenic reefs suitable for snorkelling and diving. The island’s habitats suffer from the effects of multiple non-native species such as feral pigs, goats, cattle, rats and cats. Efforts to control these are under way, and the Centre Hills forest is protected. Protecting the forest on Montserrat is the most critical target both for native biodiversity and for water supply on the island.

Important Bird Areas: The Cayman Islands

Published on 10 May 2016
Patricia Bradley

The Cayman Islands, in the western Caribbean, are a UK Overseas Territory. Three main islands support a wide range of birds, with 17 endemic races of breeding landbird. The Grand Cayman Thrush Turdus ravidus, currently treated as the only endemic bird species, was last seen in 1938. However, taxonomic research may mean that ‘Taylor’s Bullfinch’ Melanopyrrha (nigra) taylori, which occurs only on Grand Cayman, is treated as full species. There are many challenges of managing a conservation strategy on small islands such as these. The currently rapid human population growth (with a variety of associated development pressures), and the prospect of increased number and severity of tropical storms, are two of the most important threats to the biodiversity of these islands. Strategies to address these issues by the National Trust and National Conservation Council are discussed.

Important Bird Areas: Anguilla

Published on 04 August 2015
Steve Holliday, Karim Hodge, Farah Mukhida, Clarissa Lloyd, James Millett and Louise Soanes

Anguilla is an important breeding site for seabirds, including Brown Boobies. (Photo by Fiona Dobson)
Anguilla is an important breeding site for seabirds, including Brown Boobies. (Photo by Fiona Dobson)

Anguilla is a UK Overseas Territory, the northernmost of the island groups in the Lesser Antilles, in the eastern Caribbean. It has been long known for its seabirds; 16 species currently breed, with Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus, Brown Booby Sula leucogaster and Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus occurring in globally important numbers. There are 16 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), including five of the islands holding the main seabird colonies. The mainland IBAs are identified for populations of breeding seabirds, including Least Terns Sternula antillarum, and/or five restricted-range terrestrial species confined to the Lesser Antilles Endemic Bird Area (EBA). The Dog Island IBA is one of the most important seabird colonies in the Caribbean. Considerable economic growth in recent decades, especially from increased tourism, presents challenges to ensure that new development is sustainable, helping to maintain the rich biodiversity and natural resources upon which the growth is founded.

 

 

Report from Global Big Day 2017: Birding’s Biggest Day Ever

Cuban Tody was one of the 26 species reported from Cuba on Global Big Day. (photo by Photo by Yeray Seminario/ Macaulay Library)
Cuban Tody was one of the 26 species reported from Cuba on Global Big Day. (photo by Photo by Yeray Seminario/ Macaulay Library)

Birds are inspiring creatures. Their amazing migrations and behaviors capture our imagination, and their global presence lets us appreciate them wherever we are in the world. The power that birds have to bring people together across cultures, languages, and international borders is truly exceptional. Global Big Day is the realization of the magic of birds—a single day where the birding world unites in a shared pursuit, seeking to answer the simple question: how many birds can be seen in one day?

On 13 May 2017, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries around the world joined together as a global team, contributing more than 50,000 checklists containing 6,564 species—more than 60% of the world’s birds. This is a new record for the number of bird species reported in a single day!

Crested Quail-Dove, endemic to Jamaica, was spotted by Ann Sutton. (photo by Sam Woods)
Crested Quail-Dove, endemic to Jamaica, was spotted by Ann Sutton. (photo by Sam Woods)

With one of the highest endemic species ratios, the avifauna of the West Indies is important to have represented on Global Big Day. In the eBird Caribbean region*, 280 species were seen – Check out the list of species reported. Ninety-two participants submitted 334 checklists. These totals are lower than last year’s Global Big Day, but perhaps some people still have not entered their data. Note that it is not too late – your checklists will still be counted!

Birders in Trinidad and Tobago sighted the most number of species—164 in the region. The Bahamas and Puerto Rico were in second and third place with 129 and 95 species observed, respectively, and there was participation through many of the islands—21 countries/islands submitted checklists (see how your country compared to the rest of the region and world here). Thanks to all of you that helped spread the word and participated!

