From Bird News

The Mystery of the Missing Todies: Understanding the Impacts of Invasive Mammals

Broad-billed Tody perched in a tree. They will typically perch on small branches with food before entering the nest. (Photo by Holly Garrod)
Broad-billed Tody perched in a tree. They will typically perch on small branches with food before entering the nest. (Photo by Holly Garrod)

Invasive mammals are known to be a problem on many islands. Holly Garrod shows first-hand how some of these pesky species are causing nest failure for one of the Caribbean’s most well known and best loved birds—the tody.

It was a muggy afternoon, typical for the summers in Jarabacoa, the central region of the Dominican Republic. Rubber boots on and camera in hand I was making my way through the creek system of a local farm. The goal was to check Broad-billed Tody nests. I was in the first field season for my master’s research, studying the breeding biology and behavioral interactions of Hispaniola’s two tody species: the Broad-billed Tody (Todus subulatus) and the Narrow-billed Tody (Todus angustirostris). One aspect of my research included how non-native mammals were affecting their breeding success. I had dubbed the creek I walked through as “tody neighborhood” (or barrio de barrancolis in Spanish), due to the high volume of nests I had found, totaling up to 15 in that one creek alone. I anticipated it would be one of my most productive sites this year, little did I know I was to be wrong.

But before I get into the mystery at tody neighborhood, let me explain some basic tody facts. Todies, while appearing to look like our pollinating hummingbird friends, are actually more closely related to kingfishers. Interestingly enough, todies are one of only two families of birds that are endemic to the Caribbean (the other being Dominican Republic’s national bird – the Palmchat). Within their Family Todidae, there are 5 species distributed throughout the islands of the Greater Antilles, most of which are named for the island they’re found on, excepting the aforementioned Hispaniolan todies. This interesting phenomenon, where Hispaniola is the only island to have two tody species, is the baseline for my master’s research, and the reason I was walking through creeks searching and monitoring for tody nests.

Typical clutch of Broad-billed Todies at 12 days old. Clutch size is typically 1-4 chicks. (Photo by Holly Garrod)
Typical clutch of Broad-billed Todies at 12 days old. Clutch size is typically 1-4 chicks. (Photo by Holly Garrod)

Now when most people hear “bird nest,” they think of an assemblage of twigs and moss carefully placed among the branches. But todies are different. For their nests, the pair chooses a dirt bank, then takes turns digging a burrow using their beaks. Typically, the burrows end up being about 10-15 cm deep, with some of them curving and all of them having an enlarged chamber at the end. With their preference for dirt banks, the best place to look for these burrows ends up being creeks.

Which brings us back to tody neighborhood. Walking through the creeks, notebook in hand, I stopped at the first nest. It was still early in the season, late May, and from my last check I knew all the nests had eggs. Now it was just a matter of seeing when they would hatch. I used an endoscope camera to check the nests, a long bendable tube with a camera and light on one end, where the other end hooked up to a monitor, providing live-stream tody footage. I slid the camera into the first nest, seeing nothing. Knowing that this nest had a tricky curve, I tried for several more minutes until something appeared, a cricket. Oftentimes when the todies finish breeding, other animals will move into the unoccupied cavities; typically large cave crickets are the most common. For this reason, todies almost always construct a new burrow every year. Presence of the cricket meant the nest had failed.

I continued to the other nests, hoping to have better luck. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the next nest still had the three eggs noted from several days earlier. But that’s where my luck ended. The next 5 nests had failed. I was baffled, from all outward appearances the nests appeared fine: the holes were still the same size and there were no signs of forced entry or tracks around the banks. When I returned several days later, it was more bad news. More failed nests and still mostly no signs of the culprits. Several nests appeared as though they may have been enlarged, but most others maintained the same outward appearance. Who could be predating these tody nests?

This is a Broad-billed Tody chick at 13 days old. I banded chicks between 12-14 days because at that point they were most developed. Chicks typically fledged (left the nest) around 14 days after hatching. (Photo by Holly Garrod)
This is a Broad-billed Tody chick at 13 days old. I banded chicks between 12-14 days because at that point they were most developed. Chicks typically fledged (left the nest) around 14 days after hatching. (Photo by Holly Garrod)

I started putting up camera traps (part of my funding from the David Lee Grant), hoping to get footage of what was happening at these nests. The idea being, the camera traps are motion activated and start recording with the presence of movement. I set one up at one of the few remaining active nests in tody neighborhood, scattering the others at nests in other creeks. One week later, I returned to glean the videos. Sitting back at the field house, going through the videos I was disappointed with the first two cameras. Most of the videos showed twigs moving or people walking by, the angle looking slightly off to catch the curprit.

Then I came to a night picture. I was about to pass by when I saw the outline of a cat walking by. Suspect number 1. Yet when I checked the records that nest had fledged successfully when I retrieved the camera. Plus a cat would have to have caused some external damage to the nest hole to access the tody. Ruled out as the common culprit, but still a potential predator.

The next set of videos I pulled up began with a night shot. I waited several seconds and then suspect number 2 appeared: a rat. I watched several videos of what I can only assume to be the same rat climbing on logs and scurrying around. Video after video I watched the rat run around, but appear oblivious to the nest entrance. Finally, watching the rat take its usual stroll around the log, I saw it. The flicker of interest in the nearby nest hole. I watched as the rat approached, holding my breath. There was no way the rat could fit, it would have to dig out the nest at least a little bit, leave some trace of evidence behind. But lo and behold, the mammal contracted in its side and squeezed into the hole, no damage and no evidence. Then out it came, baby tody in its mouth. I finally understood why the nests were failing!

Video: During the night, a rat enters the tody cavity and predates one of the two tody chicks inside. The other was presumably trampled based on appearance the next day. This rat was caught on camera for several nights before entering the cavity. (Video by Holly Garrod)

As I continued watching the videos for another nest that had failed, I saw a third culprit appear, one I was surprised I hadn’t seen earlier. Let me introduce you to culprit number three, the mongoose. I watched as the weasel-like mammal appeared and begin excitedly digging at the base of the hole until it managed to disappear inside, and return with a single tody chick in its mouth.

Video: A mongoose digs out the nest from below and enters from the bottom, leaving with a tody chick at the end of the video. No todies were present after checking, suggesting the mongoose likely returned for the second chick. (Video by Holly Garrod)
A Narrow-billed Tody displays in the forest. (Photo by Holly Garrod)
A Narrow-billed Tody displays in the forest. (Photo by Holly Garrod)

Mystery solved. Or is it? From the videos and what evidence I could find, it appears that rats are the most wanted, followed by mongoose, and leaving room for both feral cats and dogs. What is clear is that the majority of these predations are from introduced mammals. Even though these mammals have likely been present on the island for several hundred years, it may not have been enough time for the tody to adapt in some way. Throughout these videos I saw no evidence of nest defense behavior, or evidence the parents were even present. Additional behavioral experiments I conducted using a mammal decoy showed the same result—no interest or concern in the “mammal” present at the nest. Do we really know the impact these non-native mammals are having on bird populations? Out of 42 Broad-billed Tody nests I was monitoring, nearly half (20) of them failed, while 6 of 20 Narrow-billed Tody nests failed. All of them appeared to fail from non-native mammalian predators.

While these mammals may not be putting a huge dent on the tody populations, it’s clear they are having an impact. Continued predation could cause a decline in population sizes, especially since the todies show little to no defensive behavior and are therefore highly vulnerable. My research highlights the importance of understanding breeding ecology and the factors that influence nest success in Caribbean endemics like the tody. It’s important to monitor populations so that we can undertake management actions if needed to ensure long-term survival of these amazing birds.

By Holly Garrod. Holly is a MsC student in the Biology Dept at Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania. One of the goals of her thesis research in the Dominican Republic is to better understand how Caribbean endemic birds respond to changing landscapes and invasive predators. Holly was a recipient of the 2016-2017 BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund Grant.

Hugo, George, Irma and Maria: How Hurricanes Reinforce the Bond Between Islanders and Birds

Martha (Mandy) Walsh McGehee recalls her experiences with several devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean during the 1980s and 1990s, and the heartening interactions between people and birds in their aftermath.

I have had hurricane nightmares. Once, they were about boy-named hurricanes. Now they are about the girls. My first “bad dream” was in St. Croix in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo came to visit. My two-story home was demolished. The roof of the top floor and the sea walls on both floors were gone. I was in a downstairs closet for three days – blocked in by debris – before anyone could get to my house in the East End. I was lucky to be on the first flight to the United States. I never returned to St. Croix. Instead, I relocated to the island of Saba in 1990.

An aerial view of Saba after the hurricanes in the late 1990s. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)
An aerial view of Saba after the hurricanes in the late 1990s. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)

On Saba, I had become known as the “Bird Lady” due to my work with the Rare Center for Tropical Bird Conservation (now called RARE), and my experience rehabilitating birds. My doorbell rang often and I would answer it to find an islander with a cardboard box, which contained an injured or dehydrated bird. I lost some, but was able to rehabilitate many.

In 1992 I met a man from Miami who came to Saba without a dive buddy and we eventually married. His experiences in Florida prompted him to update my home for hurricanes. For example, he immediately made certain that the glass doors and windows had adequate permanent shutters. All went well until my second bad dream in 1998: Hurricanes George (followed a year later by Lenny). We retreated to the laundry room that was a level down from the house and protected from the sea by our cistern. When we emerged and went upstairs to the main house, we found the stone walls were intact but the house was full of water. George even took our fireplace chimney and part of the roof with him!

I walked outside to our courtyard and couldn’t believe the number of Purple-throated Caribs and Bananaquits that were waiting on bare twigs near where our feeders had been. We had eight feeders in the fridge that I had removed the evening before George hit, and we took them out immediately.

My faithful Purple-throated Carib waiting in the yard. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)
My faithful Purple-throated Carib waiting in the yard. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)

The first feeder went to a Purple-throated Carib we called Buddy. He dominated the pool area and successfully defended “his” feeder from all other hummingbirds and Bananaquits. His perch was less than a foot away. We always talked to him and it took him no time to recognize his name. If he wasn’t on his perch above the feeder he would come in if we called him. When I removed his empty feeder he would perch outside my front door. When I came out with a full one he would fly to my shoulder and ride to the feeder. I think he chose the shoulder over the feeder to avoid being sloshed with sticky fluid. He was one smart bird!

