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.
BirdsCaribbean, the region’s largest conservation organization, warmly welcomes news that the Government of Jamaica is planning to establish a Wildlife Sanctuary at Goat Islands, in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA).
“This is a great Christmas gift to Jamaican and international campaigners, who have advocated in recent years to have Goat Islands protected,” said Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “We wish to congratulate Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ administration for this bold and forward-thinking move.”
Sorenson pointed out that the PBPA was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) and Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) by BirdLife International. “These are nature’s biodiversity hotspots,” noted Sorenson. “Goat Islands include important and threatened habitats for birds and other species, especially its pristine mangrove systems and dry limestone forest.”
BirdsCaribbean also warmly commended the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), under the leadership of Diana McCaulay, for its determined advocacy, as well as the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), supporters and advocates from all walks of life. “Diana McCaulay is a staunch defender of Jamaica’s environment,” said Sorenson. “We wish her all the best in her retirement and look forward to working with JET’s incoming CEO Suzanne Stanley, and with all our Jamaican partners in 2018.”
The PBPA, including Goat Islands, is home to 17 endemic birds (found only in Jamaica) and many resident birds, such as the West Indian Whistling Duck – one of the most threatened waterfowl in the Western Hemisphere Endemic species include: Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Owl, Jamaican Tody, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Spindalis and Jamaican Mango. The area is a critical refuge for numerous neotropical migrants, including ducks, warblers, waterbirds, shorebirds and seabirds, that spend the winter or stop off in the area.
“The Caribbean islands are fragile, and increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts, as well as human activities such as tourism and housing developments. This has been a very difficult year for Caribbean birds on numerous islands, after two devastating hurricanes. We are delighted by this positive news as the year draws to a close,” said Sorenson.
Thanks to all of our members and partners that have supported us in this campaign through writing letters, signing petitions, spreading the word with your networks, and more. Your efforts have paid off and we thank you! – Lisa Sorenson
Read about the decision to save Goat Islands from development in 2016:
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
Each year, the Les Fruits de Mer association hosts the Migratory Bird Festival on St. Martin. The stars of this festival are the birds that travel so far to come here each year, and the wild places and creatures they depend on. This lively cast of characters—birds, crabs, mangroves and the ponds themselves—is featured in the new ebook Pond Life: Reflections. The book is available for free download at lesfruitsdemer.com. The event is part of International Migratory Bird Day, which is organized regionally by BirdsCaribbean and throughout the hemisphere by Environment for the Americas.
“Migratory pond birds—like wading birds and ducks—are common and easy to see on St. Martin,” explained author Mark Yokoyama. “Ponds are also some of the most important places on the island, ecologically and historically. So it makes sense to showcase ponds at this festival, and the new book also does that.”
Pond Life: Reflections has eight chapters that explore St. Martin’s ponds from different angles. It takes the reader across the island from the cemetery pond in Grand Case to the ruins of the Foga pumphouse at the Great Salt Pond. It marks the passing of time, from the change of the seasons to the turn of a century.
The book was created as a companion piece to the upcoming 2017 Migratory Bird Festival. This year’s location is Kali’s Beach Bar in Friar’s Bay, located just beside Guichard Pond. Many of the island’s ponds are inaccessible due to hurricane debris, but this spot offers great viewing of the pond, its birds and other wetland life. Festival guests will have a chance to see and learn about its post-storm recovery.
“Our theme for the festival this year is ‘Welcome back!’ to the birds, and also to the habitats that are recovering from Hurricane Irma,” said Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes. “The island’s ponds have been through a lot, just like the people. As we recover together, this book is a great reminder that people and ponds have been connected since the beginning.”
The 2017 Migratory Bird Festival will be held on Saturday, November 25th from 9am to noon at Kali’s Beach Bar in Friar’s Bay. The festival is brought to you by Les Fruits de Mer, and the 2017 edition is made possible thanks to our sponsors: Caribbean Paddling, Delta Petroleum, Lagoonies Bistro and Bar, Tri-sport, Van Dorp and BirdsCaribbean. It is a free event and people of all ages are invited to attend. Pond Life: Reflections can be downloaded for free at: http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/resources/books/
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
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
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.
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.
Hummingbirds flock to a feeder in Grand Case, St. Martin. (Photo by Mark Yokoyama)
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)
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)
Trafalger Falls in Dominica after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Mark Lopez)
The Les Fruits de Mer Museum in St. Martin was destroyed. (Photo by Mark Yokoyama)
The endemic Barbuda Warbler was spotted after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Andrea Otto)
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.
World Shorebirds Day, September 6th, is right around the corner. According to the founder of this annual event, Gyorgy Szimuly, “World Shorebirds Day is a special day to celebrate shorebirds and the hard-working people dedicated to saving them.” Since it’s inception four years ago, the event has received a wonderful response with people from all over the planet joining together to enjoy shorebirds and promote their conservation.
One of the main activities of World Shorebirds Day is the Global Shorebird Count—hundreds of enthusiasts, including birdwatchers, educators, conservationists, researchers, politicians, and even hunters, will take part between 1-7 September. “The Caribbean region has been a great supporter since the beginning,” commented Gyorgy. “We hope that people from many different islands plan an event and again participate in the count. It would be fantastic to hit an all-time high in the number of registered sites in 2017!”
Registration is open and available at this link. For committed and returning counters there is even a Loyalty Program – read about it on the blog. Everyone is encouraged to register through the form on this page and have a chance to win one of the fantastic prizes.
You never know what exciting new birds you might see on World Shorebirds Day. For example, last year Ann Sutton spotted the first Piping Plover ever seen in Jamaica on Pedro Pond! All observations are valuable, however. Many shorebird species are declining and we still know very little about shorebird migration in the Caribbean, such as where birds are stopping to rest and feed on migration and numbers of each species. So be sure to head out and find some shorebirds for World Shorebirds Day and enter your checklists for your Global Shorebird Count in eBird Caribbean. If you’re new to eBird, check out this Quick Start guide.
To make your submitted data visible to World Shorebirds Day, please be sure to share your checklist with worldshorebirdsday eBird username of World Shorebirds Day (WorldShorebirdsDay) or add firstname.lastname@example.org email address, to your contact list, and share all your related checklists with us (only checklists made during the World Shorebirds Day count period between 1–7 September 2017 are eligible). Guidelines for sharing checklists are here.
Don’t forget also that any counts carried out at a wetland or beach count as a Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) count; enter your data as a CWC count on step 2 of data entry on eBird Caribbean. In addition, your shorebird count can be part of the International Shorebird Survey, which we are just beginning to encourage in the Caribbean – read more here.
Hat’s off to our partner in Puerto Rico, Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI), who are going all out this year with their World Shorebirds Day celebration. They have organized the 1st Shorebird Festival—a 3-day event from September 1-3. A variety of exciting activities are planned including educational talks, shorebird identification workshops, activities for children, live music, shorebird artwork, and a photographic exhibition of shorebirds presented by local photographers. According to organizer Luis Ramos, “We want to educate the community about the great variety of shorebirds that migrate to the island and promote the conservation and restoration of habitats for them.” If you live in Puerto Rico, be sure to participate!
Good luck to SOPI on their festival! And we look forward to hearing back from many of you about your findings on World Shorebirds Day!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Marta Curti works as a biologist with The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide.