Finding Kirtland’s warblers in the Bahamas

For 20 years, I’ve been traveling to the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, where my wife and her family have a home. And for just as long, I’d hoped to see a Kirtland’s warbler on its wintering grounds. It happens that Eleuthera is one of four central Bahamian islands where the rare songbird is most often seen in winter (Cat Island, Long Island and San Salvador are the others). I’d always hoped to get lucky and see one, maybe on a walk near the house or at a nearby nature preserve. But on a 176 square-mile island, and given the warbler’s super-specific habitat needs, and predilection of staying low in dense scrub, my chances of running into one actually were fairly low.

If there is anything like IBET or the Illinois Birding Network in the Bahamas, I haven’t found it yet. Reports on eBird could be of help, but on Eleuthera there are few eBird reports. This year I was determined to see a Kirtland’s warbler, so I reached out to a scientist with the Smithsonian who had written a blog about a visit to Eleuthera. He almost immediately responded and introduced me to two other experts, Dave Ewert of The Nature Conservancy and Joe Wunderle of the U.S. Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry. Dave and Joe have been conducting field research on Eleuthera for many years as part of the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Project, and it turns out they were going to be on the island right around my trip in late March.

Dave and Joe were incredibly kind and invited me to join them on a field survey on March 26. I met them early that morning in the beautiful town of Tarpum Bay, and we soon found ourselves pulling off the island’s main north-south road to walk a stretch of the coppice forest habitat that covers much of Eleuthera. The site was an old well field, where pipes tapped into the freshwater reserves underground. The right of way into the well field made for ideal Kirtland’s warbler habitat: exposed rock laden with shrubs like black torch and wild sage. It’s these types of disturbed habitat — goat farms, powerline cuts, well fields and abandoned bulldozed sites — that Kirtland’s warbler frequent in Eleuthera. And fun fact about the black torch, which provides forage: it’s similar to the blueberry bushes of the northern Michigan forests where Kirtland’s warbler breeds.

Dave played a Kirtland’s warbler song on a Bluetooth speaker as we walked deeper into the forest. We saw at least three other migrants — Cape May warbler, palm warbler and prairie warbler — and a pair of gorgeous resident LaSagra’s flycatchers. But still no Kirtland’s. A few minutes later though, Dave shouted from the path ahead. I ran up, and an immature Kirtland’s was in clear view near the top of a stand of black torch. I got good looks at it and snapped off a few photos before it disappeared into the forest. A few minutes later and another one appeared, responding to playback, and I got more photos. At this point, the trip was already a success!

Then on the walk back toward the main road, as we dodged stands of rash-inducing poisonwood, another warbler responded to playback. This time it was an adult, and it was very cooperative and sat in the open for a few minutes. I took several photos with the 100–400mm lens I had bought expressly for the trip.

As much as it was a fun adventure, it was humbling to observe these birds and consider their mere existence after years of decline. In 1987, there were only 167 singing males in northern Michigan. Now there are perhaps 5,000 birds, and there’s discussion they’ll be removed from the endangered species list. There is still plenty of concern about their future, though. Climate change and the likelihood of more frequent drought could impact the habitat available in the Bahamas. The birds rely on a mosaic of habitat and will travel to a variety of wintering sites depending on the year-to-year availability of fruiting shrubs. Very little land is protected in the Bahamas, and private land that is available is expensive. So Joe and Dave are working with goat farmers and other landowners to promote land management that favors the Kirtland’s warbler. And they are actively seeking donors who are interested in fostering conservation programs, including ways to secure habitat for this rare species on its Bahamas wintering grounds.

Like a lot of people in Chicago, I saw the Kirtland’s warbler that visited Montrose Point in May 2015. Next up for me is a potential trip to the breeding grounds in northern Michigan this June and maybe a rare trifecta: seeing the bird in migration, in winter and in summer.