23 Aug 2018

Bird thought extinct rediscovered in Bahamas

The Bahama Nuthatch, an Endangered bird feared to be wiped out by a storm that ripped through Grand Bahama in 2016, has been sighted for the first time in nearly two years. But with less than a handful of individuals remaining, does the bird have a future?

By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Two researchers from the University of East Anglia – working in partnership with Nigel Collar and David Wege from Birdlife International and the Bahamas National Trust (BirdLife Partner) – have rediscovered the Bahama Nuthatch Sitta insularis, which was feared to be extinct in the wake of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

The two masters students, Matthew Gardner and David Pereira, were on a three-month expedition through Grand Bahama, the only island on which the nuthatch lives, when they found the bird, which had not been seen since June of 2016. However, it is thought there may be as little as two individuals left, leaving the species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Just fifteen years ago, the Bahama Nuthatch, while hardly thriving, was far from the precarious position it finds itself in today. In 2004, a few hundred of individuals were recorded on Grand Bahama Island. By 2007 though, only 23 individuals were spotted, a dramatic drop most likely driven by to habitat loss and degradation. When Hurricane Matthew, a category five storm, swept through the island in September of 2016, it was feared that the storm had wiped the remaining population of Bahama Nuthatch out.

 

 

To try to find the bird, Gardner and Pereira searched across 464 survey points in 34,000 hectares of pine forest, looking through an exhausting 700 kilometres of forest on foot.

“We had been scouring the forest for about six weeks, and had almost lost hope,” Gardner said. “At that point we’d walked about 400 kilometres. 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!”

At the same time, a second team of Bahamian students, led by Zeko McKenzie of Loma Linda University and supported by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), also searched for the bird. In the end, the UEA team saw the Nuthatch six times, while the ABC team independently recorded five sightings in the same area of forest. Gardner and Pereira never saw two birds together, leading them to believe there possibly might be only one left. However, McKenzie’s team had a sighting of what they believe to be two birds together.

Despite this, the chances for the recovery of the Bahama Nuthatch are slight. 

“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,” Dr. Diana Bell, a Senior Lecturer at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said. “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.”


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