With Buddy safe it was time to check on our Gray Kingbird named Jeremiah, who we rehabilitated after receiving him as a nestling. We had raised him in our family room, teaching him to catch moths and bugs outside when he was fully feathered and starting to fly. He came immediately when I called. Needless to say, it was such a relief that he had also made it through the Hurricane!

After Hurricane Georges in 1998, the lack of vegetation revealed a sight never before seen from my house- the airport down below. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)
After Hurricane Georges in 1998, the lack of vegetation revealed a sight never before seen from my house- the airport down below. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)

After tending to the birds, I looked around and saw that the elfin forest was completely gone, stripped bare of all leaves, fruits and flowers. I knew what we had to do. We had a satellite phone and called Miami. I managed to get a donation of 250 hummingbird feeders and we ordered four pallets of birdseed to be shipped to the island in the fastest way possible.

The word spread quickly through the island that I had ordered emergency rations for the birds and as a result, our house became a feed and feeder distribution center. Most of the islanders lost their roofs. I can remember blue tarps covering damaged houses everywhere. Yet, in the midst of utter devastation, I would see Sabans out every day filling feeders for the birds.

From my experience, islanders really began to pay attention to their birds after the hurricane. Because the elfin cloud forest was gone, many birds that were primarily seen only there and passage migrants were forced to come halfway down the mountain to the villages in search of food. This excited people and I was constantly identifying birds for curious residents. A Baltimore Oriole was spotted and soon attracted the whole neighborhood!

Much of the vegetation on Saba was damaged after the hurricanes- removing critical food sources for many of the island's birds. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)
Much of the vegetation on Saba was damaged after the hurricanes- removing critical food sources for many of the island’s birds. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)

Saba has no standing water, so water birds were especially exciting. One of the most memorable bird identifications I made was of a Green Heron. I arrived at the home of an elderly gentleman who was standing in his yard waiting for me. He thought the bird was the prettiest bird he had ever seen. He wanted to know everything about it. I always had a bird guide in my car so was able to answer all of his questions. After spending over half an hour discussing the bird and looking at it from all the varying angles, I finally told the man I needed to go home. He gave me a big hug and thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said he hoped the bird could go back to its home, but hoped that if another hurricane came the bird would visit again.

I have had nightmares again, since Irma and Maria. Throughout my career, I traveled to many islands to supervise bird projects we were working on in the Lesser Antilles. My heart breaks for all the islands impacted by the recent hurricanes, and I know many of them- and their birds- well. I am hoping that, by telling my story, maybe those islands can plan ahead and have a repository of feeders and seed on hand at the beginning of hurricane season. They will likely be rewarded, as I was, with an island that truly loves and takes care of its birds.

Cleaning up the damage after Hurricane Georges. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)
Cleaning up the damage after Hurricane Georges. (Photo by Mandy McGehee)

I would now like to add a postscript. Since writing the first draft of this article I have been in almost daily contact with my very dear friend on Saba who is the current bird rehab person specialist. When she wrote to tell me there was no more seed and few feeders on the island, I arranged for her to get in touch with Lisa Sorenson. Lisa has arranged for a seed and feeder shipment to Saba. I will always be grateful to BirdsCaribbean, and I am very proud to be a member.

By Martha (Mandy) Walsh McGehee, biologist and member of BirdsCaribbean since its beginning in 1988.

Editor’s note: We thank Mandy for writing about these memories. Her inspiring story, originally told to Lisa Sorenson by phone after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in September 2017, motivated us to make sure that all the islands (15) impacted by these hurricanes received shipments of feeders and seed. We’re happy to report we were able to do this, thanks to many generous donors to our Hurricane Relief Fund. We continue to help birds and our partners recover with many restoration activities planned for 2018. The needs are enormous, however, so continued donations to the fund are welcome.

 

The Status of Caribbean Forest Endemics—Special Issue of JCO

The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology (JCO) is excited to announce the release of a Special Issue on the Status of Caribbean Forest Endemics (Volume 30, Issue 1). Inside you’ll find a total of 10 publications, 9 of which focus on different forest endemic birds from central Cuba down to Grenada. The tenth publication provides statistical evidence of the JCO’s invaluable role as a multi-lingual, regional scientific journal that outshines other ornithological journals through its distinct subject strengths, especially in terms of papers published on the distribution and abundance of forest endemic species.

Map showing locations of research on various Caribbean forest endemic birds featured in the Special Issue of JCO.
Map showing locations of research on various Caribbean forest endemic birds featured in the Special Issue of JCO.

In this Special Issue, we highlight those strengths with a collection of publications specific to forest endemic birds, many of which have become icons and flagship species for their specific island communities. In some cases, there is good news to report, whether it be population growth or range expansion, while in other cases, there are greater causes for concern and subsequent action on our part. The extirpation of the Golden Swallow from Jamaica, for example, is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of some of our forest endemics, and a prime example of the complexities of the problems that island birds face.

As stewards of island bird communities, we know that we must often be two steps ahead when it comes to making informed decisions with local conservation management practices. Islands are filled with diverse fauna and flora that interact in ways that can’t be seen anywhere on the mainland, but simultaneously their populations can often suffer the most from even the smallest disturbances. Our resilience must make up for those species that have such little of it. And here at the JCO we firmly believe that making the most current and impactful research available to our Caribbean community is one of the many critical steps towards doing exactly that.

The following are brief synopses of each publication you’ll find in our Special Issue, which we hope will quickly spark your interest in reading through each in more detail.

Male Montserrat Oriole on a red Heliconia flower.Our Special Issue starts off in the forests of Montserrat, a habitat heavily impacted by volcanic activity over the last twenty years. In Bambini et al.’s Current population status of four endemic Caribbean forest birds in Montserrat, current populations of four endemic forest birds are surveyed for, including the Bridled Quail-Dove (Geotrygon mystacea), Forest Thrush (Turdus lherminieri), Brown Trembler (Cinclocerthia ruficauda), and Montserrat Oriole (Icterus oberi).

 

 

2. GiantKingbird_Eduardo Inigo Elias-croppedWe move to the Greater Antilles where, in the face of recent extirpations from its former range, Peña et al. bring us in-depth news on the endangered Giant Kingbird’s remaining foothold in Cuba with their publication Distribution and abundance of the Giant Kingbird (Tyrannus cubensis) in eastern Cuba.

 

 

3. Maikel Canizares Morera_Habitat-croppedMoving westward across the Caribbean’s largest island, we are now presented with information on a newly identified population of Palm Crows that may exceed 200 individuals, thanks to recent work by Maikel Cañizares Morera in his publication Nueva localidad para el Cao Ronco (Corvus palmarum minutus; Aves: Corvidae) en Cuba Central.

 

4. Elfin-woods Warbler_Gloria Archilla-croppedTo the east, on the island of Puerto Rico, Anadón-Irizarry et al. provide us an invaluable update on the Status and recommendations for the recovery of the Elfin-woods Warbler (Setophaga angelae) in Puerto Rico. In light of devastating impacts to forest habitats by recent hurricanes, this work will be pivotal in helping post-hurricane conservation efforts understand the species’ vulnerability and most pressing needs.

 

5. Mark Orr_Cuban Parrot-Feature imageIn Haakonsson et al.’s Conservation status of Grand Cayman (Amazona leucocephala caymanensis) and Cayman Brac (Amazona leucocephala hesterna) Parrots, we find ourselves ~250 miles south of Cuba amid the Cayman Islands, where alarmingly two subspecies of Cuban Parrot are being found in fewer, more concentrated population sites.

 

6. Gunnar Kramer & Jennifer Mortensen_White-breasted Thrasher-REVOur journey swings us back east into the Lesser Antilles to the neighboring islands of St. Lucia and Martinique, where Mortensen et al. report on the Current status of the Endangered White-breasted Thrasher (Ramphocinclus brachyurus), a dry forest songbird endemic to Saint Lucia and Martinique. Heavily geographically restricted on both islands and facing myriad threats, new and amplified life history information on the White-breasted Thrasher reviewed in this publication will undoubtedly prove invaluable for new conservation plans underway.

 

7. Greg Homel_Grenada Dove-REVTo the south lies the island of Grenada, where Bonnie L. Rusk has been undertaking Long-term population monitoring of the Critically Endangered Grenada Dove (Leptotila wellsi) on Grenada, West Indies. Here Rusk stresses the current critical state of the Grenada Dove based on long-term population trends and multiple obstacles facing species recovery.

 

8. Cockpit Country_Claude Fletcher-REVLastly, we set sail back up towards the Greater Antilles, finding our way to the beautiful island of Jamaica, and in particular its Cockpit Country – a region known for its seemingly impenetrable (yet still vulnerable) geography of karst-limestone hills. Herlitz Davis’ publication on Forest disturbance has negative consequences for the persistence of Jamaica’s threatened and endangered bird species in Cockpit Country brings forth evidence of an association between forest disturbance and bird distribution patterns in a globally important area for bird species that is under pressure from all sides by various types of habitat disturbance.

 

9. Jamaican Golden Swallows specimens_Hein van Grouw-REVPulling back to an island-wide view, Proctor et al.’s time censusing the remote corners of Jamaica for aerial insectivores completes an ongoing effort to determine whether any Jamaican Golden Swallows persist on the island in light of there having been no individuals reported since the 1980’s. The Last search for the Jamaican Golden Swallow (Tachycineta e. euchrysea) confirms the local extinction and highlights the importance of using new knowledge to strengthen conservation plans for the subspecies that persists on the island of Hispaniola to the northeast.

 

Antillean_Crested Hummingbird-Grenada_HPN (2)-CroppedThe Special Issue’s final publication is an equally important one in which we are empirically reminded of the unique niche that the JCO fills in the wider world of ornithological publications. The role of a regional journal as a depository for valuable ornithological data as demonstrated by Caribbean forest endemic birds, by Devenish-Nelson et al., is an uplifting report of the impact that our community’s journal is having on birds, people, and the bright future of research and conservation.

You will find the issue in its entirety for free download here:
Thank you to all the authors, reviewers, and members of the production team for making this Special Issue possible.  Enjoy, and please spread the word!
Jason Townsend (editor-in-chief, JCO) and the JCO Editorial Team

BirdsCaribbean Welcomes News of Proposed Jamaican Wildlife Sanctuary

Great Goat Island (foreground) and Little Goat Island.
Great Goat Island (foreground) and Little Goat Island.

