Caribbean birds: on a wing and a prayer

Bird life in the Caribbean seems to be flourishing, but some species are threatened. James Fuller goes birdwatching in search of them

Bahamas National Trust Warden Randolph ‘Casper’ Burrows marks the boundary of Harrold and Wilson Ponds National Park. Photograph courtesy Birdlife InternationalBirdlife’s David Wege with Laura Perdomo and Yvonne Arias of Grupo Jaragua, at work in the wetlands of the Dominican Republic. Photograph courtesy Birdlife InternationalIs the Dominican Republic`s Ridgway`s hawk destined for extinction? Photograph courtesy Birdlife International/Eladio FernandezJamaica`s Cockpit Country is home to globally-important biodiversity but could be devastated by bauxite mining. Photograph courtesy Birdlife International/Susan KoenigOnly 150 Grenada doves are believed to survive. Photograph courtesy Birdlife International/Greg HomelThe West Indian Whistling Duck, a recent conservation success story. Photograph courtesy of Kristan D. Godbeer, Cayman Islands Department of EnvironmentThreatened by volcanic eruptions, the Montserrat oriole. Photograph courtesy Birdlife International/James MorganTwo youngsters enjoy learning to identify birds at East End Salt Pond, Anguilla, during a SCSCB wetlands education workshop. Photograph courtesy Birdlife International/Lisa Sorenson

The Caribbean is renowned for its stunning birdlife, and many people visit the region either on specialist birdwatching tours or simply enjoy the beautiful avifauna whilst on vacation.

But whether you’re a confirmed “twitcher” or just have an interest in nature, you might not fully appreciate the fragility of what you are observing.

Pressures on regional birdlife, including increased hurricane activity, habitat loss and predation by introduced species, are mounting. The Caribbean already has 12 critically endangered species, ten of which are found nowhere else in the world. Given that 90 per cent of all extinctions have historically occurred on islands, it’s easy to see why the region is so vulnerable.

A groundbreaking new publication, Important Bird Areas in the Caribbean, seeks to spotlight the region’s most important habitats and imperilled species in an effort to secure their future. And the public, both local and visiting, is being asked to get involved in the fight.

The book is published by the world’s largest bird conservation group, BirdLife International, and David Wege, the organisation’s senior Caribbean programme manager and the publication’s co-editor, explains its importance.

“It’s the first book that focuses attention on the Caribbean’s ‘Important Bird Areas’, or IBAs, in a standardised, digestible way, and it’s very important because of that.

“We want to engage the decision-makers, conservationists, corporations, developers, governments, NGOs, in fact anyone [who] might have an influence in protecting these critical sites, and we’re trying to get the book out as widely as possible to achieve this.”

The timing is vital, as Wege says without focused and rapid conservation intervention, many islands will experience a new wave of extinction crises in the coming years.

BirdLife International is a global partnership of national conservation organisations with an overall strategy based on four inter-related themes: saving species; protecting sites; conserving habitats; and empowering people.

BirdLife’s Caribbean Programme has focused on protecting sites as the preferred method for saving the region’s threatened bird species, and a broad range of other biodiverse wildlife.

“We’re trying to put the emphasis on saving birds in situ,” says Wege. “It is much more efficient, as the time and expense of keeping birds in captivity, attempting breeding programmes, rehabilitating habitats and then re-introducing species is just colossal.”

The IBA programme was started in 2001 as a way of identifying habitat areas critical to conserving birds. Two of the Caribbean’s most important IBAs are Jamaica’s Cockpit Country and the Pic Macaya National Park in Haiti.

Nowhere is the concept and importance of an IBA clearer than in the Cockpit Country. This huge limestone karst region, sculpted by a combination of erosion and chemical dissolution, is essentially an island-within-an-island, and home to specially-adapted biodiversity found nowhere else in the world.

“The landscape is like an upturned egg-box,” explains Wege, “And agriculture has taken place in the dips between the mountains, the ‘cockpits’, where soil is present. A lot of this has been abandoned, though, and we’re engaged in reforestation projects with NGOs in those areas.

“The inaccessibility of the terrain also means that a lot of forest still remains, and there are a huge number of endemic snails, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, crabs, birds and incredible bat caves.

“Unfortunately, though, there are also huge deposits of bauxite in the area and a battle has begun over whether or not the government should allow the area to be mined. It’s one of the top five areas for biodiversity in the Caribbean. If they decide to mine, it’s open-cast mining, which is pretty much just bulldozing the whole area, and it never recovers from that. It’s hard to put into words just what a disaster that would be.”

