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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
Pulling 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.
The islands of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and the surrounding marine areas provide essential habitats for many migratory and resident birds, including endemics that occur nowhere else in the world. In September 2017, many islands in the eastern and central Caribbean were ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The impacts on human livelihoods, infrastructure, homes and businesses are being addressed to some extent by governments and the traditional relief agencies. The impacts on natural habitats, species, conservationists and conservation projects are harder to assess and quantify, but no less dire. Thanks to many generous donors to our Hurricane Relief Fund, BirdsCaribbean has established a fund to aid the recovery of birds and bird habitats by supporting conservationists and recovery projects on hurricane-affected islands.
OVERALL OBJECTIVES FOR HURRICANE RELIEF FUND
To provide resources to advance the recovery and ongoing conservation of birds and their habitats on islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
To assist conservationists working on these islands regain capacity lost in the hurricane and necessary to undertake recovery and conservation projects.
WHO MAY APPLY TO THE FUND
Grants from the fund are available to BirdsCaribbean members and partners or individuals/groups undertaking work on the islands seriously damaged by Irma and Maria: Dominica, Barbuda, Anguilla, St. Eustatius, St. Barts, St. Kitts, Saba, St Martin/Sint Maarten, British and US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Cuba. Applicants may be non-government organizations, government agencies, or private individuals, based on or off the islands in question.
PRIORITIES FOR THE FUND
Projects must contribute to the conservation of any Caribbean birds and their habitats affected by hurricanes. Preferred projects are those that will benefit threatened endemic species (island or regional), and local or regionally significant populations or species of conservation concern (migrants and/or residents). Activities that help in the recovery of Important Bird Areas, Key Biodiversity Areas, Ramsar sites, mangroves, or Protected Areas are also preferred.
Other criteria that BirdsCaribbean will consider include:
Does the project address an immediate, short-term conservation issue that was caused or exacerbated by the hurricanes?
Are objectives and activities associated with the expenditure clearly linked?
Is the request realistic and reasonable? Has there been an effort to leverage these funds to raise funds from other sources?
Does the applicant have sufficient experience and organizational skills needed to complete the activities outlined in the request?
Does the request show evidence of thoughtful planning and details?
SIZE AND LENGTH OF GRANTS
The BirdsCaribbean Hurricane Relief Fund is positioned to support small grants – up to US$5,000. Expenditures should be immediate (as soon as funding has been received) and ideally completed within 6-12 months. Larger grants of up to $10,000 may be considered but will require a more detailed application. Matching funds are not required but contributions should be documented where possible.
DATES FOR SUBMISSION OF REQUESTS
Requests may be made of the fund at any time. Requests will be reviewed and granted on a rolling basis (that is, first come, first served) until funds are exhausted.
Recipient will acknowledge receipt of funds and confirm their expenditure. Project recipients will be expected to document their activities with photographs and post updates on Facebook if they have access to the internet. A short blog article describing your activities for BirdsCaribbean’s monthly Newsletter is also requested.
PROJECT ADVISORY TEAM
If you have questions about eligible activities or requests for assistance (e.g., advice on how best to carry out surveys and monitoring), please contact BirdsCaribbean Executive Director, Lisa Sorenson (Lisa.Sorenson@BirdsCaribbean.org)
TYPES OF ACTIVITIES THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED FOR FUNDING*
Funding must be used for short-term activities that are directly related to assessment of or recovery from hurricane impacts.
Assessment of impacts and identification of conservation needs for birds and their habitat post hurricanes; e.g., surveys, assessments, and monitoring of high-priority species and their habitats that may have been affected by the storms.
Implementation of conservation/recovery actions; e.g. habitat clean-ups, clearing of trails, and restoration or enhancement work, such as re-planting of mangroves and native trees lost in the storms.
Emergency support for vulnerable species; e.g., feeding programs for endemic parrots in damaged forests.
Provision of shortfalls to pre-existing projects that are facing issues as a result of hurricane damage; e.g., loss of materials, infrastructure or equipment
Capacity restoration; e.g., office and field equipment which was lost or damaged in the storm, such as binoculars, scopes and tripods, computers, cameras, backpacks, GPS units, etc. or materials for community outreach and education.
Restoration of infrastructure that supports nature-based livelihoods damaged by the hurricane; e.g., repairs to boardwalks, blinds, etc., especially in parks and protected areas.
Implementation of outreach and education events that raise awareness about the impacts of storms and climate change on wildlife and ecosystems and how local people can help; e.g., promoting citizen science monitoring using eBirdCaribbean and iNaturalist (especially important in the wake of hurricanes), feeding birds to help them survive post-hurricane food shortages, planting native trees that are beneficial to wildlife, promoting recycling, planting of native trees, and energy conservation, advocacy for properly-planned post-hurricane development, etc.
*The following list is not in order of priority.
BIRDSCARIBBEAN HURRICANE RELIEF FUND – REQUEST FORM
If request is for materials rather than cash (e.g., equipment or supplies, please provide specifics). Note: BirdsCaribbean can assist with the purchase of discounted binoculars, spotting scopes/tripods and some other items).
EXPLANATION OF ACTIVITIES:
What type of activity is associated with this request? See list of Types of Activities above.
Provide a brief explanation of the request, including an explanation of how will the funds be used, your desired outcomes, and expected benefits (to birds, habitats and people).
If the request supports multiple items or activities, please provide a brief explanation of budget, e.g., a simple table. There is no requirement for matching funds but where they exist in cash or in-kind please document them, as this will help BirdsCaribbean raise further funds.
INFORMATOIN ON APPLICANT
Briefly note your experience in managing similar projects:
Provide names of other project leads, partners, sponsors, or any mentors who will be assisting with this project:
**Applicants may request funds for materials, travel, equipment, and repairs or restoration work. Stipends may be requested to pay for someone’s time if they are not already employed and volunteers are not available, or to pay persons who lost their primary source of income due to the hurricane and are willing to work short-term on your project for a small amount of pay (please justify). Stipends should be reasonable, e.g., $50-100/day to complete the work)
David S. Lee was a pioneering naturalist and conservation biologist who helped get BirdsCaribbean started nearly 30 years ago, and inspired many naturalists with his work and his writing. He was a man of many interests, and with respect to the Caribbean, published numerous papers and articles in the popular press on seabirds, Bahamian fish, turtles, snakes, bats, and orchids.
Donations from Dave’s wife, Mary Kay Clark and his mother, June Bash, allowed the establishment of the David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds that will award money to conservation projects in his honor. The money is being held in a trust and will be used to award an annual grant for innovative projects that protect Caribbean birds and their habitats.
Goal of the Fund: The David S. Lee Fund for Conservation seeks to continue David’s passion for protecting wildlife. The fund will support direct, innovative conservation work in the Caribbean Region for birds and their habitats. The fund will be managed by BirdsCaribbean and used for annual small grants.
Eligibility: Scientists/naturalists working in the Caribbean, in conservation organizations or academic programs, may apply. Applicants should be students or early career ornithologists, conservationists, or wildlife professionals (i.e., not established faculty or senior staff of a conservation organization, less than 7 years post-graduation). A student must be enrolled in accredited Masters or PhD program in ecology, biology, conservation, or related field to be eligible. Applicants must be paid or sponsored members of BirdsCaribbean at the time of application.
Use of Funds: The funds can cover travel to field sites, living expenses in the field, or costs for equipment and supplies to conduct conservation projects. Examples of equipment and supplies include traps, cameras, automated recording units, nest boxes, etc. Ineligible costs include salary or other wages, overhead fees, etc. Projects that foster collaboration between scientists/naturalists in different island groups of the Caribbean, such as joint projects to test conservation techniques for similar species, will be favored.
Proposals may be submitted in English, French, or Spanish. All should have an English version of the abstract
Applications should be emailed as a Microsoft Word document.
The application should include a cover page, proposal (see guidelines below), and a curriculum vitae for the applicant.
Separately, by email, three individuals who can attest to your effectiveness in previous work should submit letters of recommendation. For students, this would include your academic advisor.
A committee appointed by BirdsCaribbean will review the proposals and award the grants.
The awardee will be required to submit a report one year from the day of the award explaining how the award money was spent and the results of the project to that point.
Awardees are encouraged to present the results of their work at the biennial International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean and publish in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology.
But wait! What if you are not eligible to apply for funds, you ask? You can still support this worthy cause by being a sponsor!
This fund will be for the conservation of any bird in the Caribbean as a reflection of Dave’s diverse interests. He was an important part of many projects, ranging from those of the Black-capped Petrel and Seabird Working Groups to the scholarly debate leading to the elevation of the Bahama Yellow-throated Warbler to a full species.
At the moment the fund contains $12,000. Our initial goal is to raise $25,000 so that we can award $1,000 every year to a worthy student or early career ornithologist, conservationist or wildlife professional. Not only will this fund encourage creative field work for projects that make a difference, but it will also help build the knowledge and skills of young conservationists that are urgently needed to make sure that the Caribbean birds and habitats that Dave treasured are still around for future generations to enjoy.
At the 2015 BirdsCaribbean meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, a round of beers was purchased in Dave’s honor, since he always seemed to have a cooler full when people wanted one (and even when they didn’t). Think of this fund like a cooler full of refreshing beverages that Dave would have around if he were here. We owe it to Dave to stock that cooler—to vitalize naturalists and empower them in their work to help wildlife.
Please give a tax deductible donation to the David S. Lee Fund. Give generously. The more we put into the fund, the more we can give out each year. Thanks to all those that have contributed to the fund!
If you prefer to donate with a check, please make the check out to “BirdsCaribbean” and in the memo section, note that it is for the David S. Lee Fund. If you have questions or to make other arrangements for donating, please feel free to contact Jennifer Wheeler, BirdsCaribbean Treasurer (email@example.com)
Checks can be mailed to: BirdsCaribbean, 4201 Wilson Blvd. Suite 110-174, Arlington VA 22203-1589
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!)
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.”
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
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.
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.
Courting male Magnificent Frigatebirds (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Landing Magnificent Frigatebird over Colony (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
White-winged Dove (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Female Magnificent Frigatebird on a nest in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
A view of part of the Magnificent Frigatebird colony from a distance. It will take a long time for the formerly lush mangroves to recover. (Photo by Eric Delxcroix)
Survey boat (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
Male Magnificent Frigatebird with Inflated gular pouch (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Damaged building on Barbuda – the entire population has been evacuated. (Photo by Anthony Levesque) (1)
Pigs and dogs scrounging for food in Barbuda (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Barbuda Warbler eating a caterpillar (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Counting frigatebirds in the colony (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
Barbuda Warbler (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Guadeloupe Field Team-Frantz, Eric and Anthony ready to begin the survey on Barbuda. (Photo by Herve Pennel)
Frigatebird Colony in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Male Frigatebirds in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
White-crowned Pigeon (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Frigatebird Colony in Codrington Lagoon (Photo by Eric Delcroix)
Damaged communications building on Barbuda. (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
A view of the Magnificent Frigatebird colony from a distance. It will take a long time for the formerly lush mangroves to recover. (Photo by Eric Delcroix
Pearly-eyed Thrasher (Photo by Frantz Delcroix)
Long-billed Dowitcher, a rare migratory shorebird in this region (Photo by Anthony Levesque)
Map-Location of nesting area on Barbuda-Codrington Lagoon
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)
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:
Join BirdsCaribbean, the Caribbean Birding Trail and acclaimed Cuban bird guide, Ernesto Reyes Mouriño, on the adventure of a lifetime in January or March of 2018.
Cuba is well-known for its amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and unique biodiversity. According to the new Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, 371 birds have been recorded in Cuba, including 26 which are endemic to the island and 30 which are considered globally threatened. Due to its large land area and geographical position within the Caribbean, Cuba is also extraordinarily important for Neotropical migratory birds—more than 180 species pass through during migration or spend the winter on the island.
Our itinerary takes you to several of the best and most beautiful birding locations in Cuba, providing opportunities to see many of Cuba’s endemic species and subspecies as well as many migrants. Along the way, we will meet people in local communities, stay mainly in Bed & Breakfast establishments (casas particulares) and eat in private restaurants (paladars), allowing you to experience Cuba’s rich culture, delicious food, friendly people, and generous hospitality. We will also have the opportunity to meet and have discussions with local ornithologists and conservationists that have been working with BirdsCaribbean for many years.
BirdsCaribbean is offering two tours in 2018: an 8-day trip in January and an 11-day trip in March. Find detailed itineraries for both trips below. Traveling with us helps Caribbean birds as a portion of the proceeds from the trip supports our bird conservation programs and partners in Cuba and the Caribbean. See some of the world’s most beautiful and memorable birds, knowing you are helping ensure their welfare by supporting the people who study and protect them.
Space is limited so sign up now to reserve your spot!
Check out the report and photos from our January 2016 trip here and from our July 2017 trip to Havana and Zapata Swamp here. See trip reviews below. Purchase the new Endemic Birds of Cuba Field Guide here.
NOTE: The recent policy changes in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations do not affect BirdsCaribbean’s birding trips or the requirements of US citizens traveling with us. Their birding trips consist of group travel under the general license that authorizes travel transactions that support the Cuban people (also known as the people-to-people general license.) The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) requires that (1) all people-to-people travel be conducted under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction and that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact (BirdsCaribbean), and (2) such travelers be accompanied by a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who is a representative of the sponsoring organization (the BirdsCaribbean trip leaders). While you are on the trip, BirdsCaribbean will ensure that you have a full-time schedule of activities that engage private citizens (e.g., local guides, Cuban biologists, private business owners), and avoid transactions with the State Department’s List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated with Cuba (“the Cuba Restricted List”).
It has been an exhausting few weeks for many of BirdsCaribbean’s partners across the region. The hurricane season is not over for another two months, but Caribbean conservationists are hoping for a break. BirdsCaribbean and its wonderful supporters across the region are doing their best to keep up with a variety of urgent needs, from shipping hummingbird feeders for starving birds to organizing assessments and surveys. There is a lot of work to be done, but teamwork and partnerships are making the difference.
We at BirdsCaribbean extend our heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated towards the crowdfunding campaign so far. Your support means so much to us, as we try to help all our dedicated and hard-working partners get back on their feet after this unprecedented series of disasters. We assure you that the funds will be put to good use, and we will never forget the outpouring of kindness and generosity from folks near and far. It is quite humbling!
Time has passed slowly since the passage of Irma and Maria, and we have been extremely anxious for news from the islands most badly affected. Here are some updates on the bird populations. It is a very mixed picture, so far, so be prepared for good news, but some “not so good”:
During their visit to the devastated island of Barbuda on September 22, the Environmental Awareness Group’s Andrea Otto and Junior Prosper were thrilled to count eight endemic Barbuda Warblers that had miraculously survived the fierce onslaught of Hurricane Irma – alongside Yellow Warblers. BirdsCaribbean is assisting with intensive surveys in mid-October to assess the population size and actions that can be taken in the short and long term to help the bird.
At Codrington Lagoon – home to the largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the Caribbean – the team was stunned, however, to find just one small group of 30 adult birds perched on a dead mangrove bush, instead of the usual thriving colony of 4,000 and 5,000 birds in the Sanctuary. The Antiguan team counted about 325 birds soaring in the air above the lagoon. We don’t know yet what has happened to all the other birds. Known as “Weather Birds,” frigatebirds will fly out before the storm hits, so hopefully they are still alive. There were juveniles in the colony not yet able to fly, however. They are known to climb deep into the mangroves and wait out storms, however, no young birds have been spotted. They most likely perished in the storm.
Otto described the Red Mangrove habitat of the lagoon as “burnt”—there was almost no remaining foliage. “Normally, the mangroves are so dense, lush and green that you have to crane your neck to see between and beyond them, and they are loaded with birds,” said Otto. “Now we could easily see for long distances into the sanctuary.” The trees that remained were shorter and stripped bare. The Barbudans with the team said they “barely recognized the landscape.”
The recovery of the lagoon’s mangroves is of grave concern. The Magnificent Frigatebird, considered one of the most threatened seabirds in the Caribbean, depends on mangroves to nest and roost at night. The sanctuary, which is well managed by the local community and patrolled by wardens, provides critical habitat for this species. It also provides sustainable livelihoods for local bird and nature guides that take people into the sanctuary by boat to witness the spectacular site and sound of frigatebird courtship—males puffing out their red neck pouches and drumming on them to attract a mate.
On Barbuda, the team found most large trees had been uprooted or broken. Trees and shrubs had no green or live leaves and there was “not even grass,” reported Junior Prosper. In other wetland areas on Barbuda, Willets, Brown Pelicans, Green Herons, Lesser Yellowlegs and Spotted Sandpipers, as well as Eurasian Collared Dove and a few Pearly-eyed Thrashers were seen. However, no West Indian Whistling-Ducks, a threatened regional endemic were spotted. An intensive survey effort will take place over the next several weeks.
What are the Barbuda Warbler’s prospects for survival? As with many other species on all the islands, this post-hurricane period is a critical time for the birds, because of the shortage of food. “My fear now is that with vegetation largely stripped of leaves, as photos indicate, insect food will be very hard to come by in the coming weeks. I fear more birds may be lost from food shortage post-hurricane than in the storm itself,” observes Tony Diamond (University of New Brunswick), who together with his graduate students has studied the warbler and frigatebirds. BirdsCaribbean will be working with EAG to look at habitat restoration actions that can be taken for the warbler and the frigatebirds.
In the sister island of Antigua, hummingbirds were “highly stressed” after the storms, according to Facebook posts. The Purple-throated Carib descended from upland forests to feed around towns and homes. In their normal habitats, flowers, fruits and insects are gone, and they have also lost secure space and even other members of their species, it was noted.
In the Bahamas, which fortunately did not bear the full brunt of the storms on all its many scattered islands – bird species appear to have been moving around quite a bit. The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), a key BirdsCaribbean partner, is on the lookout for Cuban Parrots (Bahama subspecies), which have been “conspicuously absent” from the eastern end of New Providence since Hurricane Irma. They may have moved temporarily elsewhere. “Those of us who live in the East have missed their early morning calls during their flyovers,” our BNT friends report. BNT Warden Randolph Burrows spotted over 100 parrots on the island of Great Inagua, which was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. Residents were also delighted to welcome thousands of American Flamingos on September 14, following the passage of the hurricane. Inagua is home to a breeding colony of 50,000 flamingoes, but there is a question as to whether some of these birds may have been refugees from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. BNT Executive Director Eric Carey, while happy to see the birds, observed: “Hurricanes such as Irma actually make us realize how much we do not know about our flamingos.”
As for updates from our hard-working friends in Cuba, due to communication problems, we have received no further updates on the flamingo populations from the first report that thousands were killed in the storm. Nor have we learned how other endemic and rare species have fared such as the Zapata Sparrow and Zapata Wren. The photos show, however, that habitats on the northern coast and cays were severely damaged with many mangroves and other trees uprooted and stripped of vegetation as in Barbuda. We will report as soon as we receive news, which we hope will be positive!
The eye of Hurricane Maria passed directly over the tiny island of Dominica, which is still reeling from the impact. The port is not yet fully functional for ships. The normally lush, green country, known as the “nature isle” for its stunning and majestic mountainous landscape is barren and brown at the moment. Stephen Durand reported that the devastation is heartbreaking and they are taking it one day at a time. The Forestry Office was severely damaged by the storm and all of its equipment looted. Several of our partners have lost their homes and there is a shortage of food and water in small, remote communities. Communications remain poor due to the mountainous terrain and the extent of damage to infrastructure, although aid is starting to come in via helicopter. Here there is great concern for the two endemic parrots – in particular the Critically Endangered Imperial Parrot (“Sisserou”)—only 400 of these are known to exist in the wild, with none breeding in captivity.
Lennox Honeychurch reported that he has seen some Red-necked Parrots (“Jaco”) flying around, even down to the coast…clearly disoriented, landing in the road looking for scraps of food. So they at least have survived. The fate of the Sisserou is as yet unknown. No one he has spoken to, even in the Carib territory, have seen any since Maria struck. Durand reports that a search for the Sisserou will begin today – we will share news as soon as it is available. While captive birds have survived, they also need food; a BirdsCaribbean member has taken over a small amount of parrot food, as well as bird feeders and powdered nectar for the hummingbird population.
The island of Guadeloupe did not escape the wrath of the storms, receiving blows from both Irma and Maria and causing much damage to parks and protected areas. During an early survey on September 20, Anthony Levesque noted that the swamp areas were completely flooded. Just a few shorebirds were seen, including Great Egret, Semipalmated Plover, Ruff, Least Sandpiper, White-Rumped Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and also two Belted Kingfishers. The following morning, a Green-Throated Carib was seen “fighting against the wind…” Since then, more shorebird sightings have been recorded.
