It’s thought that as many as 26,000 species across the world are at risk of extinction, with many of them essentially doomed to slip into the annals of history.
Perhaps the hardworking efforts of an international group of researchers, including the University of East Anglia (UEA), will remedy this somewhat: They’ve spotted an exceedingly imperiled bird, thought perhaps to have been wiped out, still living in the Bahamas. The story, however, doesn’t end as jubilantly as you might think.
Hurricane Matthew, which peaked as a Category 5 storm system on October 1, 2016, slammed into the Bahamas as a Category 3-4 hurricane shortly thereafter, engendering widespread destruction as it did so.
The Bahama nuthatch, one of the rarest birds in the Western Hemisphere, lived on the island of Grand Bahama. This species, listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was already feared to be functionally extinct, with just two members of the species known to still be alive remaining.
Isolated to a small patch of pine forest on the island, the nuthatch, Sitta insularis, was already threatened with the incursion of several invasive species and habitat loss via tourist development, fires, and the timber industry. Consequently, its numbers dropped precipitously from 1,800 in 2004 to just 23 back in 2007, although the birds have been in decline from as far back as the 1950s.
The hurricane added considerable insult to already profound injury, so it suffices to say that things weren’t looking good.
Post-Matthew, a team from UEA were dispatched to the island in order to see if the bird had survived the latest round of its seemingly endless gauntlet. At the same time, researchers from the University of The Bahamas-North, with support from the American Bird Conservancy, joined in the search.
Amidst the considerably thick vegetation, the teams looked among the most mature pine trees they could find, which were known to be the preferred nesting sites of the elusive flapping creature. They were also hoping to hear the bird’s distinctive high-pitched squeal, something they also played out loud using speakers in order to lure the bird itself to their position.
Spread out over an area roughly equivalent to 43 percent of New York City, the team stopped at 464 points, and waited, hoping to spot their target.
“We had been scouring the forest for about six weeks, and had almost lost hope. At that point we'd walked about 400 kilometers [250 miles],” masters student Matthew Gardner, from UEA's School of Biological Sciences, explained in a statement.
“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!”
To great relief, both teams made sightings in May of this year; UEA counted six, while the other team registered five. At one point, two nuthatches were seen together.
This is certainly a huge relief, but the researchers stress that it still represents an incredibly small population, one that continues to be threatened by the very same things as before. There’s also a solid chance, yet unconfirmed, that these birds are dominated by males, which doesn’t bode well for the species’ reproductive capabilities.
Describing the bird as being on the “verge of extinction”, Gardner, along with his UEA team, is pessimistic about the future. Even with considerable conservation efforts in place, and with all the new environmental data they collected on their venture, there doesn’t appear to be much anyone can do to stop the nuthatch dying out.
The moral of this tale, then, is that you can never start effective conservation efforts too early.