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The Bahamas: Scoring the Kirtland's Trifecta

Kirtland's Warbler

Actual footage of the rarest songbird in its natural habitat.


Like many summer residents of northern climes, the Kirtland’s warbler – North America’s rarest songbird – prefers to spend the winter far, far away from the ice and snow of the northern United States. Less than the size of a tennis ball, it flies 3,000 miles a year round trip to reach its preferred winter haven in the Caribbean and then returns every spring to the Michigan pine forests to mate. 

No one really knows how long Kirtland’s have been migrating from their breeding grounds to winter nesting grounds scattered among the islands of The Bahamas. For one thing, the bird wasn’t even described by science until 1851 when the first one was documented in Ohio. It wasn’t until 1879 that the first Kirtland’s was documented in The Bahamas on Andros Island. Add to that the Kirtland’s notorious elusiveness and you have a warbler destined to be a highlight on any birder’s life list.

For decades after the first Kirtland’s sighting, scientists spent countless hours searching The Bahamas for the bird’s winter nesting grounds. More often than not, their efforts went unrewarded. Sometimes hundreds of hours of careful canvassing of Andros Island, Hawksbill Cay, Eleuthera and other islands of the 625-mile long archipelago would, at best, yield maybe one or two sightings.  

As a result, the conventional wisdom has long been that if you want to see a Kirtland’s, you need to head to Michigan and stake out the breeding grounds because seeing them on their winter grounds could be well-nigh impossible.

Unless, of course, you happened to be with Conservancy scientist Leno Davis last February.

Right place, Right time

In the week between February 27 and March 3, Leno Davis achieved a birding triumph. He recorded three separate sightings of Kirtland’s warblers – two of them on the same day – and even managed to get a good 20 seconds of video of the bird flitting among the branches of a low shrub called Strumpfia maritima on Hawksbill Cay in Exuma Cays Land and Sea State Park, the oldest park in The Bahamas.

His run of good birding fortune started when he was guiding some young scientists on a trip through the Harrold and Wilson Ponds National Park on the small island of New Providence, the epicenter of the country's tourism industry and located near the highest concentration of citizens in The Bahamas.  

As Leno tells it, “I heard a few chirps coming from inside the bushes and saw a bird hopping around in there. It eventually perched for about 30 seconds atop a leafless twig sticking out over the boardwalk about a foot above my head. It was an adult male.”

His two other sightings – both males – occurred March 3, on Hawksbill Cay in The Bahamas’ oldest national park, Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

“The Kirtland's is a beautiful bird, but so are all the other birds that live here in The Bahamas and up in Michigan (each in their own way),” says Davis. “I am probably one of very few people who has seen more Kirtland's in The Bahamas than in Michigan. But the real beauty of the Kirtland's work, in my opinion, is the cooperation between different countries, government and non-government agencies and young and experienced scientists to understand and protect a part of the world that, without protection, may have been lost forever.”

To help continue the Kirtland’s steady path to recovery, the Conservancy works closely with partners from Michigan to The Bahamas. The Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Project has been key to substantially increasing scientists’ knowledge of the bird in its winter home.

“This training program has been groundbreaking for many reasons,” notes Eleanor Phillips, Director of Northern Caribbean public relations. “It increases the body of knowledge about the Kirtland’s warblers, for the inter-organizational partnerships here in The Bahamas, and the involvement of promising young scientists.” But the program has also had unexpected and important rewards for the people of The Bahamas as well.

As Phillips points out, “The true benefits of the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Project lie in the lasting contributions that the young scientists are making and will continue to make here in The Bahamas and throughout the conservation community. Several students who have participated in the program have already returned to The Bahamas and are working in science.”

Hope for the Kirtland’s

Though the Kirtland’s is still considered endangered, its numbers have been rising in the last decade. The lowest counts ever were in 1974 and 1985 when birders in Michigan recorded only 167 singing males each year. In 2008 there were 1,792 singing males noted during the official census in Michigan plus a few others in Wisconsin and Ontario. The most ever.

But migratory bird conservation is a kind of “book end” project because it is critical to protect both the breeding grounds and the wintering grounds, especially for birds like Kirtland’s warblers, which have highly selective habitat requirements. If their habitat is lost at either end of the migratory route, it is unlikely the birds will survive.

“I feel The Bahamas is on the verge of a scientific renaissance,” notes Davis, a native Bahamian. “For me, participating in the Kirtland Warbler’s Training Program was the springboard that led me to my advanced degrees, and brought me back home to work in The Bahamas. I feel more projects like this are needed to continue to encourage Bahamians toward environmental science careers and actually provide them with some of the skills they will need to succeed in the field.”

The continuing success of Kirtland's warbler monitoring owes much of its success to the partners that support it, including the International Program of the U.S. Forest Service, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bahamas National Trust. The U.S. Forest Service provides critical scientific expertise as well as much of the funding for the Kirtland's Warbler Research and Training Project, and the Bahamas National Trust has recruited students—including Leno Davis—for the project.

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