In Catonsville, research to protect endangered island Orioles

A Catonsville research lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is using its resources and sense of curiosity to try to uncover details about a critically endangered Oriole just a three-hour flight away.

The species in question is the Bahama Oriole, a bird related to the Baltimore Oriole.

Past research indicates there are only an estimated 150 to 300 Bahama Orioles remaining, according to UMBC biological sciences professor Kevin Omland.

Omland's lab is working to refine that number and learn more about the bird, which is found only on the island of Andros in The Bahamas, and is in the same genus – or close-related group of species – as the Baltimore Oriole.

"We only live on one planet," said Omland, who has studied the genus for 20 years. "We need to understand organisms and ecosystems better than we do."

Omland started the Bahama Oriole Project in October 2015. In May, he and a team of four UMBC undergraduates collected data for the first time.

The trip, a collaboration between UMBC and the Bahamas National Trust, is a way to start figuring out how to ensure the species' survival.

The research is important to find out why the species is declining and how it can ultimately be conserved, according to Ellen Paul, executive director of The Ornithological Council, a group that links the scientific community with public and private decision makers.

"If you care about what makes a place what it is, there are things you want to preserve including its animals, and the Bahama Oriole is part of that," she said. "It's part of what makes the Bahamas the Bahamas."

The team — Omland, UMBC seniors Alex Scarselletta and Daniel Stonko and juniors Michael Rowley and Jennifer Christhilf — spent two weeks in Andros, an island about twice the size of Long Island, N.Y., and 150 miles southeast of Miami. They conducted their pilot study to learn more about the bird and its population.

The species was originally described as a distinct species, but in 1960, it was grouped with other Caribbean Orioles by ornithologist James Bond in his book, "Birds of the West Indies." In 2011, it was re-recognized as a distinct species by the American Ornithologists' Union.

Omland said the bird, which he says may have been there for at least hundreds of thousands of years, is integral to the ecosystem there. The adult male and female have the same color pattern, a stark yellow chest and black on its side and back.

"That's an ecosystem without many parts," he said. "Pull a few parts of that ecosystem out, it could be problematic."

On the recent trip, the team discovered Bahama Orioles nesting deep within pine forests for the first time, nesting in palm trees.

This went against previous research and their initial hypothesis, in that they would only find the bird in developments and around houses.

"Everything we thought we knew about this species really was turned over in a two week field trip," Omland said. "A lot of the key discoveries were made by the undergraduates deep in the pine forests all by themselves, 20 miles away from me."

There are plenty of explanations that can justify this finding, Stonko said, but there is a chance that the finding means there may be a larger population of the bird than initially thought.

The group plans to continue studying the area, particularly during non-breeding months, to see whether that's the case, or if the population simply shifts. Data from non-breeding months has not been collected, Rowley said.

It's too early to publish data, the students said, given the May trip was a pilot study. But it gives them a way to refocus as they plan to expand their efforts.

Students hope to return to Andros as soon as January to conduct more research, if they are able to secure grant funding. The May trip was funded in part by $750 grants each student earned from The Explorers Club, along with a $12,500 grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund that has helped the program cover several trips and equipment.

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