From Bird News

Scarlet Ibis: A National Symbol Under Siege

The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo by Faraaz Abdool)
The Scarlet Ibis is the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo by Faraaz Abdool)

Flying low over the water and glowing brilliant red in the light of the setting sun, thousands of Scarlet Ibis quietly assemble at their roosting site. While the Tricolored Herons and bright white Snowy Egrets disappear into the cover of the mangroves, the Scarlet Ibis remain perched on top, dotting the dark green with intense bursts of red. To witness this spectacular ritual— a daily occurrence in the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad—is to experience one of the most extraordinary events in the natural world.

The Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is both culturally and economically important to the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. When the country gained independence in 1962, it was fitting to declare the Scarlet Ibis as the national bird and it is featured prominently on the nation’s coat of arms and one dollar bill. Since at least the early 1970s, bird-watching ecotours in Caroni Swamp were generating over $1 million TTD annually. Today, the swamp and the ibis are internationally known as a “must-see” natural treasure, and the ecotourism industry continues to support the livelihoods of many Trinidadians.

Scarlet Ibis return to their roosting site after a day of foraging. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
Scarlet Ibis return to their roosting site after a day of foraging. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)

Unfortunately, the Scarlet Ibis is also coveted for another reason: its meat. In an interview last month, the Chief Game Warden acknowledged that the bird is a black market delicacy illegally served at elite parties, driving the motivation for poaching. It has been speculated that eating the national bird is a status symbol. In 2013, a man with 18 ibis carcasses was sentenced to 18 months in prison (though he was allowed to serve them concurrently). And just this summer, three people were arrested in the possession of ibis carcasses and blasted on social media by Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries Minister Clarence Rambharat. His comments were widely shared and sparked dozens of newspaper articles, with the outraged public calling for action.

This image of poached Scarlet Ibis was shared on social media by Minister Clarence Rambharat in August 2017, resulting in public outrage. (Photo by Clarence Rambharat)
This image of poached Scarlet Ibis was shared on social media by Minister Clarence Rambharat in August 2017, resulting in public outrage. (Photo by Clarence Rambharat)

The national bird has a long history of persecution and is incredibly sensitive to disturbance. As early as the 1860s, colonial records warn that “a fierce war has been made on this bird…already it comes in fewer numbers and soon it will be very rare.” Other reports from the early 1930s and 1950s acknowledge that the Scarlet Ibis are “shot ruthlessly for food or so-called sport” and that they are very wary as a consequence. Richard ffrench, the neotropical ornithologist based in Trinidad, noted that in the beginning of the 20th century, hunting prevented the Scarlet Ibis from breeding on the island until 1953.

 

In 2013, poachers were caught with 18 dead Scarlet Ibis. (Photo by Rishi Ragoonath)
In 2013, poachers were caught with 18 dead Scarlet Ibis. (Photo by Rishi Ragoonath)

Currently, the fine for hunting or possessing the Scarlet Ibis is just $1,000 TTD (~$150 USD) or three months in prison. But due to the vast expanse of the Caroni Swamp and limited manpower, enforcement is difficult. In 2010, six individuals were fined $750 TT each for poaching offences that took place in 2007. Surprisingly, this marked the first time in the country’s history that someone was convicted of hunting the Scarlet Ibis.

Minister Rambharat has petitioned the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to initiate the process to change the designation of the Scarlet Ibis to an Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS). Under this protected status, poachers could receive a maximum of a $100,000 TTD fine or up to two years imprisonment. An ESS status would also facilitate interagency and joint patrols in Caroni Swamp, increasing warden and police presence. In addition, the EMA is exploring changing the status of the Caroni Swamp to an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA). The swamp is already designated a Ramsar site (1993) and a Prohibited Area under the Forests Acts.

Young moko jumbie performers in Trinidad raise awareness about the plight of the Scarlet Ibis. (Photo by Alice Yard)
Young moko jumbie performers in Trinidad raise awareness about the plight of the Scarlet Ibis. (Photo by Alice Yard)

Even young Trinidadians are raising awareness about the poaching of the national bird. In August, 45 performers aged 9-17 years old from the Moko Jumbie Cultural Camp dressed as Scarlet Ibis and marched in the capital’s Queen’s Park Savannah. This Caribbean stilt-walking art form is common during carnival season, and the camp’s mission is to preserve this custom and create cultural legacies by engaging children. It was a fantastic idea to combine this unique cultural heritage with the natural heritage of the Scarlet Ibis! Click here to see the video.

What you can do to help:

  • Please spread the word that the EMA is requesting information (including observations), research, or data about the Scarlet Ibis to assist with changing its status to an ESS. Information can be submitted here.
  • The mandatory 30-day public comment period for the change in status to ESS will be announced shortly. Please check the EMA website or Facebook page for updates and send a letter in support of this change in protected status.

Please scroll over or click on the photos for captions

 

Jessica Rozek is a PhD student at Tufts University, where she is focusing her research on Caribbean wetland conservation and human-wetland-bird interactions.  Learn more about her research here.  

