Wild, Wonderful Waterbirds
Like many other Caribbean destination, the Virgin Islands hosts special company each winter. From Jost Van Dyke to Anegada, our visitors, who have left colder climates behind, can be seen frequenting the territory’s watering holes, lounging in the sun, enjoying fresh Virgin Islands’ fish and seafood and mixing easily with local residents. While some tourists travel in comfort to the Virgin Islands, these feathered guests brave harsh weather and seas, embarking on one of the most epic of world journeys: the great migration. Much like our typical tourists, the peak season for our migratory bird visitors begins within a few weeks of the New Year holiday.
Black-necked stilts flock to a Jost Van Dyke salt pond. Photos courtesy of Susan Zaluski.
The Virgin Islands are a great place for bird-watching, a wonderful pastime that offers an easy way to connect with nature and enjoy some of the VI’s special coastal habitats, including our wetland areas. Mangroves and salt ponds are important to our marine health but are often overlooked by visitors in favor of sandy beaches and coral reefs. Home to juvenile fish, tiny crustaceans, aquatic plants and insects, our wetlands offer an extravagant all-you-can-eat buffet for our residents and visiting avian friends, including shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl and perching birds.
While bird-watching can be a great leisure activity, sightings can also offer up important information about the health of our fisheries and coastal habitats. Birds’ presence, numbers, nesting and migration patterns hold potential answers to questions about habitat loss, pollution, global climate change and other environmental issues.
Whenever we sight a bird, it is like a piece of a puzzle, whether that puzzle is personal, regional or international in scope. Has an amateur bird-watcher just spotted a species he has never seen? Have a few of the flamingos from Anegada’s re-introduced flock taken a brief hiatus to one of the neighboring US Virgin Islands? Is a rare species declining or did it simply detour to another island? Are global migration patterns changing?
Students survey a JVD salt pond.
Alone, the clues of a sighting are somewhat meaningless. In order to understand what is happening to birds in the region, partners must work together. And this is exactly what is happening through the Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC), a coordinated regional movement spearheaded by the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) which seeks to bring together scientists, government agencies, environmental groups and volunteers to answer the questions of who, what, when, where and why on the status of our region’s waterbirds, or birds dependent on our aquatic environment.
In 2009, a plan was born at a regional gathering for Caribbean ornithologists and conservationists when it was realized that developing a plan to coordinate and standardize the monitoring of waterbirds could be helpful in building overall understanding of these birds while increasing awareness and support of conservation issues related to waterbirds and their habitats. Survey methods were designed with expert ornithologists and wildlife biologists with aims toward accuracy and minimizing error and bias. In the two plus years since the hatching of that plan, two major training workshops have been held in the Caribbean for participating volunteers, NGOs and government agencies to cover more than 20 Caribbean islands. The workshops provided participants with assistance in waterbird identification, design and implementation of surveys, count training tools, data entry and analysis, and even equipment and materials to establish monitoring activities in their home islands, with the BVI’s Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society and BVI’s Conservation and Fisheries staff members participating in each of the workshops.
A yellow-crowned night heron perch near a salt pond.
In January 2011, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society developed a waterbird census plan to cover the salt ponds on Jost Van Dyke. In 2012, staff and volunteers from JVDPS, BVI Conservation and Fisheries Department, and BVI National Parks Trust were up at dusk, coordinating counts on several ponds on Tortola and one on Jost Van Dyke. It is hoped that data collected will help provide more information about the region’s birds and even improved knowledge of rare species.
More information can be found online at www.ebird.org, where collected data will be stored. Birding enthusiasts are encouraged to help contribute to regional knowledge by sharing their own observations through the online database or seeing how they might become involved in bird surveys.