Your help is needed to protect beach-nesting birds, nests, and young. Conservian is planning for Year 3 of their shorebird and habitat conservation program in the Bahamas. Come join them for the adventure of a lifetime!
Conservian is seeking a weekly crew of 8 to 10 enthusiastic volunteers for our Bahamas shorebird habitat conservation project in May 2018 aboard our 75ft schooner research schooner. This is an excellent opportunity to gain field experience and shorebird ID skills. Trip cost for one week is $1,350 and includes your bunk, onboard meals, water, and ground transportation associated with project. Participants will fly to the Bahamas each week to designated airports for shuttle transport to schooner. A valid passport is required. Airfare and insurance are not included.
In 2018, Conservian, BirdsCaribbean, the Bahamas National Trust and partners will continue on-the-ground protective and restorative measures to limit human-caused disturbance, and control invasive Australian pine at key Piping Plover, shorebird and seabird sites in the Bahamas. Field volunteers will participate in collecting new data on shorebirds and seabirds of the Bahamas. Selected sites include Globally Important and locally Important Bird Areas and national parks of the Bahamas, such as the Joulter Cays National Park and Important Bird Area and the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (the world’s first protected area of its kind).
Our days will be filled with much adventure. The focus of the work is surveying for beach-nesting bird breeding pairs, nests and young, and working with local volunteers to implement protective measures in the field. Focal species include Wilson’s Plovers, American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, Audubon Shearwaters and other colonial nesting species. We will work in both populated and remote areas, sail blue Caribbean waters, visit white sandy beaches, boat to little islands, conduct ground surveys for beach and cay nesting birds, nests, and downy chicks, and meet new people. We will work with local volunteers to post and sign shorebird sites and control invasive Australian pine. Field crew will assistant with collecting data on breeding pairs, habitat assessment and human-created disturbance. Field crew will also assist with shipboard duties; sailing, cooking and cleaning. There will be time to fish, snorkel, and visit local island towns.
Protect, post & sign shorebird & seabird sites
Collect new data on nesting shorebirds, seabirds & habitat
Locate and protect shorebird & seabird nests and downy young
Observe/assist with bird banding (conditions permitting)
Control invasive Australian pine on beach habitats
Work with local volunteers to accomplish the above goals
Snorkel reefs in gin clear waters
Learn saying crew skills
Fish for dinner-catch of the day!
Qualifications: Applicants must be responsible, adventurous, in good physical condition, enjoy working in teams and be capable of walking several miles during warm weather in the Caribbean. Applicants must be comfortable living communally onboard a schooner and riding in small boats to access survey sites.
May 2018 Expedition Schedule and Locations:
Choose one week or more:
Week 1: Joulter Cays & North Andros – May 6-13 (Nassau Int. Airport)
Week 2: Northern Exumas – May 13-20 (Nassau Int. Airport)
Each week includes 7 nights aboard the schooner. If you have a special interest in seabirds, then participate in week 2.
If you would like to join our conservation crew for a week or more, please contact Margo Zdravkovic or fill out the short form here. The review of applicants is ongoing and will continue until positions are filled.
Project partners include: BirdsCaribbean, Bahamas National Trust, International Conservation Fund of Canada, USFWS/NMBCA, LightHawk, Dow AgroSciences, Grand Bahama Nature Tours, Optics for the Tropics, Grand Bahama Port Authority, Bahamas Public Parks & Beaches Authority, Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology Commission, Rand Nature Center, Abaco Friends of the Environment, Treasure Cay Community Center, Royal Bahamas Police Force/Marine Support.
Invasive mammals are known to be a problem on many islands. Holly Garrod shows first-hand how some of these pesky species are causing nest failure for one of the Caribbean’s most well known and best loved birds—the tody.
It was a muggy afternoon, typical for the summers in Jarabacoa, the central region of the Dominican Republic. Rubber boots on and camera in hand I was making my way through the creek system of a local farm. The goal was to check Broad-billed Tody nests. I was in the first field season for my master’s research, studying the breeding biology and behavioral interactions of Hispaniola’s two tody species: the Broad-billed Tody (Todus subulatus) and the Narrow-billed Tody (Todus angustirostris). One aspect of my research included how non-native mammals were affecting their breeding success. I had dubbed the creek I walked through as “tody neighborhood” (or barrio de barrancolis in Spanish), due to the high volume of nests I had found, totaling up to 15 in that one creek alone. I anticipated it would be one of my most productive sites this year, little did I know I was to be wrong.