BirdsCaribbean, the region’s largest conservation organization, warmly welcomes news that the Government of Jamaica is planning to establish a Wildlife Sanctuary at Goat Islands, in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA).

“This is a great Christmas gift to Jamaican and international campaigners, who have advocated in recent years to have Goat Islands protected,” said Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “We wish to congratulate Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ administration for this bold and forward-thinking move.”

Sorenson pointed out that the PBPA was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) and Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) by BirdLife International. “These are nature’s biodiversity hotspots,” noted Sorenson. “Goat Islands include important and threatened habitats for birds and other species, especially its pristine mangrove systems and dry limestone forest.”

BirdsCaribbean also warmly commended the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), under the leadership of Diana McCaulay, for its determined advocacy, as well as the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), supporters and advocates from all walks of life. “Diana McCaulay is a staunch defender of Jamaica’s environment,” said Sorenson. “We wish her all the best in her retirement and look forward to working with JET’s incoming CEO Suzanne Stanley, and with all our Jamaican partners in 2018.”

West Indian Whistling Ducks are a threatened regional endemic, resident in the PBPA. They have been declining in Jamaica due to loss of wetland habitat.
West Indian Whistling Ducks are a threatened regional endemic, resident in the PBPA. They have been declining in Jamaica due to loss of wetland habitat.

The PBPA, including Goat Islands, is home to 17 endemic birds (found only in Jamaica) and many resident birds, such as the West Indian Whistling Duck – one of the most threatened waterfowl in the Western Hemisphere Endemic species include: Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Owl, Jamaican Tody, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Spindalis and Jamaican Mango. The area is a critical refuge for numerous neotropical migrants, including ducks, warblers, waterbirds, shorebirds and seabirds, that spend the winter or stop off in the area.

“The Caribbean islands are fragile, and increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts, as well as human activities such as tourism and housing developments. This has been a very difficult year for Caribbean birds on numerous islands, after two devastating hurricanes. We are delighted by this positive news as the year draws to a close,” said Sorenson.

By Emma Lewis, Blogger, Writer and Online Activist, based in Kingston, Jamaica. Follow Emma at Petchary’s Blog—Cries from Jamaica.

Thanks to all of our members and partners that have supported us in this campaign through writing letters, signing petitions, spreading the word with your networks, and more. Your efforts have paid off and we thank you! – Lisa Sorenson

Read about the decision to save Goat Islands from development in 2016:

Goat Islands Saved! Conservationists Warmly Welcome Jamaican Government Decision Against Transshipment Port in Protected Area

 

Forest Restoration in the Dominican Republic: How I Got the Birds to Work for Me

Follow Spencer Schubert on his adventures into remote corners of the Dominican Republic and learn how birds (and their poop!) naturally restore forests. And they do this for free!

Bird enthusiasts have long struggled with the challenge of attracting birds to their backyards, often employing the use of feeders, bird baths, or populating their gardens with plants that birds like. There’s something about birds that really captures our attention, whether it’s their impressive bright plumage or the cheery music they produce.

The Palmchat (Dulus dominicus) is one of the most unique birds in the Caribbean region. The species is endemic to the island of Hispaniola. Over the course of our studies, we have found evidence that Palmchats consume more than 40 species of fruits, making them the most generalist and important seed dispersers known to these landscapes. Here, an individual is seen feeding on Wild Guarana (Cupania americana). (Photo by Dax Roman)
The Palmchat (Dulus dominicus) is one of the most unique birds in the Caribbean region. The species is endemic to the island of Hispaniola. Over the course of our studies, we have found evidence that Palmchats consume more than 40 species of fruits, making them the most generalist and important seed dispersers known to these landscapes. Here, an individual is seen feeding on Wild Guarana (Cupania americana). (Photo by Dax Roman)

But birds have a lot more to offer beyond aesthetics. With an estimated 10,000 species of birds inhabiting our planet, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have adapted to eat just about any type of food found in nature. As it turns out, birds’ choice in cuisine often turns out to be beneficial to environments where humans live. Scavenging vultures limit the spread of pathogens by consuming dead animals. Birds of prey control rodent pests. And many birds feed on insects that can be damaging to farmers’ crops.

Another ecosystem service that fewer people are aware of is the dispersal of seeds in bird feces. That’s right! I am talking about bird poop. But before we all get too excited about bird poop, I need to take a few steps back to properly explain what I mean by this…

Many different kinds of birds have a sweet tooth for the juicy, nutritious fruits of the forest. But do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to try strange fruits that you see birds eating. Many of these are unpleasant and even toxic to people. Our palates are very different from those of birds, and that is no coincidence. Birds have evolved over time in native ecosystems with their plant neighbors, and many plants have adapted to take advantage of birds in a remarkably clever way.

You see, plants are faced with a different set of problems than those facing animals. Most importantly, they can’t really move around. For example, a tree cannot choose where it ends up and where it takes root. Long-lived trees might produce thousands, if not millions of seeds over their lifetime. Most of these fall to the ground directly below their parent, where they either get snatched by insect or rodent predators, fail to germinate, or eventually succumb to the overbearing shadow of their parent. (And you thought your parents were oppressive!).

The Red-legged Thrush is one of more than twenty species at my research site that we have confirmed feeding from fruit-bearing trees. Here, an individual is seen feeding on wild guarana (Cupania americana), one of the most popular fruits during the spring and early summer. (photo by Spencer Schubert)
The Red-legged Thrush is one of more than twenty species at my research site that we have confirmed feeding from fruit-bearing trees. Here, an individual is seen feeding on wild guarana (Cupania americana), one of the most popular fruits during the spring and early summer. (photo by Spencer Schubert)

Some lucky seeds manage to venture away, taking a ride with the wind, through the water, or undamaged in an animal’s gut. Some of these lucky seeds get even luckier still, by landing safely in a nice patch of fertile soil and substrate with moderate lighting from a gap in the forest canopy above.

Birds’ ability to fly long distances and visit a variety of habitats in a relatively short period of time makes them great seed dispersers from the perspective of the plant, and these two groups have evolved a mutualism for which they depend on the other. In exchange for their seed-dispersing services, birds are rewarded with a food supply.

Can a seed, dispersed, create a forest?

For my current research, I am working in the Dominican Republic, where I am trying to collect data to understand how seed dispersal by birds in cattle farms might be important for future forest restoration efforts in the region. Human populations all over the world are ravenous for beef and dairy. And in the tropics, by many estimates, the clearing of forests for livestock grazing lands has historically been the leading cause of deforestation. As a result, many experts see forest restoration in abandoned pastures as a key conservation strategy both in the present and in the future.

Constructing barbed wire fences around isolated trees in pastures allows us to study how birds may contribute to seed dispersal and regeneration patterns on abandoned farms. Some of the different plot types in this experiment included (a) mango trees, (b) open pastures without trees, and (c) Royal Palm trees. (photos by Spencer Schubert)
Constructing barbed wire fences around isolated trees in pastures allows us to study how birds may contribute to seed dispersal and regeneration patterns on abandoned farms. Some of the different plot types in this experiment included (a) mango trees, (b) open pastures without trees, and (c) Royal Palm trees. (photos by Spencer Schubert)

Having said that, restoration projects are expensive. The costs associated with growing trees in a nursery, transporting them, and caring for them after transplantation are high. It can conceivably cost thousands of dollars to manually reforest an area the size of a basketball court. In regions such as our work site in the Dominican Republic, where economic conditions are such that most working class jobs only pay $10 to $20 dollars per day, it is very difficult to convince organizations to take on these expensive projects.

The first step to my research project began about 18 months ago, when I secured permission to conduct my studies on a single large cattle farm near Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. The land owner agreed to let me fence off small sections of existing pastures to study seed dispersal and forest regeneration in the absence of human management and grazing, simulating abandoned conditions.

Señor Jose Brache is quite the character. An older gentleman on the verge of retirement, Sr. Brache much prefers his peaceful farm over the hustle and bustle of urban Santo Domingo. Like many older Dominican men, he has a lot to say about just about everything. It has become a frequent occurrence that Sr. Brache will encounter us on the main farm road in his truck and “kidnap” us for a ride to a part of the farm where he will tell a story about what the area looked like when he bought the property more than 20 years ago.

The first part of my project has been to study how certain isolated trees can attract birds to venture away from the forests out into the open pasture and how this might result in increased seed dispersal by birds and forest regrowth. Some of these selected trees included colony nest trees of Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and Palmchats, large mango trees, and control plots with no tree.

Perhaps the more interesting finding has been that relatively little forest regeneration has occurred during the study, so far. Below colony trees with many birds attending the tree, for example, both seeds and tiny seedlings are everywhere, but most of them do not survive. While it is still too early in the study to draw major conclusions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest from this and other similar studies that most seedlings end up losing their battle for survival when facing thick, tall grasses that are typical of these pastures. Furthermore, my findings suggest that it’s not so important how many seeds arrive as how good the habitat is when they get there.

The first step before setting up plots is to locate stands of bamboo and to harvest poles, cut them to specified lengths, and pack them up for transport. (photo by Spencer Schubert)
The first step before setting up plots is to locate stands of bamboo and to harvest poles, cut them to specified lengths, and pack them up for transport. (photo by Spencer Schubert)

While isolated trees in pastures are not the miracle cure for deforestation that I would have hoped for, even a small effect is potentially valuable, especially when it’s FREE. These findings rattled my brain… the presence of trees as perches for birds potentially begets more trees and biodiversity. So rather than waiting decades to grow a nice tree that birds will use and disperse seeds around, I thought of a shortcut… Artificial perches.

An artificial perch is exactly what it sounds like: any man made object or structure that birds can perch on. From my reviews of scientific literature, I soon learned that this is not a new idea. A handful of studies dating back to the late 90s have attempted various designs for artificial perches to study how birds use them and contribute to seed dispersal and forest regrowth. Results have been mixed with some more successful than others. There is still not a clear consensus on the subject, but I knew it was worth a shot. I began looking for larger scale restoration projects that would provide an appropriate context to carry out this work.

