Flying low over the water and glowing brilliant red in the light of the setting sun, thousands of Scarlet Ibis quietly assemble at their roosting site. While the Tricolored Herons and bright white Snowy Egrets disappear into the cover of the mangroves, the Scarlet Ibis remain perched on top, dotting the dark green with intense bursts of red. To witness this spectacular ritual— a daily occurrence in the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad—is to experience one of the most extraordinary events in the natural world.
The Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is both culturally and economically important to the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. When the country gained independence in 1962, it was fitting to declare the Scarlet Ibis as the national bird and it is featured prominently on the nation’s coat of arms and one dollar bill. Since at least the early 1970s, bird-watching ecotours in Caroni Swamp were generating over $1 million TTD annually. Today, the swamp and the ibis are internationally known as a “must-see” natural treasure, and the ecotourism industry continues to support the livelihoods of many Trinidadians.
Unfortunately, the Scarlet Ibis is also coveted for another reason: its meat. In an interview last month, the Chief Game Warden acknowledged that the bird is a black market delicacy illegally served at elite parties, driving the motivation for poaching. It has been speculated that eating the national bird is a status symbol. In 2013, a man with 18 ibis carcasses was sentenced to 18 months in prison (though he was allowed to serve them concurrently). And just this summer, three people were arrested in the possession of ibis carcasses and blasted on social media by Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries Minister Clarence Rambharat. His comments were widely shared and sparked dozens of newspaper articles, with the outraged public calling for action.
The national bird has a long history of persecution and is incredibly sensitive to disturbance. As early as the 1860s, colonial records warn that “a fierce war has been made on this bird…already it comes in fewer numbers and soon it will be very rare.” Other reports from the early 1930s and 1950s acknowledge that the Scarlet Ibis are “shot ruthlessly for food or so-called sport” and that they are very wary as a consequence. Richard ffrench, the neotropical ornithologist based in Trinidad, noted that in the beginning of the 20th century, hunting prevented the Scarlet Ibis from breeding on the island until 1953.
Currently, the fine for hunting or possessing the Scarlet Ibis is just $1,000 TTD (~$150 USD) or three months in prison. But due to the vast expanse of the Caroni Swamp and limited manpower, enforcement is difficult. In 2010, six individuals were fined $750 TT each for poaching offences that took place in 2007. Surprisingly, this marked the first time in the country’s history that someone was convicted of hunting the Scarlet Ibis.
Minister Rambharat has petitioned the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to initiate the process to change the designation of the Scarlet Ibis to an Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS). Under this protected status, poachers could receive a maximum of a $100,000 TTD fine or up to two years imprisonment. An ESS status would also facilitate interagency and joint patrols in Caroni Swamp, increasing warden and police presence. In addition, the EMA is exploring changing the status of the Caroni Swamp to an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA). The swamp is already designated a Ramsar site (1993) and a Prohibited Area under the Forests Acts.
Even young Trinidadians are raising awareness about the poaching of the national bird. In August, 45 performers aged 9-17 years old from the Moko Jumbie Cultural Camp dressed as Scarlet Ibis and marched in the capital’s Queen’s Park Savannah. This Caribbean stilt-walking art form is common during carnival season, and the camp’s mission is to preserve this custom and create cultural legacies by engaging children. It was a fantastic idea to combine this unique cultural heritage with the natural heritage of the Scarlet Ibis! Click here to see the video.
What you can do to help:
Please spread the word that the EMA is requesting information (including observations), research, or data about the Scarlet Ibis to assist with changing its status to an ESS. Information can be submitted here.
The mandatory 30-day public comment period for the change in status to ESS will be announced shortly. Please check the EMA website or Facebook page for updates and send a letter in support of this change in protected status.
Please scroll over or click on the photos for captions
The Caroni Swamp ecotour is very popular for residents and tourists alike. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
A Scarlet Ibis in Caroni Swamp, Trinidad. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
Wildlife watchers enjoying the tour in Caroni Swamp. (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)
A Scarlet Ibis perched on a mangrove. (Photo by Faraaz Abdool)
Scarlet Ibis in the Caroni Swamp, Trinidad. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
Scarlet Ibis fly above a pair of American Flamingos. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
The Scarlet Ibis is featured on the nation’s Coat of Arms, along with the Rufous-vented Chachalaca, the national bird of Tobago.
Scarlet Ibis settle on top of the mangroves at their Caroni Swamp roosting site. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
Jessica Rozek is a PhD student at Tufts University, where she is focusing her research on Caribbean wetland conservation and human-wetland-bird interactions. Learn more about her research here.
Take care of yourselves and, once you and your loved ones are safe, remember our birds and consider their plight.
There is no doubt that the landscape on some islands has already changed, perhaps irreversibly so, after the passage of the strongest hurricane on record in the Caribbean. The Codrington Lagoon on Barbuda, for example – a beautifully preserved RAMSAR site – is home to the largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the region (around 2,500 pairs). It was breached during the storm and the sea has flowed in. Barbuda itself is now a scene of devastation, with almost all buildings damaged or destroyed and most inhabitants evacuated. So, what of the endemic Barbuda Warbler, a small bird that is Near Threatened (likely less than 2,000 individuals) – did it survive?
