Monday, January 2, 2012

Bahamas: Feb, 2011

In February of 2011, I spent roughly three weeks on the island of Abaco, in the Bahamas. Having never before been to the Caribbean, everything was new. From the first time I was spoken to – in a language that was vaguely intelligible but clearly not the one I spoke – I knew this was going to be interesting. My job was to set up nest boxes for the endangered Bahama Swallow and to that end, I headed to the southern half of Abaco island, probably the best spot in the world for these swallows. Abaco is a really thin island, never more than a few miles wide, but well over 60 miles long. Most fortunately Abaco has not yet succumbed to the sprawling resorts and still has loads of “virgin” pine forests remaining – which are commonly said to be the only breeding sites for the swallow.

Bahama Swallow box, Abaco Neem farm

But no one told the swallows that, apparently. I found them breeding in two places: cell phone towers and roofs. This presented the paradox of the species: why are they restricted to two relatively undeveloped islands, yet utilizing human settlements almost exclusively? Personally, my thought is that House Sparrows abound in areas of high human development, but exist in low enough densities on these islands that the swallows still have some breeding sites available to them. House Sparrows (English Sparrows, Passer domesticus) we introduced to North America by some well-meaning, but tragically misguided Victorians about the turn of the century in New York and Boston. They wanted the New World to have the wonderful fauna of the old world and thus they brought a myriad of species from Europe (including, it is said because of its mention in a Shakespeare play, starlings).

Bahama Swallow, Abaco Neem Farm
I do not know whether the House Sparrows on the Bahamas were a separate introduction or part of the rapid expansion of House Sparrows after the initial release in the northeast, but they are certainly in great numbers there now. Additionally, I should note that besides some circumstantial evidence, I have nothing to back up my hypothesis that House Sparrows are outcompeting the Bahama Swallows. Many other hypotheses about the decline can be posited: perhaps they need pine forests to feed, not breed, or maybe they adapt well to small amounts of human disturbance, but not extensive development. But they are certainly competing on some level – a local guide took me to known nesting sites from previous years and in each one we found a sparrow nest, not a swallow.

Wilson's Plover, Abaco
But the island was not all doom and gloom – it was hard to dwell on the decline of a species when confronted with a comfortable hammock and beautiful blue water after work every day. And the birds and butterflies were simply fantastic: northern warblers migrate yearly to the Caribbean and mesh with local birds whose names I had to find in James Bond's bird guide. James Bond? The story goes that Ian Fleming often visited the Caribbean and birdwatched – remember that much of it was British holdings at the time – and when looking for title character's name, he found the author of the local bird guide possessed a fine-sounding British name and the rest is history. Whether apocryphal, I do not know, but the bird guide is still in use and allowed me to identify several bird that I would have been stymied by otherwise.

This bird does not show up in US bird guides: Black-faced Grassquit
Abaco also holds one of the last populations of the Cuban Parrot – a big beautiful bird with some odd habits. Not only does it not nest in trees, like any sane parrot would do, it also does not just nest on the ground – no, it nests in limestone crevasses, mostly in or near extensive cave networks. This puts it in jeopardy of being eaten by voracious predators: house cats and raccoons. Neither species is native to the island and both, despite their cute appearances are serious problems for island birds. Baby parrots in holes present an easy target for these predators and, especially as raccoons move southward on the island, the small population of parrots seems in jeopardy. I was lucky enough to see the parrots on a few occasions and hear them on many more occasions (almost all parrots are loud and obnoxious). 

Cuban Parrot, Abaco, in a flock of 8-10 or so
And I managed to find a pretty rare bird for the island: a Swainson's Warbler - one of the harder warblers to find in the US, as well.

Not a good picture - but a good bird! Swainson's Warbler
Western Spindalis, male. The females are completely nondescript tanagers.

A weatherbird - Magnificent Frigatebird - named for their tendency to come inshore before storms (or so they say).


  1. I would like to learn more about the success of artificial nests for the Bahama swallow. Can you help? Sole

  2. Unfortunately, I have had no success with the boxes I erected. All that has utilized them is House Sparrows, I believe.