Bird Thought Extinct Discovered in the Bahamas

The Bahama nuthatch is one of the rarest birds in the Western Hemisphere. Matthew Gardner/University of East Anglia

After Hurricane Matthew slammed into the Bahamas in 2016, researchers were sure the Bahama nuthatch (Sitta pusilla insularis), already an endangered bird, had been wiped out.

But that wasn't the complete story.

New expeditions led this year by graduate students from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and students from the University of the Bahamas-North (UBN) with support from the American Bird Conservancy were able to find at least one Bahama nuthatch.

Bird on the edge of extinction

The Bahama nuthatch isn't difficult to locate in a crowd. It has a long bill and shorter wings than its mainland counterpart, the brown-headed nuthatch, and if you hear its distinct, squeaky call, then you'll know you're on the right track. It's known to only exist in the Bahama pineyards on Grand Bahama Island, about 100 miles off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida.

The bird's population decline has been steep and alarmingly swift. There were an estimated 1,800 birds in 2004, but a mere 23 by 2007, according to a statement released by UEA. Habitat loss from the logging industry and storms were likely contributors to the bird's rapid fall in numbers, among other potential factors.

"The Bahama nuthatch is a critically endangered species, threatened by habitat destruction and degradation, invasive species, tourist developments, fires and hurricane damage," Diana Bell, a senior lecturer at UAE, said in the statement.

Searches for the Bahama nuthatch following Hurricane Matthew yielded no sightings, leading researchers to believe the bird was functionally extinct. These surveys involved stopping along trails while driving in a vehicle. The surveys conducted this year went deeper into the species' habitat, through dense forest filled with vegetation and insects.

"Our researchers looked for the bird across 464 survey points in 34,000 hectares of pine forest," Bell explained. "It must have been like looking for a needle in a hay stack. They played out a recording of the bird's distinctive call in order to attract it."

The UEA team had six confirmed sightings of the Bahama nuthatch over its three-month expedition and even managed to record the bird on video. The UBN team confirmed five sightings with different methods from the UEA team, but all were in the same area.

"We had been scouring the forest for about six weeks and had almost lost hope," UEA graduate student Matthew Gardner said. "At that point we'd walked about 400 kilometers (249 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 UBN team reported seeing two Bahama nuthatches together during their search. The researchers were unable to ascertain the sex of the birds they encountered.

"The other team have reported seeing two together so that is promising," Gardner said. "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."

Bell believes the chances of saving the species "are very slim" given its low population, but she believes efforts should be made to protect the pineyards for other species that rely on it.

"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," she said. "The habitat is also incredibly important for North American migrants including the Kirtlands warbler."