But before I get into the mystery at tody neighborhood, let me explain some basic tody facts. Todies, while appearing to look like our pollinating hummingbird friends, are actually more closely related to kingfishers. Interestingly enough, todies are one of only two families of birds that are endemic to the Caribbean (the other being Dominican Republic’s national bird – the Palmchat). Within their Family Todidae, there are 5 species distributed throughout the islands of the Greater Antilles, most of which are named for the island they’re found on, excepting the aforementioned Hispaniolan todies. This interesting phenomenon, where Hispaniola is the only island to have two tody species, is the baseline for my master’s research, and the reason I was walking through creeks searching and monitoring for tody nests.
Now when most people hear “bird nest,” they think of an assemblage of twigs and moss carefully placed among the branches. But todies are different. For their nests, the pair chooses a dirt bank, then takes turns digging a burrow using their beaks. Typically, the burrows end up being about 10-15 cm deep, with some of them curving and all of them having an enlarged chamber at the end. With their preference for dirt banks, the best place to look for these burrows ends up being creeks.
Which brings us back to tody neighborhood. Walking through the creeks, notebook in hand, I stopped at the first nest. It was still early in the season, late May, and from my last check I knew all the nests had eggs. Now it was just a matter of seeing when they would hatch. I used an endoscope camera to check the nests, a long bendable tube with a camera and light on one end, where the other end hooked up to a monitor, providing live-stream tody footage. I slid the camera into the first nest, seeing nothing. Knowing that this nest had a tricky curve, I tried for several more minutes until something appeared, a cricket. Oftentimes when the todies finish breeding, other animals will move into the unoccupied cavities; typically large cave crickets are the most common. For this reason, todies almost always construct a new burrow every year. Presence of the cricket meant the nest had failed.
I continued to the other nests, hoping to have better luck. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the next nest still had the three eggs noted from several days earlier. But that’s where my luck ended. The next 5 nests had failed. I was baffled, from all outward appearances the nests appeared fine: the holes were still the same size and there were no signs of forced entry or tracks around the banks. When I returned several days later, it was more bad news. More failed nests and still mostly no signs of the culprits. Several nests appeared as though they may have been enlarged, but most others maintained the same outward appearance. Who could be predating these tody nests?
I started putting up camera traps (part of my funding from the David Lee Grant), hoping to get footage of what was happening at these nests. The idea being, the camera traps are motion activated and start recording with the presence of movement. I set one up at one of the few remaining active nests in tody neighborhood, scattering the others at nests in other creeks. One week later, I returned to glean the videos. Sitting back at the field house, going through the videos I was disappointed with the first two cameras. Most of the videos showed twigs moving or people walking by, the angle looking slightly off to catch the curprit.
Then I came to a night picture. I was about to pass by when I saw the outline of a cat walking by. Suspect number 1. Yet when I checked the records that nest had fledged successfully when I retrieved the camera. Plus a cat would have to have caused some external damage to the nest hole to access the tody. Ruled out as the common culprit, but still a potential predator.
The next set of videos I pulled up began with a night shot. I waited several seconds and then suspect number 2 appeared: a rat. I watched several videos of what I can only assume to be the same rat climbing on logs and scurrying around. Video after video I watched the rat run around, but appear oblivious to the nest entrance. Finally, watching the rat take its usual stroll around the log, I saw it. The flicker of interest in the nearby nest hole. I watched as the rat approached, holding my breath. There was no way the rat could fit, it would have to dig out the nest at least a little bit, leave some trace of evidence behind. But lo and behold, the mammal contracted in its side and squeezed into the hole, no damage and no evidence. Then out it came, baby tody in its mouth. I finally understood why the nests were failing!
