Birds Need Trees

Yellow crown night herons love to nest on offshore cays.

One of the first things I added to my adventure tour truck when I bought the small business in 2005 was a driftwood painting that read ‘Birds Need Trees’. It got a few comments, and months passed until a friend of mine, a native Eleutheran, stopped me in his settlement one day and asked what it meant.

“Just that birds need trees,” I said, “so maybe we should leave more trees up when clearing property.” “Some people is cut all,” he replied in classic Bahamian economy of speech. I nodded. “Yes, they do.”

Bahamians, and we’re not the only people that do, love to take a piece of land they want to build on and raze the vegetation completely. What remains is a stark white land that looks troubled and scarred. Is any thought given to the living greenery and what lived off of it? Not usually. But birds do need trees. I can tell you that; I did okay in biology, but I didn’t ace it.

The much-maligned poisonwood tree, which is targeted even by people who are leaving native coppice on their land, produces berries that are a favourite food for many birds, including our white-crown pigeons. It’s just one example of a long list in a relationship as symbiotic as humans and their houses.

When leaving your native coppice, apart from maintaining the ecosystem, think practically about the ready-grown shade and privacy for your property; some of your landscaping is done already. Native coppice; gum elemis, mahogany, pigeon plum, sea grape and yes, even Metopium toxiferum (poisonwood), always stand out in any yard in my humble opinion.

So what’s happening out there in those trees as our summer season warms up? Summer migrants have begun arriving, and our winter residents (the birds, I mean) have returned to places like the northern United States and Canada.

Return of the Kings

When I see my first grey kingbird of the season there’s always a moment when we look at each other and I get this vibe, like he’s saying, “You’re still here, huh? Winter in Venezuela was beautiful, hasta luego!”

It may just be me (no!), but I think they look at you differently when they’ve just landed in the Bahamas after migrating thousands of miles from South America. They look hungry and relieved, more cautious, making sure it really is still better in the Bahamas. Late years on my home island of Eleuthera have seen very healthy populations of grey kingbirds. Known as “Fighter” to some Bahamians, it’s one of the few birds our reigning northern mockingbird hesitates to confront. These birds bring their Latin feistiness to the Bahamas in summer. You’ll see them chasing each other, especially near key utility line nesting spots. I began seeing my first few kingbirds in the second week of April or so. This month the rest of the clan ought to show up.

Kingbirds nest (i.e. lay eggs) anywhere from a power line in the middle of town, to a remote mangrove creek, and in fact, prefer coastal areas when nesting. Tyrannus dominicensis, it’s a tyrant flycatcher, is adaptable and built like a little divebomber. You can spot them all hours of the day catching big bugs midair for a tasty snack.

The Antillean nighthawk is common throughout most Bahamian islands beginning in late spring to early summer. Photo credit:

Gimme My Bit

But how can your favourite summer bird not be the nighthawk? The Antillean nighthawk is common throughout most Bahamian islands beginning in late spring to early summer. It’s presumed to winter, like the kingbird, in South America. This nightjar launches from its ground-level nest before dusk to swoop on mosquitoes and insects. Thank you little nighthawk! Some birdwatchers call it the ‘Pyramidik’ after it’s chirpy, rhythmic call as it flaps aloft. My friend calls it the ‘Gimme-my-bit’ and says she knows the water’s warm enough to swim when she hears them for the first time of the year. Listen to it and make up your own name.

Sometimes they gather by the hundreds in a massive swoopfest. I drove by one such gathering a few years ago in a cleared field at the south end of Governor’s Harbour Airport in Central Eleuthera. Hundreds of nighthawks dove, recovered and dove again in the space of half a football field. When they swoop close it sounds like a small jet engine going by. These incredibly camouflaged birds nest right on rocky ground, and lay clutches of two eggs. You can stumble upon them, never spotting them before they startle, and begin their ‘wounded bird’ routine to distract you from their eggs. I was happy to hear and see my first nighthawks in the second week of May this year.

The Herons Are Nesting, The Herons Are Nesting!

Juveniles should be making their appearances by now for the yellow crown night heron and green heron species. These big, prehistoric-looking, beautifully-feathered birds love to nest on offshore cays. Also nesting here this summer (it sounds like a coming attraction at the movie theatre doesn’t it?) are our seabirds; the bridled tern and least tern are two of the more common of the 17 seabirds that nest in the Bahamas. San Salvador and Bimini are two popular destinations for these birds, but they spread throughout the archipelago. Terns can be seen over the coppice in the afternoon, diving on lizards and insects but lay their eggs in a scrape on the ground. Magnificent frigatebirds are another commonly spotted seabird in the summer months.

Some 20 percent of seabirds are endangered because of loss of habitat; unfortunately their preferred waterfront nesting areas are also popular with a large, smart mammal – us! So while winter has more species and lots of pretty, little songbirds, our summer birds are here on the business end of their migratory route, and depend on finding a safe haven and the right habitat to raise the next generation.

Remember birds need trees, and so do we.

Tom Glucksmann, originally from New Providence, has been running eco-adventure tours in Eleuthera for the last seven years with his company Bahamas Out Island Adventures. Email him at