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.
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 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!”
In the Caribbean and around the world, teachers and other educators are looking for new ways to engage students with the natural environment, inspire an interest in science and math and help youth learn to work together as a team. Some environmental educators believe birds may be the perfect focal point for accomplishing these goals, and the BirdSleuth Caribbean program was developed. During an intensive three-day training session in the Bahamas, Caribbean educators learned the program and are now poised to spread the program throughout the region.
The Retreat is a small national park nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of Nassau, Bahamas. Inside The Retreat, two dozen educators and conservationists from different islands throughout the Caribbean gathered October 15 to 17, 2014 to learn the BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. After their training, they returned to their islands ready to share this program with teachers and students.
BirdSleuth Caribbean is a program designed to teach youth 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 its birds. At this workshop, each attendee was trained in the program and return with a full kit of supplies to implement the program. Over the coming months and years, workshops will be held throughout the Caribbean to train local teachers this program so they can share these activities with their classes.
The BirdSleuth curriculum includes many fun, hands-on activities, like creating a bird journal, learning to use binoculars and doing bird counts that can be entered into the citizen science website eBird Caribbean and used in actual scientific research. One benefit of the program is the opportunity to get kids out into nature where they can be active and forge a connection with the animals around them. The citizen science component, learning to identify birds and enter them into eBird, also teaches kids that their observations can help scientists learn more about topics like bird migration.
Of course, many teachers and students may feel they don’t have enough experience with birds to teach this curriculum. One key component of the program is training the teachers and students to observe and identify birds. They learn to do this by observing physical characteristics, but also by looking at behavior, habitat and what birds are found in the area. The program also shows that we often know more about birds that we think. Almost everyone can already distinguish a duck from a seagull or an egret.
“The BirdSleuth training workshop was hands down the best training experience I’ve had to date,” commented Falon Cartwright, Preserve Manager for the Bahamas National Trust Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve in Eleuthera, Bahamas. “The curriculum is well designed, thorough, and super engaging and the level of organization and expertise demonstrated by our facilitators made the three days an absolute pleasure. I am so excited to use the BirdSleuth curriculum to encourage young people in Eleuthera to learn about and value our local birds.”
Israel Guzman (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc., Puerto Rico) had this to say: “Birds Caribbean, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Bahamas National Trust teamed up to bring us one of the best workshops ever. Learning by doing and sharing experiences made us all get the most from this workshop based on the BirdSleuth Curriculum. The whole experience will be replicated to provide students with the right tools to reconnect them to nature, and lead them to love and care about birds and conservation.”
Birds are a powerful tool to help kids and people of all ages connect with nature and develop a conservation mentality. Birds are fantastic ambassadors for nature because they are found everywhere, easy to see and identify and endlessly fascinating. Studying birds is a great tool for encouraging interest in both science and in the outdoors. Collaborative activities like many of the ones in the BirdSleuth program also help kids learn teamwork and cooperation skills.
We thank the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, International Programs of the US Forest Service, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Optics for the Tropics, Franklin Dodd Communications, Tropical Shipping, and Vortex Optics for funding and support of the BirdSleuth Caribbean Project. The Wildlife Without Borders program of the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided funding for the pilot project to develop the BIrdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. We also thank the Bahamas National Trust for hosting our International Training Workshop and our many partners and educators for participating in the project and doing an amazing job training teachers and educating youth in their home countries.
It’s that time of year again! The Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival (CEBF) begins on Earth Day, April 22nd. This regional celebration highlights the birds that are endemic—the ones that live only in the Caribbean. A wide variety of events will take place across the region through May 22nd, International Biodiversity Day. This annual celebration is organized by BirdsCaribbean, and events are hosted by groups on many islands.
This year’s theme is Our Endemic Birds—Sharing “Stopover Sites.” While the festivals will celebrate the birds that live here and nowhere else in the world, they will also highlight habitat. Our endemic birds share their habitat with migratory birds that are here for only part of the year. Does sharing habitat mean more competition for food and shelter? How can we protect, conserve or even restore these shared habitats? What native plants and trees are beneficial? Which species are especially vulnerable?
The CEBF is a month-long event that Caribbean citizens of all ages enjoy – whether they are senior citizens in Havana, conservationists in Bermuda or schoolchildren in Grenada. And since we are in the Caribbean, our overseas visitors always get involved, too. In 2016, dozens of events celebrating endemic birds took place, providing opportunities for learning and enjoyment for thousands.
Springtime in the Caribbean is always marked by the activities of the birds. As the winter visitors get ready to leave, many of our local birds are already busy building nests and raising families. Hills, valleys, wetlands, fields and gardens are alive with the urgent calls of fledglings, making it the perfect time to enjoy and appreciate our endemic birds. Find out what is happening in your area, or consider hosting an endemic bird event yourself. Visit birdscaribbean.org or find BirdsCaribbean on Facebook for more information about the festival and updates throughout the month.
Dan Stonko, an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, takes us on the journey of his first experience with international fieldwork: into the wilds of the Bahamas to unravel the mystery of where Bahama Orioles nest.
I can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled to be awake at 4:30 in the morning. There I was – meeting our team and boarding a plane to Nassau as part of a research team studying the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)– considered to be one of the most endangered songbirds in the Caribbean. One thing kept running through my mind: if at the very start of college someone had asked me what sort of opportunities I thought I’d get as an undergraduate, I couldn’t have dreamed this would be one of them. What awaited me in the Bahamas were two incredible weeks filled with intense fieldwork, scientific discovery, a fair share of car troubles, and as much exploring as we could possibly squeeze into our spare time.
Here’s a quick summary of what our team was doing and how I ended up in the middle of it all. In 2015, Dr. Kevin Omland, my professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), began the Bahama Oriole Project in collaboration with Bahamas National Trust. At that time, the latest research on the species had come out in 2011 and indicated a declining population of less than 300 individuals. However, conservation efforts were hindered in large part due to the lack of sufficient information about this species. The Bahama Oriole Project was launched with the goal of reversing the bird’s decline through research, conservation and education. I was fortunate enough to join the team, and funded in part by a grant from The Explorers Club Youth Activity Fund, take part in this field research trip alongside Dr. Omland and three other UMBC undergrads. This was the Project’s first official research trip and my first experience with international fieldwork.
On that oh-so-early early morning in May 2016, we flew from Baltimore to Nassau, then chartered a six-seater plane that took us to the only place in the world where the Bahama Oriole is found today: Andros. It’s the largest and least developed island in the Bahamas with a population of nearly 8,000 people. Andros is a sort of island complex made up of three major landmasses (North Andros, Mangrove Cay, and South Andros) and smaller cays that are separated by channels and creeks. For now, our research is primarily confined to our study site in the northern portion of North Andros. Once we landed, we headed to where we’d be staying (Nicholls Town). After unpacking, the exploration finally began.
When I take a step back for a second, the thought of taking four undergrads that don’t know each other to another country for two weeks of field research might seem a little crazy. But to what I’m sure was Dr. Omland’s delight – our team ran like a well-oiled machine from day one. While we did spend some of our time all working together, each undergrad had a particular focus throughout the trip. Jennifer Christhilf was our team’s Magellan; she traversed our study area recording GPS points and habitat measurements to construct habitat maps of the island. Alex Scarselletta and Michael Rowley concentrated on the population surveys. Roni Rolle, a local college student from the Bahamas Agriculture & Marine Science Institute (BAMSI), also joined our team. His expertise on all-things-local was a tremendous contribution to our work. Before our UMBC team even reached Andros, he worked in the field to collect preliminary data by locating orioles and nests. A few days before we arrived, he found something particularly compelling while working in a pine forest– an apparent active oriole nest in a pine tree (Pinus caribaea).
Out of context this finding may seem insignificant, but here’s the thing: all previous research indicated that the orioles nest primarily in nonnative coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) in or near residential and agricultural (anthropogenic) land– but never in pine forests. Not only that, the research suggested that the oriole is dependent on the anthropogenic habitat for nesting. These findings formed the basis of what we thought we knew about the Bahama Oriole and had several important implications. Notably, these assumptions played a defining role in population estimates; and also in determining what conservation efforts would be most effective to protect the species. Any real discovery of pine forest nesting would then have the potential to shake up the basic understanding of Bahama Oriole breeding ecology and affect research and conservation efforts.
On our first day of fieldwork, Roni took us all to the nest site and to our surprise, there it was: an active nest in the pine forest, and actually in a Caribbean pine. This turned out to be a nest of two adult Bahama Orioles that successfully fledged young several weeks later. One of our questions now became whether this nest was an outlier or whether we were on the cusp of an important discovery.
Finding Nests in Understory Palms
Roni and I ended up working together for most of the trip. We primarily focused on finding orioles and locating nests, especially in the pine forest. All the while- the pine nest was in the back of our minds. What if there were more nests in pine trees? Even more likely, we speculated: what if they’re also nesting in the native palms within the pine forest understory?
