All of us at BirdsCaribbean followed the passing of Hurricane Irma with terror, for the people of Barbuda, and also for its birds. Such is the strength of our community that BirdsCaribbean members from nearby Guadeloupe – Anthony Levesque, Frantz Delcroix, and Eric Delcroix – all members of the organization AMAZONA, offered their help in surveying their neighboring island, alongside a team of ornithologists from the United States, Saint Lucia, and Antigua. Here’s Frantz’s story of their 10-hour expedition to Barbuda.
From Guadeloupe to Barbuda: Our Eventful Journey
The start of our day was scheduled for Sunday, October 15, 2017, around 6:30am. Our transport was a small Piper PA28 airplane, with a capacity of 4 people (the pilot and three passengers). The plane was sturdy enough to transport us, our field equipment, a cooler, and our boots! Despite bad weather for several days—an active tropical wave passing by Guadeloupe and Antigua and Barbuda—our pilot assured us that we could travel. Just before leaving, however, our pilot learned that due to cloud cover, the airport in Antigua (where we had to land first) was closed to all VFR (visual flight rules) flights, and was accepting only flights that can fly under IFR (instrument flight rules). Fortunately, we chose the right pilot; his plane was equipped and certified for this kind of flight!
We took off at 6:50am, landing in Antigua around 8:00am. It was a longer flight than we had anticipated, because we were flying under IFR. After passing through immigration, we went to the control tower to validate the flight plan to Barbuda. As we suspected, we had trouble with the fact that we did not have written authorization to travel to the island. Luckily, with the help of the Department of Environment in Antigua, we had taken the precaution of obtaining the necessary contact information for the authority, Major Michael, in Antigua. After a short discussion, the agent agreed to call the Major, and so was able to validate our flight plan to Barbuda. With a sigh of relief, we took off from Antigua around 9:00am and arrived in Barbuda twenty minutes later.
On Barbuda: The Birds’ Message of Hope
Upon arrival we made our first survey: a few Barn Swallows and a Bank Swallow circled above us and an American Golden Plover wandered around the airport parking lot. We were then greeted by an agent from the airfield, who kindly took us to the port where the rest of the team has just arrived by boat. There we met Jeff Gerbracht (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, USA), Frank Rivera (US Fish and Wildlife Service, USA), Lenn Isidore (Flora and Fauna International, St. Lucia), and others and went to the house that served as home base during our trip, as we did some birding around the neighborhood. Jeff, Frank, and Lenn planned to be in Barbuda for a full week to do an intensive survey of the Barbuda Warbler population (stay tuned for their story!). Our assignment was to visit Codrington Lagoon and carry out a survey of the Magnificent Frigatebirds, to see how the population and sanctuary was recovering six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. We departed at 11:15am for Codrington Lagoon with our boat captain Kelly – and our pilot (who wanted to discover the avifauna of Barbuda with us!)
We arrived at the colony at 11:30am and were delighted to see hundreds of frigatebirds in flight, the bare and brown bushes adorned with bright red gular pouches. Within a 4.5 hectare (11.12 acre) area, we estimated 1,710 Magnificent Frigatebirds and 17 Brown Boobies. In a count of seven bushes of 279 frigatebirds, 83 females (30%) and 196 males (70%) were counted. Amazingly, 90% of the females were on nests and some of the birds were observed courting and mating, even males carrying nest materials.
We returned to home base around 12:30pm for a lunch break and then went back to the field. Having no vehicle available, we decided to visit a nearby pond we had observed on the Barbuda map, to search for West Indian Whistling-Ducks and other waterbirds. Along the way, we made several surveys of the species present. In a scrubby area near town, we spotted our first Barbuda Warblers eating caterpillars! The warblers were active and responded readily to our “pishing.”
Around the pond, we recorded two Lesser Antillean Flycatchers, two Long-billed Dowitchers, a Stilt Sandpiper, some Semipalmated Sandpipers, a Solitary Sandpiper, and a Scaly-breasted Thrasher. Unfortunately, no West Indian Whistling-Ducks were seen.
We continued our surveys until around 2:45pm before returning to home base to pick up our belongings and walk to the airfield for our 3:45pm takeoff. Skirting some clouds along the way, we arrived home in Guadeloupe at 4:20pm with a list of 36 surveyed species in hand.
Our Hearts are with the People of Barbuda
Although we were there to conduct a birding survey, our hearts ached when we saw all the damage on Barbuda. Such utter desolation! We felt anguish and sadness for the people of Barbuda, who lost everything in this category 5 hurricane and are now living in Antigua awaiting word on when they can return home and rebuild. Witnessing the power of nature—its ability to inflict such damage, but also how it can quickly rebound—was an extraordinary experience.
Before the hurricane, the 4,000–5,000-strong frigatebird colony had chicks in the nest. Surveys just after the hurricane found no surviving chicks and only around 300 birds. Now, one and a half months later, there are more than 1,700 frigatebirds starting a new breeding period with almost all of the females nesting! Even the mangroves that suffered from salt burn and had lost all their leaves were bouncing back, beginning to sprout new leaves.
So, we did not leave without hope. Nature is resilient! It can destroy almost everything, and yet incredibly allow a bird that weighs only ten grams to survive!
We thank all of our partners and friends from Antigua and Barbuda and BirdsCaribbean for trusting us and for providing funding and support for our survey, despite the challenges and the relatively short time we had to mobilize. We extend a special thanks to Natalya Lawrence of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) in Antigua and Lisa Sorenson of BirdsCaribbean
Frantz Delcroix is the President of AMAZONA, a bird conservation organization in Guadeloupe. She is an avid birder, photographer and conservationist. Thanks to all who donated to our Hurricane Relief Fund which provided funding for this survey. Thanks also to support from the Environmental Awareness Group and Dept of Environment in Antigua, and Fauna and Flora International.
Hover over each photo to see the caption; click on photos to see larger images and a slide show.
List of birds seen or heard on this day (all have been entered in eBird Caribbean)
- Helmeted Guineafowl – Numida meleagris
- Magnificent Frigatebird – Fregata magnificens
- Brown Booby – Sula leucogaster
- Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
- American Golden-Plover – Pluvialis dominica
- Semipalmated Plover – Charadrius semipalmatus
- Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus
- Stilt Sandpiper – Calidris himantopus
- Pectoral Sandpiper – Calidris melanotos
- Semipalmated Sandpiper – Calidris pusilla
- Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus
- Solitary Sandpiper – Tringa solitaria
- Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa flavipes
- Rock Pigeon – Columba livia
- White-crowned Pigeon – Patagioenas leucocephala
- Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
- Common Ground-Dove – Columbina passerine
White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica
- Zenaida Dove – Zenaida aurita
- Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
- Caribbean Elaenia – Elaenia martinica
- Lesser Antillean Flycatcher – Myiarchus oberi
- Gray Kingbird – Tyrannus dominicensis
- Black-whiskered Vireo – Vireo altiloquus
- Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia
- Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
- Scaly-breasted Thrasher – Allenia fusca
- Pearly-eyed Thrasher – Margarops fuscatus
- American Redstart – Setophaga ruticilla
- Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia
- Blackpoll Warbler – Setophaga striata
- Barbuda Warbler – Setophaga subita
- Bananaquit – Coereba flaveola
- Black-faced Grassquit – Tiaris bicolor
- Lesser Antillean Bullfinch – Loxigilla noctis
- Carib Grackle – Quiscalus lugubris
Read more about the hurricane impacts on Caribbean birds: