Parrots of the Caribbean
If you have heard of Bonaire at all, you may think of it as a haven for scuba divers or, maybe, loggerhead turtles. But this tiny island might also offer the best chance of survival for the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot.
Dangling from the limestone cliff, Rowan Martin reaches into a hole in the sharp rock and retrieves a squawking bundle of green feathers. He slips it into a bag clipped around his waist and ascends his rope to a ledge, where research partner Sam Williams waits.
Science happens at dawn in the tropics. Beyond the cliff is a preposterously beautiful view. A plain of tall datu cacti gives way to crashing waves glowing with the first light from the east. But Martin and Williams, doctoral students from the University of Sheffield in England, are focused on their task: a variation on a checkup at the pediatrician's office. The bundle is quiet as it is weighed inside a cloth sack suspended from a gram scale. As Martin records the number, Williams gently removes the young bird.
Peering at us with inquisitive gold eyes, the bird opens its sharp hooked beak. With surprising patience it allows Williams to run his thumb over the pale blue feathers on its forehead and blow aside neatly scalloping rows of green plumes highlighted by yellow patches on the shoulders and head, checking for mites. Rather than measuring the chick's full height, it's the length from shoulder to wingtip these researchers are after. Watching for signs of stress around the bird's eyes, Williams fans the wing. The arc of feathers is vivid red, blue, and black.
Audubon photography editor Kim Hubbard and I have arrived on Bonaire, an island in the Netherlands Antilles roughly 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, during a crucial time for the island's vulnerable yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots--the chicks are fledging. The IUCN's Red List estimates the species as vulnerable and declining. The total number of these birds remaining in the world could be as low as 2,500, according to BirdLife International, the bird authority for the IUCN's Red List. What seems certain within this species' cramped range--northern coastal Venezuela to the islands of Margarita, La Blanquilla, and Bonaire--is that the roughly 650 parrots on Bonaire are potentially the most protectable population. Martin puts the situation in context. "In a population this small, the survival of every individual counts." He adds, "In other places the problem is desperate. On Bonaire the problems seem solvable."
The researchers are documenting key details of population dynamics for this long-lived, slow-breeding bird and are trying to make sure the basic science exists to create a conservation plan. Both men are athletic; the work demands it. Martin is lithe and pale blond, his face almost elfin. Williams is charismatic, always laughing, always moving--much like the parrots he has worked with since keeping birds as a boy. As with all science, their work builds on prior parrot research from around the globe, but they also make a particular effort to be sure they understand earlier conservation lessons learned on this little island.
Bonaire is arguably the best preserved of the roughly 30 principal Caribbean islands. It is known for some of the finest scuba diving in the hemisphere. With just 15,000 residents and roughly 75,000 overnight tourists annually (compared with 500,000 visitors to nearby Aruba), the island has a quiet, undeveloped feel. In 2010 Bonaire will become a sunny slice of Holland, its residents having voted to rejoin the island's former colonial ruler as a special municipality. The change may give longstanding conservation projects a significant boost, including a push to generate all of Bonaire's power needs on-island through wind and biodiesel.
While there are significant challenges to making a 24-mile-long sliver of desert in the Caribbean Sea fully sustainable, Bonaire has great potential as an ecotourism destination. Though the island is small, it offers tremendous natural variety: Mangroves abut cacti, and flamingo-filled salt flats lie within sight of some of the region's most pristine coral reefs.
Large areas of the island and the surrounding waters are protected, which has allowed Bonaire's sea turtle conservation program to become a model for other small islands. Though Bonaire has yet to be discovered for its birding, 214 species have been recorded here. Visitors can hunker down beside a watering hole to watch a parade of species from North and South America and the Caribbean. Or, if they're intrepid, they can snorkel the mangroves and observe both marine and avian life up close.
Rising in the dark to the sound of the surf quickly becomes a ritual. As we head out to the research site this morning, there are no other vehicles on the road. Nightjars and iguanas abandon the pavement ahead of our truck. Cool air blows through the open windows. Williams disconcertingly assures us that the truck runs fine, most of the time, before mentioning that the undercarriage has an "intriguing" rattle. For three years Williams and Martin have been working themselves and their vehicle hard. We pass quickly through Bonaire's two towns. Then, amid a landscape of barely visible desert scrublands, the pavement runs out and the intriguing rattle begins.