Moreover, human activity is already contributing to the changing island landscape on a perhaps unprecedented level. Barbuda itself is the proposed site of a tourism development that has already triggered controversy because of its possible impact on its fragile environment. Other large tourism and housing developments, mining and other industrial activities and urbanization are all threatening bird habitats across the region. The unchecked over-development of the Houston area, which replaced wetlands and woodlands with concrete was a major contributing factor to the excessive flooding.
While discussion and research into the impact of climate change on tropical weather patterns (in particular, the link to hurricanes) continues, issues such as rising sea levels and warming seas are becoming increasingly evident in the Caribbean. All of these factors combined increase the chance that a single event like Hurricane Irma may cause a species, such as the Barbuda Warbler to go extinct.
Last year, we recorded the devastating impact of Hurricane Matthew on birds in the Bahamas and Haiti, in particular. We also noted that some species “bounce back” more quickly than others. After the storm passes, those birds that survive face long-term problems. In the path of the storm, trees and shrubs lose all their leaves, buds, flowers and fruits. Trees (often the older, larger trees that provide food and shelter) may be uprooted. Riverbanks are scoured and whole neighborhoods transformed. In hills and mountains, there is the threat of landslides. Damage to reefs and seagrass beds may decrease marine productivity. Nesting beaches may be washed away. Birds may lose their nests, shelter and food. Others get displaced to new areas, where they may not thrive.
What happens to birds in a hurricane?
We know that many species can respond to the indicators that a storm is nearby, such as a drop in barometric pressure, changes in temperature, rainfall and light. In some species these changes trigger them to change location. The Bahamas National Trust notes that its flamingoes, for example, will fly away ahead of a storm and some seabirds on the wing will increase their altitude to try to get above the storm. Many other species respond to threats by trying to hunker down in safe places. Migratory birds may change their plans, and depart earlier than usual. Some very brave Whimbrels have even been recorded flying directly into a storm – for example, one named Chinquapin, braved Hurricane Irene in 2011. Read more here.
During and just after the passage of Hurricane Irma, Bahamian flamingoes were spotted, sheltered by coastal forest and mangroves, in storm conditions on the island of Great Inagua; and Cuban Parrots (Bahamas subspecies) were seen feeding on guinep fruit off the trees, which had somehow managed to retain its fruits. Some birds are true survivors, but with such a large and powerful storm as Irma, nowhere is entirely safe. Evidence is just now coming to light that many birds were killed outright during the storm, including thousands of flamingos in the Cayo Coco Cays of Cuba. Juvenile birds will fare worse than the adults. Often the impacts – on breeding cycles, for example – are indirect and more long term.
In 1998, Hurricane Gilbert displaced Black-billed Streamertail hummingbirds about 35 miles east from the dense wet limestone forests of eastern Jamaica to Kingston. A kind citizen found many of these streamertails on her veranda, weak and hardly able to fly. She went from putting out two or three small bottles of sugar water to supplying more than 2 gallons a day. Her efforts undoubtedly saved hundreds of birds.
What can we do to help birds after a hurricane?
It may take weeks, months or decades for our forests, wetlands and gardens to return to their former glory. In the meantime, you can do a lot to help your local birds.
Remember the birds as you stock up with supplies, and maintain your hummingbird and seed feeders and bird baths.
Provide food for birds following the storm. Feeding birds does not require expensive feeders or equipment.
Seeds. Many pigeons and doves will eat cracked corn and small seed-eaters will take cracked rice. Watch out for changes in bird behaviour which may indicate food shortages. For example, White-crowned Pigeons may suddenly start feeding on the ground. If you see this, put out food in suitable places (ideally where birds are not vulnerable to cats).
Sugar water. You can make a hummingbird feeder from a bottle with a screw on cap by piercing a small hole in the cap. Fill it with sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water). Use some wire to suspend the bottle at an angle in a place where hummingbirds will find it. You may need to put something red on the bottle to attract the birds initially.
Fruit. To provide fruit for birds, use a horizontal stake with 2 inch nails driven into it to put out left over fruit skins for birds.
What else can we do?
We need to document the impacts of hurricanes on birds so that we can determine which species have been affected and what we can do to help them. As soon as you can after the storm, take photographs and videos or take notes about:
the extent of damage to habitats (and the process of recovery);
observations of unusual behaviour by familiar birds;
observations of threatened or rare species in their habitat (that might indicate that they survived);
Note that because birds may travel to or get blown off course to other islands during storms and hurricanes, it’s just as important to survey birds in other islands that were NOT affected. For example, the more southern Lesser Antillean islands (Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) may serve as a refuge from hurricane events. Please go out and do some surveys and keep an eye out for different birds and vagrants in your islands!
In the long-term
We need to take the opportunity to remind our policy-makers of the importance of maintaining and protecting our natural areas, and to continue public education among stakeholders. Intact mangroves provide the most effective protection from storm surge for coastal settlements and infrastructure. Wetlands soak up and store excess rain and protect surrounding areas and property from flooding. Forests prevent land slippage and flash flooding. Caribbean residents – whether town dwellers, farmers or fishermen – are seeing this for themselves in their daily lives.
Hurricane Irma will perhaps serve as a reminder that the delicate balance of our widely varied ecosystems is in jeopardy. As the University of Oklahoma’s Jeremy D. Ross notes in his September 9 article, if we do not maintain a healthy natural environment, “We stand to lose not just an isolated songbird most people have never heard of, but potentially the vibrancy of entire ecosystems that provide the Caribbean its inherent allure.”