During their randomized point counts, Michael, Alex and Dr. Omland heard Bahama Oriole vocalizations at several other locations in and near pine forests. Using these locations as leads, Roni and I scouted them out to see what we would find. One morning in the later portion of the trip we followed one of these leads, which took us down to the southern part of our study site (near the nest Roni found before we arrived). The area is an expansive pine forest with little human development nearby. We parked our car just as the sun was rising and set out hiking. To our surprise, we quickly found a pair of orioles. After over an hour of vigilant following, the pair eventually flew too far away to track. We headed back to the car, glad to have found the pair but sorry that we had lost track of them. As we packed our things up, Roni and I immediately froze at the same instant. We had both just heard it – the distinctive song of the oriole. The bird was perched in a nearby understory palm, but it quickly flew further into the forest.
Now, it is worth taking a moment to describe the typical understory of pine forests on Andros. First of all, the ground is sharp, jagged limestone that makes simply walking an ankle-twisting hazard. Worst of all though, the understory is often dominated by poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum), a type of tree in the same family as poison ivy. Poisonwood can cause some wicked blisters if you contact any part of the plant.
Once we saw the bird fly deeper into the forest, I think we both had the same internal questions: how badly do we really want to follow this bird/potentially find a nest, and would be it be worth the potential poisonwood rashes?? Throwing caution to the wind, we sprinted after the bird and into the forest in close pursuit. All in the name of science! We did our best to keep it in our sights and listened carefully for any vocalizations.
In retrospect, I can say that the poisonwood rashes I ended up getting several days later were definitely worth it, because after nearly 20 minutes– we found the nest! On the underside of a frond, the oriole had built its nest in an understory thatch palm (Leucothrinax morrissii). After tracking the bird to the nest, another individual soon appeared. We stuck around for a while to gather measurements, observe more behavior, and– of course– take a nice selfie with the nest tree. I was particularly surprised by the pair’s nonchalance with our presence. Before we knew it, the female was hard at work building her nest once again. She hopped from frond to frond on a nearby palm and skillfully ripped off fibers. Then she flew back to the nest tree and artfully wove the pieces together. How cool was this?! Not only did we find the nest in an unexpected place, but we also got front row seats to watch the nest being built!
In the following days, our team found several more pairs with territories in the pine forest, and we even found a second nest in an understory thatch palm about one mile from the first understory palm nest. As the trip drew to a close, our team of undergraduate researchers was quite proud of our work. We all made significant advances on our respective research projects, plus spent some free time exploring, swimming in blue holes, and snorkeling in the ocean.
Our ability to protect any given species is contingent on having a relevant and accurate understanding of the species. These findings revealed, for the first time and contrary to previous assumptions, that pine forests on Andros are in fact a viable breeding habitat for Bahama Orioles. This new information elevates the significance of the pine forest habitat in terms of oriole breeding ecology. These findings also suggest a need to revisit prior population estimates, since their accuracy depended on the supposition that orioles don’t breed in the pine forests. The team is looking for funding to build on our initial findings and conduct comprehensive point counts across the entire Andros complex.
The discoveries and knowledge gained on this trip (through documentation of pine forest nesting, population sampling, habitat mapping) together allow the Bahama Oriole Project Team to refocus future research by refining the questions we ask. For example, we now know that the orioles nest in the pine forest; this provides unprecedented and critical justification to investigate the potential predators that are present in and/or unique to this habitat. Feral cats, for example, are infamous for their ability to prey on birds. We know they are present in residential areas throughout Andros, but what about deep within the pine forests? If so, could they (or other predators) threaten Bahama Oriole fledglings? On a second trip to Andros this past January, I used motion-activated trail cameras to see what exactly was lingering in the pine forests…but that’s an exciting story for another time.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Finding Bahama Oriole Nests in the Pine Forest—Reflections from a Young Scientist
Anne Goulden, from Sarnia, Ontario, spotted and photographed a Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) on a recent birding trip to Cuba, making this the first “official” sighting of the bird on Cuba.
Anne Goulden has been an avid birder for ten years. “Birding has been a hobby—make that an obsession—since 2007,” she says. Anne had just finished a 9-day birding tour in Cuba with Eagle Eye Tours and had arranged to stay on an extra three nights at their last stop, the Cayo Coco Cays located along the northern coast of Cuba. She wanted to bird at a leisurely pace on her own before returning home. The group was staying at the Iberostar Playa Pilar Hotel in Cayo Guillermo, one of the Cayo Coco Cays, known as a birding hot spot because of the Cuban and regional Caribbean endemics that live in the area.
On February 22nd Anne’s tour group birded for about 1 km along the road between their hotel and the Playa Pilar Beach looking for a Bahama Mockingbird, a species found only in a few locales in Cuba, Jamaica, and in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. “We were out for about an hour and were lucky enough to find a few Bahama Mockingbirds in addition to warblers and a few local birds,” Ann commented. The bus returned to the hotel to send everyone off to the airport to return home.
The next morning, February 23rd, Ann set out at on her own at about 7am along the same road to see what else she could find. She spotted an unfamiliar bird in a tree with red berries about an hour into her walk. “I wish I could say I knew what it was, but I didn’t,” said Anne. “I knew it was a warbler, but that was about it. I managed to get a few poor photos before it flew off.”
After Anne returned home she looked through her pictures, but still couldn’t place the bird. Ann was disappointed that her photos were not in sharp focus, but she knew that they were clear enough for an ID. She sent the pictures to two local birders who both suggested Kirtland’s Warbler, but it wasn’t even in Anne’s book so she did not include it in her e-bird checklist until the bird was also positively identified as a Kirtland’s by her two tour leaders, Hector Gomez de Silva and Colin Jones (the ID was also confirmed by eBird Caribbean reviewers). The individual appears to be a juvenile male (first winter).
“I was very excited to have this bird confirmed as a Kirtland’s Warbler,” exclaimed Anne. “I live in Ontario so know about the Kirtland’s and what a rare bird it is, but I never expected to see one in Cuba. I have only had a fleeting look at this bird once before, in Ontario in 2014.”
One of the rarest songbirds in North America, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Its current status is Near Threatened on the IUCN “Red list of Threatened Species,” upgraded from Vulnerable in 2005, thanks to successful recovery efforts.
The Kirtland’s Warbler winters primarily in the Bahamas Archipelago, which includes The Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It inhabits early successional broadleaf scrub or shrubby habitats, where it feeds on fruits, insects and spiders. Recent surveys indicate that the warblers most commonly winter in the central islands of The Bahamas including Eleuthera, Cat Island, San Salvador, and Long Island.
Kirtland’s Warblers are known to overwinter outside of the archipelago, however, as documented by a photograph of an individual during a Christmas bird count on Bermuda in 2004, and a bird photographed in Key West, Florida this past winter. In addition, there have been sight records of wintering Kirtland’s Warblers from northern Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Unfortunately sight records alone are insufficient for “official” documentation, which requires either a good photo or a specimen of the bird. Thus, the fact that Ms. Goulden photographed a Kirtland’s Warbler (with typical field marks visible) verifies for the first time the “official” presence of the warbler in Cuba.
The habitat where the bird was found and the photo of the warbler feeding on the fruit of Gumbo Limbo or Gum Elemi (Bursera simaruba) are all typical of the habitat and behavior of the wintering Kirtland’s Warblers observed in The Bahamas. In addition, the first Cuban sight record of the warbler in 2006 was also from the Cayo Coco cays. The cays located off Cuba’s north coast have typical scrub vegetation including Black Torch (Erithalis fruticosa), Wild Sage (Lantana involucrata), and Snowberry (Chiococca spp.) which also produce the fruits favored by the warbler. The cays also host specialties such as the Bahama Mockingbird and Thick-billed Vireo, both of which are typical birds of the Bahamian bush.
In recent years, more and more observations of the Kirtland’s Warblers have been made during the winter months. Some of the increase in observations might be attributable to more birders in the field in the warbler’s habitat. The more likely explanation, however, is that increased wintering grounds observations are attributable to the increase in the size of the Kirtland’s Warbler population at least since the 1970s and 1980s. This increase in the population of the warblers is directly attributable to the success of the intensive recovery effort focused on the warbler’s breeding grounds in Michigan.
Kirtland’s Warbler breeds in early successional Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) habitat primarily in Michigan with recent breeding now established in similar habitat in southern Ontario and Wisconsin. Habitat loss and degradation coupled with nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds were the primary factors contributing to the species decline to record low populations of the 1970s and 80s. In that period, counts of approximately 200 singing males on the breeding grounds were typical, whereas today, thanks to habitat management and cowbird control, the recent breeding ground censuses of singing males is approximately 2,350 singing males. [The biologists are not being sexist, its just that females are difficult to detect and count in contrast to the males which are obvious as they sing on their territories in early spring; the sex ratio is assumed to be 50:50]. Thus the abundance of recent winter observations of the Kirtland’s Warbler is a testament of the success of the conservation program directed at the recovery of this endangered species.
A recently published article by Dr. Nathan Cooper and his colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution suggests the possibility of some Kirtland’s Warblers occurring in Cuba. The research, based on use of light-sensitive geolocators to track the warbler suggests the occurrence of Kirtland’s Warblers wintering in Cuba; the photo obtained by Ms. Goulden establishes the fact. Congratulations to Ms. Goulden!