Global Big Day is a celebration of birds. By bringing people together, Global Big Day showcases the great birds from each region—helping bring awareness to birding and conservation regionally and globally. Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that this year (as in previous Global Big Days), the friendly competition in South America continued to evolve as an inspiring story, with four countries topping 1,000 for the single-day tally: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. In past years Brazil and Peru had always vied for the #1 slot for species totals, and in 2017 there is a new champion: Colombia. Next year, let’s set a goal for the West Indies to see the most endemics in a region, it can be done!

Thanks again to everyone who participated and made this Global Big Day successful. We hope you had a great time and will continue to participate in eBird Caribbean and future Global Big Days. Of course, eBird Caribbean doesn’t only exist on one day of the year. Global Big Day is just one of 365 opportunities/year to be a part of a global network of birdwatchers, researchers, and conservationists working together with a shared passion for birds. Any bird that you see, anywhere, at any time, can become a part of this global resource—helping your fellow birdwatchers as well as the birds that we all care about. So take a look at eBird Mobile, or how to find birds near you. Go out, explore, have fun, and let all of us know what you saw. Your sightings can help change the world. We’ll see you out there.

*The countries comprising the eBird Caribbean portal consist of the West Indies plus Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, and Bermuda.

For a more complete report on Global Big Day, click here.

Exciting Speakers Lined Up for BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba

Topes Waterfalls-Lisa and Jen
Lisa Sorenson and Jennifer Wheeler wave from one of the many beautiful waterfalls at Topes de Collantes National Park. (photo by Maikel Canizares)

The BirdsCaribbean International Conferences, which take place every two years, are always enriching experiences for scientists, ornithologists, conservationists, students, teachers and bird enthusiasts from across the Caribbean. This year’s meeting, which will take place in the beautiful Topes de Collantes region of southern Cuba from 13-17 July, 2017, promises to be no exception.

This year’s theme is “Celebrating Caribbean Diversity.” The organizers aim to make the 2017 meeting even more exciting than the 2015 meeting in Jamaica, which was attended by over 260 delegates. The planned conference program offers a taste of what’s in store. Distinguished keynote speakers will discuss a range of topics of significance to the region’s ecology and biodiversity, including conservation challenges, technological advances, civil society outreach and the latest research and educational programs.

Lourdes Mugica-REV
Dr. Lourdes Mugica Valdez, ornithologist and professor at the University of Havana, Cuba.

Headlining the all-star line-up of international keynote speakers is award-winning ornithologist Professor Lourdes Mugica Valdés of the University of Havana. Dr. Mugica will discuss her three decades of work on Cuba’s aquatic birds and their wetland habitats conducted with the University’s Bird Ecology Group.

Dr. Hiram González will present the work of Cuba’s Institute of Ecology and Systematics group on bird migration. Cuba is an incredibly important stopover and wintering site for migratory birds and the Cuban government has set up an impressive network of protected areas to conserve biodiversity, including Cuba’s 26 endemic bird species. As more and more tourists and birders flock to Cuba, however, there is more to be done with international partners to ensure that as many important habitats as possible are not destroyed for development.

Robert_Eric_Ricklefs
Dr. Robert Ricklefs, Ornithologist and Ecologist, Curators’ Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Dr. Robert Ricklefs, Ornithologist and Ecologist and Curators’ Professor of Biology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, will give a talk focusing on the conference theme of diversity, highlighting how the Caribbean is a global hotspot for birds. He will provide an overview of the evolutionary history of Caribbean birds, island biogeography, and host-parasite evolution (i.e., birds and malaria), using his own research in the Caribbean as well as others, to illustrate how populations expand(which may lead to the formation of new species), and decline over time. He will show how understanding genetic differences between avian populations also informs us about evolutionary uniqueness of island birds and can help us to develop conservation programs.

David Winkler, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Cornell University.
David Winkler, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Cornell University.