Seventeen strangers from three countries, Bahamas, Bermuda, and the United States, became fast friends on the BirdsCaribbean 4-day Pre-conference Tour. Naturalists, biologists, students, professors, teachers, accountants, business owners and managers, and retirees all shared one common interest – to explore Cuba and see the birds of Cuba and the Caribbean.
We were met at the airport on Saturday July 8th, settled in to the elegant Meliá Cohiba, and given our freedom for the first evening in Havana to stroll the Malecón and to explore the sights and sounds of Cuba. We were told that walking anywhere, anytime in Cuba was safe, and our experiences verified this truth. On Sunday morning, Atila, our Cuban tour guide, started us off with a walking tour of Old Havana. Ambling along while learning history, seeing colonial architecture, street musicians, and cobbled streets busy with tourists and locals alike made for a lovely morning. Lunch was to the accompaniment of music – music everywhere.
Between observations around our hotel and our tour of the City we saw the first of our Cuban endemics – the Cuban Blackbird. After lunch, the group piled in to taxis for a walk through the National Botanical Gardens about 30 minutes outside of Havana. There we spotted 13 different species including the Red-legged Honeycreeper, the Great Lizard Cuckoo, and the Yellow-faced Grassquit, not endemics, but exciting none the less. A note here – we were a large group of birders, so numbers of birds observed are from my notes, and many of the more experienced might well have seen more species!
On Sunday evening we were treated to a spectacular Caribbean sunset from the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The old fort overlooks the beautiful the Havana harbor, and we watched as darkness fell and the city came to a sparkling enchantment of lights. We had gathered for the re-enactment of the firing of the cannon – a centuries old tradition warning the population that the gates to the fort were about to be closed for the evening.
Monday morning we loaded on to our comfortable, air-conditioned bus with Atila, and picked up our bird guide extraordinaire, Maydiel Cañizares Morera, who works for Zapata Swamp National Park. We headed off for Playa Larga in the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) and settled in to our little bungalow accommodations. That afternoon Maydiel took us to “Zunzuncito House” in Paplite, where our hosts Bernabe and Juanita, introduced us to their frequent visitors, the Bee Hummingbirds. The smallest bird in the world – what a treat! There we also saw the Cuban Oriole, the Cuban Emeralds, West Indian Woodpecker, and the ever-present Cuban Blackbirds and House Sparrows.
Our next stop was the forests and savannahs of Soplillar. Despite threatening rain clouds and thick swarms of mosquitos, we intrepidly followed Maydiel, binoculars and cameras at the ready. We were delighted with seeing the Gray-fronted Quail-Dove, the Bare-legged Owl, the Cuban Pygmy-Owl, the Cuban Trogan, the Cuban Tody, the Cuban Green Woodpecker, and the illusive Fernandina’s Flicker. Seeing seven Cuban endemics in one afternoon reflects on Maydiel’s knowledge and skill as a guide. He’s brilliant! This was just day one of birding with Maydiel.
Tuesday morning, ah, Tuesday morning. Our bus took us to the Cocorilla Canals in Santo Tomás, a saw-grass filled swampy area of Zapata. This small hamlet sits back off the grid of power and telephone lines, and it was here that we met the boatmen that would glide us through the swamp. As we drove up to the small cluster of homes, Maydiel commented, “There’s been a lot of rain, and we have to walk to the boats,” a subtle warning that the trail to our boats would be a wet one. Ha! We were headed to one of only two known locations for the Zapata Wren and one of three locations for the Zapata Sparrow (also known as the Cuban Sparrow) so not a single member of the group hesitated to carry on.
As we trekked through thigh-high water I asked the renowned Bermudian octogenarian conservationist, David Wingate, on his journeys to see a particular bird, how did this experience rate? “Oh, right up there at the top,” he commented, “right up there at the top.” It was worth it, though, as we were serenaded by the Zapata Wren, and spotted three more endemics, the Zapata Sparrow, the Cuban Vireo, the Cuban Bullfinch. In addition, that morning we saw another 31 species, including a Crested Caracara on the ride back to Playa Larga.
After a casual lunch near the beach, we were bused 18 miles to Sandero Salinas de Brito. Riding and walking the road surrounded on both sides by salt flats, we added the Cuban Black Hawk to our list of endemics. We also had the pleasure of seeing about 800 American Flamingos, a Stygian Owl, Osprey, Reddish Egrets, a white morph Great Blue Heron, White Ibis, a Snowy Egret, and a lone Roseate Spoonbill – 25 species in all that afternoon. I especially enjoyed watching the hundreds of land crabs scuttling out of the way of our bus as we headed back to Playa Larga.
After our final dinner at Playa Larga, we packed for an early departure in search of the Blue-headed Quail-Dove in the Refugio de Fauna Bermejas. Despite a long quiet walk through the forest we had no luck with the Quail-Doves. Though many in our group had previously seen this bird, it was my first good look at the endemic Yellow-headed Warbler. We saw and heard 14 species on that walk, and long will I remember the sound of the Cuban Trogan echoing through woods, a haunting, whooping call from Cuban’s national bird.
Since we were early for lunch at Caleta Buena, we birdwatched and idled on the beach, swam in the rock formation pools, and sipped drinks in the shade of palm trees while Cave Swallows swooped overhead. We spotted the singular Laughing Gull seen on the trip. After a generous buffet lunch, we continued with our slow, steady climb up to Topes de Collantes for the BirdCaribbean 2017 conference.
