Studying white-tailed tropicbirds in the Bahamas

Shedd Aquarium has been involved with conservation, education and research projects in the Bahamas for more than 20 years. These projects rely on volunteer and student participation. Every spring, Chicago area college students have a unique opportunity to participate in Shedd’s Marine and Island Ecology course offered through the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area (ACCA). Our students work closely with Shedd staff through both field work and onsite classes. At Shedd, they learn about Bahamian ecosystems and animals, practiced identification skills, and explore the complex ecology of the Bahamas through case studies. For the field component, students fly into Nassau to live aboard Shedd’s 80-foot research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas. Please enjoy this first story in a series from our 2013 student participants.

When you’re studying the populations of seabirds that alternate their time between soaring over open oceans and nesting on razor-thin cliff edges, you don’t get to be picky about accommodations. You may find yourself sleeping on sharp limestone rocks, eating uncooked ramen noodles, and scaling cliffs in pursuit of said birds—and doing it over and over again.

Post author Erin Binkley holds white-tailed tropicbird with Dr. William Mackin.
Erin Binkley holds a white-tailed tropicbird as Dr. William Mackin takes measurements and removes a GLS tracker. (Shedd Aquarium/Sadie Norwick)

My name is Erin Binkley, and I am a college student studying Environmental Science. I recently completed a Marine and Island Ecology class through the Shedd Aquarium, which is where I got to know Dr. William Mackin, Seabird Co-Chair of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. At the end of our class, we spent nine days in the Bahamas onboard Shedd’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, working in and out of the water with Shedd’s conservation scientists, Dr. Alexander Tewfik and Dr. Chuck Knapp, and with Caribbean experts including Dr. Mackin.

Dr. William Mackin reaches into a nest of white-tailed tropicbirds.
Dr. William Mackin finds a nest of white-tailed tropicbirds on the limestone cliffs and reaches in to retrieve a bird, along with the tag containing valuable data. (Erin Binkley)

At one point in the trip, we shadowed Will Mackin along the rocky limestone cliffs of Warderick Wells Cay to find the nesting sites of white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus) and track their progress. Dr. Mackin and his partners have studied white-tailed tropicbird on this cay in the Exuma Islands since 1999. The white-tailed tropicbird is the only tropicbird native to the Bahamas. Found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, white-tailed tropicbirds are an important top predator, and their urea is an important source of nutrients for extremely xeric, nutrient-poor islands in the Bahamas.We do not know much else about them, since these slender white-and-black birds spend most of their time on the open sea and their nesting sites are difficult to access. However, we do know that they’re in trouble: particularly in the Atlantic, their populations have declined due to habitat destruction, oil pollution, and predation by domestic animals and rats. This is also worrisome because these tropicbirds only lay one egg per season, limiting their ability to recover from anthropogenic sources of mortality.

The main goal of our trip with Will was to recover as many Global Location Systems (GLS) tags from the remaining birds as possible to find out how the Exumas population is doing. Once removed, Dr. Macklin downloads the data from each tag to determine where the birds spend most of their time at sea, which can help identify the birds’ primary feeding sites and contribute to identifying priority areas to protect.

As Will reached into the rocky hole of the first nesting site, a loud, alarming sound similar to a distressed baby’s cry erupted from its interior. Will carefully brought out a surprisingly beautiful bird, with brilliant white feathers and black bands (“racing stripes”) across its wings and face. As we continued along the nesting sites, we found three new fuzzy and adorable chicks as well as many eggs. Towards the end of the excursion, I was able to hold one of the white-tailed tropicbirds as Will took measurements and removed a GLS tracker that had been attached to its leg band in 2008. The bird felt as beautiful as it looked. Its feathers were soft and smooth. I had researched the white-tailed tropicbird for a paper I wrote for the Shedd class, and to be able to hold and observe the animal I had learned so much about was an amazing experience. Stay tuned for stories from other participants about the rest of our explorations.

Dr. Will Mackin holds a chick and the herring it ate.
White-tailed tropicbird chick and the herring it eats. (Erin Binkley)
At Shedd Aquarium, animals connect you to the living world, inspiring you to make a difference.

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