Video: During the night, a rat enters the tody cavity and predates one of the two tody chicks inside. The other was presumably trampled based on appearance the next day. This rat was caught on camera for several nights before entering the cavity. (Video by Holly Garrod)
As I continued watching the videos for another nest that had failed, I saw a third culprit appear, one I was surprised I hadn’t seen earlier. Let me introduce you to culprit number three, the mongoose. I watched as the weasel-like mammal appeared and begin excitedly digging at the base of the hole until it managed to disappear inside, and return with a single tody chick in its mouth.
Video: A mongoose digs out the nest from below and enters from the bottom, leaving with a tody chick at the end of the video. No todies were present after checking, suggesting the mongoose likely returned for the second chick. (Video by Holly Garrod)
Mystery solved. Or is it? From the videos and what evidence I could find, it appears that rats are the most wanted, followed by mongoose, and leaving room for both feral cats and dogs. What is clear is that the majority of these predations are from introduced mammals. Even though these mammals have likely been present on the island for several hundred years, it may not have been enough time for the tody to adapt in some way. Throughout these videos I saw no evidence of nest defense behavior, or evidence the parents were even present. Additional behavioral experiments I conducted using a mammal decoy showed the same result—no interest or concern in the “mammal” present at the nest. Do we really know the impact these non-native mammals are having on bird populations? Out of 42 Broad-billed Tody nests I was monitoring, nearly half (20) of them failed, while 6 of 20 Narrow-billed Tody nests failed. All of them appeared to fail from non-native mammalian predators.
While these mammals may not be putting a huge dent on the tody populations, it’s clear they are having an impact. Continued predation could cause a decline in population sizes, especially since the todies show little to no defensive behavior and are therefore highly vulnerable. My research highlights the importance of understanding breeding ecology and the factors that influence nest success in Caribbean endemics like the tody. It’s important to monitor populations so that we can undertake management actions if needed to ensure long-term survival of these amazing birds.
By Holly Garrod. Holly is a MsC student in the Biology Dept at Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania. One of the goals of her thesis research in the Dominican Republic is to better understand how Caribbean endemic birds respond to changing landscapes and invasive predators. Holly was a recipient of the 2016-2017 BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund Grant.
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.
Follow Spencer Schubert on his adventures into remote corners of the Dominican Republic and learn how birds (and their poop!) naturally restore forests. And they do this for free!
Bird enthusiasts have long struggled with the challenge of attracting birds to their backyards, often employing the use of feeders, bird baths, or populating their gardens with plants that birds like. There’s something about birds that really captures our attention, whether it’s their impressive bright plumage or the cheery music they produce.
But birds have a lot more to offer beyond aesthetics. With an estimated 10,000 species of birds inhabiting our planet, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have adapted to eat just about any type of food found in nature. As it turns out, birds’ choice in cuisine often turns out to be beneficial to environments where humans live. Scavenging vultures limit the spread of pathogens by consuming dead animals. Birds of prey control rodent pests. And many birds feed on insects that can be damaging to farmers’ crops.
Another ecosystem service that fewer people are aware of is the dispersal of seeds in bird feces. That’s right! I am talking about bird poop. But before we all get too excited about bird poop, I need to take a few steps back to properly explain what I mean by this…
Many different kinds of birds have a sweet tooth for the juicy, nutritious fruits of the forest. But do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to try strange fruits that you see birds eating. Many of these are unpleasant and even toxic to people. Our palates are very different from those of birds, and that is no coincidence. Birds have evolved over time in native ecosystems with their plant neighbors, and many plants have adapted to take advantage of birds in a remarkably clever way.
You see, plants are faced with a different set of problems than those facing animals. Most importantly, they can’t really move around. For example, a tree cannot choose where it ends up and where it takes root. Long-lived trees might produce thousands, if not millions of seeds over their lifetime. Most of these fall to the ground directly below their parent, where they either get snatched by insect or rodent predators, fail to germinate, or eventually succumb to the overbearing shadow of their parent. (And you thought your parents were oppressive!).
Some lucky seeds manage to venture away, taking a ride with the wind, through the water, or undamaged in an animal’s gut. Some of these lucky seeds get even luckier still, by landing safely in a nice patch of fertile soil and substrate with moderate lighting from a gap in the forest canopy above.