What a memorable birding experience! Seventeen amazing, talented dedicated birders sharing and enjoying our four-day trip through the lush, green Cuban countryside. The trip was well-organized, and our tour guide Atila was thoughtful and informative. Food was plentiful and for me, that cold Cristal cerveza provided with our meals hit the spot! Our birding guide, Maydiel, made finding so many endemics look easy, a reflection of his knowledge of his country and its birds. We learned about Cuba, the history, the habitats and the birds. I think I speak for all of the participants when we tumbled in to our hotels in Topes de Collantes, we were blown away with our four-day pre-conference birding experience and it will be a cherished memory of a lifetime.
Please scroll over or click on the photos below for captions.
By Martha Cartwright. Martha is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Freeport, Bahamas for 31 years. After becoming a widow in 2013 she started feeding and studying the fish in her canal. One day she looked up and noticed the birds and hasn’t looked down since. She counts her blessings for the tutelage of eBird’s Erika Gates and for a dedicated birding community on Grand Bahama. She teaches yoga and postural alignment therapy when she isn’t birding.
The Zapata Wren. (Photo by Erika Gates)
House of Juanita and Bernabe in Paplite observing the smallest bird in the world. (Photo by Erika Gates)
The perfectly positioned Pygmy Owl. (photo by Erika Gates)
In the Savannah Soplillar of Zapata Swamp, seeking Bare-legged and Pygmy Owls. (Photo by Erika Gates)
American Flamingos in Las Salinas – we never got tired of watching and photographing this elegant bird. (Photo by Erika Gates)
West Indian Woodpecker at the Botanical Gardens. (Photo by Erika Gates)
A boat ride through Zapata Swamp. (Photo by Erika Gates)
The male Bee Hummingbird. (Photo by David Southall)
The Cuban Vireo. (Photo by David Southall)
The most popular bird of the trip: easy to see and hear – the national bird, the Cuban Trogan! (Photo by Ericka Gates)
Wading through the waters of Santo Tomás. (Photo by Erika Gates)
A Bare-legged Owl peeks out of his roosting cavity. (Photo by David Southall)
Waiting for the Blue-headed Quail-Dove. (Photo by Erika Gates)
Gina and Maydiel on their way to see Zapata endemics – just another walk in the park! (Photo by Erika Gates)
Enjoying the pristine waters at Caleta Buena. (Photo by Jessica Rozek)
White morph American Kestrel in Zapata Swamp. (Photo by David Southall)
Las Salinas. (Photo by Erika Gates)
A Black-whiskered Vireo. (Photo by David Southall)
On a hike through Refugio de Fauna Bermejas – BirdsCaribbean headwear not only looks good but it is very useful against mosquitoes – modeled here in the Bermejas Refuge! (Photo by Erika Gates)
Captain Erika Gates on the way to see the Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow – “a happy adventure, thank you Maydiel!”
A very lucky view of a Stygian Owl on the way to Las Salinas. (Photo by David Southall)
Wading through Zapata Swamp—on a quest for the Zapata Wren! (Photo by Erika Gates)
The Yellow-headed Warbler, one of two endemic warblers to Cuba. (Photo by David Southall)
Our fantastic tour guides Atíla and Maydeil. (Photo by Jen Mortensen)
For more fun articles on the BirdsCaribbean 21st International Conference in Cuba, July 2017, check out the following:
World Shorebirds Day, September 6th, is right around the corner. According to the founder of this annual event, Gyorgy Szimuly, “World Shorebirds Day is a special day to celebrate shorebirds and the hard-working people dedicated to saving them.” Since it’s inception four years ago, the event has received a wonderful response with people from all over the planet joining together to enjoy shorebirds and promote their conservation.
One of the main activities of World Shorebirds Day is the Global Shorebird Count—hundreds of enthusiasts, including birdwatchers, educators, conservationists, researchers, politicians, and even hunters, will take part between 1-7 September. “The Caribbean region has been a great supporter since the beginning,” commented Gyorgy. “We hope that people from many different islands plan an event and again participate in the count. It would be fantastic to hit an all-time high in the number of registered sites in 2017!”
Registration is open and available at this link. For committed and returning counters there is even a Loyalty Program – read about it on the blog. Everyone is encouraged to register through the form on this page and have a chance to win one of the fantastic prizes.
You never know what exciting new birds you might see on World Shorebirds Day. For example, last year Ann Sutton spotted the first Piping Plover ever seen in Jamaica on Pedro Pond! All observations are valuable, however. Many shorebird species are declining and we still know very little about shorebird migration in the Caribbean, such as where birds are stopping to rest and feed on migration and numbers of each species. So be sure to head out and find some shorebirds for World Shorebirds Day and enter your checklists for your Global Shorebird Count in eBird Caribbean. If you’re new to eBird, check out this Quick Start guide.
To make your submitted data visible to World Shorebirds Day, please be sure to share your checklist with worldshorebirdsday eBird username of World Shorebirds Day (WorldShorebirdsDay) or add firstname.lastname@example.org email address, to your contact list, and share all your related checklists with us (only checklists made during the World Shorebirds Day count period between 1–7 September 2017 are eligible). Guidelines for sharing checklists are here.
Don’t forget also that any counts carried out at a wetland or beach count as a Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) count; enter your data as a CWC count on step 2 of data entry on eBird Caribbean. In addition, your shorebird count can be part of the International Shorebird Survey, which we are just beginning to encourage in the Caribbean – read more here.