Cornell University’s Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Dr. David W. Winkler, will talk about his comparative research on swallows in the genus Tachycineta with partners throughout the Western Hemisphere. He will also share the work he is doing with engineers to develop new technologies for tracking bids and discovering more about their lives, including very lightweight, long-lasting radio tags with ever-expanding capabilities.

Conservation issues are always high on the agenda, and Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor of the United Nations Environment Programme, will present his perspective on those burning issues directly impacting conservation in the Caribbean.

Dominican Republic-based consultant Ms. Leida Buglass, who is Secretary for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Caribbean Regional Committee, will talk about how important it is to engage with partners in civil society to advance bird and habitat conservation, including case studies and lessons learned from many years of community work.

Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Conservation Biologist, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor.
Dr. Nicasio Viña Dávila, Conservation Biologist, Technical Coordinator of the Caribbean Biological Corridor.

And there’s more. Informative sessions and training workshops include promoting sustainable bird tourism and updates on the Caribbean Birding Trail, bird education, the use of media to promote conservation issues, the state of Caribbean forest endemic birds, ecology of migrants, and many more.

There will also be a special Cuba Day, where local ornithologists will share the work they are doing to study and conserve the island’s rich bird life and habitats. There is much to learn and enjoy!

For additional information and registration information, visit the meeting website here.

Bahama Swallows in the “Pine Islands”—Report from the Field

Maya Wilson is a graduate student at Virginia Tech researching the ecology and life history of the Bahama Swallow, an endangered species endemic to the Bahamas.  She is one of the dedicated young scholars who was awarded the BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund Grant and her work is critical to understanding the Bahama Swallow and informing conservation strategies.  Here, she discusses her research and describes her exciting field experiences with this unique species.

A male Bahama Swallow. (Photo by Melanie Rose Wells)
A male Bahama Swallow. (Photo by Melanie Rose Wells)

As we exit the truck, I hear a series of aggressive clicks and feel a rush of air as a wing brushes only a couple inches from my head.

When the Bahama Swallows began breeding, we started watching this particular area intensely, suspecting that the large, still-standing dead pine tree (i.e. pine snag) only a few paces from the old logging road would be a choice spot for a pair of swallows to make their nest. Sure enough, a couple weeks ago we found three white eggs. We are now scheduled to come back to see if those three eggs have hatched, and the parents are obviously well aware of that.

The bird that dove at my head joins its mate on a small exposed branch in a nearby tree and they chatter to each other, seeming to make a plan, before taking off again to resume their “attack.” It is hard to resist the urge to duck as I watch the male turn toward me and dive again, this time straight at my face. However, just like every other time, he changes direction at the last possible second — a signature move of a swallow. In reality, these small (~15 g) birds can’t hurt us.

Peeper camera used to study Bahama Swallow nests that are otherwise well out of normal reach. (Photo by Daniel Stonko)
Peeper camera used to study Bahama Swallow nests that are otherwise well out of normal reach. (Photo by Daniel Stonko)

The three of us walk to the back of the truck and begin to assemble the “peeper” camera so that we can take a closer look. Using several specialized pieces of hardware, we attach the camera to a large extension pole. I hoist the apparatus onto my shoulder to keep it steady, carefully climb over the pile of loose limestone along the road, and circle around to the other side of the snag. The nest is inside a hole (i.e. cavity) about 31 feet (9.4 meters) up, making this one of the highest nests we have studied, and therefore one of the hardest to observe.

I turn the camera on, and Mel confirms that it is wirelessly sending images to the monitor she is holding. I begin hoisting the pole upward, locking each section into place. Finally, the camera is near the correct height, and Shannan, who is standing back so that she has a good vantage point, guides me until it slips into the nesting cavity.

“Two chicks!” Mel shouts, and then, “wait, the last egg is hatching!” There is a bustle of activity as we all try to look at the small screen to see what is happening in the nest. Sure enough, the last egg has a crack down the middle, and a nestling is trying to fight its way out to join its two siblings in the nest.

We record a short video and then I bring the camera down. We all head back to the truck, disassemble the camera, and pile back in while the adult swallows take turns making sure that their newly hatched nestlings are okay. We have to try our hardest to disturb the nest as little as possible, so we decide to leave this family alone for a few days.

The 2015 Bahama Swallow field team.
The 2015 Bahama Swallow field team (left to right): Tivonia Potts (Bahamian), me – Maya Wilson, and Nicole Acosta (Ecuadorian).

The memory of watching a Bahama Swallow nestling hatch during the summer of 2016 will stick with me for the rest of my life. I am back on Great Abaco Island again in 2017, and for the third field season in a row our team will be made up of three women in their twenties. Dressed in worn-out field clothes and carrying our peeper camera and other equipment through the forest, we certainly get our fair share of confused stares. But we spend several months of the year in the northern Bahamas for a reason. Great Abaco, Grand Bahama, Andros and New Providence are the only islands within the more than 700 islands that make up the Bahama Archipelago that contain large areas of the native Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea bahamensis). This is why these three islands have rightfully earned the nickname, “pine islands.”

These pine forests are home to many birds, including five of the six Bahamian endemic species. One of these endemic species is the endangered Bahama Swallow (Tachycineta cyaneoviridis), which has only ever been found to breed on the pine islands. This bird, along with many other Caribbean endemics, is severely understudied.

My graduate research focuses on three main areas, with the overarching goal of providing information that is relevant to the species’ conservation to my main collaborator, the Bahamas National Trust, as well as other local organizations.

Bahamian pine forest is prime nesting habitat for the Bahama Swallow. (Photo by Melanie Rose Wells)
Bahamian pine forest is prime nesting habitat for the Bahama Swallow. (Photo by Melanie Rose Wells)

(1) How many Bahama Swallows are left, how are they spread across the pine islands, and do birds on the different islands breed with each another? There have only been a few official estimates of Bahama Swallow population levels over the past 30 years, and they indicate a rather dramatic decline. The IUCN Red List estimates a current population of 1500-4000 individuals. Using multiple survey techniques, I hope to provide a more precise estimate that will shed some light on overall species abundance and whether Bahama Swallows favor certain habitats or islands in general. Using genetic information, we can determine whether the species has become separated into smaller, isolated populations, which would have significant implications for the survival of the Bahama Swallow and subsequent conservation management plans.

(2) When and where do Bahama Swallows breed, and how successful are each of their nesting attempts? Bahama Swallows are obligate secondary cavity-nesters, meaning that they will only build nests inside a cavity; however, they do not have the ability to create that cavity themselves. Rather, they rely on natural processes or other excavating species to create cavities for them. In 1995, Allen (1996) conducted a study that revealed important information about Bahama Swallow breeding biology and behavior. The swallows breed between April and July, laying an average of three eggs in abandoned woodpecker cavities in pine snags and various other cavities. By locating swallow nests in all cavity types, and then monitoring those that we can safely access, we hope to provide additional information on the determinants and limitations to the breeding biology of the species.

Time series of a Bahama Swallow's nest—from eggs to naked nestlings to fully feathered chicks. (Photo by Maya Wilson)
Time series of a Bahama Swallow’s nest—from eggs to naked nestlings to fully feathered chicks. (Photo by Maya Wilson)

(3) Is breeding habitat limited? How do Bahama Swallows interact with other cavity-nesting species in the same habitat? Almost all of the forest on the pine islands is secondary growth, the result of extensive logging that took place from 1905-1969. It still is not clear what effects the logging and subsequent disturbances (e.g., fire and hurricanes) have had on the structure of the pine forest or the surrounding habitats, and on the species that inhabit them. The Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus) is present on all of the pine islands, and is closely associated with the pine forest, although it can be found in other habitats. In The Bahamas, the larger West Indian Woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris) is mostly limited to Great Abaco, where it is mostly associated with dry broadleaf “coppice” and human habitation. The swallows and other secondary cavity-nesters rely on these woodpeckers to create cavities for them. However, the availability of cavities and the competition for those cavities may vary between habitats (e.g., pine forest vs. towns). We can look at these interactions by assessing the availability of nesting resources and documenting nests of all cavity-nesting species.