Birds’ ability to fly long distances and visit a variety of habitats in a relatively short period of time makes them great seed dispersers from the perspective of the plant, and these two groups have evolved a mutualism for which they depend on the other. In exchange for their seed-dispersing services, birds are rewarded with a food supply.
Can a seed, dispersed, create a forest?
For my current research, I am working in the Dominican Republic, where I am trying to collect data to understand how seed dispersal by birds in cattle farms might be important for future forest restoration efforts in the region. Human populations all over the world are ravenous for beef and dairy. And in the tropics, by many estimates, the clearing of forests for livestock grazing lands has historically been the leading cause of deforestation. As a result, many experts see forest restoration in abandoned pastures as a key conservation strategy both in the present and in the future.
Having said that, restoration projects are expensive. The costs associated with growing trees in a nursery, transporting them, and caring for them after transplantation are high. It can conceivably cost thousands of dollars to manually reforest an area the size of a basketball court. In regions such as our work site in the Dominican Republic, where economic conditions are such that most working class jobs only pay $10 to $20 dollars per day, it is very difficult to convince organizations to take on these expensive projects.
The first step to my research project began about 18 months ago, when I secured permission to conduct my studies on a single large cattle farm near Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. The land owner agreed to let me fence off small sections of existing pastures to study seed dispersal and forest regeneration in the absence of human management and grazing, simulating abandoned conditions.
Señor Jose Brache is quite the character. An older gentleman on the verge of retirement, Sr. Brache much prefers his peaceful farm over the hustle and bustle of urban Santo Domingo. Like many older Dominican men, he has a lot to say about just about everything. It has become a frequent occurrence that Sr. Brache will encounter us on the main farm road in his truck and “kidnap” us for a ride to a part of the farm where he will tell a story about what the area looked like when he bought the property more than 20 years ago.
The first part of my project has been to study how certain isolated trees can attract birds to venture away from the forests out into the open pasture and how this might result in increased seed dispersal by birds and forest regrowth. Some of these selected trees included colony nest trees of Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and Palmchats, large mango trees, and control plots with no tree.
Perhaps the more interesting finding has been that relatively little forest regeneration has occurred during the study, so far. Below colony trees with many birds attending the tree, for example, both seeds and tiny seedlings are everywhere, but most of them do not survive. While it is still too early in the study to draw major conclusions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest from this and other similar studies that most seedlings end up losing their battle for survival when facing thick, tall grasses that are typical of these pastures. Furthermore, my findings suggest that it’s not so important how many seeds arrive as how good the habitat is when they get there.
While isolated trees in pastures are not the miracle cure for deforestation that I would have hoped for, even a small effect is potentially valuable, especially when it’s FREE. These findings rattled my brain… the presence of trees as perches for birds potentially begets more trees and biodiversity. So rather than waiting decades to grow a nice tree that birds will use and disperse seeds around, I thought of a shortcut… Artificial perches.
An artificial perch is exactly what it sounds like: any man made object or structure that birds can perch on. From my reviews of scientific literature, I soon learned that this is not a new idea. A handful of studies dating back to the late 90s have attempted various designs for artificial perches to study how birds use them and contribute to seed dispersal and forest regrowth. Results have been mixed with some more successful than others. There is still not a clear consensus on the subject, but I knew it was worth a shot. I began looking for larger scale restoration projects that would provide an appropriate context to carry out this work.
A New Collaboration with Plan Yaque
I did not have to wait long for an opportunity. It was June of 2016. Through a local colleague, I learned about a budding wetland restoration project in the town of Jarabacoa where I was working that was to be taken on by the NGO known as Plan Yaque. This organization is responsible for the conservation of natural resources in the Rio Yaque del Norte watershed, working mostly in rural farm communities.
After a few probing emails to the director, I was invited to attend an event with this organization. From the way they described it to me, it was meant to be something of a ceremony or convocation of a new community project they were undertaking. Put simply, Plan Yaque had convinced one of the community leaders in a rural neighborhood called Piedra Blanca to let them install a small dam structure in a stream running through the farm of one of the community leaders. They called this dam “trampa de agua” (water trap), and the premise of this project was to create a small reservoir in a headwater, spring-fed stream to maintain human-usable water sources from going completely dry during droughts.