Hat’s off to our partner in Puerto Rico, Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña (SOPI), who are going all out this year with their World Shorebirds Day celebration. They have organized the 1st Shorebird Festival—a 3-day event from September 1-3. A variety of exciting activities are planned including educational talks, shorebird identification workshops, activities for children, live music, shorebird artwork, and a photographic exhibition of shorebirds presented by local photographers. According to organizer Luis Ramos, “We want to educate the community about the great variety of shorebirds that migrate to the island and promote the conservation and restoration of habitats for them.” If you live in Puerto Rico, be sure to participate!
Good luck to SOPI on their festival! And we look forward to hearing back from many of you about your findings on World Shorebirds Day!
Standing on the balcony of the Kurhotel in Topes de Collantes, Cuba, it is impossible to ignore the Cuban Martins darting about, the excited chattering of the Cuban Parrots, and the soft tocoro-tocoro of the Cuban Trogon coming from the forest. This location, high in the Escambray Mountains, was the perfect venue for the BirdsCaribbean 21st International Conference.
Hailing from 30 different islands and countries, 240 enthusiastic students, researchers and other professionals came together for five days to support Caribbean birds by networking, learning and sharing. The theme of the conference was “Celebrating Caribbean Diversity” and what better way to start than with the spectacularly diverse host country? Cuba Day included a range of fantastic talks discussing topics from introduced species and their effects to educational efforts of the National Museum of Natural History to the birds of Cuba only known from the archaeological record.
Each morning of the conference thereafter, dedicated individuals met bright and early before the sessions for working group meetings—concentrated discussions focusing on a common theme or species. There was a place for everyone at the table and new ideas were shared about the conservation of Bicknell’s Thrush, Black-capped Petrels, West Indian Whistling-Ducks, parrots, flamingos, and other endemic and threatened species.
Another common early morning activity was- of course- birding! Before sunrise every day, birders from different countries would meet in the hotel lobbies, form small groups and walk off together into the morning light, hoping to get a glimpse of one of Cuba’s many endemic species found in Topes de Collantes. “I heard there is a Stygian Owl with young here!” said a duo from Cornell- a rumor that fueled many fruitless searches. The morning trips around Hotel Los Helechos were invariably filled with the call of Limpkins, Cuban Pewees, and new friends eager to be sharing their passion together.
The conference program was filled with outstanding presentations, representing the hard work and dedication to conservation of individuals across the Caribbean. In addition to learning critical information, participants were treated to special media that shared intimate moments of Caribbean avifauna. For example, during the Recent Advances in Seabird Conservation session, the audience was able to see a “bird’s-eye” view of foraging behavior in Magnificent Frigatebirds, with a camera mounted on the back of a wild bird. And who could forget the fantastic up-close photographs documenting the nesting cycle of the smallest bird in the world (a Cuba endemic), the Bee Hummingbird?
One of the highlights at the conference came from Herbert Raffaele, when he announced that he will be updating the Birds of the West Indies field guide. The new version will include updated information about ranges, changes in taxonomy, and some new illustrations. This announcement is especially exciting because the project is fully supported by Princeton University Press.
On the third day of the conference, participants set off in all directions for a day of field trips to explore the beauty and uniqueness of Cuba. A large contingent took buses down the mountain to the nearby town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There they were greeted with a rainbow of brightly colored colonial buildings, unpaved roads and mid-century era cars, all of which evoked a sense that time had forgotten this charming city. The tour gave the history of the area while meandering through the streets, stopping occasionally to admire the exquisite handiwork of local artisans. Some conference goers were even able to try their hand at pottery making themselves!
Those participants that did not go to Trinidad headed in the other direction – for the hills – on a variety of gorgeous hikes around the Topes de Collantes Nature Reserve. One group took a hike to picturesque Vegas Grande waterfall, the second largest on the island. With cool, blue water at the bottom of the falls, swimmers were rewarded with a front row seat to White-collared Swifts exiting their roosting site. Groups were also given a tour of a coffee house and learned the traditional ways of harvesting and roasting the beans- and even got to enjoy a small, very strong cup. In addition to all the new life birds seen on the trails, all the hikers from this day will remember the fun of the open-air Russian vehicles that proved to be more like a roller coaster than a truck ride.
While the days were filled with bird watching and absorbing all the information at the conference, the nights were filled with live music, professional dancers, and dancing. The cool air of the mountains made the outdoor performances a delight and it was difficult to say no when asked to dance with your new (and old) friends.
Leaving the conference after five full days of intense knowledge sharing and exploring the incredible uniqueness of Cuba, participants were clearly motivated and instilled with a renewed commitment to conservation in the Caribbean. We are so excited to hear about all of the great research and outreach this momentum leads to at our next conference in Guadeloupe in 2019!
Here’s your chance to win one of four fabulous prizes and support conservation of Caribbean birds!
BirdsCaribbean’s 1017 Raffle features Cuban Endemic Bird Original Art: the Bee Hummingbird (the world’s smallest bird), the charismatic Cuban Tody, and the gorgeous Cuban Trogon (national bird of Cuba). These paintings are by acclaimed Cuban wildlife artist Nils Navarro and were generously donated by the artist. The giclee prints are signed and numbered, and ~8.5 x 11 inches in size.