Male Bahama Swallow in the hand. (Photo by Maya Wilson)
Male Bahama Swallow in the hand. (Photo by Maya Wilson)

My research has come a long way since it began in 2014, though there is still much to accomplish. My team and I continue to unravel the ecology and biology behind the pine islands and their Bahama Swallows, and are currently getting our 2017 field season underway. I look forward to keeping the BirdsCaribbean community updated as the project progresses and am excited to meet more of you at the Cuba Conference this July.

Maya is a PhD Candidate at Virginia Tech.  To learn more about the Bahama Swallow research and team, please visit please this website.  Maya’s research is funded by BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee FundThe Rufford FoundationIDEA WILD and Golondrinas de las Américas.

2016 Field Team
The 2016 Field Team, including (L to R): Melanie Wells (Australian), me, Maya Wilson, and Shannan Yates (Bahamian).

 

Finding Bahama Oriole Nests in the Pine Forest—Reflections from a Young Scientist (Part 2)

Roni keeping watch on the pine forest nest
Roni Rolle observing a Bahama Oriole nest on Andros Island (Bahamas). (Photo by Dan Stonko)

Dan Stonko joined Dr. Kevin Omland’s research group studying the Bahama Oriole as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. With the research team, he traveled to Andros in the Bahamas to search for the nesting Bahama Oriole and gained invaluable field experience while making memories of a lifetime (check out his recent blog article). Here, Dan summarizes his perspective of science, education and mentoring as learned through his undergraduate experiences. 

As an undergraduate, I have been incredibly lucky with the opportunities I’ve received. Taking on undergraduate students into your lab can be risky in itself for multiple reasons – we are usually inexperienced, require time and effort to train, and usually can’t contribute nearly as much as a higher-level student/employee. For these very reasons, I have come to be evermore grateful for getting the kinds of opportunities as amazing and impactful as I’ve shared in my previous blog post. Whenever anyone asks me about our lab’s work, I start off by discussing the science and research. Before long, I tend to catch myself getting into the unexpected and memorable lessons I’ve learned. So here are just a few of those lessons:

1. The most impactful learning can happen outside of the classroom

Okay, this might sound cliché. But when I started college, I felt certain that most of my time in college would be spent either in class or studying. I then reasoned that most of my learning would therefore happen in class or while studying.

I graduate in two months and can definitely confirm that this is how I spend most of my time. Yes, as a biochemistry major I have gained much of the central scientific knowledge through classes. However, the science I study has come to life through my research. I’ve applied my knowledge to real-world situations, designed experimental procedures, built relationships with mentors, collaborated with peers, and worked in the field. These lessons and experiences will be with me forever, and they’re the kinds of things you can’t get by simply sitting in class or reading a textbook.

Getting out of a messy situation while in the field in the Bahamas. Photo by Dan Stonko
Getting out of a messy situation while in the field in the Bahamas. Photo by Dan Stonko

2. Science is a verb

Whether doing field research in a pine forest, looking through a microscope or telescope, or mixing chemicals in a beaker – I have come to see science, in its purest form, as the pursuit of knowledge. Not a noun, but a verb. It is the act of careful observation, meticulous investigation, and ceaseless questioning of the things around us. If the pieces fit together just right, our curiosity can be rewarded with an expanded understanding of our world.

3. Modern discoveries in science are made possible by our predecessors

Isaac Newton once wrote that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Before I got involved with research, that adage sometimes crossed my mind; often it would do so while reading or hearing about some unimaginably complex discovery that undoubtedly depended on contributions from many people. This thought always gave me a fundamental admiration for the explorers and scientists who came before us. As a researcher, I’ve gained a new and deeper understanding of Newton’s words.

Going into our first trip, most of what was known about the Bahama Oriole came from earlier research by Dr. Melissa Price. Her work provided the most recent population estimates and gave thorough information on the reproductive ecology of the species. Whether I was in the field collecting data or in lab drafting the manuscript to share our findings – I knew that her work (and that of countless others) influenced our work. It’s a humbling reminder for a scientist to keep in mind: with every day that we work and every discovery that we make, our progress is possible because we stand on the shoulders of the giants who mentor us and came before us to provide our foundation.