A New Collaboration with Plan Yaque

Plan Yaque technicians assist Spencer in assembling artificial bird perches. Bamboo grows as a feral exotic plant at many many sites surrounding Jarabacoa. Not only is harvesting bamboo poles for perch materials free, but it also helps to control overgrown stands where it has become invasive. Before burying bamboo perches in the ground, we carefully treat the poles over an open fire to prevent resprouting. (photo by Eduardo Infante Sicard, Plan Yaque Inc.)
Plan Yaque technicians assist Spencer in assembling artificial bird perches. Bamboo grows as a feral exotic plant at many many sites surrounding Jarabacoa. Not only is harvesting bamboo poles for perch materials free, but it also helps to control overgrown stands where it has become invasive. Before burying bamboo perches in the ground, we carefully treat the poles over an open fire to prevent resprouting. (photo by Eduardo Infante Sicard, Plan Yaque Inc.)

I did not have to wait long for an opportunity. It was June of 2016. Through a local colleague, I learned about a budding wetland restoration project in the town of Jarabacoa where I was working that was to be taken on by the NGO known as Plan Yaque. This organization is responsible for the conservation of natural resources in the Rio Yaque del Norte watershed, working mostly in rural farm communities.

After a few probing emails to the director, I was invited to attend an event with this organization. From the way they described it to me, it was meant to be something of a ceremony or convocation of a new community project they were undertaking. Put simply, Plan Yaque had convinced one of the community leaders in a rural neighborhood called Piedra Blanca to let them install a small dam structure in a stream running through the farm of one of the community leaders. They called this dam “trampa de agua” (water trap), and the premise of this project was to create a small reservoir in a headwater, spring-fed stream to maintain human-usable water sources from going completely dry during droughts.

Another major focus of this project is planting native tree species alongside this stream to help establish riparian forests with the aim of preventing soil erosion and mitigating the contaminants in the environment. They labelled the whole project with a clever title: “Litro de Agua” (Liter of Water) to communicate their objective of providing a consistent source of clean water to keep their farms going.

Spencer, project technician Joaris Gonzalez, and Cristián of Plan Yaque pose next to a fully assembled artificial perch. (photo by Kim Shoback)
Spencer, project technician Joaris Gonzalez, and Cristián of Plan Yaque pose next to a fully assembled artificial perch. (photo by Kim Shoback)

I met up with the director of Plan Yaque and several technicians on a hot June day, and we made our way out to the site riding in flatbed of their pick-up truck along a rural highway through the foothills of the Cordillera Central. Only a day prior, the technicians had finished their makeshift dam, made from a combination of sandbags and old recycled car tires—a clever and low-cost approach for this function. On the near side of the creek, they had enclosed part of the pasture field with a barbed wire fence about 25 meters wide and 60 meters long to keep cattle from disturbing the upper stretch of the stream and their improvised dam construction.

Plan Yaque’s technicians held a short public forum with the family and neighbors explaining the goals of the project and inviting a discussion on how they could improve the project and monitor its success in more meaningful ways. Beforehand, the director had asked that I share my experiences with the farmers and talk about the importance of birds for healthy forests. My Spanish is pretty good. By this point, I had spent a collective eight academic years studying the language and nearly a year’s worth of time working in various Spanish-speaking countries. Dominican farmers don’t see a lot of foreigners, and I could see a lot of curious stares in my direction as I somewhat awkwardly presented, as I now present to you, this idea that birds (and their poop) are protagonists of natural reforestation. If you found my proposition to be a little eccentric, you can imagine how crazy I must have seemed to these people. Nevertheless, I got my message across and it has given my project an opportunity to greatly expand our research efforts.

Community members gather to listen to technicians from Plan Yaque and Spencer discuss how restoring riparian forests can benefit rural farming communities by improving water quality and availability as well as importance of seed-dispersing birds in healthy forest ecosystems. (photo by Holly Garrod)
Community members gather to listen to technicians from Plan Yaque and Spencer discuss how restoring riparian forests can benefit rural farming communities by improving water quality and availability as well as importance of seed-dispersing birds in healthy forest ecosystems. (photo by Holly Garrod)

One of the most remarkable discoveries during these adventures, from my point of view, concerns the Dominican people. Some of the most outspoken conservationists I have met in the country come from its most remote corners of the country. I have spoken to dozens of farmers over the age of 70 who tell me stories of lush green forests covering the hills and how so many birds have practically disappeared since their childhood. Fortunately for me, these individuals have graciously received me and my research project into their community. Together with our partner organization Plan Yaque, we are now incorporating both of our agendas into a single project. While they struggle to improve water availably and quality for farmers, I am recruiting the birds to bring the forest back and restore at least a piece of the glory that was once the tropical forests of Jarabacoa.

With the support of my university, funders, my partner organizations, and local farmers, we have started up a new project to study this untapped potential of fruit-eating birds. Currently our team is halfway complete in our goal of constructing eight plots for the calendar year. We will continue to study these plots over the course of two years with the goal of turning the project over to our local partners and arming them with new cost-effective, bird-friendly techniques for forest restoration.

The Northern Mockingbird is another important seed-dispersing species at our research sites. While most birds only occasionally venture away from the forest into open fields, mockingbirds are quite comfortable doing so. This curious individual was seen exploring the newly-installed fence posts. (photo by Spencer Schubert)
The Northern Mockingbird is another important seed-dispersing species at our research sites. While most birds only occasionally venture away from the forest into open fields, mockingbirds are quite comfortable doing so. This curious individual was seen exploring the newly-installed fence posts. (photo by Spencer Schubert)

I owe thanks to a handful of individuals and organizations for their role in making my project so successful. Devoted efforts from project technician Joaris Samuel Gonzalez and field assistants Alex Lascher-Posner, Paris Werner, Kim Shoback, and Tyler Glaser helped get this study off the ground and were invaluable for data collection. Dr. Eric L. Walters of Old Dominion University helped advise the project and has been instrumental in the progression of my ideas and my development as a scientist. My fiancé, Holly Garrod, has helped me hold my life together during graduate school and has also contributed substantially to my research project as she pursues her own graduate research in the Dominican Republic. Local organizations Plan Yaque and Rancho Baiguate have provided key logistic support, without which this work would not have been possible. Furthermore, numerous private land owners have generously received us on their farms to conduct our field studies. This research was funded jointly by the Rufford Small Grant (II) Program, the Sophie Danforth Conservation Award from Roger Williams Park Zoo, and the David S. Lee Fund Grant from BirdsCaribbean.

By Spencer Schubert. Spencer is PhD student in the ecology program at Old Dominion whose thesis focuses on the contributions of avian seed dispersal to tropical forest recovery and plant-frugivore seed dispersal networks on farmland landscapes in the Dominican Republic. Spencer was a recipient of the 2016-2017 BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund Grant and is using his research as a platform to raise interest in the ecological importance of birds for restoration projects in the region around Jarabacoa.

New Nesting Habitat for the Bahama Oriole and New Opportunities for Young Researchers

The critically endangered Bahama Oriole is found only on Andros, Bahamas. (Photo by Steve Brezinski)
The critically endangered Bahama Oriole is found only on Andros, Bahamas. (Photo by Steve Brezinski)

The sun was now enough above the horizon that a few rays made it down to the understory of the pine forest. We walked quickly to our next point then began another nine-minute sampling period. About one minute in, we heard the clear crisp song of a Bahama Oriole, about 100 meters to our south. My student Briana noted this information on the data sheet. While waiting, she also recorded details about the habitat and the surrounding vegetation within a 100-meter radius: number of pines – 100+, number of understory palms – 10-20, number of coconut palms – 0, overall habitat – 100% pine forest.

The oriole sang several more times before the point count ended. Just 18 months prior, when we began the Bahama Oriole Project in October 2015, we would have been extremely surprised if we found an oriole in the pine forest. Previous research suggested that the orioles were concentrated in the settlements, especially around coconut palms, which were thought to be their preferred nesting tree. But in 2016, our team had discovered three different pairs of orioles nesting in this very pine forest, several kilometers from the nearest houses, farms or coconut palms. Now we were conducting an exhaustive population estimate to determine whether the orioles were found in just a few areas in the pine forest, or whether they were utilizing many areas of the pine.

Briana Yancy measuring nest site characteristics. (Photo by Kevin Omland)
Briana Yancy measuring nest site characteristics. (Photo by Kevin Omland)

We continued to walk along the long-abandoned logging road to the next randomly selected point. As we gained just a few feet in altitude, the pine forest became drier, and the gorgeous understory Key Thatch Palms became shorter and more scattered. I honestly feel ecstatic to be able to work in these vast remote forests, and as we walked along, I asked Briana what she thought of the habitat. She quickly spoke glowingly of the same features that I love so much – the open canopy, the echo of a Bahama Mockingbird song, and the unfamiliar beauty of the understory thatch palms.

This was Briana’s first fieldwork in the tropics, and she was off to a great start. As we walked, I asked her what she wanted to do after she finished college at UMBC. She said that this was exactly the kind of work that she had dreamed about doing – working on a tropical island, studying a critically endangered species, and seeing all these new birds and habitats. She had just finished her sophomore year as a Geography and Environmental Sciences major. Briana is in UMBC’s prestigious Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which is nationally known for its success in increasing underrepresented minority participation in science and technology.

Breeding in the Pine Forest – “Briana’s Nest”

A Bahama Oriole takes off in the pine forest. (Photo by Dan Stonko)
A Bahama Oriole takes off in the pine forest. (Photo by Dan Stonko)

We conducted eight more counts that morning, and we did not hear or see any other orioles during the counts. However, as we continued west toward our meeting point on one of the main logging roads, the land sloped down again and we entered a wet area with many more understory thatch palms (so named because of their local use in roof making). The common species here is the Key Thatch Palm (Leucothrinax morrisii). To me these palms are the most beautiful plants on Andros, and they have intrigued me since my first days on the island. As we walked, suddenly Briana and I both heard a distinctive short “see-you” whistle, which meant a Bahama Oriole was nearby. She pointed as an oriole flew from one low thatch palm to another. Then, a second bird flew in and swooped up to one of the tallest of these understory palms. I whispered excitedly to Briana that maybe there was a nest nearby.

“Briana’s Nest.” Nest is hidden in the hanging dead fronds (yellow arrow). (Photo by Kevin Omland)
“Briana’s Nest.” Nest is hidden in the hanging dead fronds (yellow arrow). (Photo by Kevin Omland)

The first bird then entered the same tall thatch palm. There had to be a nest in that tree, so we approached and started looking under each of the hanging dead fronds. There it was: a neat tan palm-fiber basket, hanging protected under one of the dried-up fronds. We christened it “Briana’s Nest” and stepped back to observe the parents – two stunning adult Bahama Orioles. Both the males and females in this species sport a striking jet-black and lemon-yellow plumage. Both sexes also sing, so it is impossible to tell the sexes apart in the field. We observed both parents bringing food to the nest – there were clearly nestlings, but with the nest over seven meters up, we do not yet have the equipment to further investigate their age or number.

The project has now documented seven nests in the pine forest – three in 2016 and four in 2017. But we know nothing about what happens to nests in the pine forest. In 2018, we will conduct two main projects to evaluate breeding in the pine forest. First, Brianna will lead a project quantifying the key characteristics of the nesting trees and surrounding forest. Can the orioles nest in any part of the pine forest, or are there certain types of habitat (perhaps with tall thatch palms for example) that are preferred nesting sites that need to be preserved? Second, one of the Bahamian students will lead the effort to quantify nesting success and determine the greatest threats to nests – rats, cowbirds or feral cats. So far, we have little evidence of cowbirds in the pine forest, but preliminary surveys with trail cameras suggest that feral cats are likely widespread across the island. And arboreal rats could be important nest predators. Which if any of these threats are significant causes of mortality that need to be managed?

A Big, Diverse Field Crew

Soon we were joined by the two other teams that had been doing point counts that morning. One was led by Rick Stanley, a Masters student at the Imperial College London. The other was headed by Scott Johnson, a Bahamas National Trust science officer – who has a wealth of knowledge about the flora and fauna of Andros. We showed everyone the nest we just found, then compared notes from the morning. Rick’s team had also heard one oriole during counts in the pine that morning, and Scott’s team had heard two. The orioles are never common, but they seem to be widespread on the island.

The 2017 Field Crew. Left to Right: Kevin Omland, Michael Rowley, Jennifer Christhilf, Ciera McKoy, Briana Yancy, Matt Kane (all UMBC), Rick Stanley (Imperial College London), Daniel Stonko (UMBC), Scott Johnson (Bahamas National Trust).
The 2017 Field Crew. Left to Right: Kevin Omland, Michael Rowley, Jennifer Christhilf, Ciera McKoy, Briana Yancy, Matt Kane (all UMBC), Rick Stanley (Imperial College London), Daniel Stonko (UMBC), Scott Johnson (Bahamas National Trust).

Before leaving we took time to take some shots of the whole 2017 field crew. I look back upon that photo with a great deal of pride and gratitude. Each one of those young researchers has already made important contributions to the project. It is such a privilege to do fieldwork with students every year. For many of the students, this is the first time that they have traveled outside the US – one had never even been on a plane before this trip! The opportunity to introduce these students to the joys (and challenges) of tropical fieldwork is one of the best parts of this project. I am especially excited when my students get to work with BNT’s Scott Johnson and interact with students from the Bahamas.

Our shot of the field crew differs from many group pictures of field biologists or birders because it includes people of many different backgrounds. By drawing on UMBC’s diverse student population, and by working closely with our Bahamian collaborators, we are trying to bring a broader range of backgrounds and perspectives to fieldwork and wildlife conservation. Work throughout the Caribbean demonstrates the kinds of multinational and multiethnic collaboration that will build capacity in our increasingly diverse US population as well as in the island nations that are the focus of BirdsCaribbean.

Dr. Kevin Omland is a faculty member in the Biology Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). In collaboration with Bahamas National Trust, he began the Bahama Oriole Project in 2015. Dr. Omland was recognized as the UMBC Presidential Research Professor for 2016-2019. He is co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the American Ornithological Society. The Bahama Oriole Project has received generous support from the American Bird Conservancy and an anonymous donor through BirdsCaribbean. Stay tuned for updates from our upcoming 2018 field season. 

Hurricane Impacts on Bridled Quail-doves in St. Eustatius

The inner slope of the Quill National Park before (top) and after (bottom) Hurricane Irma (by Hannah Madden)
The inner slope of the Quill National Park before (top) and after (bottom) Hurricane Irma (photo by Hannah Madden)

On September 6, 2017, record-breaking Category 5 Hurricane Irma pummeled the northern Lesser Antilles, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. While St. Eustatius (affectionately known as Statia) was spared extensive infrastructural damage and power was restored to most homes within a few days, forest cover in the Quill National Park did not fare quite so well. Immediately after the storm, defoliation of the vegetation was clearly visible across the dormant volcano, which rises to a maximum height of 600 meters and suffered the brunt of hurricane force winds of up to 150 mph.

When we felt it was safe to go out, our initial exploration of the Quill on September 9 revealed a shocking sight from the crater rim viewpoint at 400 meters. Areas that were once covered in lush evergreen vegetation were barely recognizable. Gone were the majestic Silk Cotton trees that once dominated the canopy; instead we were confronted with an almost bare crater wall covered in once-towering trees that looked like they had been snapped in two by an invisible giant.

Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria passed to the south of St. Eustatius and brought over 100mm of rain but less severe winds. Again, residents of St. Eustatius breathed a sigh of relief, but our thoughts were with those who suffered greatly in Puerto Rico, Saba, St. Maarten, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Dominica and other affected islands. Thankfully Maria’s rainfall helped stimulate vegetation regrowth in the Quill. However much of the original canopy was severely damaged, and all fruits, seeds and flowers that normally provided food for wildlife were lost.

Bridled Quail-dove (Geotrygon mystacea) in the Quill (photo by Hannah Madden)
Bridled Quail-dove (Geotrygon mystacea) in the Quill (photo by Hannah Madden)

Our immediate concern fell to the Bridled Quail-dove (Geotrygon mystacea), an uncommon to rare resident in a few Lesser Antilles islands, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. This West Indian endemic forages for fruits and seeds on the forest floor. Little is known about the population status of this species throughout its range, but it is thought to be declining in the Eastern Caribbean due to loss of habitat and other threats. The Quill is the only habitat on Statia that supports the quail-dove.

In May 2017 we had conducted a population assessment of the dove in connection with a rodent control project that is being facilitated through the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute (CNSI). Our initial results were encouraging, with an estimated 1,030 quail-doves (standard error [SE] = 275, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 561-1,621) across its local habitat of 440 hectares. This is possibly the highest known density in the region. With baseline data fortuitously in hand, we were very interested to assess the quail-dove’s population size post-hurricane. Thanks to generous persons that donated to BirdsCaribbean’s fundraising appeal, we were able to repeat the survey in early to mid-November, about two months after Hurricane Irma hit.

The survey team (L to R): Frank Rivera-Milan, Hannah Madden, and Kevin Verdel (by Chris Couldridge)
The survey team (L to R): Frank Rivera-Milan, Hannah Madden, and Kevin Verdel (by Chris Couldridge)

Our team consisted of Dr. Frank Rivera-Milan (population ecologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service), myself (biologist with CNSI), and Kevin Verdel (student from the University of Utrecht). We conducted 56 transect surveys of 100 meters, and repeated them 2-4 times. This was fewer surveys than the 70 100-meter transects we had conducted in May because some trails were inaccessible due to downed trees. We also used a playback of the Key West Quail-Dove’s call, given that our surveys took place outside the breeding season, in an attempt to elicit a response from any Bridled Quail-Doves in the survey area. Unfortunately the quail-doves did not respond to the playback, which meant that all the detections during November’s surveys were by sight only. The perpendicular distance of the quail-dove from the transect was measured, and the data collected were brought into program Distance to give a total population size.

Our data analysis revealed an estimated population size of 803 Bridled Quail-Doves (SE = 208, 95% CI = 451-1,229) in November. This is a decrease of about 230 birds from the mean population size estimate of 1,030 birds counted in May. Although this is a decline in the population size of ~22% (SE = 8.2%), statistical tests indicate that this decrease is not statistically significant (Z score = 0.66, P value = 0.51). This is the good news.

Measuring distance from transect (by Hannah Madden)
Measuring distance from the transect point to where the dove was sighted (photo by Hannah Madden)

The bad news is that there is very little food available due to severe vegetation damage and we are now entering the dry season (Dec-Apr). This means that already scarce foraging resources will be reduced even further, which will likely result in decreased survival and minimum reproduction in 2018. The quail-doves we observed looked lethargic and did not flush far or fast during surveys. There is a real risk that the population will decline further due to lack of food. For this reason we plan to repeat the surveys again in May 2018, during peak breeding season.

We were glad to see that dry forest vegetation on the outer slopes of the Quill was recovering quickly. Inside the crater, however, approximately 50% of the evergreen seasonal forest that once covered this area has been heavily impacted by Hurricane Irma. It will take a few decades before the vegetation fully recovers. We expect this will have a negative effect not only on the quail-dove but also other bird species that rely on this unique habitat for their survival and reproduction. For example, instead of the usual flocks of Scaly-naped Pigeons (which are now foraging for food in coastal areas), we are now seeing smaller species like Bananaquit, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, and the migratory Black-whiskered Vireo.

Around the Mountain South trail immediately after the hurricanes (by Hannah Madden)
Around the Mountain South trail immediately after the hurricanes (photo by Hannah Madden)

Following our initial surveys in May we were encouraged by the density of Bridled Quail-doves on Statia, the highest known density in the region at the time (although many islands that support the dove have not conducted population assessments). However, we now have some concerns for the species given its very restricted range (only found in the Quill National Park on Statia, at elevations of around 200 meters and above) and the fact that its natural habitat suffered extensive damage in some areas from Hurricane Irma. With food resources in scarce supply, competition between the doves and other species, such as the more aggressive and widespread Pearly-eyed Thrasher, could lead to a further decline in the already vulnerable population. We recommend removing predators and domestic animals above 250m to help the species recover and enhance its prospects for long-term survival in Statia.

Irma provided us with a unique opportunity to study the impacts of hurricanes on avian fauna on Statia (and elsewhere in the region). It is a bittersweet privilege to be able to contribute our results to the scientific community. Unfortunately, the frequency and intensity of Caribbean hurricanes are predicted to increase under human-induced global warming. We must do all we can to protect and enhance the integrity of our natural areas to help our birds and other wildlife survive the next hit, and hope to come out unscathed on the other side.

