Nick
Nick Baker
Jul 13, 2017

The 30-minute plane ride from the Bahamian capital of Nassau to a small airstrip on Andros — the largest yet least developed of the 700-plus islands comprising the Commonwealth of the Bahamas —  felt like a roller coaster ride. Six undergraduate researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Omland Lab had barely exited the tiny aircraft when their work began.

The Omland Lab team with lab director Dr. Kevin Omland (right).
The Omland Lab team with lab director Dr. Kevin Omland (right).

Their work is a cooperative effort with Bahamas National Trust to coordinate research on Andros, and to understand the dynamics of the species living there. The Omland Lab is directed by Dr. Kevin Omland, a professor and researcher whose work spans disciplines including ornithology and evolutionary biology. His recent work pertains to the Bahama Oriole Project, a cooperative effort to “reverse the decline of the critically endangered Bahama Oriole through research and the development of a conservation strategy in collaboration with communities on Andros, Bahamas.”

Work in the field with goTennas in tow for better communication when observing the critically endangered Bahama Oriole.
Work in the field with goTennas in tow for better communication when observing the critically endangered Bahama Oriole.

The research team traveled to the Bahamas in May 2017 to conduct research that would help them better understand the state of the species. While the Bahama Oriole’s population is unknown, it was listed as critically endangered after being extirpated from the Bahamian island of Abaco — the species’ only other known habitat — in the 1990s.

The Bahama Oriole was also thought to nest in one type of tree, the coconut palm, found primarily near the island’s perimeter. Upon landing on Andros, however, the research team began to hear calls and spot orioles, and they began to form new questions that led them deeper inland.

“We found them in the pine forest, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes up 80 percent of this island,” researcher Daniel Stonko said. “Once we began to find them in this habitat, it opened up all kinds of scientific questions.”

To follow these questions, the team had to travel away from the beachy coastline and into the pine forest. Ironically, access to these wooded areas is possible by traveling on old dirt logging roads that were established decades earlier. According to Stonko, the area was once heavily logged, which had a significant impact on the environment.

Dr. Omland with members of his research lab in the Andros pine forest. Photo by Daniel Stonko
Dr. Omland with members of his research lab in the Andros pine forest. Photo by Daniel Stonko

The pine forests on Andros can be rather harsh, to the point that the island was a featured locale on Discovery’s Naked and Afraid in 2014. The Omland Lab team frequently found themselves hacking away at overgrowth on the logging roads with machetes, hoping to travel farther into the forest in search of new findings. Their communication was reliant upon the goTenna devices they brought along on the trip, providing point-to-point communication between the group members where there wouldn’t have been any.

The team is optimistic that the Oriole population estimates could be higher than recently thought, and, through future research, they hope to continue furthering the understanding of the dynamics of the species and the ecology of the island. Stonko described the team’s work as “exploration paired with conservation, outreach and community based science.” He also added that this particular line of work, with its challenges (including funding) and hard-to-answer questions, is not done solely in the name of science — it’s fun, too.

“For me,” Stonko said, “It’s the kind of stuff that you dream about as a kid — exploring in the wilderness, finding animals, and discovering new things.” With all of the resources at hand for Stonko and his team, the possibilities are limitless.