After the Storm

Take care of yourselves and, once you and your loved ones are safe, remember our birds and consider their plight.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Irma in Old Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Juvenal Balán)
Flooding caused by Hurricane Irma in Old Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Juvenal Balán)

There is no doubt that the landscape on some islands has already changed, perhaps irreversibly so, after the passage of the strongest hurricane on record in the Caribbean. The Codrington Lagoon on Barbuda, for example – a beautifully preserved RAMSAR site – is home to the largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the region (around 2,500 pairs). It was breached during the storm and the sea has flowed in. Barbuda itself is now a scene of devastation, with almost all buildings damaged or destroyed and most inhabitants evacuated. So, what of the endemic Barbuda Warbler, a small bird that is Near Threatened (likely less than 2,000 individuals) – did it survive?

Moreover, human activity is already contributing to the changing island landscape on a perhaps unprecedented level. Barbuda itself is the proposed site of a tourism development that has already triggered controversy because of its possible impact on its fragile environment. Other large tourism and housing developments, mining and other industrial activities and urbanization are all threatening bird habitats across the region. The unchecked over-development of the Houston area, which replaced wetlands and woodlands with concrete was a major contributing factor to the excessive flooding.

The Barbuda Warbler is endemic to the tiny island of Barbuda which was decimated by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Ted Eubanks)
The Barbuda Warbler is endemic to the tiny island of Barbuda which was decimated by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Ted Eubanks)

While discussion and research into the impact of climate change on tropical weather patterns (in particular, the link to hurricanes) continues, issues such as rising sea levels and warming seas are becoming increasingly evident in the Caribbean. All of these factors combined increase the chance that a single event like Hurricane Irma may cause a species, such as the Barbuda Warbler to go extinct.

Last year, we recorded the devastating impact of Hurricane Matthew on birds in the Bahamas and Haiti, in particular. We also noted that some species “bounce back” more quickly than others.  After the storm passes, those birds that survive face long-term problems. In the path of the storm, trees and shrubs lose all their leaves, buds, flowers and fruits. Trees (often the older, larger trees that provide food and shelter) may be uprooted. Riverbanks are scoured and whole neighborhoods transformed. In hills and mountains, there is the threat of landslides. Damage to reefs and seagrass beds may decrease marine productivity. Nesting beaches may be washed away. Birds may lose their nests, shelter and food. Others get displaced to new areas, where they may not thrive.

What happens to birds in a hurricane?

Casper Burrows, a Bahamas National Trust Park Warden on Great Inagua, home to 40,000+ breeding American Flamingos, was elated to spot resident flamingoes feeding just after Hurricane Irma roared through the island. The flamingos had taken shelter in the mangrove vegetation. (Photo by Casper Burrows)
Casper Burrows, a Bahamas National Trust Park Warden on Great Inagua, home to 40,000+ breeding American Flamingos, was elated to spot resident flamingoes feeding just after Hurricane Irma roared through the island. The flamingos had taken shelter in the mangrove vegetation. (Photo by Casper Burrows)

We know that many species can respond to the indicators that a storm is nearby, such as a drop in barometric pressure, changes in temperature, rainfall and light. In some species these changes trigger them to change location. The Bahamas National Trust notes that its flamingoes, for example, will fly away ahead of a storm and some seabirds on the wing will increase their altitude to try to get above the storm. Many other species respond to threats by trying to hunker down in safe places. Migratory birds may change their plans, and depart earlier than usual. Some very brave Whimbrels have even been recorded flying directly into a storm – for example, one  named Chinquapin, braved Hurricane Irene in 2011. Read more here.

During and just after the passage of Hurricane Irma, Bahamian flamingoes were spotted, sheltered by coastal forest and mangroves, in storm conditions on the island of Great Inagua; and Cuban Parrots (Bahamas subspecies) were seen feeding on guinep fruit off the trees, which had somehow managed to retain its fruits. Some birds are true survivors, but with such a large and powerful storm as Irma, nowhere is entirely safe. Evidence is just now coming to light that many birds were killed outright during the storm, including thousands of flamingos in the Cayo Coco Cays of Cuba. Juvenile birds will fare worse than the adults. Often the impacts – on breeding cycles, for example – are indirect and more long term.

In 1998, Hurricane Gilbert displaced Black-billed Streamertail hummingbirds about 35 miles east from the dense wet limestone forests of eastern Jamaica to Kingston. A  kind citizen found many of these streamertails on her veranda, weak and hardly able to fly. She went from putting out two or three small bottles of sugar water to supplying more than 2 gallons a day. Her efforts undoubtedly saved hundreds of birds.

What can we do to help birds after a hurricane?

It may take weeks, months or decades for our forests, wetlands and gardens to return to their former glory. In the meantime, you can do a lot to help your local birds.

  • A Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding on fruit; this species winters in the Caribbean. (Photo by Anne Sutton)
    A Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding on fruit; this species winters in the Caribbean. (Photo by Anne Sutton)

    Remember the birds as you stock up with supplies, and maintain your hummingbird and seed feeders and bird baths.

  • Provide food for birds following the storm. Feeding birds does not require expensive feeders or equipment.
    • Seeds. Many pigeons and doves will eat cracked corn and small seed-eaters will take cracked rice. Watch out for changes in bird behaviour which may indicate food shortages. For example, White-crowned Pigeons may suddenly start feeding on the ground. If you see this, put out food in suitable places (ideally where birds are not vulnerable to cats).
    • Sugar water. You can make a hummingbird feeder from a bottle with a screw on cap by piercing a small hole in the cap. Fill it with sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water). Use some wire to suspend the bottle at an angle in a place where hummingbirds will find it. You may need to put something red on the bottle to attract the birds initially.
    • Fruit. To provide fruit for birds, use a horizontal stake with 2 inch nails driven into it to put out left over fruit skins for birds.