Another major focus of this project is planting native tree species alongside this stream to help establish riparian forests with the aim of preventing soil erosion and mitigating the contaminants in the environment. They labelled the whole project with a clever title: “Litro de Agua” (Liter of Water) to communicate their objective of providing a consistent source of clean water to keep their farms going.
I met up with the director of Plan Yaque and several technicians on a hot June day, and we made our way out to the site riding in flatbed of their pick-up truck along a rural highway through the foothills of the Cordillera Central. Only a day prior, the technicians had finished their makeshift dam, made from a combination of sandbags and old recycled car tires—a clever and low-cost approach for this function. On the near side of the creek, they had enclosed part of the pasture field with a barbed wire fence about 25 meters wide and 60 meters long to keep cattle from disturbing the upper stretch of the stream and their improvised dam construction.
Plan Yaque’s technicians held a short public forum with the family and neighbors explaining the goals of the project and inviting a discussion on how they could improve the project and monitor its success in more meaningful ways. Beforehand, the director had asked that I share my experiences with the farmers and talk about the importance of birds for healthy forests. My Spanish is pretty good. By this point, I had spent a collective eight academic years studying the language and nearly a year’s worth of time working in various Spanish-speaking countries. Dominican farmers don’t see a lot of foreigners, and I could see a lot of curious stares in my direction as I somewhat awkwardly presented, as I now present to you, this idea that birds (and their poop) are protagonists of natural reforestation. If you found my proposition to be a little eccentric, you can imagine how crazy I must have seemed to these people. Nevertheless, I got my message across and it has given my project an opportunity to greatly expand our research efforts.
One of the most remarkable discoveries during these adventures, from my point of view, concerns the Dominican people. Some of the most outspoken conservationists I have met in the country come from its most remote corners of the country. I have spoken to dozens of farmers over the age of 70 who tell me stories of lush green forests covering the hills and how so many birds have practically disappeared since their childhood. Fortunately for me, these individuals have graciously received me and my research project into their community. Together with our partner organization Plan Yaque, we are now incorporating both of our agendas into a single project. While they struggle to improve water availably and quality for farmers, I am recruiting the birds to bring the forest back and restore at least a piece of the glory that was once the tropical forests of Jarabacoa.
With the support of my university, funders, my partner organizations, and local farmers, we have started up a new project to study this untapped potential of fruit-eating birds. Currently our team is halfway complete in our goal of constructing eight plots for the calendar year. We will continue to study these plots over the course of two years with the goal of turning the project over to our local partners and arming them with new cost-effective, bird-friendly techniques for forest restoration.
I owe thanks to a handful of individuals and organizations for their role in making my project so successful. Devoted efforts from project technician Joaris Samuel Gonzalez and field assistants Alex Lascher-Posner, Paris Werner, Kim Shoback, and Tyler Glaser helped get this study off the ground and were invaluable for data collection. Dr. Eric L. Walters of Old Dominion University helped advise the project and has been instrumental in the progression of my ideas and my development as a scientist. My fiancé, Holly Garrod, has helped me hold my life together during graduate school and has also contributed substantially to my research project as she pursues her own graduate research in the Dominican Republic. Local organizations Plan Yaque and Rancho Baiguate have provided key logistic support, without which this work would not have been possible. Furthermore, numerous private land owners have generously received us on their farms to conduct our field studies. This research was funded jointly by the Rufford Small Grant (II) Program, the Sophie Danforth Conservation Award from Roger Williams Park Zoo, and the David S. Lee Fund Grant from BirdsCaribbean.
By Spencer Schubert. Spencer is PhD student in the ecology program at Old Dominion whose thesis focuses on the contributions of avian seed dispersal to tropical forest recovery and plant-frugivore seed dispersal networks on farmland landscapes in the Dominican Republic. Spencer was a recipient of the 2016-2017 BirdsCaribbean David S. Lee Fund Grant and is using his research as a platform to raise interest in the ecological importance of birds for restoration projects in the region around Jarabacoa.
