22nd Annual Christmas Bird Count in Honour of the Late Erika Gates
By Gail Woon
Feb 1, 2022 - 8:05:23 PM

Erika Gates, our Mentor and Founder of Grand Bahama Island Birders

In December 2021 and January 2022, the Grand Bahama Island Birders (GBIB) group conducted its 22nd annual Christmas Bird Count. This was the first time that GBIB had to accomplish this feat without our fearless leader and beloved mentor, Erika Gates. Erika passed recently after several months of battling cancer. The membership of GBIB is still reeling from our loss. We extend our sincere condolences to her devoted husband, Ed Gates and her family and the many who benefited from her mentorship and loving spirit.

Roseate Spoonbill Photo by Bruce Purdy

As a result of teaching a basic birding class in partnership with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Erika accumulated an extensive mailing list of over 200 emails and a regular group of persons who would participate in birding trips and special counts on the island.  This became the driving force for the creation of an official group of birdwatchers in October 2017 – Grand Bahama Island Birders. Erika presided and became our first president and held this post until her passing. Present at that initial meeting were: Christopher Baker, Martha Cartwright (secretary), Poppy Chitwood, Bridget Davis (Monthly birding trips), Marilyn Laing (International Migratory Bird Month), Delores Kellman (Habitat Maintenance), Erika Gates ( Christmas Bird Count), Joshua Davis, Alexis Duncombe, Louise Durocher, Eugena Granger, Charmaine Hall ( International Migratory Bird Day) and Shelagh Paton-Ash (Treasurer).

Freeport Team 2 L-R Steve Oxley, Heather Oxley and Gail Woon

Erika brought birding tourism (Avi-tourism) to Grand Bahama Island and other islands of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. Erika and Ed would attend a Tourism Conference in London and promote Birding Tourism to The Bahamas. Erika trained many individuals to be birding guides in Inagua, Andros and Grand Bahama. Erika was the founding member of the Sustainable Tourism Committee of the Ministry of Tourism which was formed in the late 1980’s. She campaigned for and got biking paths throughout Grand Bahama Island. Along with her devoted husband, Ed Gates, they established Grand Bahama Nature Tours company which is the leader in Activity Tourism on Grand Bahama. Grand Bahama Nature Tours offers a plethora of activities for tourists and residents alike including but not limited to kayak, bicycle, jeep, ATV and Garden of the Groves tours providing many jobs for persons without hurting the environment we value. Erika worked tirelessly for many years to make people aware, to restore and protect the many habitats on Grand Bahama Island. Her passion for birds was infectious and inspired us all to take action and get involved in conservation.

Ring-billed Gull Photo by Gail Woon

Erika took on the huge task of renovating the then closed botanical garden, the Garden of the Groves and made it into a thriving destination for everyone. She ran courses on birdwatching and hosted annual celebrations for BirdsCaribbean’s Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival and World Migratory Bird Day events at the Garden of the Groves. She also helped to develop the Caribbean Birding Trail project of BirdsCaribbean. BirdsCaribbean said in a statement, “Erika was a truly beloved member of our BirdsCaribbean community. Beautiful, intelligent, caring, loving, funny, generous, revered, compassionate, highly respected, full of productive energy – these are a few words that friends and colleagues are using to describe Erika. We will sorely miss Erika’s presence at our conferences, workshops and field trips”. She took her love of birds into the schools of Grand Bahama and encouraged her community to go on birding field trips and to plant native trees and gardens. Erika is an icon in The Bahamas. She was also a very active Board member in the Humane Society of Grand Bahama. Her legacy will continue with the GBIB and various other great works that she initiated.

Green Heron Photo by Steve Oxley

This year’s Christmas Bird Count, organized by Delores Kellman and Bridget Davis, was conducted adhering to all of the Covid 19 protocols. Thus the usual Rally Tally meal celebration (with all participants) that we end the Christmas Bird Count with was cancelled. Instead, Team Leaders and Recorders met to validate the results of all of the various teams’ work in a safe environment.

The first “Christmas Bird Count” was held over 100 years ago – 122 years to be exact - in the United States. Up until then it had been a tradition for persons that enjoyed the outdoors to engage in the “Christmas Bird Hunt”. People would go into the fields and forests in teams and shoot any bird that they came across. At the end of the day, the team that brought in the biggest pile of dead birds, was the winner! Many people became concerned about the indiscriminate slaughter of these beautiful feathered creatures and also worried about declines in bird populations. Ornithologist, Frank Chapman, an officer in the growing Audubon Society, an environmental movement, called for an end to this barbaric tradition. He suggested that, rather than shooting birds, they should be counted instead. So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank Chapman and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, in the year 1900 twenty-five bird counts were held throughout the United States.

