Where have all the Bahamian flamingos gone?
NASSAU (Reuters) - The southern Bahamian island of Great Inagua is known for two things -- its old salt plant and a 60,000-strong flamingo flock.
Now some Bahamians wonder if they might end up losing both after Hurricane Ike ripped across the island last week causing millions of dollars in damage.
Most of the flamingos, which attract bird-watchers from all over the world, took off before Ike arrived and have not been seen since, according to officials in charge of the islands' national parks.
Left behind were 30 dead birds, thought to have been entangled in trees as they tried to flee, and a few hundred live ones that might have taken shelter in the mangroves.
Glenn Bannister, president of the Bahamas National Trust, said all of the island's birds -- including Bahama parrots and White Crown pigeons -- vanished before the storm hit.
The parrots returned after the storm, desperately seeking food among the storm-blasted trees and plant life. But for now, most of the flamingos have not come back and Bannister has no idea where they've gone.
"Some of the flamingos are now reappearing, but it could be one or two years before they get back to their regular nesting pattern," said Lynn Gape, also of the National Trust. She said wardens had only reported sightings of "several hundred" compared to the thousands there before.
"There's no doubt many left, but it's possible others sought protection in the mangroves," said Gape, adding that flamingos are sensitive to barometric pressure and they fly off or take cover when a major storm approaches.
With leaves and berries blown away by the wind, life is likely to be hard for Great Inagua's bird population until buds begin to appear, said Bannister.
"In a few months, this place is going to look like spring," he said. "But the birds are in trouble for the time being."
Meanwhile, bird watchers in the southern U.S. states have reported unprecedented flamingo sightings, like the one spotted in the beach town of Destin in the Florida Panhandle.
"His feathers are beat up and he looks like he has been through a hurricane," said Donald Ware, bird count coordinator of the Choctawhatchee Audubon in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Wild flamingos are occasionally sighted in Florida's southern tip but that was the group's first recorded sighting in Okaloosa County in the northern part of the state.
There have also been flamingo sightings in Mississippi in late August, after Tropical Storm Fay swept through parts of the Caribbean and Florida, and in early September.
"This is the first documented record for flamingos for Mississippi. They are subtropical birds and just don't fly this way," said Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. "It has certainly gotten people's attention."
But Bannister did not think those birds were from the Bahamas. "Whenever they seek a safe haven they fly south to Bonaire, Venezuela or Cuba," he said.
Bannister is hoping the flamingos will return when the breeding season begins in January.
Meanwhile, islanders are pondering another possible loss.
Owners of Morton Salt, which employs 60 percent of the workforce on Inagua and is the only industry on the island of 1,000 people, have cast doubt on the salt plant's future.
The company said it "cannot say with 100 percent certainty" that the badly damaged plant will continue operating.
(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; editing by Jane Sutton)