“I don’t live far from Michigan and hope in the next year or two to make a trip to the Kirtland’s Warbler’s famed breeding grounds,” said Anne. “Seeing this rare bird on its wintering grounds is, however, probably the most exciting thing that is likely to ever happen to me as a birder! I’m thrilled I was in the right place at the right time and managed to get a photo of the bird. It’s certainly rewarding for ordinary citizens like myself to contribute to science through our birding activities and use of eBird Caribbean!”
By Lisa Sorenson and Joe Wunderle
Anne Goulden’s checklist from 23 February, 2017 with the Kirtland’s Warbler can be viewed at this link.
Andrew Dobson’s checklist from 19 December, 2004 with the Kirtlands Warbler can be viewed at this link.
This attractive, informative little guide is the most recent contribution in a series of island-specific bird guides supported by BirdsCaribbean and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Targeting high school-aged students, beginning bird watchers, and tourists to the Bahama Islands, the guide highlights 60 common birds of the islands. With illustrations borrowed from Herb Raffaele et al.’s (1998) A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies reproduced in a very nice, large format, the book does a good job of synthesizing a general description and habitat for these species. I particularly like the book’s design, with the use of large, bold fonts, and employing colors without overdoing it to the extent that a page becomes a busy mess.
But this book is more than an identification guide too. Introductory chapters in Part I address why birds are interesting to us, and curious facts about birds. A chapter relates how to identify birds, but also covers how to find a bird in your binoculars, and how to become a better birder through learning songs and calls, choosing equipment, and respecting a code of ethics. And Part I includes advice on how to make your yard more bird friendly so as to keep birds safe and coming back for your enjoyment.
Finally, Beautiful Bahama Birds concludes with a well-thoughtout section on conserving birds. Appropriately, lands managed by the Bahamas National Trust and Important Bird Areas are highlighted not only as conservation success stories, but also as bird watching destinations. The many threats facing birds are briefly addressed, as are first steps which newly engaged bird watchers might take to help provide for birds. Finally, the book concludes with a selection of stories and poems that illustrate nicely how birds contribute to Bahamian culture.
Overall, I found Beautiful Bahama Birds to be a well-written and pleasingly designed book which does extremely well in providing an introduction to Bahamian birds. I would recommend it without reservations to any young person or adult interested in exploring what bird watching is all about. I would also suggest to anyone else contemplating writing a similar guide to add to the growing stable of island-specific introductions to bird watching, that they would do well to mimic the many qualities of this fine contribution to Caribbean birdlife
Beautiful Bahama Birds: Common Birds of the Bahama Islands is written by Carolyn Wardle, Lynn Gape, and Predensa Moore and published by Bahamas National Trust and BirdsCaribbean. The guide can be purchased in the US through Amazon here.
This review was provided by Dr. Steven Latta, Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary. It is featured in the current issue of the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology and can be viewed here.
Scott Johnson, Science Officer with the Bahamas National Trust, shares the work that he and his fellow conservationists are doing to help raise awareness about the issue of wildlife smuggling.
As a Caribbean native, I can wholeheartedly understand people’s obsession with our region. The lush green vegetation, white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, delicious food, and warm tropical climate are all hallmarks of the Caribbean experience. Every year many people, aka “snowbirds” flock to this region by the millions for a welcome respite from the frozen north.
In addition to “sun, sea and sand,” visitors also enjoy the Caribbean’s abundant wildlife, including the chance to spot spectacular native birds like parrots, trogons and todies, swim with sharks and rays, snorkel on a tropical reef, interact with rock iguanas, and even watch sea turtles laying their eggs in a nest they dig right on the beach. Unfortunately, some people want to do more than just observe the wildlife—they want to take a souvenir home, purchasing wildlife products for fashion, pets, and novel foods. This is causing a serious threat to the long-term survival of many native species.
The Caribbean is a virtual treasure trove of biological diversity. In fact, it is one of the most important biological hotspots in the world, home to thousands of endemic plants and animals. For example, 172 species of birds are Caribbean endemics, found no place else on earth. Many of these species are found on only one or two islands in the entire region. The novelty of these species unfortunately makes them key targets for smugglers.
Wildlife smuggling is one of the largest illegal activities in the world, a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands of animals and animal products are smuggled to places like Asia, the US and other countries to satisfy people’s insatiable appetites for the new and exotic. In Trinidad and Tobago, birds like the Chestnut-bellied Seed Finch and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw are key species targeted by smugglers. In 2011, 74 eggs from both Black-billed Parrots and Yellow-billed Parrots were smuggled out of Jamaica into Austria in rum cake boxes by tourists visiting Jamaica. On the island of Hispaniola, Hispaniolan Parrots have been captured and sold in the wildlife trade and are illegally kept as pets, while a single St. Vincent Parrot is said to be worth $100,000 on the black market.
What’s being done to help curb this threat in the Caribbean?
Law enforcement is an extremely important tool in the battle against wildlife smuggling. Sadly, protection of native wildlife from illegal capture and smuggling has not been a major priority for many Caribbean countries. In addition, many enforcers do not have a well-rounded knowledge about their native species. This is where wildlife sensitization comes in.
For the past two years, the Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Program of the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been training emerging young conservation professionals from around the Caribbean to tackle wildlife conservation problems in the region. Several of the participants formed a group called TeamTraffic, and took on the challenging issue of wildlife smuggling in their home countries, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago. Over the past year they have been assisting in the training of enforcers in each country, giving them the knowledge they need to properly identify animals in their country and put more emphasis on the protection of native wildlife.
Team Traffic has also created a Facebook page called CAWS-Caribbean Against Wildlife Smuggling, to help with outreach and education. International transportation companies such as JetBlue are helping to raise awareness through a public education campaign that advises travellers not to carry any wildlife products from countries visited.
In July 2016, The Bahamas hosted the Regional Wildlife Enforcement Workshop which brought together heads of enforcement agencies from across the Caribbean and International organizations such as CITES and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The successful meeting led to the recommendation of the establishment of a Caribbean Wildlife Enforcement Network aimed at improving wildlife enforcement cooperation in the region.
CLiC’s Team Traffic group will continue to work with partners both locally and internationally to educate enforcers on the threats of wildlife smuggling in the region. With all of us working together, we will be a strong force against the ever-present threat of smuggling. Please support our CAWS!
What you can do to help
Don’t purchase items such as coral, products made from turtle shells, feathers, or any exotic animal product, as you may be helping to fuel the illegal wildlife trade market.
Never buy wild-caught birds.
Report the capture and sale of wild birds to the authorities.
Plant native trees and shrubs in your yard and support forest reforestation efforts.
Enjoy the beauty of the animals in their natural habitat to ensure them for future generations. If everyone puts in a concerted effort to learn about wildlife and wildlife smuggling, our region will be one step closer towards eradicating this illegal activity once and for all.
Many thanks to Scott Johnson, Kareena Anderson, Laura Baboolal and Sharleen Khan, participants in the Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Program, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported program. Please follow CAWS on their Facebook page! The issue of wildlife smuggling and how are laws and protected areas help conserve our birds was the theme of our 2016 celebrations of the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival (CEBF) and International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). Click here for more information.
If you are a birder visiting the island of Montserrat, this small book will be a necessary purchase. It has a full checklist of birds found on the island as well as photos and descriptions of all the most important and most commonly seen species. Unlike many books, the birds are grouped by habitat—wetlands, forest, open-country—which is practical in many ways and allows the authors to describe the birds and their place within an ecological community at the same time.
The title of this book is a bit misleading…in a good way. It contains a great deal of useful information above and beyond birds and birding. This volume gives a short history of the island, an overview of its geology, maps, directions and images of trails and points of interest and an overview of the non-bird vertebrates of the island. It even has notes on traditional uses of plants and highlights a few of the island’s insects and other invertebrates. It closes with a section of “Practical Information” covering transportation, shopping, dining and more.
Whether you think of it as a travel guide with a bird section or a bird guide with a travel guide added on, definitely get this book before your next trip to Montserrat. It is available as a PDF download for $8 or a print edition shipped internationally for 15 British Pounds, and you can purchase either both online. The book was written by Dr. Mike Pienkowski, Ann Pienkowski, Catherine Wensink, Sarita Francis and James “Scriber” Daley and published by the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and Montserrat National Trust.
With nine research articles, two book reviews, and an ornithological literature review, we are excited to announce the completion of Journal of Caribbean Ornithology’s Volume 29. Collectively the publications highlight valuable work spanning the entire arc of the Caribbean island chain, from Cuba to northern South America. The quality, quantity, and distribution of research represented in Volume 29 is testament to the JCO’s continued mission to build and grow a community of ornithologists around the advancement of scientific knowledge of all the unique avifauna of these island habitats.
These accomplishments would of course not be possible without the commendable teamwork that happens between researchers, reviewers, editors, and volunteers in all corners. Thank you so much for bringing your passion to the table and helping produce such a valuable resource to the field of ornithology.