Although not badly impacted by the hurricanes, the small island of St. Eustatius (aka “Statia”) nevertheless suffered damage to many trees on the island and in the Quill/ Boven National Park, which includes the slopes of their dormant volcano, known as “The Quill.” The impacts on wildlife and ecosystems are not yet known. Hannah Madden is concerned about the impact on the endemic Bridled Quail-Dove population that she has been monitoring. BirdsCaribbean will fund an intensive survey of the dove next month. Hannah reports that they received some surprise visitors: A small flock of American Golden Plovers. This species has never been recorded on Statia before; they were likely blown off course by the hurricanes. Partners in other islands are also reporting vagrants and new species showing up – blown in or off course during migration from the hurricanes.
In Sint Maarten, conservationist Binkie van Es – who was himself made homeless by Hurricane Irma – reported that hummingbirds were of greatest concern, because of the lack of food. Binkie is excited to receive a shipment of 300 hummingbird feeders, on its way from BirdsCaribbean to Sint Maarten/St. Martin. These will be distributed to schools and homes across the island, with the assistance of Les Fruits de Mer and Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC). “I am afraid we lost half of our Brown Pelican population,” Binkie noted, while observing that White-cheeked Pintails appeared undisturbed. Barn Swallows, he noted, appeared to be displaced from their usual locations. Meanwhile, American Kestrels were finding happy hunting grounds, since the trees and bushes were stripped of leaves. Binkie notes: “Most regular shrubs and trees are sprouting already, but all mangroves took a terrible hit.” The mangrove habitats may take much longer to recover.
On the French side of the island, St. Martin, there was also huge damage to homes and infrastructure. Our partner organization, Les Fruits de Mer, also lost its museum building; fortunately, the contents were packed in a container for removal, so are safe. BirdsCaribbean’s Mark Yokoyama reports that he used ten pounds of sugar in two weeks, as hummingbird feeders he has set up are besieged with birds, including many Bananaquits, Green-throated Caribs, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds and others. Despite the storms’ impact, “hillsides are starting to green up,” our partners report and a few flowers (oleanders) are now blooming. EPIC reports that it will have a renewed focus and will be seeking funds for mangrove restoration in October; BirdsCaribbean will be assisting with these funds.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
The British Virgin Islands were hard hit by both storms. Trees were stripped of leaves and many larger trees damaged or destroyed. The largest mangrove forest at Paraquita Bay was completely leafless. Elsewhere, small pockets of mangrove were already removed during the post-hurricane cleanup. This raises a general concern that the destruction of bird habitats, especially forested areas (already threatened in many places by development) may be accelerated by post-storm cleanups. A gas station may be built in their place, rather than the habitat being restored and replanted. “As usual, we try to save what’s left…” was the comment from Birdscaribbean member, Clive Petrovich, on Tortola – who also brought sad news that Bananaquit nests with eggs or young around his home were destroyed by the hurricanes, along with the foliage. He saw a few Bananaquits, and Pearly-Eyed Thrashers, Scaly-naped Pigeons, Kingbirds, Smooth-billed Anis and a few other species were spotted.
There are concerns here too for the hummingbird populations; some have been observed eating arthropods to survive. While bird numbers on Tortola have dropped dramatically, a number of trees (mahogany, sago palms) already have new leaves. Our partners in both the British and US Virgin Islands, which suffered similar devastation, are looking forward to receiving hummingbird feeders from BirdsCaribbean to help these nectar feeders survive during this period of severe food shortages.
We are anxious to hear from our friends in Puerto Rico, and stand ready to assist in any way we can when communications are restored and their needs are established. Of particular concern is the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Reduced population size due to hunting and capture for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss and fragmentation, make this species especially vulnerable to large scale natural disasters. Also of concern is the fate of a number of endemic species in PR following the storm, such as the Endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Nightjar and Vulnerable Elfin-woods Warbler.
What is BirdsCaribbean’s focus in the near and medium term following these terrible storms?
At the moment we are organizing shipments of hundreds of hummingbird feeders and bird seed to our partners on all the islands that have been impacted; several shipments are en route! We will be helping to fund post-hurricane surveys of Bridled Quail-doves in Statia this fall, and also the intensive surveys of the Barbuda Warbler and Magnificent Frigatebird that will take place in mid-October. We will be helping the Forestry Dept in Dominica to replace all their bird monitoring field equipment, including binoculars, spotting scopes, GPS units, backpacks, cameras, and more. We have also been topping up cell phones for our partners so that they can communicate, and anticipate that we will funding mangrove and habitat restoration projects.