Yellow-throated Warbler Photo by Gail Woon

Now the annual count is conducted in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and the Bahamas by over 50.000 birding enthusiasts. The primary objective is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the Western Hemisphere. When the results are entered into a database, we begin to gain a clearer picture of how bird populations have changed over the years. This information is also vital for conservation. Declines in bird populations can signal immediate environmental threats, such as groundwater contamination from extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Little Blue Heron Photo by Steve Oxley

From December 17th to 20th, 2021, Charmaine Francis, a GBIB member who now resides in Bimini, hosted the very first Bimini Christmas Bird Count with the team members: Arlene Kerber, Judith Dawkins, Rudy Sawyer, Martha Cartwright, Delores Kellman, Andrew Moxey and Deana Williamson. 51 species were seen and 472 birds were counted. The team visited the Rupert Roberts Nature Trail on South Bimini that Erika helped to create with all the signage. Their adventure included a stop at the Fountain of Youth which had everyone seeking to renew those years lost.

On December 30th 2021, the first ever East Grand Bahama Christmas Bird Count was held with 2 teams led by Rudy Sawyer, recorder, Jill Cooper and Delores Kellman, recorder Martha Cartwright. In East Grand Bahama 47 species were seen and 358 total birds were counted. The teams were able to meet at Bishop’s in High Rock afterward to fellowship and enjoy the great food and libations outdoors. Later in the evening the Tally Rally (leaders and recorders only) was held at the home of Martha Cartwright.

East Grand Bahama Christmas Bird Count Teams at Bishop’s in High Rock, Grand Bahama Island L-R Back row Louise Durocher, Joe Darville, Katybel Taylor, Melanie Darville, Jill Cooper, Margrette Curry, Sylvie Carey, Bridget Davis, Candice Woon, Gail Woon. Front row Martha Cartwright, Hida Kempski, Delores Kellman, Rudy Sawyer, Judith Dawkins (not pictured photographer, Marilyn Laing)

The teams were joined by Veteran Birder, Bruce Purdy as the Christmas Bird Count continued from January 6th to 8th covering West End and Central Grand Bahama. Bruce Purdy is the designated Count Compiler by the Audubon Society. Bruce traveled from Florida again this year to tally the results at the end of the Christmas Bird Count. In addition to leading a team for Freeport and West End, Bruce will also submit the results of the count to Audubon. Having lived on Grand Bahama from 2006 to 2010, he is very familiar with the best birding sites and an expert birder as well. Purdy has been participating in the Grand Bahama Christmas Bird Count since 2004 and has been in charge of submitting to Audubon since 2006 – taking over from Tony White. Bruce has birded almost all parts of Grand Bahama Island and is also an accomplished bird photographer. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Photo by Bruce Purdy

On Jan. 6 the Christmas Bird Count continued at the Reef Golf Course, a popular birding location. Then on Jan. 7, three teams tackled the area from Holmes Rock Wetlands to West End, Grand Bahama. West End yielded 69 species and 1,096 birds counted. The West End teams braved a furious thunderstorm during their Count which halted the activity for a short period. The Christmas Bird Count continued on the final day Saturday, January 8th wherein five teams covered the area from Hepburn Town Lovers’ Beach to Barbary Beach and all of the interior areas in between including Freeport. The Freeport Count resulted in 79 species plus Muscovy Ducks and 1,644 birds counted.

Our 22nd annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count yielded a species total of 96 plus Muscovy ducks and 2,740 total birds counted.

Freeport Team 5 L-R Rudy Sawyer, Deana Williamson, Jinell Sturridge, Margrette Curry, Judith Dawkins

The Grand Bahama Island Birders dedicate this year’s Christmas Bird Count to our Mentor, Erika Gates. Louise Durocher, GBIB member, said “Erika has been our guiding light in all our birding activities for many years. Let us continue to honour her memory by initiating more persons to birding and conservation.”  

Delores Kellman added, “Our appreciation for birdwatching, nature – caring for our planet, was developed and encouraged by Erika, our birding guru, mentor and friend. Her spirit will continue with us.”

Grand Bahama Island Birders (GBIB) was created by the Late Erika Gates, mentor and veteran birder along with other members. This column is continued in her memory. Interested in birding in Grand Bahama? Join GBIB by emailing

Bruce Purdy, Audubon Society Count Compiler

Bimini Christmas Bird Count TeamL-R Rudy Sawyer, Arlene Kerber, Judith Dawkins, Deana Williamson, Martha Cartwright, Delores Kellman and Charmaine Francis.

Delores Kellman & Bridget Davis - CBC 2021 Organizers

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