Conservation

The Bahama Nuthatch, Thought to Be Lost to Hurricanes, Is Not Extinct—Yet

Researchers sighted a few of the critically endangered birds on a three-month, 430-mile expedition to Grand Bahama's pine forests this spring.

After hundreds of miles and three months of searching through dense forests of Caribbean pine and poisonwood, two separate research teams delivered on what seemed like a near-impossible task: They found the missing Bahama Nuthatch. 

Confined to Grand Bahama, the tiny bird—officially a subspecies of the Brown-headed Nuthatch, though some ornithologists recognize it as a full species—was largely thought to be extinct after Hurricane Matthew ravaged the island in 2016, according to a press release by the University of East Anglia last week. The Bahama Nuthatch has declined since the 1950s from a combination of habitat loss, invasive species, and tourist developments; its population was optimistically estimated at 1,800 individuals in 2004. 

Then it got worse: The population plummeted after a series of hurricanes struck the island, sending salty storm surges inland which killed the pine trees the nuthatches require for nesting. Only 23 individuals were spotted in 2007. The widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew and its 120-mile-per-hour gusts, some thought, had to be the last straw. No birds had been sighted since June 2016.

But a few biologists held out hope. This spring, Matthew Gardner and David Pereira, graduate students based at England's University of East Anglia, set out on a three-month expedition, in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust and BirdLife International, to find the nuthatch and other bird species endemic to Grand Bahama. They scoured the island, hiking some 430 miles while playing bird calls to attract the bird during its breeding season. A separate team of Bahamian students, led by Zeko McKenzie of University of The Bahamas-North, also searched for the bird using different methods, the press release says. 

It wasn't easy. Six weeks and 250 miles in, Gardner and Pereira had almost given up hope that they'd ever find the elusive birds. They were exhausted after searching 464 survey points throughout the vast, undeveloped pine forest and coming up empty. Then, Gardner heard the bird’s unmistakable high-pitched call and saw it flying down from the treetops toward him.

“I shouted with joy, I was ecstatic!” Gardner said in the press release. 

Gardner and Pereira made six nuthatch sightings total over the course of three months, but never saw multiple nuthatches together, leading them to believe that there might only be one remaining. McKenzie’s team reported five separate sightings, including one where they reported a pair of nuthatches together. 

Bahama Nuthatch, held by a researcher on Grand Bahama island in 2007. Photo: Thomas A. Benson

Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia who supervised the school's search team, said in a press release that she doesn’t believe the Bahama Nuthatch can make a comeback; its numbers are too low and the causes of its decline still unclear. However, she’s optimistic that there's still time to help other birds endemic to Grand Bahama's pine forest, she said. 

“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,” Bell said in the press release. She also noted the habitat's importance to neotropical migrants that breed in North America, such as the Kirtland's Warbler.

When Gardner and Pereira spotted the lone nuthatch, the bird flitted around on a branch, completely unaware of the elation its presence had caused. Though the future of this Bahama Nuthatch is still bleak, it's somehow comforting to know that at least one bird managed to ride out the storm. 

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