Volume 29 wraps up with two complementary articles on the Adelaide’s Warblers:
1. “First observations of Adelaide’s Warblers (Setophaga adelaidae) outside of Puerto Rico, in the U.S.VirginIslands” is an article by Sean M. Rune and LeAnn M. Conlon that documents the first sightings of this species of warbler outside its endemic range of Puerto Rico (and its island-munici palities of Vieques and Culebra). From one to four individuals were recorded during each of ten observation periods spanning from 24 March to 17 December 2012 on the island of St. Thomas. One observation of one individual on 6 January2013 occurred on the island of St. John. Seeing as Adelaide’s Warblers are known to breed during the late spring and early summer months, these observations may indicate the initiation of range expansion by the species from Puerto Rico to the U.S. Virgin Islands to the east.
2. Further evidence of range expansion by Adelaide’s Warblers follows in the article “Vagrancy and colonization of St. Thomas and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, by Adelaide’s Warblers (Setophaga adelaidae)” by Richard R. Veit, Lucinda C. Zawadzki, Lisa L. Manne, Pearl Cales, Danielle Fibikar, Shannon Curley, Elizabeth Dluhos, and Robert L. Norton. The authors observed five Adelaide’s Warblers on St. John during January of 2015 and eight individuals in the same area one year later. Given that these vagrants arrived against prevailing easterly trade winds and were observed in the same area from 2012-2016, Veit et al. hypothesize that in current time we are witnessing the eastward colonization of new islands by Adelaide’s Warblers.
A thorough overview of Adelaide’s Warblers highlighting these newly published articles has been written by Jason A. Crotty and can be found in a recent article of the magazine BirdWatching.
The Archives Have Grown – We’re excited to announce that we’ve been able to put some serious time into uploading and making available older volumes of the journal. The JCO Archives are now completely catalogued back to the year 2005. Our goal is to continue working our way back in time, ultimately providing easy (and free!) online access to every article of every publication back to the journal’s beginning – Volume 1 in 1988. We encourage you to take some time looking around the archives to remember and discover all the great work that has been contributed over the years. We will continue to make announcements as more volumes are made available.
What’s Coming Up – The 21st International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean set to take place in Cuba this July promises to be an unforgettable event. Detailed information about the meeting can be found here, the meeting website will have a lot of updates in the coming weeks. Regular attendees of BirdsCaribbean conferences and seasoned Caribbean ornithologists should take advantage of this attractive venue to consider reaching out to young, burgeoning researchers across the islands that could greatly benefit from attending. BirdsCaribbean is making an active push to integrate new members into our community, and the best way to do so is by word of mouth from all of our members. Everyone planning on attending the conference should come ready to have an excellent time, and don’t forget to budget some extra time in Cuba if your schedule allows! Volume 30 of the JCO is already underway with a lot of great manuscripts in the pipeline. We’re also looking forward to the release of a Special Issue on Caribbean Forest Endemics that promises to be around a dozen articles in length. Rumor has it that we’ll be seeing some great articles on everything from Elfin-woods Warblers to Golden Swallows to Giant Kingbirds. Stay tuned!
By Justin Proctor, Caribbean Ornithologist; Freelance Writer; Loving Husband. Justin is part of our JCO Editorial and Production team and a frequent contributor to our blog.
BirdsCaribbean is excited to announce the first award recipients of the David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds. We are extremely pleased to support these dedicated young scholars as they pursue important research that will increase our knowledge of and inform conservation management decisions for Caribbean birds. The award recipients are: Wayne Smart, Maya Wilson, Spencer Schubert, Ramon Williams, Holly Garrod, and Paige Byerly.
The David S. Lee Fund was established in 2016 to recognize the scientific and conservation efforts of David S. Lee, a biologist and naturalist dedicated to Caribbean biodiversity. The award funds innovative avian conservation research in the Caribbean. All projects demonstrate a commitment to engaging with local scientists, government officials, organizations and communities, as appropriate, to involve them in the research, share results, and build interest in local birds and their conservation.
Thanks to support from the David S. Lee Fund and contributions from an anonymous donor, BirdsCaribbean is able to provide grants of $900 to $1,000 for six exceptional conservation research projects in 2017, the first year of funding for the award. Congratulations to all the dedicated and hard-working student recipients, who embody the vision that we all share of a bright future for the conservation of Caribbean birds. We look forward to hearing about their work in forthcoming articles and publications.
Seabird nesting performance, colony declines and invasive predators in the Southern Grenadines.
Wayne Smart, Arkansas State University
Seabird colonies are declining globally for multiple reasons such as habitat loss, introduced predators, and poaching. The Grenadines support five Important Bird Areas and host a number of seabird colonies, though little is known about local seabird decline. Wayne Smart will conduct field work on five uninhabited islands off the north coast of Grenada this summer. By interviewing locals, monitoring nests, and deploying cameras and two types of traps, he anticipates gathering valuable baseline knowledge about the current size and reproductive success of seabird colonies in the Grenadines and how they are impacted by introduced rats. The data will inform seabird management decisions for a community-based conservation program.
