Natural History

Keeping An Eye on the Birds

flamingosBy Sara J. Kaufman

Bird watching in the Turks & Caicos Islands is as easy as letting your eyes drift along the shore. From the tiny scurrying sandpipers and plovers at the water’s edge to the majestic frigatebirds and osprey gracefully floating far above, TCI’s birds are numerous, varied and plentiful.

The Ramsar Wetland, an International Biodiversity Reserve, will hopefully ensure that birdlife remains healthy by protecting a vast area of marsh and saltwater flats across East, Middle and North Caicos. This huge, uninhabited, unspoilt marine and terrestrial ecosystem hosts both native and migrant bird species, providing 210 square miles of pristine habitat protected under international treaty. Here the birds are free to follow their own lives without hindrance.

The main resources for a serious bird watching experience in TCI are the clear photographs found in Richard Ground’s book, The Birds of the Turks & Caicos Islands, and the National Trust’s “Bird Watching Guide.” Between these two publications, birds can be easily identified and their habits are clearly detailed. You can find these titles at a variety of shops in Providenciales, including the National Trust’s office in Town Centre Mall. (Purchasing either of these titles will benefit the work of the National Trust.)

Ecotourist excursion

Middle Caicos is perfect for a spectacular bird-watching day excursion. It is the largest island in TCI, with only 270 people living in three separate villages. It is quiet and peaceful, with birds of all types in constant view and tours by foot, bike, sea-kayak and boat available to move throughout and around the island. (Even air conditioned taxis are available for the timid or less ecologically minded!)

young-ospreyThe western end of the island has cliffs and isolated beaches where tropicbirds nest and falcons prey. It is accessed by the Crossing Place Trail, along which countless souls have trod between Middle and North Caicos for over 100 years. There is a known colony of frigatebirds nesting in the locally named Man-O-War Bush, located just off the south shore of Middle Caicos — a short boat ride through the south Bottle Creek mouth past Hangman’s Rock. The long curve of Bambarra Beach is home to the Brown Pelican, gliding along low above the sea and crashing, splash, onto dinner! The sand spit out to Pelican Cay — so called for the nesting pelicans there — can be walked easily at low tide. Middle Caicos even has its own Flamingo Pond nestled in the center of the island and boasts happy flocks of cattle egrets, although there is not a single cow to be found!

The spectacular frigatebird is one of Middle Caicos’ special sights: the high swooping flight of these magnificent birds as they roll in the wind, searching for food, watching over us far below, is truly awe-inspiring. Their slender black silhouette with expansive wings and elongated tail, dancing gracefully on the air currents, catches the corner of your eye and your head cranes backward as they soar and swirl higher and higher. Viewing the baby birds — white, awkward and screeching for food — it is almost impossible to believe they will mature into a majestic king or queen of the sky.

The flight to Middle Caicos takes 15 minutes each way, at a cost of $100 per person round trip from Providenciales. Three restaurants are open for business; hiking, bicycling, and kayak excursions with guides can be arranged (half or full day), and taxis are available by the hour or day. Most ecotourist excursions to Middle Caicos include a tour of the Conch Bar Caves National Park.

Bird-watching around the islands

North Caicos is home to a large section of the Ramsar Wetland and a very special habitat zone where a mind-boggling flock of pink flamingoes awaits. Long, broad Flamingo Pond is home to hundreds of flamingoes of all ages, daintily continuing to walk and eat, seemingly undisturbed by the proximity of the North Caicos Airport. There is a lookout point at the north end of the pond, so be sure to bring your binoculars. Kayaking in the East Bay Nature Reserve or wandering through the Wade’s Green Plantation trails are further suggested activities for bird-watchers.

Grand Turk is the country’s capital, a slow-paced place where Tricolored Herons, flamingoes and Black-Necked Stilts gaze calmly at passersby from the salina at Cockburn Town’s center. It is also home to two major osprey nests and the antics of the fledgling chicks as they learn to dive and survive is fascinating to observe. South Creek National Park is well worth a visit and the Turks & Caicos National Museum is another treasure to explore.

On Salt Cay, there is a platform “bird lookout” on the eastern shore, a 30 minute lazy walk from Balfour Town. Here the most common sightings are Snowy Egrets, Blue Herons and cranes. The salt ponds, relics of the days of salt production, attract osprey to nest in the old windmills, and the harbour fills with gulls and tropicbirds. The Great Sand Cay Bird Sanctuary is home to a wide variety of breeding visitors in the spring. During winter months, whale watching is an exciting added attraction in Salt Cay, the tiniest of the inhabited islands.

pelicans-in-the-bushSouth Caicos is noted for the “Boiling Hole,” a land-locked swirling pool of water connected to mysterious warm currents and to the deep ocean. Around this spot, birds gather happily and small egrets and flamingoes are easily spotted. The Brown Pelican has a fondness for South Caicos and just off Cockburn Town Harbour at Moxie Bush, a flock of pelicans often rest and stare balefully at the day! South Caicos is TCI’s fishing capital and “catch and release” bonefishing is a popular outing.

These comments are but a brief introduction to the bird-watching available on each island and the many ecotourist excursions waiting for you. Flights to all islands are available daily, meals easily arranged and your ecotourist excursion can be tailored to your preferences.

Sara Kaufman has lived in TCI for over 10 years, currently residing in Middle Caicos. She is a key figure behind the promotion of many environmental, ecological and cultural projects throughout the country, including the Crossing Place Trail, the Conservation Fund MicroProject Programme, the Middle Caicos Co-op, the Caicos Handcraft Wholesale Co-op, and the Middle Caicos Sailing Association (MCSA).

Sara and partner Daniel Forbes , a native of Bambarra, Middle Caicos, spearheaded the revival of model sailboat carving and racing. The MCSA celebrates each year with the Valentine’s Day Cup model sailboat races at Bambarra Beach in Middle Caicos. In 2005, races will be held on February 12.



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