From Research

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. 

Funding Opportunity—The David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds

2017-2018 Awards Now Open!

Size of Award: Several grants up to $1,000 each

Application Deadline: January 7th, 2018 at 5 p.m. EST.

Address Questions and Send Application to: Will Mackin, Co-Chair Seabird Working Group, BirdsCaribbean, wicbirds@yahoo.com; copy to  info@birdscaribbean.org

Announcement of Awards: February 1, 2018

Donations to the Fund: Tax-deductible (U.S.) at this link.

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Dave Lee holding a White-tailed Tropicbird in the Bahamas.
Dave Lee holding a White-tailed Tropicbird in the Bahamas. (photo by Mary Kay Clark)

David S. Lee was a pioneering naturalist and conservation biologist who helped get BirdsCaribbean started nearly 30 years ago, and inspired many naturalists with his work and his writing. He was a man of many interests, and with respect to the Caribbean, published numerous papers and articles in the popular press on seabirds, Bahamian fish, turtles, snakes, bats, and orchids.

Donations from Dave’s wife, Mary Kay Clark and his mother, June Bash, allowed the establishment of the David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds that will award money to conservation projects in his honor. The money is being held in a trust and will be used to award an annual grant for innovative projects that protect Caribbean birds and their habitats.

Goal of the Fund: The David S. Lee Fund for Conservation seeks to continue David’s passion for protecting wildlife. The fund will support direct, innovative conservation work in the Caribbean Region for birds and their habitats. The fund will be managed by BirdsCaribbean and used for annual small grants.

A striking male Magnolia Warbler perches momentarily on a branch while foraging for food during its spring migration. (photo by Gerald A. DeBoer, Shutterstock)
A striking male Magnolia Warbler perches momentarily on a branch while foraging for food during its spring migration. (photo by Gerald A. DeBoer, Shutterstock)

Eligibility: Scientists/naturalists working in the Caribbean, in conservation organizations or academic programs, may apply. Applicants should be students or early career ornithologists, conservationists, or wildlife professionals (i.e., not established faculty or senior staff of a conservation organization, less than 7 years post-graduation). A student must be enrolled in accredited Masters or PhD program in ecology, biology, conservation, or related field to be eligible. Applicants must be paid or sponsored members of BirdsCaribbean at the time of application.

Use of Funds: The funds can cover travel to field sites, living expenses in the field, or costs for equipment and supplies to conduct conservation projects. Examples of equipment and supplies include traps, cameras, automated recording units, nest boxes, etc. Ineligible costs include salary or other wages, overhead fees, etc. Projects that foster collaboration between scientists/naturalists in different island groups of the Caribbean, such as joint projects to test conservation techniques for similar species, will be favored.

Application Guidelines:

  1. Proposals may be submitted in English, French, or Spanish. All should have an English version of the abstract
  2. Applications should be emailed as a Microsoft Word document.
  3. The application should include a cover page, proposal (see guidelines below), and a curriculum vitae for the applicant.
  4. Separately, by email, three individuals who can attest to your effectiveness in previous work should submit letters of recommendation. For students, this would include your academic advisor.

Evaluation:

  1. A committee appointed by BirdsCaribbean will review the proposals and award the grants.
  2. The awardee will be required to submit a report one year from the day of the award explaining how the award money was spent and the results of the project to that point.
  3. Awardees are encouraged to present the results of their work at the biennial International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean and publish in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology.

Eligible applicants can download the application here.

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But wait! What if you are not eligible to apply for funds, you ask? You can still support this worthy cause by being a sponsor!

Reddish Egrets (dark morph). (photo by Tania Thomson, Shutterstock)
Reddish Egrets (dark morph). (photo by Tania Thomson, Shutterstock)

This fund will be for the conservation of any bird in the Caribbean as a reflection of Dave’s diverse interests. He was an important part of many projects, ranging from those of the Black-capped Petrel and Seabird Working Groups to the scholarly debate leading to the elevation of the Bahama Yellow-throated Warbler to a full species.

At the moment the fund contains $12,000. Our initial goal is to raise $25,000 so that we can award $1,000 every year to a worthy student or early career ornithologist, conservationist or wildlife professional. Not only will this fund encourage creative field work for projects that make a difference, but it will also help build the knowledge and skills of young conservationists that are urgently needed to make sure that the Caribbean birds and habitats that Dave treasured are still around for future generations to enjoy.

Cuban Parrot surveying his domain. (photo by Elliotte Rusty-Harold, Shutterstock
Cuban Parrot surveying his domain. (photo by Elliotte Rusty-Harold, Shutterstock)

At the 2015 BirdsCaribbean meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, a round of beers was purchased in Dave’s honor, since he always seemed to have a cooler full when people wanted one (and even when they didn’t). Think of this fund like a cooler full of refreshing beverages that Dave would have around if he were here. We owe it to Dave to stock that cooler—to vitalize naturalists and empower them in their work to help wildlife.

Please give a tax deductible donation to the David S. Lee Fund. Give generously. The more we put into the fund, the more we can give out each year. Thanks to all those that have contributed to the fund!

Click here to make an online contribution.

If you prefer to donate with a check, please make the check out to “BirdsCaribbean” and in the memo section, note that it is for the David S. Lee Fund. If you have questions or to make other arrangements for donating, please feel free to contact Jennifer Wheeler, BirdsCaribbean Treasurer (jennifer.wheeler@birdscaribbean.org)

Checks can be mailed to: BirdsCaribbean, 4201 Wilson Blvd. Suite 110-174, Arlington VA 22203-1589

Thank you for your participation and support!