4. Observation is the true driver of science 

Some areas of popularized science today seem to reinforce (what I believe to be) a subtle yet significant misconception, which presumes that questions are at the bedrock of any scientific endeavor. However, I have found observations are the truest foundation. Countless scientific advances throughout history didn’t arise by seeking answers to specific questions. Even when questions have led to advances, initial observations were always there to lead to those questions in the first place. In other words, we first make observations about our world, which then allow us ask questions such as: What? Why? When? How? It all may seem like semantics, but I believe that grasping this subtle distinction instills a sense of deserved respect for observation as the most critical scientific tool for discovery.

Some of our research on this first trip was oriented towards specific questions or goals, such as the distance sampling surveys that we used to estimate population size. The majority of our efforts, however, occurred without particular goals and depended simply on observation (e.g. catching and banding orioles, recording observations on bird behavior, and finding nests). At first, this idea of working without a particular goal in mind may seem counterintuitive. Nevertheless, the work proved invaluable as it led to us finding orioles nesting in the pine forests. This trip serves as reminder that simply listening, watching, and being present to make observations can lead to unexpected discovery.

Cuba Bird Tours July 2017 – Payment Page

The Cuban Green Woodpecker, endemic to Cuba, is one of the 26 Cuban endemic birds that we hope to see in Cuba (Photo by Bill Hebner)
The Cuban Green Woodpecker, endemic to Cuba, is one of the 26 Cuban endemic birds that we hope to see in Cuba (Photo by Bill Hebner)

To reserve your space on one of our Cuba tours/ field trips offered in association with our 21st International Conference, 13-17 July 2017, please pay a deposit ASAP (tours fill on a first-come, first-serve basis, so don’t delay!). Final payment is due on June 7, 2017.

Be sure to review the information available on our conference field trip webpages and then fill out the field trip reservation form. You may pay your deposit or balance for the tour you signed up for by selecting one of the options below. Scroll down if you would like to make a full payment for your tour now.

If you prefer to be invoiced via Paypal to make your payment (e.g., because you are paying for more than one person or multiple trips), please contact Lisa Sorenson (Lisa.Sorenson@BirdsCaribbean.org).


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Global Big Day is 13 May 2017

The West Indian Woodpecker, endemic to the Bahamas, Cuba and the Cayman Islands, is one of the 172 Caribbean endemics we hope will be counted on Global Big Day. (Photo by Bill Hebner)
The West Indian Woodpecker, endemic to the Bahamas, Cuba and the Cayman Islands, is one of the 172 Caribbean endemics we hope will be counted on Global Big Day. (Photo by Bill Hebner)

How many birds can a world of birders find in one day? Hopefully, you will join us to find out on May 13th — Global Big Day. This is the single biggest day for eBird and we’re inviting everyone to spend some time counting and enjoying Caribbean birds to help support global conservation efforts (and to have some fun in the process). Last year was a huge success that broke records around the world and across the Caribbean. The question is: Can we do it again?

More than one hundred Caribbean birders participated in last year’s Global Big Day, setting a new Global Big Day record for the Caribbean itself- 428 species! Thank you for making this possible. Your contributions to the past two Global Big Days have set back-to-back world records for the most bird species seen in a single day. Last year’s Global Big Day featured more than 60% of the world’s bird species in a single day (6,299!), with sightings coming in from more than 17,500 eBirders spread across 154 countries. 

Want to be a part of the fun this year? If you need an excuse to go enjoy birds on a lovely weekend day in May, we’ve got you covered. The West Indies, with it’s 175 endemic bird species, along with it’s near endemics and endemic subspecies, will be key in gathering a snapshot of bird distribution around the globe. 

