From Conservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Big, Diverse Field Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Guadeloupe to Barbuda: Our Eventful Journey

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

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

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

On Barbuda: The Birds’ Message of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Hearts are with the People of Barbuda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

    White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica

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

Read more about the hurricane impacts on Caribbean birds:

Bird Dispatches from the Hurricane Front Lines

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

After the Storm

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

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

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

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

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



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

A human archnemesis

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

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

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

Vocalizations: an unsung hero

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

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

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

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

How can you help parrots in the wild?

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

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


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.  

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.

Caribbean’s Birds Featured in British Birds Journal

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

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

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

Important Bird Areas: Bermuda

Published on 08 March 2017
Andrew Dobson and Jeremy Madeiros

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

Important Bird Areas: Montserrat

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

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

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

Important Bird Areas: The Cayman Islands

Published on 10 May 2016
Patricia Bradley

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

Important Bird Areas: Anguilla

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Science is a verb

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

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

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

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

4. Observation is the true driver of science 

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

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

Environmental Educators Become BirdSleuths in the Bahamas

Young "bird sleuths" in Jamaica play the Bird Detective Game (Lesson 8) in BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. (photo courtesy of Jamaica Environment Trust).
Young “bird sleuths” in Jamaica play the Bird Detective Game (Lesson 8) in BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. (photo courtesy of Jamaica Environment Trust).

In the Caribbean and around the world, teachers and other educators are looking for new ways to engage students with the natural environment, inspire an interest in science and math and help youth learn to work together as a team. Some environmental educators believe birds may be the perfect focal point for accomplishing these goals, and the BirdSleuth Caribbean program was developed. During an intensive three-day training session in the Bahamas, Caribbean educators learned the program and are now poised to spread the program throughout the region.

The Retreat is a small national park nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of Nassau, Bahamas. Inside The Retreat, two dozen educators and conservationists from different islands throughout the Caribbean gathered October 15 to 17, 2014 to learn the BirdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. After their training, they returned to their islands ready to share this program with teachers and students.

Workshop participants and faciliators enjoying a birding walk at The Retreat, Bahamas National Trust, Nassau, Bahamas.
Workshop participants and faciliators enjoying a birding walk at The Retreat, Bahamas National Trust, Nassau, Bahamas.

BirdSleuth Caribbean is a program designed to teach youth how to study, appreciate and conserve Caribbean birds. It is part of a larger BirdSleuth program developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The original, US-based BirdSleuth program was adapted specifically for the Caribbean and its birds. At this workshop, each attendee was trained in the program and return with a full kit of supplies to implement the program. Over the coming months and years, workshops will be held throughout the Caribbean to train local teachers this program so they can share these activities with their classes.

The BirdSleuth curriculum includes many fun, hands-on activities, like creating a bird journal, learning to use binoculars and doing bird counts that can be entered into the citizen science website eBird Caribbean and used in actual scientific research. One benefit of the program is the opportunity to get kids out into nature where they can be active and forge a connection with the animals around them. The citizen science component, learning to identify birds and enter them into eBird, also teaches kids that their observations can help scientists learn more about topics like bird migration.

Birding at Adelaide
Workshop participants Portia Sweeting (Bahamas National Trust), Sabrina Compton (Grenada Fund for Conservation and ECO), and Scott Johnson (Bahamas National Trust) spot and ID birds on one of the field trips. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

Of course, many teachers and students may feel they don’t have enough experience with birds to teach this curriculum. One key component of the program is training the teachers and students to observe and identify birds. They learn to do this by observing physical characteristics, but also by looking at behavior, habitat and what birds are found in the area. The program also shows that we often know more about birds that we think. Almost everyone can already distinguish a duck from a seagull or an egret.

The BirdSleuth training workshop was hands down the best training experience I’ve had to date,” commented Falon Cartwright, Preserve Manager for the Bahamas National Trust Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve in Eleuthera, Bahamas. “The curriculum is well designed, thorough, and super engaging and the level of organization and expertise demonstrated by our facilitators made the three days an absolute pleasure. I am so excited to use the BirdSleuth curriculum to encourage young people in Eleuthera to learn about and value our local birds.”

Israel Guzman (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña Inc., Puerto Rico) had this to say: “Birds Caribbean, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Bahamas National Trust teamed up to bring us one of the best workshops ever. Learning by doing and sharing experiences made us all get the most from this workshop based on the BirdSleuth Curriculum. The whole experience will be replicated to provide students with the right tools to reconnect them to nature, and lead them to love and care about birds and conservation.”

Educators navigate hazards during the Migration Obstacles Game (Lesson 6). (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Educators navigate hazards during the Migration Obstacles Game (Lesson 6). (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

Birds are a powerful tool to help kids and people of all ages connect with nature and develop a conservation mentality. Birds are fantastic ambassadors for nature because they are found everywhere, easy to see and identify and endlessly fascinating. Studying birds is a great tool for encouraging interest in both science and in the outdoors. Collaborative activities like many of the ones in the BirdSleuth program also help kids learn teamwork and cooperation skills.

We thank the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Fund of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, International Programs of the US Forest Service, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Optics for the Tropics, Franklin Dodd Communications, Tropical Shipping, and Vortex Optics for funding and support of the BirdSleuth Caribbean Project. The Wildlife Without Borders program of the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided funding for the pilot project to develop the BIrdSleuth Caribbean curriculum. We also thank the Bahamas National Trust for hosting our International Training Workshop and our many partners and educators for participating in the project and doing an amazing job training teachers and educating youth in their home countries.

28 participants from 20 different countries/islands participated in the BIrdSleuth Caribbean International Training Workshop, November 2014, Nassau, Bahamas.
28 participants from 23 different countries/islands participated in the BIrdSleuth Caribbean International Training Workshop, November 2014, Nassau, Bahamas.