What else can we do?

Unfortunately, many flamingos in the Cayo Coco Cays on the the north coast of Cuba did not survive the hurricane. (Photo by Granma.cu)
Unfortunately, many flamingos in the Cayo Coco Cays on the the north coast of Cuba did not survive the hurricane. (Photo by Granma.cu)

We need to document the impacts of hurricanes on birds so that we can determine which species have been affected and what we can do to help them. As soon as you can after the storm, take photographs and videos or take notes about:

  • the extent of damage to habitats (and the process of recovery);
  • observations of unusual behaviour by familiar birds;
  • observations of threatened or rare species in their habitat (that might indicate that they survived);
  • observations of dead birds; and
  • observations of unusual birds that may have been blown into your area by the storm ( see also http://birdcast.info/forecast/hurricane-irmas-impact-on-birds/).

Please also enter your observations into eBird Caribbean. You may also post your photos and observations on the BirdsCaribbean Facebook page, twitter (@BirdsCaribbean) and BirdsCaribbean Listserv (or send to Lisa.Sorenson@BirdsCaribbean.org).

Note that because birds may travel to or get blown off course to other islands during storms and hurricanes, it’s just as important to survey birds in other islands that were NOT affected. For example, the more southern Lesser Antillean islands (Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) may serve as a refuge from hurricane events. Please go out and do some surveys and keep an eye out for different birds and vagrants in your islands!

In the long-term 

A Magnificent Frigatebird chick, part of the large nesting colony in Barbuda. (Photo by Ted Eubanks)
A Magnificent Frigatebird chick, part of the large nesting colony in Barbuda. (Photo by Ted Eubanks)

We need to take the opportunity to remind our policy-makers of the importance of maintaining and protecting our natural areas, and to continue public education among stakeholders. Intact mangroves provide the most effective protection from storm surge for coastal settlements and infrastructure. Wetlands soak up and store excess rain and protect surrounding areas and property from flooding. Forests prevent land slippage and flash flooding. Caribbean residents – whether town dwellers, farmers or fishermen – are seeing this for themselves in their daily lives.

Hurricane Irma will perhaps serve as a reminder that the delicate balance of our widely varied ecosystems is in jeopardy. As the University of Oklahoma’s Jeremy D. Ross  notes in his September 9 article, if we do not maintain a healthy natural environment, “We stand to lose not just an isolated songbird most people have never heard of, but potentially the vibrancy of entire ecosystems that provide the Caribbean its inherent allure.”

By Emma Lewis, Ann Sutton and Lisa Sorenson

Celebrate World Shorebirds Day 2017 and join the Global Shorebird Count!

World Shorebirds Day logo featuring a Ruddy Turnstone.
World Shorebirds Day logo featuring a Ruddy Turnstone.

World Shorebirds Day, September 6th, is right around the corner. According to the founder of this annual event, Gyorgy Szimuly, “World Shorebirds Day is a special day to celebrate shorebirds and the hard-working people dedicated to saving them.” Since it’s inception four years ago, the event has received a wonderful response with people from all over the planet joining together to enjoy shorebirds and promote their conservation.

One of the main activities of World Shorebirds Day is the Global Shorebird Count—hundreds of enthusiasts, including birdwatchers, educators, conservationists, researchers, politicians, and even hunters, will take part between 1-7 September. “The Caribbean region has been a great supporter since the beginning,” commented Gyorgy. “We hope that people from many different islands plan an event and again participate in the count. It would be fantastic to hit an all-time high in the number of registered sites in 2017!”

Registration is open and available at this link. For committed and returning counters there is even a Loyalty Program – read about it on the blog.  Everyone is encouraged to register through the form on this page and have a chance to win one of the fantastic prizes.

Piping Plover on Pedro Pond, Jamaica - spotted during last year's World Shorebirds Day, first record for the island.
Piping Plover on Pedro Pond, Jamaica – spotted during last year’s World Shorebirds Day, first record for the island. (photo by Ann Sutton)

You never know what exciting new birds you might see on World Shorebirds Day. For example, last year Ann Sutton spotted the first Piping Plover ever seen in Jamaica on Pedro Pond! All observations are valuable, however. Many shorebird species are declining and we still know very little about shorebird migration in the Caribbean, such as where birds are stopping to rest and feed on migration and numbers of each species. So be sure to head out and find some shorebirds for World Shorebirds Day and enter your checklists for your Global Shorebird Count in eBird Caribbean. If you’re new to eBird, check out this Quick Start guide.

To make your submitted data visible to World Shorebirds Day, please be sure to share your checklist with worldshorebirdsday eBird username of World Shorebirds Day (WorldShorebirdsDay) or add shorebirdsday@gmail.com email address, to your contact list, and share all your related checklists with us (only checklists made during the World Shorebirds Day count period between 1–7 September 2017 are eligible). Guidelines for sharing checklists are here.