If you’re looking to get started preparing for this year’s Global Big Day, here are four quick ways to have the most fun:

  1. “Scout” your birding spots for May 13. Finding where the birds are ahead of time makes the big day birding more fun, and also gives you more chances to be out enjoying birds. Perfect. Learn how to use eBird to find birds. 
  2. Hopefully, a few migrants, like this Ovenbird, are still lingering in the islands and will be included in some checklists! (photo by Bill Hebner)
    Hopefully, a few migrants, like this Ovenbird, are still lingering in the islands and will be included in some checklists! (photo by Bill Hebner)

    Use eBird Mobile. This free data-entry app makes it so you don’t have to enter your sightings at the end of the day, and tools like Quick Entry mean you have less time with your face in a notebook. Get eBird Mobile here.

  3. Get a friend involved. Perhaps this is a good birding buddy, or someone who has never been birding before. Make it a friendly competition, or join forces as a Global Big Day team, and put your marker on the global participation map. Share on social media using #eBird_GBD. Check out the Facebook event.
  4. Participating in Global Big Day is a great way to celebrate the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, ongoing now! Make this a part of your celebration and organize a birding outing with family, friends or your community.

No matter what you do—have a great time, enjoy the birds around you, and let us know what you find! We’re excited to see what we can achieve together on Global Big Day.

Training participants practicing their bird identification on Burnt Hill Road in Cockpit Country. Photo by Lisa Sorenson.
Identifying and counting birds in Cockpit Country, Jamaica. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

And don’t forget to enter your Caribbean bird counts into eBird Caribbean – our own portal. All the data goes to the same place but we have some of our own protocols (Step 2 of data submission), for example, counts conducted at wetlands, ponds, mud flats and beaches can be entered as Caribbean Waterbird Census counts.

BirdSleuth Caribbean Curriculum Now Available in French!

The new French version of BirdSleuth Caribbean - 57 pages of lessons and activities.
The new French version of BirdSleuth Caribbean (Connecting Kids through Birds—Teaching how to study, appreciate, and conserve endemic and migratory birds in the Caribbean) – 57 pages of lessons and activities.

BirdsCaribbean is excited to announce that our popular BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum and supporting materials are now available in French.

BirdSleuth Caribbean is an innovative program designed to teach young learners how to study, appreciate and conserve Caribbean birds. It is part of a larger BirdSleuth program developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The original, US-based BirdSleuth program was adapted specifically for the Caribbean and has been a success in engaging students across the region with their native birds.

This BirdSleuth curriculum includes many fun activities which are perfect for kids that benefit from a hands-on lesson—and who doesn’t? Activities include creating a bird journal, learning how to use binoculars, and conducting bird counts. The best part is, these are the same skills that adult birdwatchers and scientists use. In fact, the bird counts can be entered into the citizen science website eBird Caribbean and used in actual scientific research! This teaches kids that their observations are important in addition to building their science skills. Their data can help scientists learn more about complicated topics like bird migration.

Educators from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic share their bird journals from the International Training workshop in Nassau, Bahamas.
Educators from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic share their bird journals from the International Training workshop in Nassau, Bahamas. Left to right: Israel Guzmán (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc., Puerto Rico), Ianela Garcia Lau (University of Havana, Cuba), Johanna Rodriguez Paulino (Grupo Acción Ecologica, Dominican Republic).

One benefit of the program is the opportunity to get kids out into nature where they can be active, and observe and connect with the animals in their environment. The overall goal is to develop a strong conservation ethic in young people and promote commitment to environmental stewardship by increasing their knowledge and interest in birds, nature and science. Because of the diverse cultural backgrounds in the Caribbean, it is important that BirdSleuth is available in the languages spoken across the region.

Twenty-seven educators from around the region attended an intensive 3-day International Training Workshop for BirdSleuth in the fall of 2014 in Nassau, Bahamas. Since then they have been using the English and Spanish versions of the curriculum to train local teachers how to use the program. They have also been using BirdSleuth activities in their annual bird festival events, after-school programs and summer camps with great success.

