On January 6-10, CCSD scientist Leighton Reid joined Bert Harris, Kelly Farrell, and David Wilcove on a search for what has become one of the rarest bird species in the western hemisphere.
The Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta insularis) is or was a bird found nowhere except on Grand Bahama Island, a thin, 153-km long piece of weathered limestone lying 84 km east of Palm Beach, Florida.
The Bahama Nuthatch differs from a widespread southeastern US species, the Brown-headed Nuthatch (S. pusilla) in having a longer bill and a distinctive, high-pitched warbling call. It is a denizen of the Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) forests that cover about 60,000 ha of Grand Bahama Island. Perhaps always rare, the species was a lot more common in the 1960s than 30 years later in the early 1990s. Ten years ago, a nearly island-wide survey found only 14 individuals in a single tract of forest east of Freeport, the island’s largest settlement. A local nature guide, Erika Gates, regularly found one to three individuals of the species in this area through June 2016, but in early October 2016, Hurricane Matthew (Category 5) blew across the island, causing significant damage. The Bahama Nuthatch has not been detected since June 2016 despite Ms. Gates and others searching in its previous locations. It is considered “endangered” by the IUCN.
For six days in early January, four of us intensively searched the area around the two most recent sightings, the ones from May and June 2016. We focused on the core area at first and gradually expanded outwards as it became clear that we were finding no individuals at the former sites. We estimated that we searched an area of roughly 4600 hectares of pine forest over a period of 26 hours (88 person-hours). We travelled approximately 92 km of roads and trails, both driving and walking. Many of these were old logging roads, which crisscross the entire island. While driving, we stopped every 0.4 km (0.25 mi) and played a recording of the nuthatch’s distinctive call. While walking, we played the call more frequently.
We did not find any Bahama Nuthatches. We think that our group, the first to search for multiple days for this species since 2016, was also the first to fail to find it. Perhaps the species’ conservation status should be changed from endangered to critically endangered. Ideally, some Bahamian ornithologist will be able to survey again for the species during the coming breeding season, and if the species is rediscovered, its remaining habitat will be protected, restored, and expanded.
In addition to the Bahama Nuthatch, we noted that several birds which breed exclusively in the pine forests were also very rare or absent. Bahama Yellowthroats (Geothlypis rostrata), Bahama Warblers (Setophaga flavescens), and Olive-capped Warblers (S. pityophila) were relatively abundant during surveys in 1968 and 2007, but Bahama Yellowthroats were totally absent from our search, and we found only a handful of Bahama Warblers and Olive-capped Warblers, making them even rarer in our survey than the nuthatch was in 2007 (though we searched during some relatively cold weather and during the non-breeding season). We also failed to detect a single Bahama Swallow (Tachycineta cyaneoviridis). Looking through historical records on eBird we noted that the West Indian Woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris) was formerly abundant across the island but has not been recently seen.
The causes of decline for the Bahama Nuthatch and perhaps for other breeding birds of the pine forests are mysterious. Grand Bahama Island has been extensively logged, initially for large diameter timber (prior to 1900) and later (1940s-1970s) for pulpwood. The expansion of the city of Freeport and tree-killing inundation by seawater over large areas have both reduced the potential habitat area. Feral cats, introduced raccoons, and corn snakes introduced in the 1990s could be predating native birds. We saw at least nine raccoons during our short time on Grand Bahama. Altered fire frequency and the increased frequency of Atlantic hurricanes may also be impacting the species, possibly by removing snags that are required for nesting.
Addendum: After six weeks and 400 km of searching a team in Grand Bahama has located at least five extant individuals of the Bahama Nuthatch!