Haiti is the Caribbean’s most deforested nation, and the forest which does remain is under huge pressure. The plight of the Pic Macaya National Park, in the Massif de la Hotte Mountain Range in Haiti’s south-western peninsula, highlights a situation common to many Caribbean nations: the conflict between the needs of an impoverished population and those of a threatened ecosystem.

“Macaya is one of the last remnants of montane forest in Haiti, and one of just two large areas of forest left. It’s one of the most important sites in the world for globally-threatened amphibians and endemic birds,” says Wege. “Haiti has the poorest population in the Americas, and people will walk a whole day just to collect firewood and water. Macaya is a significant source of bushmeat, water and wood, and hence is under enormous threat. It’s being reduced daily and, if the situation is left as it is, it’s just going to become a desert.”

A number of projects have been started to alleviate the situation.

“Work has begun with the communities around Macaya to bring water in, start establishing tree nurseries, promote fast-growing tree species, re-forest areas and start chicken farming so that an alternative protein source can be provided for the people living there.

“It’s a huge task building trust and putting these projects in place, but we have to develop the livelihoods of the community members and instil sustainable practices to ease the pressure on these remaining forested areas. We are aiming at a long-term ‘win-win’ situation for both the people and the biodiversity – something that has to be central to all conservation actions in the region.”

The Caribbean’s history offers tantalising lessons, from the stories of four potentially-extinct species, of what can happen when conservation efforts are not implemented expeditiously.

The case of St Lucia’s endemic Semper’s warbler (Leucopeza semperi) highlights a frequent theme, that of terminal predation by introduced animals such as rats and mongooses. The last confirmed sighting of this ground-nesting grey warbler was in 1961; but some hope remains for its survival, as suitable habitat, around the Piton twin peaks, is still intact.

Two ground-dwelling nocturnal species, the Jamaican petrel (Pterodroma caribbaea), a medium-sized brown seabird, and the Jamaican pauraque (Siphonorhis americanus), an endemic long-tailed nightjar, have not been seen since 1879 and 1860 respectively. Again, both are thought to have succumbed to introduced predators, but, owing to the difficulties of recording nocturnal species, could conceivably survive.

Evidence that these birds might potentially rise Lazarus-like from the grave comes from the spectacular ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). It had been presumed extinct in south-eastern USA since 1944 but, after a reported 2004 sighting sparked a year-long research trip, a bird resembling the it was captured on video in September 2006 in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

The yet-to-be-confirmed rediscovery has fuelled hopes that the Cuban sub-species of this large red, white and black woodpecker (think Woody Woodpecker) may still be in existence. Its last confirmed sighting was in Humboldt National Park in 1987, though around 80 per cent of Cuba’s suitable habitat remains unexplored.

The frequently inaccessible nature of the country in which these species live highlights one of the key issues facing BirdLife and its partners: information and the need for it.

The Trinidadian piping-guan, or pawi (Pipile pipile), is another critically endangered endemic species for which there is little solid population and status information. Despite pioneering work by Dr Carol James in the 1980s, which verified populations of this turkey-like bird in Trinidad’s north-east Northern Range and southern Trinity Hills, little dependable data on its numbers and range exist today.

It is cases like this, says Wege, which show just how important the public can be.

“We want to engage people in getting out there, looking and reporting what they see. We need people to report their sightings from these IBAs and enter their records in a public database – Caribbean Birds. It can be accessed at www.worldbirds.org/Caribbean

“Many of these sites are visited very infrequently so any information or sightings coming out of them are invaluable.

“And, for residents, we would encourage them to join their local conservation NGOs and get involved with the important, and fulfilling, work of saving these species.”

The West Indian whistling duck bears testimony to the fact that these conservation efforts can be successful.

“The whistling duck’s numbers dropped to around 10,000 through excessive hunting and habitat loss,” says Wege.

“But a lot of effort has been put into wetland conservation, education and awareness –for example through the SCSCB (Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) West Indian Whistling Duck and Wetlands Conservation Project – and it has responded well.

“There are now around 14,000 and it has just been discovered breeding in Guadeloupe, which is an extension of its range. From a conservation standpoint that’s very exciting.”