Jermy Shroeter, a ranger at the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, helps a BirdSleuth Caribbean camp participant in Jamaica identify a bird in the Bird Detective game (Lesson 8)
Jermy Shroeter, a ranger at the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, helps a BirdSleuth Caribbean camp participant in Jamaica identify a bird in the Bird Detective game (Lesson 8)

“We can’t wait to use the curriculum here in Guadeloupe” said Anthony Levesque. “It’s so important to teach our young people about science, nature and conservation – birds can definitely act as that spark to ignite an interest in the natural world. Students also learn that they can contribute to local conservation efforts and science through their actions.”

Read more about our BirdSleuth Caribbean program here. The curriculum and supporting materials are available for free download in English, Spanish and French at this link. A limited number of printed copies will also be available. Contact Lisa Sorenson at Lisa.Sorenson@BirdsCaribbean.org for more information.

We are grateful to Parc National de la Guadeloupe for funding the translation of the curriculum to French. Many thanks to Nathalie Hecker for her excellent translation of the BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum and materials.

Cuba to Host BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference

Every two years, bird educators, scientists and conservationists from throughout the Caribbean and beyond gather for BirdsCaribbean’s International Conference. This year’s conference will take place in southern Cuba from 13-17 July 2017. More than 200 international delegates are expected to join dozens of Cuban delegates to share the latest in Caribbean bird science, conservation and education.

A Cuban Trogon- the national bird of Cuba. (Photo by Max Schwenne)
The Cuban Trogon is not only a beautiful endemic but also the national bird of Cuba. (Photo by Max Schwenne)

The theme for the conference is “Celebrating Caribbean Diversity.” The Caribbean is a hotspot of biodiversity, with many unique plants and animals. Birds are no exception: 172 species are found only in the Caribbean.  The Caribbean is also a cultural melting pot, home to the most diverse group of bird scientists in the world.

“BirdsCaribbean conferences have always been a place for scientists to collaborate beyond political boundaries,” said Andrew Dobson, President of BirdsCaribbean, “Bringing an international group together in Cuba is particularly exciting. We are excited to have the chance to work face-to-face with our Cuban colleagues. We are very excited to be able to give our members and partners the opportunity to experience Cuba, to meet Cuban ornithologists and conservationists, and to enhance our joint efforts to conserve birds in the Caribbean.”

The 2017 program will offer something of interest for anyone interested in conservation of Caribbean birds and their habitats. “Whether you want to share your latest findings, upgrade your skills, discuss your work with people with similar interests, or see the 26 Cuban endemic bird species, you will find an opportunity in our agenda,” explained Andrew Dobson, “We will also be supporting participation of spouses and children.”

As always, the conference will focus on the practicalities of implementing conservation backed by sound science. Featured events will start with world-famous keynote speakers talking about current issues in ornithology. There will also be training workshops, symposia and discussions on a wide range of topics including bird tourism (the Caribbean Birding Trail), bird monitoring, use of social media to promote conservation, conservation of island endemics, environmental awareness, and many other themes.

The world's smallest bird, the bee hummingbird, is endemic to Cuba. (Photo by Max Schwenne)
The world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird, is endemic to Cuba. (Photo by Max Schwenne)

The conference will take place at Topes de Callantes, in the Sierra de Escambray- Cuba’s second largest mountain range and home to many unique birds. This is a fantastic opportunity to visit Cuba to learn more about the important role it is playing in conserving the biodiversity of the region, while experiencing its dynamic culture, rich and varied history and wonderful food. There will be many opportunities for exploration, including early morning bird walks, mid-conference field trips to the forests, trails and waterfalls of the Topes de Collantes protected area or to the historic town of Trinidad, as well as options for pre- or post conference field trips to see the endemic birds of Cuba and explore Havana.

“This is BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference,” said Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director. “We are celebrating our anniversary by celebrating the outstanding diversity of the Caribbean in one of the most amazing places in the region. And we are expecting all those who want to get engaged in conserving that diversity to join us. Our meeting in Jamaica in 2015 was one of our best ever. Cuba is going to be even better!”

Registration for the conference is open!  Please visit the conference website for more details.  

Interested in giving a talk or presenting a poster?  Please check out the Call for Papers, we look forward to your submission.

Please also visit our Travel Support page for information about travel scholarships.