The fourth prize is a brand new pair of binoculars—Vortex VIPER HD 8X42 ROOF PRISM BINOCULAR. This premium-quality, award winning binocular is packed with everything you need and nothing you don’t. It is rugged, waterproof, compact and lightweight (one of the lightest full-size binoculars on the market)! In addition, the binoculars come with Vortex’s amazing unlimited, unconditional life-time VIP Warranty! Thanks to Vortex Optics for kindly donating this prize!
The drawing for the Raffle is on Saturday September 30th, 2017. Now is the time to purchase tickets! Proceeds from the raffle support our conservation programs and provide travel support for BirdsCaribbean delegates to attend our workshops and conferences.
Tickets are $5 each or five for $20.Contact us to let us know how many tickets you would like. You can pay for the tickets online, or request other payment options when you contact us. Remember to get your tickets before September 30th, and good luck!
It only takes one to win, but you can’t win without one!
The moment had finally arrived. It was time to add my name to the list for the mid-conference field trip to Trinidad. Leading up to my arrival in Cuba I religiously kept tabs on the mid-conference field trip page. I had an unfounded fear that the trip to the nearby town of Trinidad would be cancelled. I expected that by the third day I would be over-stimulated by the greenery of Topes de Collantes from early morning birding and that visiting a town would be a welcomed change of scenery.
Unfortunately, the comfortable bed at Los Helechos had a stronghold on me and I never joined the early morning birders. To compensate for my lack of will I wrote my name down for the Batata-Codina trip which promised a visit to a coffee house museum, a hike to a cave, lunch at Hacienda Codina and a mini- tour through one of the villages within El Parque Codina. I was quite satisfied by my decision and did not waste time second guessing myself.
The trip started from outside the Los Helechos Hotel where the tour guide had herded everyone and was ticking off names from his list. We were taken to the coffee house museum in an old Russian army truck—the primary mode of transport for conference attendees and really an adventure in itself. Although small the museum allows visitors to sip and enjoy the aromatic local brew while learning about coffee’s boom-bust history in Cuba. It was hard for me to concentrate on history when each window of the museum provided breath-taking vistas of mountain peaks in the park.
While some people were still enjoying their coffee others decided to look for birds. And I was very glad to be part of the latter group. Cuban Parrots were squawking among themselves in some trees across the road. A few minutes later a pair flew out and perched on a mostly leafless tree in the morning sunlight. We also saw a West Indian Woodpecker, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, Scaly-Naped Pigeon and an American Kestrel.
Further down the road someone saw a Cuban Grassquit which sent the entire group jogging in that direction. But before we got to the grassquit a Cuban Trogon was spotted which prematurely stopped our jog and redirected our excitement. The trogon kept flying from tree to tree until it settled on a branch when we thought it had finally adjusted to our presence. It had not! It flew off again, leaving me, and possibly a few others, with my camera set to take a great shot. By this time the grassquit had also left. Nonetheless the trip started off with much excitement and we were hopeful that it would carry on during our hike through the forest.
Not too far from where the trogon was spotted we began our trek to the cave. The trail at first was very narrow. We stopped momentarily to smell flowers and inquire about origin and scientific names. I can’t recall seeing any birds at the beginning but we saw lots of trail signs. When we finally reached the La Batata sign a group photo was definitely needed. Our guide offered to take our photo and so he did equipped with about six cameras. Fortunately he had a system after each picture was taken he transferred the camera to his left arm.
As the incline began to grow our guide spotted a Cuban Tody. Because of the bird’s small size I spent no less than 15 minutes on this first incline trying to locate the bird. The next bird we encountered was a Great Lizard-Cuckoo. A relatively large bird with a long gorgeous tail when fanned. Like the trogon we saw at the beginning it did not sit still. The cuckoo kept flying up and down the trail and we willingly followed just to catch a glimpse. Not long after we continued climbing up the mountain did we see a Cuban Pygmy Owl. It was amazing to see an owl perched so close to the trail and generally nonchalant about a group of people staring at it.
We began our descent as we got closer to the cave. Mentally and physically I felt fine the air was cool and the only nuisance up until now was mosquitoes. My toes however felt like they were about to burst through the toe cap of my hiking boots. Every so often I had to stop and knock my heels against the floor for some much needed relief.
Eventually we reached the stream leading into the Batata cave where some brave souls refilled water bottles.
Stream rocks are notorious for being slippery and these were no exception. One group member tried crossing the shallow stream on his own and ended up slipping off a rock. In unison we all asked if his camera was okay. He was using a professional camera with the type of lens you think is long enough to see into your soul. Yes, the camera was okay but everything else got drenched as well as I suspect his dignity. I did not venture into the cave as I am not a fan of hiking in wet socks and boots. We were only at the half-way point.
Once cave exploration was completed, we began our second ascent and it was steep! Our birding/photo hiking group was broken into the healthy hikers and summit hikers. The summit hikers were at the forefront with their eyes glued on the prize. I certainly was not a member of this sub-group. Although not terribly drained from the uphill climb and distance the healthy hikers were not interested in bagging a prize. I am really not ashamed to say I welcomed rest stops that allowed me to rehydrate and power on.
By the time everyone had regrouped by the entrance to Codina Park I was anxious to get to Hacienda Codina to feast on authentic Cuban food. Hacienda Codina is situated in a pine forest clearing and because it is literally off the beaten track it is a tranquil spot. It has a lovely little restaurant and bar surrounded by local flora. I ate one of the best meals at the restaurant. During lunch I also learned about life on islands in the Greater Antilles. BirdsCaribbean has the most diverse group of passionate and absolutely hilarious members.
