In May, research teams on the island of Grand Bahama rediscovered the Bahama Nuthatch, one of the rarest birds in the Western Hemisphere. The island lies about 65 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida.
The bird, which is officially a subspecies of Brown-headed Nuthatch but may in fact be a distinct species, has been declining for decades due to habitat loss and invasive species. It occurs only on Grand Bahama in a small area known as Lucaya Estates. Surveys in April 2007 tallied only 23 individual birds. After Hurricane Matthew hit the island in October 2016, the nuthatch was feared to have become extinct because it hadn’t been found in subsequent searches. (The most recent sighting reported to eBird was of two birds in June 2016.)
This past spring, two teams searched for — and found — the nuthatch. They worked in coordination with Bahamas National Trust, a group that works to protect the habitats and species of the Bahama Islands. One team was made up of Bahamian students and was led by Zeko McKenzie of the University of The Bahamas-North and supported by the American Bird Conservancy, and the other included students from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in partnership with Birdlife International.
The UEA team made six nuthatch sightings in total, and McKenzie’s team independently made five sightings, using different methods, in the same small area of forest — including a sighting of two birds together. The nuthatches were seen and heard in three distinct locations within the Lucaya Estates. One juvenile was among the birds seen.
“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.”
Matthew Gardner, a master’s student with UEA, said after searching for about six weeks, his group “had almost lost hope. At that point we’d walked about 400km. Then, I suddenly heard its distinctive call and saw the unmistakable shape of a nuthatch descending toward me. I shouted with joy. I was ecstatic!”
How many are left?
The groups that supported the two research teams disagree about how dire the situation is for the nuthatch. For example, a press release from UEA says there could only be two birds left (since no more than two were seen at one time). Parr, however, says the Bahamian team’s five sightings suggest that at least five birds exist and possibly more.
Diana Bell, a conservation biologist with UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said in a statement: “Sadly, we think that the chances of bringing this bird back from the brink of extinction are very slim due to the very low numbers left, and because we are not sure of the precise drivers for its decline. But it is still absolutely crucial that conservation efforts in the native Caribbean pine forest do not lapse as it is such an important habitat for other endemic birds, including the Bahama Swallow, Bahama Warbler, and Bahama Yellowthroat.
“The habitat is also incredibly important for North American migrants, including the Kirtland’s Warbler,” she adds.
While Parr agrees that conservation of the pine forest is critical, he says it’s too soon to suggest the bird may go extinct.
He chairs the Alliance for Zero Extinction and says that it’s wrong to assume that a species with very low numbers is doomed. He cites several examples of birds, such as Lear’s Macaw, Bald Eagle, and Whooping Crane, that have come back from perilously low numbers. The Black Robin of New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, for instance, was down to five adults and only one breeding pair in 1980 but now numbers about 250 birds thanks to conservation work.
Housing development threatens Bahama Nuthatch
The nuthatch, Parr says, “is not done for.” Habitat management and placement of nest boxes could make a difference, he notes. The most important step is to prevent the destruction of the pine forest where the bird lives. For several years, developers have been looking at the area as a potential place to build houses, and a network of roads has already been established.
“Unfortunately, based on present knowledge, the remaining population of Brown-headed Nuthatches on Grand Bahama is limited to Lucaya Estates in the central portion of the island’s pine forests, which is also slated for large-scale residential development. Should this area ultimately be built-out as planned, it will almost certainly result in the extinction of Sitta pusilla insularis. As such, protection of these pine forests should be the first step in any conservation effort targeted at Brown-headed Nuthatches on Grand Bahama. Future efforts should include the development of a comprehensive conservation strategy, including guidelines for the management of Grand Bahama’s pine forests. Pressing research needs include more rigorous estimates of population size, an examination of why Brown-headed Nuthatches appear limited to Lucaya Estates, and demographic studies that might explain the ongoing population decline.”
‘Worthy of conservation’
Lloyd and his co-authors reported their findings of low numbers and threats to the nuthatch nearly a decade ago. And while conservation groups such as Bahamas National Trust, BirdLife International, and American Bird Conservancy are now looking for solutions, it seems that the nuthatch flew under the conservation radar for quite some time. Perhaps not coincidentally, most taxonomical authorities haven’t recognized it as a species distinct from Brown-headed Nuthatch, which occurs in pine woodlands from Texas to Florida to Delaware.
The bird looks a lot like a Brown-headed, but its bill is longer, its wings shorter, and its facial stripes are darker brown. Also, its warbling call is unique. Lloyd examined the mitochondrial DNA of nuthatches in the Bahamas and in the United States and found that the two groups “diverged from a common ancestor approximately 685,000 years ago.”
Parr doesn’t worry about when or if taxonomists will decide to split it or not. “Even as a subspecies, it’s a distinctive taxon and worthy of conservation,” he says. “Do all the conservation you can while you can so the bird can continue to exist.” — Matt Mendenhall, Editor