Population biology, life history and ecology of the Bahama Swallow (Tachycineta cyaneoviridis): informing conservation of an endangered species.
Maya Wilson, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
The Bahama Swallow is an endangered species endemic to Grand Bahama Island, Great Abaco Island and Andros Island in the northern Bahamas. The swallow relies on pre-existing cavities in Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea), which are only found in large tracts on these island (they are also found on New Providence Island though the breeding Bahama Swallow likely was extirpated from here). Maya Wilson will undertake her third and final field season to investigate the population abundance, life history traits and nesting resource limitations of the Bahama Swallow. She is collaborating with the Bahama Oriole Project to develop survey techniques to estimate population and habitat data for both species. In addition, gene flow between islands will be analyzed from samples collected during mist netting efforts. Maya’s research will provide important information about two endangered Bahama endemics that will be used to inform conservation strategies for these species and their habitats.
Artificial perch installation as a method for enhancing avian seed dispersal and accelerating early-stage forest recovery in the central Dominican Republic.
Spencer Schubert, Old Dominion University
In Hispaniola, less than 15% of the original wet forest cover remains, primarily due to deforestation for cattle ranching. It is well known that frugivorous birds provide vital ecosystem services that aid in forest growth, such as pollination and seed dispersal. Spencer Schubert will travel to the Dominican Republic this summer to investigate the role of artificial perches as a strategy to increase natural seed dispersal and reforestation. From his previous work in the area, he has identified 24 species of frugivorous birds that aid in seed dispersal. Working with the local NGO Plan Yaque, he intends to install artificial perches in different spatial patterns and measure frugivore use and seed deposition. Results from this study will directly benefit Plan Yaque and their ongoing reforestation effort, local farmers, and the biodiversity and avian communities that rely on forests.
Distribution, diversity, and abundance of Grenadian birds, including endemic and restricted-range species.
Ramon Williams, University of Manitoba
Like many islands in the Caribbean, Grenada is undergoing rapid development leading to increased human disturbance and habitat loss. The conservation status of Grenadian passerines in response to development is poorly understood as there is little information regarding the distribution, diversity and abundance of species across the island. Thirty-five passerines are found on Grenada, including the critically endangered Grenada Dove (Leptotila wellsi), the endangered Grenada Hook-billed Kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus mirus) and the endemic Grenada Flycatcher (Myiarchus nugatory). Ramon Williams will begin field work this summer to estimate passerine species diversity and abundance, in addition to quantifying vegetation structure, in representative habitat types across Grenada. This study will produce a comprehensive assessment of the status of passerines on the island, potentially identifying areas of conservation priority.
Nest response of Broad-billed Todies (Todus subulatus) to an invasive nest predator, the small Asian mongoose.
Holly Garrod, Villanova University
The Broad-billed Tody is endemic to the island of Hispaniola. Like all todies, this species nests on the ground by building burrows in embankments. This nesting strategy makes todies extremely vulnerable to introduced predators, such as the small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus auropunctatus). This summer, Holly Garrod will return to the Cordillera Central region of the Dominican Republic – where she conducted pilot research in 2016 – to monitor nesting todies and nest predation. She is interested in the behavioral differences of todies in undisturbed and disturbed sites and how this might affect reactions to nest predators and reproductive success. Understanding how birds respond to predators under different environmental conditions has the potential to improve anti-predator management techniques for native bird conservation.
Conservation genetics of the Caribbean Roseate Tern
Paige Byerly, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
The Caribbean Roseate Tern, a threatened metapopulation of Sterna dougallii dougallii, is thought to be declining across its range, though the trajectory of the population is not well understood. Paige Byerly will undertake a project to analyze the genetics of the Caribbean Roseate Tern in order to investigate gene flow patterns between this population and the similar Northeastern Atlantic population. It is thought there is no movement between the two groups; such genetic isolation has the potential to negatively impact population viability. In addition to gene flow, this analysis will yield information about genetic diversity and effective population size. Samples will be collected this summer from populations in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Massachusetts. Results from this study will provide researchers and conservation managers with valuable new information about connectivity, migratory ecology and population vulnerability.
To learn more about the David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds, click here. If you would like to contribute to the fund and help support future projects, click here. You can choose to designate your gift to the David S. Lee Fund.
BirdsCaribbean thanks the scientists that provided thoughtful and constructive reviews of the proposals. We are very grateful to all that have donated to the David S. Lee Fund. We are pleased and proud to honor Dave’s legacy with the funding of these exciting projects that will advance the development of young Caribbean scientists and contribute to the conservation of Caribbean birds.