Broken trees in the Quill's crater. (photo by Hannah Madden)
Broken trees in the Quill’s crater. (photo by Hannah Madden)

We are grateful to BirdsCaribbean for funding Dr. Rivera’s travel expenses, to St. Eustatius National Parks for allowing us to conduct surveys in the Quill National Park, and to CNSI for facilitating this ongoing project. We look forward to reporting back to the Birdscaribbean community after we complete our second post-hurricane Bridled Quail-dove survey in May 2018.

By Hannah Madden. Hannah is a Terrestrial Ecologist in St. Eustatius currently leading two projects at the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute. She also works as a bird and nature guide in her spare time, sharing the beauty and diversity of Statia with visitors. Hannah is an active member of BirdsCaribbean and has participated in several training workshops and conferences. She has published papers on different taxonomic groups, but especially enjoys working on birds. 

BirdsCaribbean is grateful to everyone that has generously donated to our ongoing Hurricane Relief Fund to help our Caribbean partners, birds and nature recover. This has allowed us to fund bird surveys like this one, replace equipment lost in the storms, send nectar feeders and bird seed to 13 islands, plant mangroves, and other recovery actions.

Forest understory before Hurricane Irma (by Hannah Madden)
Forest understory before Hurricane Irma (photo by Hannah Madden)
Our companion Chris Couldridge inspects with disbelief the mangled vegetation on the crater floor (photo by Frank Rivera-Milan)
Our companion Chris Couldridge inspects with disbelief the mangled vegetation on the crater floor (photo by Frank Rivera-Milan)
St. Eustatius is located in the northern Lesser Antilles and forms part of the Caribbean Netherlands. It has a land mass of 11 square miles and a human population of around 3.500.
St. Eustatius is located in the northern Lesser Antilles and forms part of the Caribbean Netherlands. It has a land mass of 11 square miles and a human population of around 3,500.

Read more about the Fall 2017 hurricane impacts on Caribbean birds:

Barbuda After Irma: A Devastated Landscape, A Proud People—and A Resilient Bird

#BarbudaStrong—Guadeloupe Bird Survey Team Plays Good Neighbors following Hurricane Irma

Bird Dispatches from the Hurricane Front Lines

Good news! Conservationists Excited to Find Surviving Barbuda Warblers on Devastated Island

After the Storm

Barbuda After Irma: A Devastated Landscape, A Proud People—and A Resilient Bird

The local school was extensively damaged with the roof completely gone (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)

On September 6th, 2017, a Category 5 hurricane named Irma made landfall on the tiny island of Barbuda, devastating homes, stripping the forest bare, and inundating parts of the island with seawater. We all looked on in shock as the way of life for many Barbudans was destroyed. We also feared another disaster was in the making.

Barbuda is the only home for the small Barbuda Warbler, a close relative of the Saint Lucia and Adelaide’s Warblers. Scientists and conservationists alike feared that Irma may have caused its extinction. Even if the birds survived the ravages of the wind and rain, the food they needed to survive (caterpillars and other insects) would be greatly reduced immediately following the storm. Hurricanes have triggered extinctions in the past, on much larger islands like Cozumel. There the endemic Cozumel Thrasher is now presumed extinct, following a series of hurricanes beginning with Gilbert.

Unsafe conditions and travel restrictions to Barbuda prevented an immediate population assessment but as soon as was possible, several members of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) of Antigua, under the guidance and support of the Department of Environment (DoE), visited Barbuda. The group confirmed that some warblers had survived. BirdsCaribbean, EAG, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the DOE quickly teamed up to organize and carry out extensive surveys on Barbuda, to assess both the Barbuda Warbler and Yellow Warbler populations.

An Exciting Journey

Barbuda Warbler (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)
Barbuda Warbler (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab)

On October 15, less than six weeks after the hurricane, a team of 6 left St John’s, Antigua by boat to cross the 40 miles to Codrington, Barbuda. High seas and heavy rain made it an interesting passage, but we arrived at the Codrington port to be greeted by the team from Guadeloupe: Anthony Levesque, Frantz Delcroix, and Eric Delcroix of Association AMAZONA, a conservation organization in Guadeloupe. They had just arrived by plane (read their story here) to conduct counts at the Magnificent Frigatebird Sanctuary. Though the stormy morning quickly turned to a bright, sunny day, our moods turned somber as we saw first-hand the extensive damage done by Irma. Many homes and businesses were completely destroyed, and rebuilding efforts by the handful of Barbudans on the island were only just beginning.

Our home for the next week was the DoE office in Barbuda, where we settled in, organized the surveys and made some last-minute refinements to the distance sampling protocol for data collection. We conducted observer training for the team members and field tested the protocol, which included a playback of Yellow and Adelaide’s Warbler calls. The Barbuda Warbler is very closely related, and was once considered the same species as the Adelaide’s Warbler of the Greater Antilles and the Saint Lucia Warbler. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that these three should be treated as distinct species, though their vocalizations are very similar. The field test, made on the edge of town, was a success and we recorded our first Barbuda and Yellow Warblers, along with a number of migratory shorebirds (view the eBird list).

An International Team Gets to Work

Part of the international team that surveyed the warblers, left to right: Sophia Steele, Jeff Gerbracht, Lenn Isidore, Frank Rivera-Milan and Shanna Challenger.
Part of the team that surveyed the warblers, left to right: Sophia Steele, Jeff Gerbracht, Lenn Isidore, Frank Rivera-Milan and Shanna Challenger.

Shortly after sunrise the following day, the two teams of three observers began the survey with a mixture of excitement, hope and dread. Frank Rivera-Milan (US Fish and Wildlife Service) was joined by Kelvin ‘Biggz’ Samuel and Dwayne Philip (Antigua Forestry Unit). Jeff Gerbracht (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) joined Lenn Isidore, (Saint Lucia Projects Coordinator for FFI) and Rudolph Zachariah (Antigua Department of Environment). Nearly as important as the current population assessment was providing that the training and resources to DOE and EAG staff, to ensure that the Barbuda Warbler population can be monitored long term. To this end, we were also joined by Sophia Steele (Fauna & Flora International) and Shanna Challenger (EAG, DOE and FFI), to learn about the methodology and gain the necessary field experience. That first morning both teams observed Barbuda Warblers and Yellow Warblers while surveying 19 points (view eBird list from that first morning). It was a great start but still a long way to go.

Male Yellow Warbler (migrant) (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)
Male Yellow Warbler (migrant) (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab)

Barbuda has about 62 square miles of land and prior to our arrival, Population Ecologist and team member Frank had randomly selected the survey points, which were loaded into our GPS units. Points were at least 400 meters apart. Each team was tasked with covering as many points as possible before late morning arrived, when the warblers became quiet and harder to observe. A typical survey consisted of walking from point to point, covering up to eight miles in a morning. At each point, the team would divide up the tasks. One person would categorize the habitat, food availability and disturbance at each site, while the others would look and listen for Barbuda Warblers. Each observation of a warbler was recorded, along with the distance and direction from the point to each individual bird. “Barbuda Warbler singing between 20 – 30 meters at 110 degrees from North” or “Yellow Warbler seen at 18 meters distance, 35 degrees”. All observations were recorded in detail so that detection probability, occupancy and abundance (density and population size) could be modeled and estimated as precisely and accurately as possible.

Nature is Resilient, But There’s Some Way to Go

One of the survey points deep in the highlands where the forest is green and vibrant with flowers beginning to open (Photo by Lenn Isidore)

During that first morning of surveys, we were all struck by the resiliency of the natural world and how the forests of Barbuda were so well adapted to hurricanes. Weeks earlier the forests had been stripped bare of all greenery; yet the forest was already recovering. Amidst the broken branches and downed trees, life was returning with a vengeance. Trees and shrubs had already put out new leaves and in some cases, flowers and even fruit were in evidence. In addition to the ever-present mosquitoes, we saw lots of other insects and caterpillars, i.e. warbler food. The forest seemed green and alive, in sharp contrast to how it must have appeared just a few weeks earlier.

Lowland forest heavily impacted by the storm surge with little sign of recovery on the south of Barbuda (Photo by Jeff Gerbract)
Lowland forest heavily impacted by the storm surge with little sign of recovery on the south of Barbuda (Photo by Jeff Gerbract)

 

 

Unfortunately, other parts of the island weren’t faring nearly as well as the interior. Lowlands on the south of the island were especially hard hit by the storm surge. The forest there was struggling to recover.

To cover as many points as possible, the two teams stayed in different parts of the island. Henry, our driver and guide for the week, made sure that the teams got to where we needed to be. Our daily routine was pretty much the same: Leave for the field early; cover as many points as possible by 10:30; hike back out of the bush to be met by Henry; a quick lunch in town followed by an hour of down time; then back in the field between 2:30 and 5:30. In the evenings, we would review the data collected during the day to make sure everything was in order.

Hopes for Beautiful Barbuda’s Sustainable Recovery

An emotional roller coaster is a good way to describe how I felt throughout the week. Each day we were reminded of the devastation left by the hurricane and the long road to recovery for the Barbudan families. And each day we observed firsthand how the forest is recovering and how well the Barbuda Warbler fared. Barbuda is an island with very little development and miles of natural scrub and forest. The land is communally owned so there are few signs of outside development and that community ownership is reflected in the pride Barbudans feel for their island. I can think of few places where there are still miles of beach or forest with no development or human habitation in sight. This is pristine habitat for the birds. It is also the perfect location for eco-tourism: not only birding, but caving, horseback riding, snorkeling and other pursuits. It’s a rare gem, and the expanse of untouched natural habitat has surely been key in the forest’s rapid recovery.

Dwayne Philip pondering the best route through the damage to our next survey point (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)
Dwayne Philip pondering the best route through the damage to our next survey point (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)

We had been given permission for one week to conduct these surveys. It came to a close all too soon. With 125 points surveyed once, and 37 points surveyed twice, 50 miles walked and 145 Barbuda Warblers detected, we felt that we had covered as much of the island as possible (eBird list from the final day). Once the numbers are crunched and population models run, we will have a much better estimate of the Barbuda Warbler population (stay tuned!). However, the good news is that all evidence points to a population, which somehow survived Irma’s fiercest onslaught.