This has been an extremely difficult time for BirdsCaribbean partners, for the birds – and for the people of the Caribbean. However, the islands are resilient, and we are confident that, while it will be slow, a steady recovery is underway. In fact, as each day passes, the region is slowly getting back on its feet. We plan to bring further bird updates as more reports roll in! Stay tuned.
By Emma Lewis and Lisa Sorenson (thanks to all of our partners that have been sending us news and photos – please keep it coming and let us know your needs!)
Scroll over or click on the photos for captions
Parrots on denuded vegetation in Puerto Rico.
The endemic Barbuda Warbler was spotted after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Andrea Otto)
Hummingbirds flock to a feeder in Grand Case, St. Martin. (Photo by Mark Yokoyama)
Keep an eye out for unusual birds that may have been blown off course! An American Golden Plover on Statia. This species has never been recorded there before and they were likely blown off course by the recent hurricanes. (Photo by Johan Stapel)
A “Killy Killy” (American Kestrel) has a great view and easy hunting in St. Martin with all the leaves off the trees. (Photo by Mark Yokoyama)
The Les Fruits de Mer Museum in St. Martin was destroyed. (Photo by Mark Yokoyama)
Trafalger Falls in Dominica after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Mark Lopez)
On Wednesday, September 6, Hurricane Irma engulfed the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda with 185 mph winds, leaving most of the population homeless and a landscape ravaged by wind and surging waves.
Since the storm passed, the Caribbean birding community has been increasingly anxious about one bird in particular: the endemic Barbuda Warbler, a Near Threatened Species. Had this charming little bird survived the storm?
Well, at last there is some good news. BirdsCaribbean is delighted to report that, during a one-day survey trip to Barbuda on September 22, a team from its Antiguan partner Environment Awareness Group (EAG) and the Department of the Environment discovered a total of eight Barbuda Warblers.
As the only endemic species on the island and country of Antigua and Barbuda, the Barbuda Warbler has a special place in the small community’s hearts. The bird has a perky posture and constantly flits around, searching for insects in trees, thorny scrub and coastal areas. Its estimated population is between 1,000 and 2,500, but before the hurricane its population trends were not determined.
The first bird was spotted by EAG’s Andrea Otto and colleague Junior Prosper in a fallen acacia tree. “I saw a flash of grey…” Otto reports. “I whispered to Junior – it’s a Barbuda Warbler!” They managed to get a good view and confirmation of the smart little warbler’s grey and yellow plumage. After that, “It took us a while to get a clear photograph of the bird as irrefutable proof of its survival,” notes Otto. The team recorded the birds in a relatively small area near the secondary school in Codrington, the main settlement on the island.
BirdsCaribbean is supporting the EAG and Department of Environment to conduct bird and wildlife surveys over the next five weeks. They are helping the team design a survey plan that will cover the habitat on the island and provide an estimate of the warbler’s population size. Ornithologists and other skilled birders in the region and beyond will assist with an intensive survey effort in the coming weeks and months. The team will also devise a plan to help the Barbuda Warbler and other wildlife on the island recover, such as replanting native trees and mangroves that were destroyed in the hurricane.
Editor’s Note:BirdsCaribbean has launched a fundraising effort for hurricane relief for our Caribbean partners and birds. All the funds will be distributed to bird conservation partners across the Greater and Lesser Antilles islands to help them get back on their feet and replace what was lost in the storm—from notebooks, materials and binoculars to offices and infrastructure. The Fund will also support field surveys to assess the status of endemic, resident and many migrant species, as well as recovery and habitat rehabilitation actions by our partners, such as planting native trees that feed birds and provide habitat. Sincere thanks to those that have donated already!
If you would like to donate to help the people of Barbuda rebuild their homes, schools and businesses following 90% destruction on the island, please click here.
Take care of yourselves and, once you and your loved ones are safe, remember our birds and consider their plight.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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);
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!
Donate to help our Caribbean partners and birds recover
BirdsCaribbean has launched a fundraising effort for hurricane relief for our Caribbean partners and birds. All the funds will be distributed to bird conservation partners across the Greater and Lesser Antilles islands to help them get back on their feet and replace what was lost in the storm—from notebooks, materials and binoculars to offices and infrastructure. The Fund will also support field surveys to assess the status of endemic, resident and many migrant species, as well as recovery and habitat rehabilitation actions by our partners, such as planting native trees that feed birds and provide habitat. Sincere thanks to those that have donated already!
In the long-term
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.”