Don’t forget also that any counts carried out at a wetland or beach count as a Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) count; enter your data as a CWC count on step 2 of data entry on eBird Caribbean. In addition, your shorebird count can be part of the International Shorebird Survey, which we are just beginning to encourage in the Caribbean – read more here.

Hat’s off to our partner in Puerto Rico, Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI), who are going all out this year with their World Shorebirds Day celebration. They have organized the 1st Shorebird Festival—a 3-day event from September 1-3. A variety of exciting activities are planned including educational talks, shorebird identification workshops, activities for children, live music, shorebird artwork, and a photographic exhibition of shorebirds presented by local photographers. According to organizer Luis Ramos, “We want to educate the community about the great variety of shorebirds that migrate to the island and promote the conservation and restoration of habitats for them.” If you live in Puerto Rico, be sure to participate!

Good luck to SOPI on their festival! And we look forward to hearing back from many of you about your findings on World Shorebirds Day!

First Shorebird Festival in Puerto Rico, organized by Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI).
First Shorebird Festival in Puerto Rico, organized by Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schedule of activities for the 1st Shorebird Festival in Puerto Rico - join the fun!
Schedule of activities for the 1st Shorebird Festival in Puerto Rico – join the fun!

Saving a Species in Peril—A Holistic Approach to Conserving the Ridgway’s Hawk in the Dominican Republic

Soaring above the tree tops of Los Haitises National Park is the mighty Ridgway’s Hawk. Conflicts with humans and changes in its forest habitat have made it hard for this species to survive. Marta Curti tells us about the work of The Peregrine Fund to save this critically endangered raptor.

Ridgway's Hawks are critically endangered, found only in Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic. (Photo by the Peregrine Fund).
Ridgway’s Hawks are critically endangered and found only in Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)

The Ridgway’s Hawk is endemic to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but is now considered to be extinct in Haiti. The last remaining population of this species is in a small national park, Los Haitises, in the Dominican Republic (DR). There are only an estimated 350-450 individuals left in the wild.

I have been working as a biologist for The Peregrine Fund for the past 17 years.  I have been lucky enough to have been a part of several of their projects helping to conserve birds of prey in many countries around the world. In 2011, I joined the team working in DR to help to save the Ridgway’s Hawk from extinction.

The Peregrine Fund’s Ridgway’s Hawk conservation project has been running since 2002 and has many facets. When I was asked to share a short article about our project on the BirdsCaribbean blog, I spent a long time thinking what to write about. I could focus on the advances we have made to prevent botfly (Philornis pici) infestations in nestling Ridgway’s Hawks – an issue that, if left untreated, could cause over 70% mortality in young hawks.

Or I could discuss the successes of our Assisted Dispersal Program: bringing young hawks from Los Haitises National Park and releasing them in Ojos Indígenas Reserve in Punta Cana in an effort to create additional populations of the hawk in other protected areas on the island. Assisted Dispersal has resulted in the formation of 15 breeding pairs to date and 22 wild fledged young!

Nestling Ridgway's Hawks hatched in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, thanks to The Peregrine Fund's Assisted Dispersal Program. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)
Ridgway’s Hawks hatched in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic thanks to The Peregrine Fund’s Assisted Dispersal Program. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)

Another aspect of the project I could mention is our collaboration with Fundación Grupo PUNTACANA and the Disney Conservation Fund to retrofit dangerous power lines preventing electrocutions of not only Ridgway’s Hawks, but other species of birds as well. A whole other blog post could focus on our program to provide free chicken coops to individuals in small communities, an effort to help avoid conflicts between humans and hawks that sometimes prey on young poultry.

Instead, today I would like to tell you about our community development and our environmental education programs. One important aspect of The Peregrine Fund’s work, is to improve the lives of people in areas where we are conserving birds of prey, whether through training, educational activities, or employment opportunities.

In the communities surrounding LHNP we are working with 17 local technicians that we have trained and hired. Some are in their 40s and 50s and have been with the project since its inception. Others are in their early twenties and are just beginning their careers. In small towns around LHNP, there are limited job opportunities and our project is able to provide economic benefits, employment and valuable training in skills such as tree climbing, data collection, bird banding, nest searching, as well as computer data entry and leadership skills.

A completed painting of a Ridgway's Hawk, done by one of the local school children. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)
A completed painting of a Ridgway’s Hawk, done by one of the local schoolchildren. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)

We began our environmental education program in Punta Cana in 2013, after three of our released Ridgway’s Hawks were shot in a nearby community. Since then, we have expanded our efforts and now work with over 15 communities and have reached over 7,000 individuals in a wide radius around the release site through door-to-door visits, educational presentations, school activities and teacher training workshops. One of the most fun and successful activities that we do every year (as part of our Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival) is the celebration of Ridgway’s Hawk Day, May 25th.

Thanks to a generous donation from BirdsCaribbean, this year we celebrated Ridgway’s Hawk Day with three separate activities around the country! The first, we held with two of our local partners: the National Zoo (ZOODOM) and Fundación Propagas. Schoolchildren from Santo Domingo were treated to a close-up view of a live Ridgway’s Hawk at the zoo, and also participated in an art project, receiving a raptor inspired mask at the end of their visit.