As we left the island, we also left part of ourselves there – literally, in the case of the mosquitos and sand flies! In our hearts, there was the sorrow – and also hope – we feel for the Barbudans, their way of life and the island’s natural ecosystems. As more and more of the Caribbean becomes dominated by resort developments, Barbuda is a wonderful and refreshing contrast; a place where the natural world is still evident in abundance. We wish Barbuda a steady, sustainable recovery that will benefit its people and where its beautiful natural habitat will continue to flourish.

By Jeff Gerbracht, lead architect and software engineer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-chair of the BirdsCaribbean Monitoring Working Group. Jeff has assisted Birdscaribbean for many years with eBird Caribbean, and monitoring and training workshops throughout the region.

Frank, Lenn and Jeff would especially like to thank the many individuals who made this population assessment possible, several of whom were also trying to rebuild their own lives on Barbuda:

  • Kelly Burton and Henry Griffin for ensuring our stay on Barbuda was as comfortable and productive as possible; Wanda for the excellent lunches; and Len Mussington for the exciting boat ride from Antigua to Barbuda.
Lenn Isidore looking out over the coastal scrub near Two Foot Bay (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)
Lenn Isidore looking out over the coastal scrub near Two Foot Bay (Photo by Jeff Gerbracht)

We also thank EAG, DOE, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Fauna and Flora International and BirdsCaribbean for their practical support, including the following individuals:

  • Shanna Challenger and Sophia Steele of Fauna & Flora International/EAG;
  • Rudolph Zachariah of the Department of Environment, Antigua;
  • Kelvin Samuel and Dwayne Philip of the Antigua Forestry Unit;
  • Sasha-gay Middleton of the Department of Environment for organizing our meals;
  • Matt Young of the Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology for putting together the warbler playback; and
  • Special thanks to Natalya Lawrence of EAG and Dr. Helena Jeffery Brown and Ruleta Camacho Thomas of the Department of Environment, for organizing so many of the necessary logistics.

BirdsCaribbean is grateful to all that have donated so generously to our ongoing fundraising effort for hurricane relief for our partners and beloved birds that has allowed us to send nectar feeders and bird seed to 13 islands and help our partners with surveys, replacing equipment lost in the storm, and other recovery actions.

Hover over each photo to see the caption; click on photos to see larger images and a slide show.

 

Bird Species Observed on Barbuda (54)

  • White-cheeked Pintail – Anas bahamensis
  • Helmeted Guineafowl – Numida meleagris
  • Magnificent Frigatebird – Fregata magnificens
  • Brown Booby – Sula leucogaster
  • Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
  • Green Heron – Butorides virescens
  • Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
  • American Oystercatcher – Haematopus palliatus
  • Black-bellied Plover – Pluvialis squatarola
  • American Golden-Plover – Pluvialis dominica
  • Semipalmated Plover – Charadrius semipalmatus
  • Whimbrel – Numenius phaeopus
  • Ruddy Turnstone – Arenaria interpres
  • Stilt Sandpiper – Calidris himantopus
  • Sanderling – Calidris alba
  • Least Sandpiper – Calidris minutilla
  • White-rumped Sandpiper – Calidris fuscicollis
  • Pectoral Sandpiper – Calidris melanotos
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper – Calidris pusilla
  • Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus
  • Spotted Sandpiper – Actitis macularius
  • Greater Yellowlegs – Tringa melanoleuca
  • Willet – Tringa semipalmata
  • Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa flavipes
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull – Larus fuscus
  • Royal Tern – Thalasseus maximus
  • Least Tern – Sternula antillarum
  • Scaly-naped Pigeon – Patagioenas squamosa
  • White-crowned Pigeon – Patagioenas leucocephala
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
  • Common Ground-Dove – Columbina passerina
  • White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica
  • Zenaida Dove – Zenaida aurita
  • Mangrove Cuckoo – Coccyzus minor
  • Antillean Crested Hummingbird – Orthorhyncus cristatus
  • Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
  • American Kestrel – Falco sparverius
  • Caribbean Elaenia – Elaenia martinica
  • Lesser Antillean Flycatcher – Myiarchus oberi
  • Gray Kingbird – Tyrannus dominicensis
  • Black-whiskered Vireo – Vireo altiloquus
  • Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
  • Scaly-breasted Thrasher – Allenia fusca
  • Pearly-eyed Thrasher – Margarops fuscatus
  • American Redstart – Setophaga ruticilla
  • Tennessee Warbler – Oreothlypis peregrina
  • Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia
  • Blackpoll Warbler – Setophaga striata
  • Barbuda Warbler – Setophaga subita
  • Bananaquit – Coereba flaveola
  • Black-faced Grassquit – Tiaris bicolor
  • Lesser Antillean Bullfinch – Loxigilla noctis
  • Bobolink – Dolichonyx oryzivorus
  • Carib Grackle – Quiscalus lugubris

Read more about the Fall 2017 hurricane impacts on Caribbean birds:

#BarbudaStrong—Guadeloupe Bird Survey Team Plays Good Neighbors following Hurricane Irma

Bird Dispatches from the Hurricane Front Lines

Good news! Conservationists Excited to Find Surviving Barbuda Warblers on Devastated Island

After the Storm

#BarbudaStrong—Guadeloupe Bird Survey Team Plays Good Neighbors following Hurricane Irma

All of us at BirdsCaribbean followed the passing of Hurricane Irma with terror, for the people of Barbuda, and also for its birds. Such is the strength of our community that BirdsCaribbean members from nearby Guadeloupe – Anthony Levesque, Frantz Delcroix, and Eric Delcroix – all members of the organization AMAZONA, offered their help in surveying their neighboring island, alongside a team of ornithologists from the United States, Saint Lucia, and Antigua. Here’s Frantz’s story of their 10-hour expedition to Barbuda.

From Guadeloupe to Barbuda: Our Eventful Journey

Eric Delcroix, avid birder from Guadeloupe and Frantz’s husband, stands in front of the Piper PA28 airplane before take-off (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Eric Delcroix, avid birder from Guadeloupe and Frantz’s husband, stands in front of the Piper PA28 airplane before take-off (Photo by Anthony Levesque)

The start of our day was scheduled for Sunday, October 15, 2017, around 6:30am. Our transport was a small Piper PA28 airplane, with a capacity of 4 people (the pilot and three passengers). The plane was sturdy enough to transport us, our field equipment, a cooler, and our boots! Despite bad weather for several days—an active tropical wave passing by Guadeloupe and Antigua and Barbuda—our pilot assured us that we could travel. Just before leaving, however, our pilot learned that due to cloud cover, the airport in Antigua (where we had to land first) was closed to all VFR (visual flight rules) flights, and was accepting only flights that can fly under IFR (instrument flight rules). Fortunately, we chose the right pilot; his plane was equipped and certified for this kind of flight!

We took off at 6:50am, landing in Antigua around 8:00am. It was a longer flight than we had anticipated, because we were flying under IFR. After passing through immigration, we went to the control tower to validate the flight plan to Barbuda. As we suspected, we had trouble with the fact that we did not have written authorization to travel to the island. Luckily, with the help of the Department of Environment in Antigua, we had taken the precaution of obtaining the necessary contact information for the authority, Major Michael, in Antigua. After a short discussion, the agent agreed to call the Major, and so was able to validate our flight plan to Barbuda. With a sigh of relief, we took off from Antigua around 9:00am and arrived in Barbuda twenty minutes later.

On Barbuda: The Birds’ Message of Hope

The boat captain (in the back), the airplane pilot, Frantz Delcroix, and Anthony Levesque as they set out for Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
The boat captain, Kelly, (standing), left to right – the airplane pilot, Hervé Pennel, Frantz Delcroix, and Anthony Levesque as they set out for Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Eric Delcroix)

Upon arrival we made our first survey: a few Barn Swallows and a Bank Swallow circled above us and an American Golden Plover wandered around the airport parking lot. We were then greeted by an agent from the airfield, who kindly took us to the port where the rest of the team has just arrived by boat. There we met Jeff Gerbracht (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, USA), Frank Rivera (US Fish and Wildlife Service, USA), Lenn Isidore (Flora and Fauna International, St. Lucia), and others and went to the house that served as home base during our trip, as we did some birding around the neighborhood. Jeff, Frank, and Lenn planned to be in Barbuda for a full week to do an intensive survey of the Barbuda Warbler population (stay tuned for their story!). Our assignment was to visit Codrington Lagoon and carry out a survey of the Magnificent Frigatebirds, to see how the population and sanctuary was recovering six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. We departed at 11:15am for Codrington Lagoon with our boat captain Kelly – and our pilot (who wanted to discover the avifauna of Barbuda with us!)

Male Magnificent Frigatebirds courting and in flight at the colony Codrington Lagoon. (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
Male Magnificent Frigatebirds courting and in flight at the colony Codrington Lagoon. (Photo by Eric Delcroix)

We arrived at the colony at 11:30am and were delighted to see hundreds of frigatebirds in flight, the bare and brown bushes adorned with bright red gular pouches. Within a 4.5 hectare (11.12 acre) area, we estimated 1,710 Magnificent Frigatebirds and 17 Brown Boobies. In a count of seven bushes of 279 frigatebirds, 83 females (30%) and 196 males (70%) were counted. Amazingly, 90% of the females were on nests and some of the birds were observed courting and mating, even males carrying nest materials.

We returned to home base around 12:30pm for a lunch break and then went back to the field. Having no vehicle available, we decided to visit a nearby pond we had observed on the Barbuda map, to search for West Indian Whistling-Ducks and other waterbirds. Along the way, we made several surveys of the species present. In a scrubby area near town, we spotted our first Barbuda Warblers eating caterpillars! The warblers were active and responded readily to our “pishing.”

A Barbuda Warbler alive and well! (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
A Barbuda Warbler alive and well! (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

Around the pond, we recorded two Lesser Antillean Flycatchers, two Long-billed Dowitchers, a Stilt Sandpiper, some Semipalmated Sandpipers, a Solitary Sandpiper, and a Scaly-breasted Thrasher. Unfortunately, no West Indian Whistling-Ducks were seen.