Wege’s hope is that his book will help ensure there are more such positive stories. The Caribbean is blessed with beautiful areas rich in endemic biodiversity and its long-term conservation is the responsibility of all. It will only be through concerted pressure on the region’s key decision-makers, Wege argues, that these remnants of paradise and the species which inhabit them will survive.

Grenada dove (Leptotila wellsi)

In 2006 the Grenada dove (Grenada’s endemic national bird) became the unwitting focus of a global conservation tug-of-war.

Already on the brink, through a combination of habitat fragmentation and predation by rats and feral cats, the dove’s numbers were slashed by a further 20 per cent when Hurricane Ivan tore through Grenada in 2004. Then, in 2006, the dove’s last remaining stronghold, the 187-hectare Mt Hartman Estate, was chosen as the location for a sprawling new tourist resort.

“It was devastating news and there was a huge outcry,” says Wege, who has a master’s degree in conservation from University College, London and has worked at BirdLife’s headquarters in Cambridge, England, for 19 years.

“The Grenada dove’s dry forest habitat is only found in the south-west of the island, so the bird is confined there, and Mt Hartman (an IBA) alone is home to 37 per cent of the world’s population of this critically endangered bird.”

But there is some good news for the Grenada dove.

“There was a united conservation effort and negotiations brought a positive response from the developer. They’re still going to develop but they are taking an enlightened approach: placing restrictions on pets and other impacts and setting up a Grenada dove trust fund. The national park boundaries have also been redrawn to include more doves in the protected area.

“In the end, it’s a positive story of development taking a threatened species into account, but of course, negatively speaking, some Grenada dove territory will still be lost.”

The dove’s future remains a precarious one, with latest figures suggesting only around 150 survive.

For more information: www.grenadadovecampaign.com

Ridgway’s hawk (Buteo ridgwayi)

“I would label it as the next Caribbean species to become extinct,” says Wege of the Dominican Republic’s Ridgway’s hawk (named after American ornithologist Robert Ridgway). “There are fewer than 250 birds remaining, their habitat is fast disappearing, due to unrestricted slash-and-burn agriculture, and the species is declining rapidly as a result.”

The gloomy prediction for the hawk stems from the fact that it is now confined to an isolated 208-square-km area of Hispaniola, Los Haitises National Park (an IBA), whereas it used to roam the entire island. The park’s remote limestone karst forest is this beautiful raptor’s last refuge, but it is one which is being whittled away. Furthermore, many farmers still persecute the birds in the mistaken belief that they prey on their domestic fowl (in fact, the Ridgway’s diet is 90 per cent reptiles).

“It’s a national park – and there’s no protection,” says a frustrated Wege. “Conservation groups have been working with the local communities to convey the bird’s importance, but what’s happening now is that famers will cut down all the trees except the nesting tree, thinking that that is fine, but obviously you’re still removing the rest of the habitat. We’re trying to work with local NGOs and government to bring in alternatives for land management and then re-foresting areas.

“But time is running out.”

Montserrat oriole (Icterus oberi)

The handsome Montserrat oriole, another national bird, inhabited the southern half of the 41-square mile volcanic island of Montserrat, but eruptions from the Soufriere Volcano, between 1995 and 1997, caused catastrophic habitat and population loss.

“Following the initial 1995 eruption, the south was covered in volcanic ash and pyroclastic flows, and two-thirds of the oriole’s habitat was destroyed overnight,” says Wege.

But it wasn’t simply the eruption which affected the diminutive oriole.

“In the aftermath, the ash continued to fall on the remaining forest. This ‘stressed’ the forest, and when stressed, the forest trees fruit excessively. This excessive fruit brought rats and other predators, such as native pearly-eyed thrashers, up into the forest to feed and, at the same time, they fed on the oriole eggs and young.

“Also acid rain was falling on the palm leaves the orioles nest on, destroying them. The population crashed dramatically.”

Further eruptions in 2001, 2003 and 2006 have served to highlight the precarious status of the species in its remaining stronghold, the Centre Hills (another IBA).

“The population is about 5,000, which for a small bird is not much… you could lose the entire population in one volcanic explosion.”

In June 1999, eight birds were taken to Jersey Zoo in the UK to begin a captive breeding programme which has proved successful. The Centre Hills has been designated a protected area, and experimental rat control there commenced in 2006.

Important Bird Areas in the Caribbean: Key Sites for Conservation is available from the Natural History Book Service at www.nhbs.com. For more information on the fight to save Caribbean Birds visit www.scscb.org and www.birdlife.org