The second and third Ridgway’s Hawk Day activities took place in Punta Cana, where, with the help of Fundación Grupo PUNTACANA – another important local partner, we hosted two celebrations on June 1st and 2nd. Over 80 children visited our Ridgway’s Hawk release site in Punta Cana and saw young hawks up close, learning about the release process and the importance of protecting wildlife. Participants also learned how to use binoculars on a nature walk while practicing birding in forests and lagoons. The children also created beautiful art, painting and coloring on recycled wood – which focused on Ridgway’s Hawks, nature, and other wildlife observed during their visit. Select pieces will be displayed at an event in a local art museum early next year.

Participants are beginning to paint images of Ridgway's Hawks and other wildlife and nature scenes from the day. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)
Participants are beginning to paint images of Ridgway’s Hawks and other wildlife and nature scenes from the day. (Photo by The Peregrine Fund)

To end the day, we headed down to a nearby beach where the kids played games in the sand, learning about the importance of a balanced ecosystem for creatures both on land and in the sea. After a picnic lunch under the shade of nearby trees, students clapped hands and swayed to the rhythm of drums during an interactive dance performance by one of our volunteers, in a full Ridgway’s Hawk costume!

We have already begun to see the positive effects of our education efforts in communities, especially in the attitudes of individual people. Most notably, in the community where our three Ridgway’s Hawks were killed a number of years ago, we now have a nesting pair of hawks who just fledged two perfectly healthy young! The entire community knows of the presence of the hawks and is now actively supporting their protection!

Though we still have a long way to go to ensure the conservation of the species, we continue to be encouraged by the changes we see taking place, making great strides each year and we look forward to the day that the Ridgway’s Hawk is no longer an endangered species.

A "Ridgway's Hawk" comes to visit.  (photo by The Peregrine Fund)
A “Ridgway’s Hawk” comes to visit.  (photo by The Peregrine Fund)

Marta Curti works as a biologist with The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Science is a verb

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

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

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

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

4. Observation is the true driver of science 

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

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

Global Big Day is 13 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Bahama Oriole Nests in the Pine Forest—A Victory over Rocks and Poisonwood (Part 1)

Dan Stonko, an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, takes us on the journey of his first experience with international fieldwork: into the wilds of the Bahamas to unravel the mystery of where Bahama Orioles nest.

A male Bahama Oriole in all its glory on Andros (Bahamas). Photo by Dan Stonko
A male Bahama Oriole in all its glory on Andros (Bahamas). (Photo by Dan Stonko)

I can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled to be awake at 4:30 in the morning. There I was – meeting our team and boarding a plane to Nassau as part of a research team studying the Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi)– considered to be one of the most endangered songbirds in the Caribbean. One thing kept running through my mind: if at the very start of college someone had asked me what sort of opportunities I thought I’d get as an undergraduate, I couldn’t have dreamed this would be one of them. What awaited me in the Bahamas were two incredible weeks filled with intense fieldwork, scientific discovery, a fair share of car troubles, and as much exploring as we could possibly squeeze into our spare time.

The Backstory

Here’s a quick summary of what our team was doing and how I ended up in the middle of it all. In 2015, Dr. Kevin Omland, my professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), began the Bahama Oriole Project in collaboration with Bahamas National Trust. At that time, the latest research on the species had come out in 2011 and indicated a declining population of less than 300 individuals. However, conservation efforts were hindered in large part due to the lack of sufficient information about this species. The Bahama Oriole Project was launched with the goal of reversing the bird’s decline through research, conservation and education. I was fortunate enough to join the team, and funded in part by a grant from The Explorers Club Youth Activity Fund, take part in this field research trip alongside Dr. Omland and three other UMBC undergrads. This was the Project’s first official research trip and my first experience with international fieldwork.

The Research

On that oh-so-early early morning in May 2016, we flew from Baltimore to Nassau, then chartered a six-seater plane that took us to the only place in the world where the Bahama Oriole is found today: Andros. It’s the largest and least developed island in the Bahamas with a population of nearly 8,000 people. Andros is a sort of island complex made up of three major landmasses (North Andros, Mangrove Cay, and South Andros) and smaller cays that are separated by channels and creeks. For now, our research is primarily confined to our study site in the northern portion of North Andros. Once we landed, we headed to where we’d be staying (Nicholls Town). After unpacking, the exploration finally began.

The UMBC Olmand Lab on site in the Bahamas. Photo by Dan Stonko
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County Omland Lab on site in the Bahamas.

When I take a step back for a second, the thought of taking four undergrads that don’t know each other to another country for two weeks of field research might seem a little crazy. But to what I’m sure was Dr. Omland’s delight – our team ran like a well-oiled machine from day one. While we did spend some of our time all working together, each undergrad had a particular focus throughout the trip. Jennifer Christhilf was our team’s Magellan; she traversed our study area recording GPS points and habitat measurements to construct habitat maps of the island. Alex Scarselletta and Michael Rowley concentrated on the population surveys. Roni Rolle, a local college student from the Bahamas Agriculture & Marine Science Institute (BAMSI), also joined our team. His expertise on all-things-local was a tremendous contribution to our work. Before our UMBC team even reached Andros, he worked in the field to collect preliminary data by locating orioles and nests. A few days before we arrived, he found something particularly compelling while working in a pine forest– an apparent active oriole nest in a pine tree (Pinus caribaea).

Out of context this finding may seem insignificant, but here’s the thing: all previous research indicated that the orioles nest primarily in nonnative coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) in or near residential and agricultural (anthropogenic) land– but never in pine forests. Not only that, the research suggested that the oriole is dependent on the anthropogenic habitat for nesting. These findings formed the basis of what we thought we knew about the Bahama Oriole and had several important implications. Notably, these assumptions played a defining role in population estimates; and also in determining what conservation efforts would be most effective to protect the species. Any real discovery of pine forest nesting would then have the potential to shake up the basic understanding of Bahama Oriole breeding ecology and affect research and conservation efforts.

On our first day of fieldwork, Roni took us all to the nest site and to our surprise, there it was: an active nest in the pine forest, and actually in a Caribbean pine. This turned out to be a nest of two adult Bahama Orioles that successfully fledged young several weeks later. One of our questions now became whether this nest was an outlier or whether we were on the cusp of an important discovery.

Finding Nests in Understory Palms
A memorable selfie
A memorable selfie: Roni Rolle (front) and Dan Stonko (back) search for the nesting Bahama Oriole. (Photo by Roni Rolle)

Roni and I ended up working together for most of the trip. We primarily focused on finding orioles and locating nests, especially in the pine forest. All the while- the pine nest was in the back of our minds. What if there were more nests in pine trees? Even more likely, we speculated: what if they’re also nesting in the native palms within the pine forest understory?

During their randomized point counts, Michael, Alex and Dr. Omland heard Bahama Oriole vocalizations at several other locations in and near pine forests. Using these locations as leads, Roni and I scouted them out to see what we would find. One morning in the later portion of the trip we followed one of these leads, which took us down to the southern part of our study site (near the nest Roni found before we arrived). The area is an expansive pine forest with little human development nearby. We parked our car just as the sun was rising and set out hiking. To our surprise, we quickly found a pair of orioles. After over an hour of vigilant following, the pair eventually flew too far away to track. We headed back to the car, glad to have found the pair but sorry that we had lost track of them. As we packed our things up, Roni and I immediately froze at the same instant. We had both just heard it – the distinctive song of the oriole. The bird was perched in a nearby understory palm, but it quickly flew further into the forest.

Now, it is worth taking a moment to describe the typical understory of pine forests on Andros. First of all, the ground is sharp, jagged limestone that makes simply walking an ankle-twisting hazard. Worst of all though, the understory is often dominated by poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum), a type of tree in the same family as poison ivy. Poisonwood can cause some wicked blisters if you contact any part of the plant.

Once we saw the bird fly deeper into the forest, I think we both had the same internal questions: how badly do we really want to follow this bird/potentially find a nest, and would be it be worth the potential poisonwood rashes?? Throwing caution to the wind, we sprinted after the bird and into the forest in close pursuit. All in the name of science! We did our best to keep it in our sights and listened carefully for any vocalizations.

A female Bahama Oriole with nesting material. (photo by Dan Stonko)

In retrospect, I can say that the poisonwood rashes I ended up getting several days later were definitely worth it, because after nearly 20 minutes– we found the nest! On the underside of a frond, the oriole had built its nest in an understory thatch palm (Leucothrinax morrissii). After tracking the bird to the nest, another individual soon appeared. We stuck around for a while to gather measurements, observe more behavior, and– of course– take a nice selfie with the nest tree. I was particularly surprised by the pair’s nonchalance with our presence. Before we knew it, the female was hard at work building her nest once again. She hopped from frond to frond on a nearby palm and skillfully ripped off fibers. Then she flew back to the nest tree and artfully wove the pieces together. How cool was this?! Not only did we find the nest in an unexpected place, but we also got front row seats to watch the nest being built!

In the following days, our team found several more pairs with territories in the pine forest, and we even found a second nest in an understory thatch palm about one mile from the first understory palm nest. As the trip drew to a close, our team of undergraduate researchers was quite proud of our work. We all made significant advances on our respective research projects, plus spent some free time exploring, swimming in blue holes, and snorkeling in the ocean.

What’s Next?
Bahama Oriole mid-flight
A Bahama Oriole mid-flight in the pine forest. (Photo by Dan Stonko)

Our ability to protect any given species is contingent on having a relevant and accurate understanding of the species. These findings revealed, for the first time and contrary to previous assumptions, that pine forests on Andros are in fact a viable breeding habitat for Bahama Orioles. This new information elevates the significance of the pine forest habitat in terms of oriole breeding ecology. These findings also suggest a need to revisit prior population estimates, since their accuracy depended on the supposition that orioles don’t breed in the pine forests. The team is looking for funding to build on our initial findings and conduct comprehensive point counts across the entire Andros complex.

The discoveries and knowledge gained on this trip (through documentation of pine forest nesting, population sampling, habitat mapping) together allow the Bahama Oriole Project Team to refocus future research by refining the questions we ask. For example, we now know that the orioles nest in the pine forest; this provides unprecedented and critical justification to investigate the potential predators that are present in and/or unique to this habitat. Feral cats, for example, are infamous for their ability to prey on birds. We know they are present in residential areas throughout Andros, but what about deep within the pine forests? If so, could they (or other predators) threaten Bahama Oriole fledglings? On a second trip to Andros this past January, I used motion-activated trail cameras to see what exactly was lingering in the pine forests…but that’s an exciting story for another time.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Finding Bahama Oriole Nests in the Pine Forest—Reflections from a Young Scientist

First Photographic Record of Kirtland’s Warbler in Cuba!

Kirtland’s Warbler spotted on Cayo Guillermo Cay off the northern coast of Cuba. The bird (male) is identified by its yellow underparts with black streaks on flanks, white undertail coverts, blue-gray upperparts with black streaks, and conspicuous white eye-crescents that contrast with black lores and forehead. This appears to be a first winter male as the bird shows some brown on its upperparts and face. (photo by Anne Goulden)
Kirtland’s Warbler spotted on Cayo Guillermo Cay off the northern coast of Cuba. The bird (male) is identified by its yellow underparts with black streaks on flanks, white undertail coverts, blue-gray upperparts with black streaks, and conspicuous white eye-crescents that contrast with black lores and forehead. This appears to be a first winter male as the bird shows some brown on its upperparts and face. (photo by Anne Goulden)

Anne Goulden, from Sarnia, Ontario, spotted and photographed a Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) on a recent birding trip to Cuba, making this the first “official” sighting of the bird on Cuba.

Anne Goulden has been an avid birder for ten years. “Birding has been a hobby—make that an obsession—since 2007,” she says. Anne had just finished a 9-day birding tour in Cuba with Eagle Eye Tours and had arranged to stay on an extra three nights at their last stop, the Cayo Coco Cays located along the northern coast of Cuba. She wanted to bird at a leisurely pace on her own before returning home. The group was staying at the Iberostar Playa Pilar Hotel in Cayo Guillermo, one of the Cayo Coco Cays, known as a birding hot spot because of the Cuban and regional Caribbean endemics that live in the area.

On February 22nd Anne’s tour group birded for about 1 km along the road between their hotel and the Playa Pilar Beach looking for a Bahama Mockingbird, a species found only in a few locales in Cuba, Jamaica, and in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. “We were out for about an hour and were lucky enough to find a few Bahama Mockingbirds in addition to warblers and a few local birds,” Ann commented. The bus returned to the hotel to send everyone off to the airport to return home.

This photo shows the yellow throat, breast and belly, white undertail coverts and black lores of the Kirtland's Warbler. The broken white eye ring is also clearly visible. Female Kirtland’s are similar to males but have no black on the face and their upperparts and face are more brown. (photo by Anne Goulden)
This photo shows the yellow throat, breast and belly, white undertail coverts and black lores of the Kirtland’s Warbler. The broken white eye ring is also clearly visible. Female Kirtland’s are similar to males but have no black on the face and their upperparts and face are more brown. (photo by Anne Goulden)

The next morning, February 23rd, Ann set out at on her own at about 7am along the same road to see what else she could find.  She spotted an unfamiliar bird in a tree with red berries about an hour into her walk. “I wish I could say I knew what it was, but I didn’t,” said Anne.  “I knew it was a warbler, but that was about it. I managed to get a few poor photos before it flew off.”

After Anne returned home she looked through her pictures, but still couldn’t place the bird. Ann was disappointed that her photos were not in sharp focus, but she knew that they were clear enough for an ID. She sent the pictures to two local birders who both suggested Kirtland’s Warbler, but it wasn’t even in Anne’s book so she did not include it in her e-bird checklist until the bird was also positively identified as a Kirtland’s by her two tour leaders, Hector Gomez de Silva and Colin Jones (the ID was also confirmed by eBird Caribbean reviewers). The individual appears to be a juvenile male (first winter).

The road where the Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted on Cayo Guillermo, one of the Cayo Coco Cays on the northern coast of Cuba. The road leads to Playa Pilar beach and beyond that to a new hotel under construction. (photo by Anne Goulden)
The road where the Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted on Cayo Guillermo, one of the Cayo Coco Cays on the northern coast of Cuba. The road leads to Playa Pilar beach and beyond that to a new hotel under construction. (photo by Anne Goulden)

“I was very excited to have this bird confirmed as a Kirtland’s Warbler,” exclaimed Anne. “I live in Ontario so know about the Kirtland’s and what a rare bird it is, but I never expected to see one in Cuba. I have only had a fleeting look at this bird once before, in Ontario in 2014.”

One of the rarest songbirds in North America, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Its current status is Near Threatened on the IUCN “Red list of Threatened Species,” upgraded from Vulnerable in 2005, thanks to successful recovery efforts.

The Kirtland’s Warbler winters primarily in the Bahamas Archipelago, which includes The Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.  It inhabits early successional broadleaf scrub or shrubby habitats, where it feeds on fruits, insects and spiders. Recent surveys indicate that the warblers most commonly winter in the central islands of The Bahamas including Eleuthera, Cat Island, San Salvador, and Long Island.

The Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted feeding on berries of the Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), a very important food source for many birds, including migratory warblers fattening up in their Caribbean wintering grounds for their long journey north to their breeding grounds in spring. (photo by Anne Goulden)
The Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted feeding on berries of the Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), a very important food source for many birds, including migratory warblers fattening up in their Caribbean wintering grounds for their long journey north to their breeding grounds in spring. (photo by Anne Goulden)

Kirtland’s Warblers are known to overwinter outside of the archipelago, however, as documented by a photograph of an individual during a Christmas bird count on Bermuda in 2004, and a bird photographed in Key West, Florida this past winter. In addition, there have been sight records of wintering Kirtland’s Warblers from northern Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.  Unfortunately sight records alone are insufficient for “official” documentation, which requires either a good photo or a specimen of the bird. Thus, the fact that Ms. Goulden photographed a Kirtland’s Warbler (with typical field marks visible) verifies for the first time the “official” presence of the warbler in Cuba.

The habitat where the bird was found and the photo of the warbler feeding on the fruit of Gumbo Limbo or Gum Elemi (Bursera simaruba) are all typical of the habitat and behavior of the wintering Kirtland’s Warblers observed in The Bahamas. In addition, the first Cuban sight record of the warbler in 2006 was also from the Cayo Coco cays. The cays located off Cuba’s north coast have typical scrub vegetation including Black Torch (Erithalis fruticosa), Wild Sage (Lantana involucrata), and Snowberry (Chiococca spp.) which also produce the fruits favored by the warbler. The cays also host specialties such as the Bahama Mockingbird and Thick-billed Vireo, both of which are typical birds of the Bahamian bush.

A beautiful Western Spindalis spotted on Cayo Guillermo; this bird is endemic to Cuba, the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Cozumel. (photo by Anne Goulden)
A beautiful Western Spindalis spotted on Cayo Guillermo; this bird is endemic to Cuba, the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Cozumel. (photo by Anne Goulden)

In recent years, more and more observations of the Kirtland’s Warblers have been made during the winter months. Some of the increase in observations might be attributable to more birders in the field in the warbler’s habitat. The more likely explanation, however, is that increased wintering grounds observations are attributable to the increase in the size of the Kirtland’s Warbler population at least since the 1970s and 1980s. This increase in the population of the warblers is directly attributable to the success of the intensive recovery effort focused on the warbler’s breeding grounds in Michigan.

Kirtland’s Warbler breeds in early successional Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) habitat primarily in Michigan with recent breeding now established in similar habitat in southern Ontario and Wisconsin. Habitat loss and degradation coupled with nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds were the primary factors contributing to the species decline to record low populations of the 1970s and 80s. In that period, counts of approximately 200 singing males on the breeding grounds were typical, whereas today, thanks to habitat management and cowbird control, the recent breeding ground censuses of singing males is approximately 2,350 singing males.  [The biologists are not being sexist, its just that females are difficult to detect and count in contrast to the males which are obvious as they sing on their territories in early spring; the sex ratio is assumed to be 50:50].  Thus the abundance of recent winter observations of the Kirtland’s Warbler is a testament of the success of the conservation program directed at the recovery of this endangered species.

Cuban Bullfinch on Cayo Guillermo, endemic to Cuba and the Cayman Islands. (photo by Anne Goulden)
Cuban Bullfinch on Cayo Guillermo, endemic to Cuba and the Cayman Islands. (photo by Anne Goulden)

A recently published article by Dr. Nathan Cooper and his colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution suggests the possibility of some Kirtland’s Warblers occurring in Cuba. The research, based on use of light-sensitive geolocators to track the warbler suggests the occurrence of Kirtland’s Warblers wintering in Cuba; the photo obtained by Ms. Goulden establishes the fact. Congratulations to Ms. Goulden!

I don’t live far from Michigan and hope in the next year or two to make a trip to the Kirtland’s Warbler’s famed breeding grounds,” said Anne. “Seeing this rare bird on its wintering grounds is, however, probably the most exciting thing that is likely to ever happen to me as a birder! I’m thrilled I was in the right place at the right time and managed to get a photo of the bird. It’s certainly rewarding for ordinary citizens like myself to contribute to science through our birding activities and use of eBird Caribbean!

By Lisa Sorenson and Joe Wunderle

Anne Goulden’s checklist from 23 February, 2017 with the Kirtland’s Warbler can be viewed at this link

Andrew Dobson’s checklist from 19 December, 2004 with the Kirtlands Warbler can be viewed at this link.

Congratulations to Anne Goulden for her first official sighting of the Kirkland's Warbler in Cuba. "Seeing this rare bird on its wintering grounds is probably the most exciting thing that is likely to ever happen to me as a birder! " she exclaimed.
Congratulations to Anne Goulden for her first official sighting of the Kirkland’s Warbler in Cuba. “Seeing this rare bird on its wintering grounds is probably the most exciting thing that is likely to ever happen to me as a birder! ” she exclaimed.

Additional reading:

Isada et al. 2006. First Sight Record of a Kirtland’s Warbler in Cuba (North American Birds).

Cooper, N.W., M.T. Hall worth, and P.P. Marra. 2017. Light-level geolocation reveals wintering distribution, migration routes, and primary stopover locations of an endangered long-distance migratory songbird. Journal of Avian Biology 48: 209-219.

Heritage Plants: Native Trees and Plants for Birds and People in the Caribbean

Cape May Warbler, a common wintering warbler in Cuba and throughout the entire Caribbean region, was also seen in the Cayo Coco Cays. (photo by Anne Goulden)
Cape May Warbler, a common wintering warbler in Cuba and throughout the entire Caribbean region, was also seen in the Cayo Coco Cays. (photo by Anne Goulden)