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

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

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

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

Yellow-crowned:

Orange-winged:

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

A human archnemesis

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

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

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

Vocalizations: an unsung hero

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

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

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

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

How can you help parrots in the wild?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

The Backstory

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

The Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Photographic Record of Kirtland’s Warbler in Cuba!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lisa Sorenson and Joe Wunderle

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

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

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

Additional reading:

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

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

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

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

JCO Roundup: Volume 29 Covers Research Across the Caribbean and Highlights the Adelaide’s Warbler

The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology (JCO) is a free, peer-reviewed journal produced by BirdsCaribbean.
The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology (JCO) is a free, peer-reviewed journal produced by BirdsCaribbean.

With nine research articles, two book reviews, and an ornithological literature review, we are excited to announce the completion of Journal of Caribbean Ornithology’s Volume 29. Collectively the publications highlight valuable work spanning the entire arc of the Caribbean island chain, from Cuba to northern South America. The quality, quantity, and distribution of research represented in Volume 29 is testament to the JCO’s continued mission to build and grow a community of ornithologists around the advancement of scientific knowledge of all the unique avifauna of these island habitats.

These accomplishments would of course not be possible without the commendable teamwork that happens between researchers, reviewers, editors, and volunteers in all corners. Thank you so much for bringing your passion to the table and helping produce such a valuable resource to the field of ornithology.
Volume 29 wraps up with two complementary articles on the Adelaide’s Warblers:
Adelaide’s Warbler on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. (photo by Sean Rune)
Adelaide’s Warbler on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. (photo by Sean Rune)

1. “First observations of Adelaide’s Warblers (Setophaga adelaidae) outside of Puerto Rico, in the U.S.Virgin Islands” is an article by Sean M. Rune and LeAnn M. Conlon that documents the first sightings of this species of warbler outside its endemic range of Puerto Rico (and its island-munici palities of Vieques and Culebra). From one to four individuals were recorded during each of ten observation periods spanning from 24 March to 17 December 2012 on the island of St. Thomas. One observation of one individual on 6 January2013 occurred on the island of St. John. Seeing as Adelaide’s Warblers are known to breed during the late spring and early summer months, these observations may indicate the initiation of range expansion by the species from Puerto Rico to the U.S. Virgin Islands to the east.

Adelaide's Warbler with white lower eye crescent - a possible female - on St. John. (photo by E. Dluhos in Veit et al. 2016)
Adelaide’s Warbler with white lower eye crescent – a possible female – on St. John. (photo by E. Dluhos in Veit et al. 2016)

2. Further evidence of range expansion by Adelaide’s Warblers follows in the article “Vagrancy and colonization of St. Thomas and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, by Adelaide’s Warblers (Setophaga adelaidae)” by Richard R. Veit, Lucinda C. Zawadzki, Lisa L. Manne, Pearl Cales, Danielle Fibikar, Shannon Curley, Elizabeth Dluhos, and Robert L. Norton. The authors observed five Adelaide’s Warblers on St. John during January of 2015 and eight individuals in the same area one year later. Given that these vagrants arrived against prevailing easterly trade winds and were observed in the same area from 2012-2016, Veit et al. hypothesize that in current time we are witnessing the eastward colonization of new islands by Adelaide’s Warblers.

A thorough overview of Adelaide’s Warblers highlighting these newly published articles has been written by Jason A. Crotty and can be found in a recent article of the magazine BirdWatching.

Map of the Caribbean; the two final publications in Volume 29 of the JCO focus on the hypothesized range expansion of Adelaide’s Warblers from Puerto Rico eastwards to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Map of the Caribbean; the two final publications in Volume 29 of the JCO focus on the hypothesized range expansion of Adelaide’s Warblers from Puerto Rico eastwards to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Archives Have Grown – We’re excited to announce that we’ve been able to put some serious time into uploading and making available older volumes of the journal. The JCO Archives are now completely catalogued back to the year 2005. Our goal is to continue working our way back in time, ultimately providing easy (and free!) online access to every article of every publication back to the journal’s beginning – Volume 1 in 1988. We encourage you to take some time looking around the archives to remember and discover all the great work that has been contributed over the years. We will continue to make announcements as more volumes are made available.

What’s Coming Up – The 21st International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean set to take place in Cuba this July promises to be an unforgettable event. Detailed information about the meeting can be found here, the meeting website will have a lot of updates in the coming weeks. Regular attendees of BirdsCaribbean conferences and seasoned Caribbean ornithologists should take advantage of this attractive venue to consider reaching out to young, burgeoning researchers across the islands that could greatly benefit from attending. BirdsCaribbean is making an active push to integrate new members into our community, and the best way to do so is by word of mouth from all of our members. Everyone planning on attending the conference should come ready to have an excellent time, and don’t forget to budget some extra time in Cuba if your schedule allows! Volume 30 of the JCO is already underway with a lot of great manuscripts in the pipeline. We’re also looking forward to the release of a Special Issue on Caribbean Forest Endemics that promises to be around a dozen articles in length. Rumor has it that we’ll be seeing some great articles on everything from Elfin-woods Warblers to Golden Swallows to Giant Kingbirds. Stay tuned!

By Justin Proctor, Caribbean Ornithologist; Freelance Writer; Loving Husband. Justin is part of our JCO Editorial and Production team and a frequent contributor to our blog.