After lunch it was back on our Russian army truck for a scenic drive through rural landscapes. Although overcast I really enjoyed seeing the houses and villagers trotting down the road on horseback. We stopped by a market/ craft stall ran by a local villager. She offered us samples of her homemade fudge and nut bars. The coffee lovers could not resist purchasing the fresh coffee beans.
To end the trip we went back to the coffee museum to enjoy our complimentary shot of espresso. I was a bit hesitant since I had never had it before and I was warned that it would not be able to sleep that night. Casting all fears aside I accepted my shot of espresso and was not disappointed. Although considered taboo in some cultures I added a demitasse spoonful of sugar to it. The only side effect I suffered was the inability to control the pitch of my voice and I had the sudden urge to talk to everyone. If you are wondering, I slept like a log that night. Sleep came easily, most likely from being pleasantly exhausted from a full day of coffee history lesson, birding at an incline, and enjoying a locally prepared meal.
This article was contributed by BirdsCaribbean member Aliya Hosein from Trinidad and Tobago. When she’s not on a BirdsCaribbean mid-conference field trip, she’s often writing about parrots and helping people understand that they belong in the wild.
Primaries and ceres, tarsi and rookeries, vagrants and barbules—good words for birders, mumbo jumbo to most folks. Avoiding jargon was one of many tips shared in the writing workshop Reaching People. The workshop was led by Mark Yokoyama as part of BirdsCaribbean’s 21st International Conference in Cuba.
Most people like birds, but many people writing about birds fail to connect with a general audience. We forget to tell a story. Facts are given without context. There is no natural flow from one idea to the next. Often, the writing itself is too difficult for most people to read.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Science writing can be engaging—our favorite writers do it all the time. Complex ideas can be explained simply—great teachers know how. The workshop focused on these two ideas: storytelling and accessibility.
Picking key facts and ordering them logically helps turn a topic into a story. Adding details that grab a reader, and knowing what to cut are also crucial. Participants worked on their own stories during the class. Some even worked on a press release about the conference to send out when they got home.
The second half of the workshop focused on accessibility. Many were surprised to learn that the average adult in the US reads at about an 8th grade level. Unfortunately, many press materials are written at college level. This is a serious mismatch.
Luckily, we can be more readable just by using plain language and clear sentences. During one activity, participants found they had written sentences up to 60 words long without knowing it. Want to be easier to read? Find out what’s making your writing hard. There are even online tools that measure readability and suggest what you can change.
In just three hours, the group had a new set of writing tools and some hands-on practice. Jealous? Don’t be! You can download the workshop as a handout and run through it yourself. You can also download a copy of the slides and lead your own workshop. With birds and habitats under threat in the Caribbean, it has never been more vital to spread our message. Writing for everyone is a great start.
Soaring above the tree tops of Los Haitises National Park is the mighty Ridgway’s Hawk. Conflicts with humans and changes in its forest habitat have made it hard for this species to survive. Marta Curti tells us about the work of The Peregrine Fund to save this critically endangered raptor.
The Ridgway’s Hawk is endemic to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but is now considered to be extinct in Haiti. The last remaining population of this species is in a small national park, Los Haitises, in the Dominican Republic (DR). There are only an estimated 350-450 individuals left in the wild.
I have been working as a biologist for The Peregrine Fund for the past 17 years. I have been lucky enough to have been a part of several of their projects helping to conserve birds of prey in many countries around the world. In 2011, I joined the team working in DR to help to save the Ridgway’s Hawk from extinction.
The Peregrine Fund’s Ridgway’s Hawk conservation project has been running since 2002 and has many facets. When I was asked to share a short article about our project on the BirdsCaribbean blog, I spent a long time thinking what to write about. I could focus on the advances we have made to prevent botfly (Philornis pici) infestations in nestling Ridgway’s Hawks – an issue that, if left untreated, could cause over 70% mortality in young hawks.
Or I could discuss the successes of our Assisted Dispersal Program: bringing young hawks from Los Haitises National Park and releasing them in Ojos Indígenas Reserve in Punta Cana in an effort to create additional populations of the hawk in other protected areas on the island. Assisted Dispersal has resulted in the formation of 15 breeding pairs to date and 22 wild fledged young!
Another aspect of the project I could mention is our collaboration with Fundación Grupo PUNTACANA and the Disney Conservation Fund to retrofit dangerous power lines preventing electrocutions of not only Ridgway’s Hawks, but other species of birds as well. A whole other blog post could focus on our program to provide free chicken coops to individuals in small communities, an effort to help avoid conflicts between humans and hawks that sometimes prey on young poultry.
Instead, today I would like to tell you about our community development and our environmental education programs. One important aspect of The Peregrine Fund’s work, is to improve the lives of people in areas where we are conserving birds of prey, whether through training, educational activities, or employment opportunities.
In the communities surrounding LHNP we are working with 17 local technicians that we have trained and hired. Some are in their 40s and 50s and have been with the project since its inception. Others are in their early twenties and are just beginning their careers. In small towns around LHNP, there are limited job opportunities and our project is able to provide economic benefits, employment and valuable training in skills such as tree climbing, data collection, bird banding, nest searching, as well as computer data entry and leadership skills.
