Well Bay near Han's Creek


Wetland Watching:
Knowing Nature, Bird by Bird

Story by Susan Zaluski


From Jost Van Dyke to Anegada, our visitors (leaving colder climates behind) can be seen frequenting the Territory's many "watering holes", enjoying fresh Virgin Islands' seafood or just mixing easily with local residents. While some tourists travel in comfort to the BVI these guests brave harsh weather and seas, embarking on one of the most epic of world journeys: the Great Migration. Just like tourist season, the peak season for our migratory bird visitors occurs during the months when it is colder in North America. Our avian friends migrate south during autumn months, lingering throughout the Caribbean and South America during the winter and returning on a northward journey in the spring. This means that the presence of different species is constantly changing through out the year, making the BVI a great place for bird-watching several months out of the year. Bird-watching is a wonderful pastime that offers an easy way to connect with nature and enjoy some of the BVI's unique habitats. There are over 200 recorded bird species for the BVI, including both resident and migratory species. Whether you decide to casually observe birds during your morning coffee, or if you are a seasoned birder who prefers to tramp deep into the bush for the perfect shot of a new species for your life list – BVI birding offers something for everyone, all ages and ability levels.

Flamingos in Anegada. Photo by Walker Magnum

Flamingos in Anegada. Photo by Walker Magnum

One of the best locales for bird-watching in the BVI is our territory's wetland areas. Often overlooked by visitors in favor of sandy beaches and coral reefs, the BVI's salt ponds are wildlife "hotspots" that are also vitally important to our marine environment. Salt ponds and adjacent mangrove systems provided habitat for juvenile fish, tiny crustaceans, aquatic plants and insects offering an extravagant all-you-can-eat buffet for our resident and visiting avian friends. Wetlands are home to salt-tolerant plants, which along with other fringing vegetation provides refuge for perching and other landbird species So, while common resident and migratory species found in wetland areas include waterfowl, stilts, herons, sandpipers and plovers, visitors should also check surrounding plant life for warblers, hummingbirds, flycatchers, doves, pigeons and others.

Flamingos in Anegada. Photo by Walker Magnum

Young bird watchers at the Cape Wright salt pond on Jost Van Dyke. Photo by Susan Zaluski

Each pond in the BVI is slightly unique from the next, and depending on the time of day and year of your visit, the species you encounter will vary constantly. (Regional and international circumstances may also cause species to differ from year to year). Flamingos were re-introduced to Anegada, Guana and Necker Islands' ponds in the recent past, but can also be spotted on occasion in other BVI wetland areas, such as the ponds at Beef Island and Prickly Pear. Other species also use salt ponds, such as Magnificent Frigatebirds, a seabird, typically spotted high in the sky—which can sometimes be seen drinking "on the wing" in ponds such as White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Jost Van Dyke's Cape Wright's Pond has also been a noteworthy site for the regionally rare Ruddy Duck, while a significant number of rare, endemic Caribbean Coots have also been regularly reported at Josiah's Bay Pond in Tortola in recent years. You never know what you'll encounter, which means that repeated visits are well worth your time, remembering that early mornings and late afternoons are the best time for wildlife watching. Repeat visits increase the likelihood that you may catch a glance of the occasional rare migrant or that you may witness interesting behaviour from common species such as courting, fishing or nest defense.


Monitoring Birds

While bird-watching is a fun way to connect with nature, sightings can also offer up important information about the health of our environment and coastal habitats. Birds' presence, numbers, nesting and migration patterns provide clues to help answer questions about larger regional or even global environmental issuestelling us about habitat loss, pollution, and global climate change. 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? Is a certain species declining or did it simply detour to another island?(Unlike passengers arriving by plane or yacht, birds are not required to check in with Customs and Immigration authorities.) Are global migration patterns changing?

A Magnificent Frigatebird takes a drink at The White Bay, Jost Van Dyke salt pond. Photo by Susan Zaluski

A Magnificent Frigatebird takes a drink at The White Bay, Jost Van Dyke salt pond. Photo by Susan Zaluski

The "clues" of a sighting alone are interesting, but 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), a region-wide non-governmental organization focused on bird conservation. The CWC seeks to bring together scientists, government agencies, environmental groups and skilled volunteer birders to answer the questions of "who, what, when and where" on the status of the Caribbean's waterbirds (birds dependent on our aquatic environment). In 2009, scientists and conservation managers hatched a plan at a regional SCSCB meeting to work together to monitor wetland bird species, coordinating surveys in Caribbean wetlands. This group recognized that developing a plan that coordinated between islands using standardized monitoring techniques could be helpful in building overall understanding of waterbird species, while increasing awareness and support of conservation issues related to these birds and their habitats. Survey methods were designed with expert ornithologists and wildlife biologists with aims towards accuracy and minimizing error and bias. Since 2009, the SCSCB has hosted two major training workshops 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.

In 2010 and 2011, staff from the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society (JVDPS) and BVI's Department of Conservation & Fisheries (CFD) each attended one of the workshops. In 2011, JVDPS began implementing an island-wide wetland census for Jost Van Dyke's seven salt ponds, carried out three times each year (fall, winter & spring), while staff from CFD regularly monitors some of Tortola's salt ponds, such as the Beef Island ponds (which are among the Territory's most important for bird life).

A Great Blue Heron sits on a dock. Photo by Susan Zaluski

A Great Blue Heron sits on a dock. Photo by Susan Zaluski

In 2012, personnel from BVI Department of Conservation & Fisheries, the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands and the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society also worked together to synchronize counts in wetlands for the Territory for the Regional CWC. Anegada's Western Ponds also have special designation as a RAMSAR site, which means the pond is internationally recognised as a globally-important wetland. BVI National Parks staff conducts surveys of this wetland on a regular basis, and the island is well-known as a hot-spot for some of the territory's rare bird sightings.


The Christmas Bird Count: Get involved in Counting Birds

While participation in formal wetland bird monitoring requires training and is coordinated by environmental agencies, there are also opportunities to get involved with birding in a way that can make a difference. For several decades, the National Parks Trust has led an annual Territory-wide "Christmas Bird Count", which is organized internationally by the Audubon Society. The Christmas Count is one of the largest citizen science activities in the world with hundreds of volunteers now participating in several countries. While these counts aren't as accurate as a human census, they help provide important clues about bird populations. The Christmas Bird Count is an excellent opportunity to get involved in the world of bird-watching – both in wetland areas and other key BVI bird habitats. The Christmas count is scheduled for December 28th for Tortola and December 18th for Anegada.


For More Information

For more information about the Christmas Bird Count, contact Nancy Pascoe at the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands 852-3650 or planning@bvinpt.org. To learn more about birding in the BVI generally, please join the "BVI Birding" Facebook Page / Birding enthusiasts are encouraged to help contribute to regional knowledge by sharing their own observations through the online database at http://ebird.org or seeing how they might become involved in bird surveys. More information about the Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) can be found online at www.scscb.org or contact the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society (susanjvdps@gmail.com or 540-0861) to learn about their Census or Dept. of Conservation and Fisheries to learn about their monitoring efforts at 494 5681.