Wildlife Watch: Researching the rare Bicknell's thrush

Published: Feb. 27, 2018 at 1:10 PM EST
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A biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies recently returned from a trip to Cuba where he is studying a rare bird that lives on both the island and in Vermont. Our Adam Sullivan spoke with him about his research in this Wildlife Watch.

Adam Sullivan: Chris Rimmer with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, thank you for joining us. Today we are talking Vermont birds in Cuba.

Chris Rimmer: Yeah, I just got back from an exciting expedition to the high mountains of eastern Cuba looking for a rare and very vulnerable songbird, Bicknell's thrush, which breeds in Vermont and the rest of the Northeast in the high mountains. Most people have never seen one. They are pretty inconspicuous and secretive but the winter, the species winter on only four islands in the entire Caribbean. Its global population is on these four islands and Cuba is one of them.

Adam Sullivan: And you have been studying this bird for a while?

Chris Rimmer: Twenty-five years, yeah, 26 years. And it has been a very rich subject for us. It is a fascinating bird. It's got some real conservation issues. It is a very high priority species for conservationists in eastern North America because it is rare because it is vulnerable and it is sort of an indicator of the mountaintop habitats which it uses, which are very susceptible to climate change and other forms of threat. It is an indicator of the health of the habitat it uses. The high-elevation forest here in the Northeast, which are a very iconic part of our landscape. And because this bird is so specialized on these forest types, its health really does indicate, to some extent the health of the forest.

Adam Sullivan: And there are potential dangers because of climate change?

Chris Rimmer: Yes, and other factors. There are only about 100,000 birds of the planet. That is very rare for any species of organism. And yeah, the mountains here are threatened by climate change, by recreational development for ski areas, by wind development potentially; and down there, there has been a great deal of habitat loss. There are 26 species of birds that occur nowhere else on the planet, so the Bicknell's thrush is sort of a flagship, an indicator of the health of those forests, as well, and the birds that occupy them with the Bicknell's thrush during the winter.

Adam Sullivan: So you are back from Cuba. What did you find out when you were down there?

Chris Rimmer: It was a remarkable trip, very grueling. We were backpacking up into the highest mountains. We were in these majestic, really magical cloud forests at high elevation. That is where the birds are. We only found seven. We had hoped to find more than that and, frankly, I expected that we might. We did find some. We know that they are there. They are at low density. So now we need to survey other parts of the island. Perhaps the bird is not common there.

Adam Sullivan: And what are you hoping to do with the research now that you are back?

Chris Rimmer: We are going to summarize it. Our partners in Cuba and I should say that our efforts on the wintering grounds are very focused on working with local partners. All of our work down there involves capacity building and training because like I said, it's the local partners who really need to carry on this work long term. And they are eager to. And down there, there has been a great deal of habitat loss-- less on Cuba than some of the other islands, but a tremendous amount of forest loss. So we are quite certain that has had impacts on Bicknell's thrush. So understanding on both ends of the range, north and south, what is going on, will allow us to develop a meaningful conservation action plan to hopefully keep the species from declining and certainly from extinction, that is the goal.

Adam Sullivan: Chris, thank you very much for your time.

Chris Rimmer: My pleasure.

Funding for the trip came from the Canadian Wildlife Service.