In search of Parrotheads — the real kind

Josephine Matyas travels to Bahamas to see the Abaco Bahama parrot.

I am being watched. Through a mass of dark green leaves, there’s a hooked beak pointed in my direction. I squint, peer a little closer and correct that number — well-camouflaged by the greenery, there are a dozen or more sets of eyes looking back at me.

“Most people don’t stop to really look at their surroundings,” whispers Ricky Johnson, a guide on Abaco Island who seems to have committed the landscape and every inch of shoreline to memory. “I describe it as ‘eyes wide shut.’ So, I try to help them see the obvious in the ecosystem.”

Johnson is a human-homing device for the endangered Abaco Bahama parrot. Armed with an arsenal of knowledge, binoculars and an unflagging passion for the wildlife of the Bahamas, Johnson knows the exact gravel road to follow, which foliage to watch and exactly what time of day is the magic hour for spotting the elusive parrot.

The breadth and scope of his knowledge is intimidating.

“In the morning they’re flying around and foraging for nuts and seeds. They’re what are called colonial birds — that means they flock in groups of 60 to 70. They’re loud and fast in the mornings, so it’s much more difficult to get a close look at them.”

This would explain our rather leisurely start to the day. There was no rush to be out at the crack of dawn, but Johnson was pretty specific about a late morning start for the drive to the south part of the long, narrow island. At that time of day the parrots have fed and turned their attention to pairing up, sitting in the trees and grooming one another. It’s the perfect time for birders to gawk.

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus set foot in the New World, he was astonished by the sheer number of the parrots he saw on Abaco. “Flocks of parrots darken the sun,” he wrote in his journal.

The centuries have not been kind to the Abaco Bahama Parrot. The bird is only found on tiny Abaco Island and its numbers have dwindled to around 3,000. Hardly the dark skies that captured Columbus’ attention. But it’s a magnet for fanatical birders, chomping at the bit to tick the rare species off their lists.

The influx of people to the island — and the pine forests they tore down to build their homes — have almost decimated the birds’ natural habitat. And before they received protected status, the green, red and blue-feathered parrots were hunted and captured to live out their days in pet stores and cages.

Johnson turns down a long, bumpy roadway lined with coconut palms, gumbo limbo and mahogany trees. This is the parrots’ foraging territory, but after a morning of loud squawking and feeding, they’re now perched quietly in the trees. It’s almost as though they’ve been waiting for us to finally find them.

We grab binoculars and cameras and pad about through the stand of trees and low palms, trying not to spoil what could be a very fortuitous sighting.

I train my binoculars on the branches of a lush sapodilla tree. The eyes of the parrot looking back at me are black dots, startling against the white head and bright-red throat, but the dark green body feathers are lost — they’re a perfect match for the leaves.

“Long term conservation is what is needed,” Johnson says, in a soft-spoken voice. “The government has set aside land as a national park to help preserve the parrot population. We need to rebuild the numbers.”

The 20,000 acres of parkland at the south end of the island is completely undeveloped. To date, there is no infrastructure, no hiking paths and no signage. It’s completely parrot country. The needs — and desires — of the people are secondary.

“You need to know exactly where to go,” Johnson says. “And it’s a matter of learning to look with your eyes wide open, not your eyes wide shut.”

Activities: The best way to sight the beautiful birds is to hire a private guide. Ricky Johnson offers tours to bike, hike, kayak or go birding on Abaco Island. Birding tours are a half-day in length ($100 per person) or a full day ($150 per person).

For the original report go to–bahamas-parrots-abaco-eco-tourism

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