We began our environmental education program in Punta Cana in 2013, after three of our released Ridgway’s Hawks were shot in a nearby community. Since then, we have expanded our efforts and now work with over 15 communities and have reached over 7,000 individuals in a wide radius around the release site through door-to-door visits, educational presentations, school activities and teacher training workshops. One of the most fun and successful activities that we do every year (as part of our Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival) is the celebration of Ridgway’s Hawk Day, May 25th.
Thanks to a generous donation from BirdsCaribbean, this year we celebrated Ridgway’s Hawk Day with three separate activities around the country! The first, we held with two of our local partners: the National Zoo (ZOODOM) and Fundación Propagas. Schoolchildren from Santo Domingo were treated to a close-up view of a live Ridgway’s Hawk at the zoo, and also participated in an art project, receiving a raptor inspired mask at the end of their visit.
The second and third Ridgway’s Hawk Day activities took place in Punta Cana, where, with the help of Fundación Grupo PUNTACANA – another important local partner, we hosted two celebrations on June 1st and 2nd. Over 80 children visited our Ridgway’s Hawk release site in Punta Cana and saw young hawks up close, learning about the release process and the importance of protecting wildlife. Participants also learned how to use binoculars on a nature walk while practicing birding in forests and lagoons. The children also created beautiful art, painting and coloring on recycled wood – which focused on Ridgway’s Hawks, nature, and other wildlife observed during their visit. Select pieces will be displayed at an event in a local art museum early next year.
To end the day, we headed down to a nearby beach where the kids played games in the sand, learning about the importance of a balanced ecosystem for creatures both on land and in the sea. After a picnic lunch under the shade of nearby trees, students clapped hands and swayed to the rhythm of drums during an interactive dance performance by one of our volunteers, in a full Ridgway’s Hawk costume!
We have already begun to see the positive effects of our education efforts in communities, especially in the attitudes of individual people. Most notably, in the community where our three Ridgway’s Hawks were killed a number of years ago, we now have a nesting pair of hawks who just fledged two perfectly healthy young! The entire community knows of the presence of the hawks and is now actively supporting their protection!
Though we still have a long way to go to ensure the conservation of the species, we continue to be encouraged by the changes we see taking place, making great strides each year and we look forward to the day that the Ridgway’s Hawk is no longer an endangered species.
Marta Curti works as a biologist with The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide.
At the recently concluded BirdsCaribbean 21st Conference Meeting in Cuba, Dr. David Wingate was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his “exceptional knowledge and contributions to avian knowledge and conservation in Bermuda and the Caribbean”.
David Wingate was born in 1935 in Bermuda, he studied Zoology at Cornell University and went on to become the Conservation Officer for the Bermuda Government Parks Department from 1966 to his retirement in 2000.
For almost 300 years, no Cahows were reported from Bermuda (or anywhere else) until occasional corpses were found on the islands through the first half of the 20th Century. In 1950, David Wingate was a 15 year-old schoolboy in Bermuda, and was certain that the bird survived and must be breeding somewhere on the islets at the entrance to Castle Harbour. He determined to locate the nests and took a kayak across the bay to search for them. The sea was too rough for him to land, but he returned the following year with the eminent seabird biologist Robert Murphy, and nesting Cahows were found.
However, the species was still critically endangered. There were only a handful of pairs, and in 1951 perhaps eight chicks were reared. David Wingate determined to save this bird from extinction and has spent most of his life spent endeavouring to do so. Problems were faced and surmounted. Nest burrows were frequently taken over by White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon lepturus and the contents destroyed. Wingate designed and installed ‘bafflers’ with an entrance too small for tropicbirds but allowing access for Cahows. There were few burrows on the islets. Wingate created artificial burrows – with access ports so the nests could be monitored. By his retirement in 2000, the population had grown to over 50 pairs.
Crucially David mentored and trained Jeremy Madeiros to take over the recovery programme. Birds are now breeding on six islands including birds translocated onto Nonsuch Island. The Cahow population continues to grow with a record 117 pairs and 61 fledglings in 2017.
The re-discovery of the Cahow’s breeding grounds was his inspiration for a life involving birds and natural history. He is also credited with rediscovering the Black-capped Petrel in Haiti in 1963. The restoration of the once barren Nonsuch Island into a ‘Living Museum of pre-colonial Bermuda’ is Dr. Wingate’s lifetime work, and part of his effort to bring back from near-extinction Bermuda’s national bird, the Cahow. He has been a crucial part of Bermuda Audubon Society (since its formation in 1954) and a founder of the Bermuda National Trust. He also served on the board of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, and as a research associate of the Bermuda Zoological Society.
David’s conservation efforts have been wide-ranging, focussing on many species including the Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas, Bermuda Rock Skink Plestiodon longirostris, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea, and Bermuda population of Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis, and White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus. It is remarkable that at 81 years old David Wingate remains an active and leading conservationist on Bermuda. He has been responsible for the creation and restoration of numerous wetland habitats in Bermuda.
Amongst his many honours are two from Queen Elizabeth ll and one from the King of the Netherlands. Few Bermudians are known outside their country. David is one of those who commands respect for his conservation efforts. The success of the Nonsuch Island restoration project is used as a model worldwide. The success of the Cahow recovery programme is known throughout the world. He is quite simply the most influential, passionate, knowledgeable and untiring conservationist and naturalist that Bermuda has ever seen.