We continued our surveys until around 2:45pm before returning to home base to pick up our belongings and walk to the airfield for our 3:45pm takeoff. Skirting some clouds along the way, we arrived home in Guadeloupe at 4:20pm with a list of 36 surveyed species in hand.

Our Hearts are with the People of Barbuda

Complete destruction of a home in Barbuda (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
Complete destruction of a home in Barbuda (Photo by Eric Delcroix)

Although we were there to conduct a birding survey, our hearts ached when we saw all the damage on Barbuda. Such utter desolation! We felt anguish and sadness for the people of Barbuda, who lost everything in this category 5 hurricane and are now living in Antigua awaiting word on when they can return home and rebuild. Witnessing the power of nature—its ability to inflict such damage, but also how it can quickly rebound—was an extraordinary experience.

Before the hurricane, the 4,000–5,000-strong frigatebird colony had chicks in the nest. Surveys just after the hurricane found no surviving chicks and only around 300 birds. Now, one and a half months later, there are more than 1,700 frigatebirds starting a new breeding period with almost all of the females nesting! Even the mangroves that suffered from salt burn and had lost all their leaves were bouncing back, beginning to sprout new leaves.

Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

So, we did not leave without hope. Nature is resilient! It can destroy almost everything, and yet incredibly allow a bird that weighs only ten grams to survive!

We thank all of our partners and friends from Antigua and Barbuda and BirdsCaribbean for trusting us and for providing funding and support for our survey, despite the challenges and the relatively short time we had to mobilize. We extend a special thanks to Natalya Lawrence of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) in Antigua and Lisa Sorenson of BirdsCaribbean

Frantz Delcroix is the President of AMAZONA, a bird conservation organization in Guadeloupe. She is an avid birder, photographer and conservationist. Thanks to all who donated to our Hurricane Relief Fund which provided funding for this survey. Thanks also to support from the Environmental Awareness Group and Dept of Environment in Antigua, and Fauna and Flora International.

Hover over each photo to see the caption; click on photos to see larger images and a slide show.

 

Female Magnificent Frigatebird nesting on bare mangroves. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Female Magnificent Frigatebird nesting on bare mangroves. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

List of birds seen or heard on this day (all have been entered in eBird Caribbean)

  • Helmeted Guineafowl – Numida meleagris
  • Magnificent Frigatebird – Fregata magnificens
  • Brown Booby – Sula leucogaster
  • Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
  • American Golden-Plover – Pluvialis dominica
  • Semipalmated Plover – Charadrius semipalmatus
  • Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus
  • Stilt Sandpiper – Calidris himantopus
  • Pectoral Sandpiper – Calidris melanotos
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper – Calidris pusilla
  • Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus
  • Solitary Sandpiper – Tringa solitaria
  • Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa flavipes
  • Rock Pigeon – Columba livia
  • White-crowned Pigeon – Patagioenas leucocephala
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
  • Common Ground-Dove – Columbina passerine
  • Brown Booby at the frigatebird colony. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

      Brown Booby at the frigatebird colony. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

    White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica

  • Zenaida Dove – Zenaida aurita
  • Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
  • Caribbean Elaenia – Elaenia martinica
  • Lesser Antillean Flycatcher – Myiarchus oberi
  • Gray Kingbird – Tyrannus dominicensis
  • Black-whiskered Vireo – Vireo altiloquus
  • Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia
  • Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
  • Scaly-breasted Thrasher – Allenia fusca
  • Pearly-eyed Thrasher – Margarops fuscatus
  • American Redstart – Setophaga ruticilla
  • Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia
  • Blackpoll Warbler – Setophaga striata
  • Barbuda Warbler – Setophaga subita
  • Bananaquit – Coereba flaveola
  • Black-faced Grassquit – Tiaris bicolor
  • Lesser Antillean Bullfinch – Loxigilla noctis
  • Carib Grackle – Quiscalus lugubris

Read more about the hurricane impacts on Caribbean birds:

Bird Dispatches from the Hurricane Front Lines

Good news! Conservationists Excited to Find Surviving Barbuda Warblers on Devastated Island

After the Storm

On the plane, heading home to Guadeloupe. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
On the plane, heading home to Guadeloupe. (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)

Meet the Superspecies of Parrots: Yellow-crowned Amazon (Amazona ochrocephala)

The Yellow-crowned Amazon is part of a superspecies of similar, closely related Parrots. (Photo by Faraaz Abdool)
The Yellow-crowned Amazon belongs to a superspecies of similar, closely related parrots. (Photo by Faraaz Abdool)

Many comic book characters we know and love today can be identified by their signature symbols. In the blink of an eye we can recognize the S of Superman’s shield or the beaming light of the Batman logo when Gotham City needs the Dark Knight to fight its villains. Likewise, when many Trinidadians see a parrot with bright yellow on the head they immediately identify it using  the local name, “Venez” Parrot. But few people know that this bird belongs to a superspecies group of Amazon Parrots (genus Amazona) comprising 11 subspecies. A superspecies is a species complex of closely related, very similar species that are often difficult to distinguish. The subspecies are categorized into three groups: 1) Yellow-crowned or ochrocephala 2) Yellow-naped or auropalliata and 3) Yellow-headed or oratrix.

Amazona ochrocephala ochrocephala, the Yellow-crowned Parrot, known locally as the Yellow-crowned Amazon (or Venez Parrot) found on Trinidad belongs to the – you guessed it – “Ochrocephala” group. It was possibly introduced from Venezuela or Guyana but its distribution extends into Colombia, Brazil, Suriname and French Guiana. This medium-sized Amazon weighs about 500 grams with primarily green plumage, a yellow forecrown and white eye-ring. Look carefully and you will see that the bend of the wing and base of the tail are both red. These traits are used to distinguish it from the ever present and ever noisy Orange-winged Parrots (Amazona amazonica). If you can’t get an up-close look at the parrot listen for its call which is a distinctive mellow, rolling bow-wow; this is in contrast to the shrill kik-kik…kik-kik calls of the Orange-winged Parrots.

Yellow-crowned:

Orange-winged:

Like most other parrots, Yellow-crowned Amazons are monogamous and prefer to nest in hollow trees or palms. While other Amazons choose their nesting cavities based on tree species, cavity height from the ground and cavity entrance size, Yellow-crowned Amazons tend not to have a preference for a specific tree species but do require trees in good condition. Because pairs maintain their nesting territories throughout the year, things can get really loud if a  bird or pair tries to take over another pair’s nest or even if a neighbour oversteps his boundary. Yellow-crowned Amazons are very aggressive and coordinated in defending their nests. The nesting pair will vocalize while perched next to each other or physically attack an intruder by lunging with beak open and wings extended.

A human archnemesis

The Yellow-crowned Amazon is locally known in Trinidad as the Venez Parrot. (Photo by Lester James)
The Yellow-crowned Amazon is locally known in Trinidad as the Venez Parrot. (Photo by Lester James)

If Yellow-crowned Parrots and their superspecies are superheroes of the bird world, then poaching of juveniles can be considered the population’s kryptonite. Fledglings over 40 days old are commonly taken from the wild though some poachers remove nestlings from the cavity when they are as young as three days old. Removing young birds from the wild is as bad for the population as it is for the individual birds. The young parrots are taken before they have reached sexual maturity and therefore, the current breeding pool of adults is not being expanded or replaced.

One reason Yellow-crowned Amazons are so popular for the pet trade is their ability to mimic human speech quickly. Because they are so desirable, some poachers in Central America dye the forecrown feathers of Red-lored Amazons (A. autumnalis) and Brown-throated Parakeets (Aratinnga pertinax) yellow and sell them as Yellow-crowneds to unsuspecting customers. Currently, Yellow-crowned Parrots are considered Least Concern by IUCN due to their wide geographic distribution and estimated healthy population size. However, the combination of habitat loss, their low reproductive rate, and poaching for the pet trade remains a major concern.

Vocalizations: an unsung hero

A Yellow-crowned Amazon pair preening in Trinidad. (Photo by Richard Lakhan)
A Yellow-crowned Amazon pair preening in Trinidad. (Photo by Richard Lakhan)

Even I would admit that hearing a parrot “talk” is very entertaining and amusing. However in the wild they use their own dialect with each other and their communication is not limited to repeating the calls of one or a few parrots. Yellow-crowned Amazons use syntax to arrange the structure of calls including those used in territorial disputes. It is plausible that by using syntax, communication among parrots is more flexible than we think. In addition, dialect through duets is used to woo potential mates and successfully reproduce. Males and females have sex-specific notes. These serve to tell the caller’s sex, availability to pair (i.e., spoken for or not) and to facilitate communication with multiple interested parrots . Yes, all is fair in love and war, even for parrots.

Other vocalizations, like contact calls, are used to maintain order within flocks to achieve common goals such as finding food or avoiding predators. Just imagine how little justice would get served if the members of the Justice League were unable to create a strategy to fight their enemies because they didn’t understand each other! Interestingly contact calls may also serve to ascertain a parrot’s regional identity. A survey of 16 Amazon roosting sites in North and South Costa Rica,  18 miles apart, revealed that each region had a distinct type of call.  Researchers found that neighbouring roosts within a region shared a common call type and in each roost a single call type was recorded resulting in the mosaic pattern typical of vocal dialects in humans.

When Yellow-crowned Amazons are kept as pets and taught to repeat silly phrases, we undermine so much of their intelligence and even their identity. Out of the cage they speak their own language, one that takes years to develop and runs much deeper than “Hello” or “Who’s a pretty bird?” In order for this beautiful, complex superspecies to thrive in the wild, we all need to be local superheroes and take a stand against wildlife poaching.

How can you help parrots in the wild?

The Blue and Gold Project recently launched their fundraising campaign to protect the Blue and Gold Macaw in Trinidad. This large, charismatic bird was extirpated from the island in the 1960s. A reintroduction program began in 1999, and after several releases, there is a small, stable population with documented breeding success. The Blue and Gold Project is raising funds to host local capacity building workshops to educate community members about wild macaws and the pet trade, monitor the illegal trade of macaws, and conduct much-needed research on the wild reintroduced population. Please donate today!

Aliya Hosein is a 2017 CLiC (Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean) Fellow working on a Blue and Gold Macaw Conservation Project on her home island of Trinidad. She believes that parrots are so colourful and boisterous that without them forests, savannas and swamps would be dull.