Ultra-endangered Bahama Nuthatch Survives
One of the most endangered birds in the Western Hemisphere was spotted in 2018 after two years with no sightings. The Bahama nuthatch is considered by some to be a subspecies of brown-headed nuthatch, while others consider it a separate species. Whatever its taxonomy, the small bird is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as critically endangered. “This species is listed as Endangered because it has a very small population found on only one island (Grand Bahama Island), and the population size is likely declining as a result of habitat loss and invasive species.”
Though the nuthatch was commonly spotted in the 1960s, only a handful were found in censuses in 1993, 2004, and 2007. The bird was photographed in June 2016, but Hurricane Matthew slammed the island three months later, and despite searches for it, no one has reported seeing a nuthatch on Grand Bahama Island since.
Until May 2018, that is. After searching for the bird for six weeks, teams of researchers from Bahama-North University and East Anglia University, working with the Bahamas National Trust, found the three Bahama nuthatches—two adults and a juvenile—in two locations on Grand Bahama Island.
While the future of this species (or subspecies) does not look bright, there is some relief in knowing that it still exists. —Dawn Hewitt
Bahama nuthatch observations fuel hope for the species
One of the rarest birds in the Western Hemisphere, the Bahama nuthatch, has been rediscovered by research teams searching the island of Grand Bahama.
The finding is particularly significant because the species had been feared extinct following the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and had not been found in subsequent searches.
It is unclear how many nuthatches may be left. Observations of two birds together and other single birds (including a juvenile) scattered across miles of forest indicate that five or more birds could survive.
The Bahama nuthatch is an endangered species, only known from native pine forest on Grand Bahama Island, which lies approximately 100 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida.
Two search teams worked in coordination with Bahamas National Trust to rediscover the bird during the breeding season, starting in April of this year. One team was led by Zeko McKenzie and his students at the University of The Bahamas-North, supported by American Bird Conservancy, and another by University of East Anglia (UEA) masters students Matthew Gardner and David Pereira, in conjunction with BirdLife International.
Both teams first observed nuthatches in May 2018, documenting their observations with photographs. McKenzie’s team observed five birds in all, starting with a sighting of two individual Bahama nuthatches together on May 1. The next sighting was on May 23, over a mile from the first observation, and included a juvenile bird accompanying a Bahama Warbler. The juvenile was distinguished from adults by the lack of distinctive brown plumage on the crown of the bird’s head. A video recording of this juvenile Bahama nuthatch by McKenzie was the earliest documentation of the species’ continued survival in 2018, and was followed by additional photographs of adult birds by both research teams later in May and in subsequent months.
Dr. Diana Bell, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said, “The Bahama nuthatch is a critically endangered species, threatened by habitat destruction and degradation, invasive species, tourist developments, fires and hurricane damage.”
Regarding the moment when he saw the Bahama nuthatch, Matthew Gardner recalled, “We had been scouring the forest for about six weeks, and had almost lost hope. At that point we’d walked about 400km (250 miles). Then, I suddenly heard its distinctive call and saw the unmistakable shape of a nuthatch descending towards me. I shouted with joy, I was ecstatic!”
“The photographs clearly show this distinctive species and cannot be anything else,” said Michael Parr, President of American Bird Conservancy. “Fortunately this is not a hard bird to identify, but it was certainly a hard bird to find.”
Parr continued, “Despite the critical situation for this species, other birds—such as the New Zealand Black Robin—have recovered from tiny populations. We are optimistic that conservation can also save the Bahama nuthatch.”
The Bahama nuthatch was observed within the Lucaya Estates, an area previously logged during the mid-1900s and since developed with many miles of roads for residential development.
Researcher Zeko McKenzie said, “Although the Bahama nuthatch has declined precipitously, we are encouraged by the engagement of conservation scientists who are now looking for ways to save the species.”
“The Bahamas National Trust feels that research on endangered species, such as the Bahama nuthatch, is really important,” said Shelley Cant-Woodside, Director of Science and Policy of the Bahamas National Trust, “especially in the face of a changing climate.”
American Bird Conservancy is dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation.
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