A flash of movement in the sunlit leaves, and the tiny bird fluttered up to snatch a bug from the underside of a leaf before flicking back to perch a moment later. A blackpoll warbler: a little bigger than most warblers (a family of tiny songbirds) but still smaller than a person’s fist, their quick movements draw the eye as they deftly hunt for insects in high branches. Weighing only 12 grams, they fly a total of up to 20,000 km between northern Canada and South America on their yearly migration. Their journey includes a 3-day overwater flight of over 3,000 km between the US southeast coast and Brazil’s northern coast, the longest of any songbird. This flight takes them directly over the Bahamas, meaning that these islands, including Bimini, are a crucial resource of rest and food to help them survive their gruelling journey.
Arriving in Bimini in April and staying until June, I have had the privilege of seeing birds who stop briefly on the island as they make their way north in the spring, such as the blackpoll warbler, as well as birds who live on the island year-round. One of these local residents is the Antillean nighthawk, an unusual looking nocturnal bird. Known as a querequequé in parts of the Caribbean, the local name originates from the Taíno language, which was spoken in what is now Cuba and the Bahamas until European invasion and colonization in the 15th century. Their mottled brown pattern allows them to sit out on tree branches or even on the ground all day in plain sight, with camouflage as their only defence. But in the evening, they transform into graceful acrobats, swooping through the sky to catch flying insects in their wide, frog-like beaks. After spending time in Bimini I know that birds who eat flying insects are certainly our friends, as the mosquitos here are even more bothersome than in my home state of North Carolina.
Blackpoll warblers can be seen in most of the US as they make their migration journey twice a year, and Antillean nighthawks may be spotted in the Florida Keys, but to see certain birds, you have to be in the Bahamas. One such species is the Bahama Warbler, a small yellow-and-black songbird endemic to the Bahamas. Like most warblers, they forage for insects on leaves and branches with quick, darting movements. While many warblers prefer finding their meals on the undersides of deciduous (broad-leaved) trees, the Bahama warbler exclusively uses pine trees, and it has evolved a longer and sturdier beak specialized for probing under the scales of pine bark. It is known locally as a “chip-chip,” after the sound of its call.
I flew from North Carolina to Bimini in April; the ovenbird does the opposite, wintering in the Caribbean and flying to the eastern US for the summer. I got to see them when I first arrived here, before they all left for the summer. Strutting across the forest floor with its long pink legs, the ovenbird is a small ground forager with streaky brown stripes for camouflage. Its common name comes from the shape of its nest, which is a domed structure with a side entrance, woven from pine needles, that resembles an old fashioned oven. Their loud, bold song rings through the woods near my home; on Bimini they are silent, foraging for snails, insects, and spiders on the ground along the roads and trails. Robert Frost wrote a poem in 1916 describing their song and what it meant to him as an observer living in their spring and summer range: “There is a singer everyone has heard/ Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird/ who makes the solid tree trunks sound again./ He says that leaves are old and that for flowers/ mid-summer is to spring as one to ten./ He says the early petal-fall is past/ when pear and cherry bloom went down in showers/ on sunny days a moment overcast;/ and comes that other fall we name the fall./ He says the highway dust is over all./ The bird would cease and be as other birds/ but that he knows in singing not to sing./ The question that he frames in all but words/ is what to make of a diminished thing.”
As a North American, I tend to forget that so many of the familiar birds I see at home spend half the year or more in other places, including the Caribbean, and that habitats in those places are just as crucial to the birds as the ones near my home. North Bimini is rapidly losing its forest to development, giving birds less and less room to find food, fresh water, and shelter. As a tourist on South Bimini, I rely on the island for food and shelter, and so do the birds. But while I could have chosen to stay home or live elsewhere, the birds rely on these habitats for their survival. In addition, free roaming cats are common on Bimini, and cats are powerful predators who can and do kill multiple songbirds per day if allowed to roam freely.
Birds provide us humans with valuable ecosystem services, the most notable of which is all of the insects and other pests they eat. Worldwide, birds eat 400 million tons of insects each year, which works out to each insectivorous bird consuming roughly 100 times their own body weight in bugs each year. This labor has real monetary value; one estimate for commercial forest land in the eastern US credited birds with $1500 per km of worm control alone, and a study of coffee farms in Jamaica showed that birds added $4000 per hectare of increased production value from pest control. So if you like looking at birds, value economic productivity, and dislike annoying insects, there are plenty of reasons to appreciate and conserve birds. Apart from anything else, they bring beauty and joy.
Nyffeler et al. “Insectivorous birds consume an estimated 400–500 million tons of prey annually.” The Science of Nature, 2018
Paterson, Andrew. Birds of the Bahamas. Durrell Publications, Vermont, USA: 1972.