Bird feared extinct rediscovered in the Bahamas

Rare type of nuthatch was feared to have been completely wiped out when Hurricane Matthew hit Caribbean islands in 2016

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 23 August 2018 00:13
Rare kind of nuthatch living in the Bahamas discovered

One of the world’s rarest birds has been discovered alive two years after the species was believed to have died out.

The highly endangered Bahama nuthatch was feared extinct following Hurricane Matthew, which devastated the Bahamas in 2016.

The storm's northern eyewall passed over the western half of Grand Bahama, the archipelago's most northern island, bringing gusts of wind up to 120 miles per hour, felling trees and ripping roofs from houses.

In the aftermath, ornithologists were unable to record sightings of the rare bird - until now.

University of East Anglia (UEA) masters students Matthew Gardner and David Pierra undertook what is believed to be one of the most extensive searches of the island in an effort to find the species.

The Bahama nuthatch has a long bill, a distinctive high-pitched squeaky call, and nests only in mature pine trees.

There has been a large decline in its population in recent years. There were an estimated 1,800 individuals in 2004, but that fell to just 23 being seen in a survey in 2007.

The decline is thought to have begun in the 1950s when significant timber removal caused habitat loss and more recently due to hurricane damage, with storm surges having killed large areas of native forest.

Mr Gardner said: “We had been scouring the forest for about six weeks, and had almost lost hope. At that point we’d walked about 400km (248 miles). 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.”

The UEA team made six nuthatch sightings in total, meanwhile a second team of Bahamian students, led by Zeko McKenzie of Loma Linda University, made five more sightings, using different methods in the same small area of forest – including a sighting of what they believe to be two birds together.

Mr Gardner added: “During three months of intensive searching we made six Bahama nuthatch sightings. Our search was extremely thorough but we never saw two birds together, so we had thought there might only be one left in existence. The other team have claimed to see two together so that is promising. However, these findings place the species on the verge of extinction and certainly amongst the world's most critically endangered birds.

“We also don’t know the sex of the birds. In many cases when birds dwindle to such small numbers, any remaining birds are usually male.”

Both teams made their sightings in May, and the UEA team were lucky enough to capture the elusive bird on film.

“The photographs clearly show this distinctive species and cannot be anything else” said Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy and a UEA alumnus. Fortunately this is not a hard bird to identify, but it was certainly a hard bird to find,” he added.

Mr McKenzie said: “Although the Bahama nuthatch has declined precipitously, we are encouraged by the engagement of conservation scientists who are now looking for ways to save and recover the species.”

But Dr Diana Bell, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, added: “The Bahama nuthatch is a critically endangered species, threatened by habitat destruction and degradation, invasive species, tourist developments, fires and hurricane damage. Our researchers looked for the bird across 464 survey points in 34,000 hectares of pine forest. It must have been like looking for a needle in a haystack. They played out a recording of the bird’s distinctive call in order to attract it.

"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.”

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