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.
David S. Lee was a pioneering naturalist and conservation biologist who helped get BirdsCaribbean started nearly 30 years ago, and inspired many naturalists with his work and his writing. He was a man of many interests, and with respect to the Caribbean, published numerous papers and articles in the popular press on seabirds, Bahamian fish, turtles, snakes, bats, and orchids.
Donations from Dave’s wife, Mary Kay Clark and his mother, June Bash, allowed the establishment of the David S. Lee Fund for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds that will award money to conservation projects in his honor. The money is being held in a trust and will be used to award an annual grant for innovative projects that protect Caribbean birds and their habitats.
Goal of the Fund: The David S. Lee Fund for Conservation seeks to continue David’s passion for protecting wildlife. The fund will support direct, innovative conservation work in the Caribbean Region for birds and their habitats. The fund will be managed by BirdsCaribbean and used for annual small grants.
Eligibility: Scientists/naturalists working in the Caribbean, in conservation organizations or academic programs, may apply. Applicants should be students or early career ornithologists, conservationists, or wildlife professionals (i.e., not established faculty or senior staff of a conservation organization, less than 7 years post-graduation). A student must be enrolled in accredited Masters or PhD program in ecology, biology, conservation, or related field to be eligible. Applicants must be paid or sponsored members of BirdsCaribbean at the time of application.
Use of Funds: The funds can cover travel to field sites, living expenses in the field, or costs for equipment and supplies to conduct conservation projects. Examples of equipment and supplies include traps, cameras, automated recording units, nest boxes, etc. Ineligible costs include salary or other wages, overhead fees, etc. Projects that foster collaboration between scientists/naturalists in different island groups of the Caribbean, such as joint projects to test conservation techniques for similar species, will be favored.
Proposals may be submitted in English, French, or Spanish. All should have an English version of the abstract
Applications should be emailed as a Microsoft Word document.
The application should include a cover page, proposal (see guidelines below), and a curriculum vitae for the applicant.
Separately, by email, three individuals who can attest to your effectiveness in previous work should submit letters of recommendation. For students, this would include your academic advisor.
A committee appointed by BirdsCaribbean will review the proposals and award the grants.
The awardee will be required to submit a report one year from the day of the award explaining how the award money was spent and the results of the project to that point.
Awardees are encouraged to present the results of their work at the biennial International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean and publish in The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology.
But wait! What if you are not eligible to apply for funds, you ask? You can still support this worthy cause by being a sponsor!
This fund will be for the conservation of any bird in the Caribbean as a reflection of Dave’s diverse interests. He was an important part of many projects, ranging from those of the Black-capped Petrel and Seabird Working Groups to the scholarly debate leading to the elevation of the Bahama Yellow-throated Warbler to a full species.
At the moment the fund contains $12,000. Our initial goal is to raise $25,000 so that we can award $1,000 every year to a worthy student or early career ornithologist, conservationist or wildlife professional. Not only will this fund encourage creative field work for projects that make a difference, but it will also help build the knowledge and skills of young conservationists that are urgently needed to make sure that the Caribbean birds and habitats that Dave treasured are still around for future generations to enjoy.
At the 2015 BirdsCaribbean meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, a round of beers was purchased in Dave’s honor, since he always seemed to have a cooler full when people wanted one (and even when they didn’t). Think of this fund like a cooler full of refreshing beverages that Dave would have around if he were here. We owe it to Dave to stock that cooler—to vitalize naturalists and empower them in their work to help wildlife.
Please give a tax deductible donation to the David S. Lee Fund. Give generously. The more we put into the fund, the more we can give out each year. Thanks to all those that have contributed to the fund!
If you prefer to donate with a check, please make the check out to “BirdsCaribbean” and in the memo section, note that it is for the David S. Lee Fund. If you have questions or to make other arrangements for donating, please feel free to contact Jennifer Wheeler, BirdsCaribbean Treasurer (email@example.com)
Checks can be mailed to: BirdsCaribbean, 4201 Wilson Blvd. Suite 110-174, Arlington VA 22203-1589
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 caribaeabahamensis). 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.
(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.
(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.
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.