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Birding in Paradise

Grand Turk’s Bird Walk and Bird Drive Trails are the first in the Caribbean.
By Pat Saxton, Director of Business Development, TCI National Museum

I love plants. I can go out into my garden anytime and see my plants. Plants don’t have an optimum time to view them, unless it is a midnight blooming cactus, which only happens once in a blue moon. Plants stand still, and actually pose for photos. I love plants, but I do like birds.
Like most folks here, I see the brown pelican flying outside my window over the sea, and watch the flamingos in Town Salina and believe I am an established “birder.” Reality is that I can identify less than 5 birds of the 200+ in TCI. Then I met Dr. Mike and Ann Pienkowski. Boy, was I in for a crash course in birding!

Grand Turk Bird TrailDr. Mike Pienkowski is a leading ornithologist in the United Kingdom. He is also the Honorary Executive Director of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF). I first met Ann and Mike when Mike was my son’s boss. To my son’s horror, as we entertained Mike and Ann in our garden, I would point out “Big Bird” (yellow-crowned night heron) and “Tweety Bird” (yellow warbler). Yes, I was a birder extraordinaire!
Both Ann and Mike made many trips to TCI over the last 15 years to count and identify the bird population. They were instrumental in bringing the plight of the salinas (and the effect on the bird populations) to the TCI Government, which in turn bolstered the case for protecting Town and Red Salinas. To say birding is their passion would be an understatement.
Fast forward to 2010, when Mike and Ann heard about the Carnival/TCInvest/TCIG/Infrastructure Fund. They approached the Turks & Caicos National Museum to partner with them and present a proposal for funding a bird trail. The concept of a Bird Trail is not new, in fact it has been on the back burner for almost nine years. Lack of funding — not enthusiasm — was the culprit. We pitched the idea, and were awarded a grant from the Infrastructure Fund.
Bird hunting expeditionNow my world was really “going to the birds.” Mike and Ann already had a Bird Walk and Bird Drive Trail in mind, so a lot of the technical work was already done. This included the bird trail cards which had been designed and redesigned with the help of the Pienkowskis, Dace and Richard Ground, and my son. We went out and walked the trails, and drove the trails over and over so that we could get the “best birding for our buck.”
Finally the trail cards were sent to the printer. Now all we needed to do was set the trail markers — easier said, than done. Trying to keep the trails as “green” as possible we decided that downed telephone poles from Hurricane Ike would be the best solution for mounting the trail markers. So on weekends, my husband Neil and I would do a “downed telephone pole raid.” The only problem was we could not move them, and our chain saw was not up to doing the job of cutting these massive poles. Out of frustration and defeat we approached Turks & Caicos Utilities. Not only did TCU agree to help us find poles, they cut them to size (five feet), and dug the holes with their big auger. After seeing how those guys could dig a hole to sink the pole in minutes, Neil and I both realized we had found our new best friends!
After all the poles were in place, the TCU guys went back to cut the poles at angles to accommodate the walking and driving trail markers. While all this was going on, the trail markers came in and looked great — orange squares for driving and blue ovals for walking. Yet another obstacle, the markers were smooth on the backside and the poles were rough cut. If we screwed them directly to the poles they would surely crack or worse, be lifted off. Solution: mount the new trail markers on painted wooden plaques.
Since I was busy doing day to day Museum work (hey, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I enlisted the help of my husband once again. For a week he cut, painted and glued the signs to the wooden plaques. We were only one week away from the bird trail grand opening, and three days away from Mike and Ann’s inspection. Neil and I worked all weekend driving around Grand Turk and placing the signs on the poles, 40 in all.
A funny thing happened while out in the field. Although it was hard work, we took time to check out the birds we could see from each particular bird stop. We used the clear and concise Bird Drive Trail Cards to identify the birds by the North and South Wells, Hawke’s Nest Salina, and Bayle’s Pond Salina.
Before we knew it, we were finished with the driving tour. Now on to the walking tour. Again, with the help of the Bird Walk Trail Card, we watched as flamingos fed in Town Salina, one of the two salinas which have been granted protection. Brown pelicans, ruddy turnstones (named because they actually turn stones over to look for food), and many varieties of terns came to feed in the salinas right before our eyes. Not daunted at all from the sound of power tools we used, the flamingos lifted their heads to investigate, but went back to feeding as though they knew we were friend, not foe.
We finished the bird trails with a day to spare! I picked up Ann and Mike from the airport, and on the way to the Museum they saw the first Bird Trail Sign. Hearing the excitement in their voices, I knew we had accomplished the task at hand.
The next day we started with our “Bird Week Extravaganza.” Tuesday we had movie night at the Museum, and before the “feature film” watched a great DVD that Ann had made, showing the importance of the salinas and beautiful birds of TCI entitled, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”
Wednesday morning, as part of our dedication to educate students, we had an early morning bird walk. Armed with binoculars loaned from DECR, Mike and Ann led the students and teachers on a bird hunting expedition. At first the students were a bit uninterested, but it was 7 AM and they are teenagers! But, true to form Ann and Mike started engaging the group and the birders were beginning to take interest. Halfway through the trail, the students were identifying birds and asking questions. Success!
Thursday was the day set aside for the Bird Drive Trail evening. With 22 adults and two children we met up at Jack’s Shack. After a few refreshments, we boarded a bus loaned to us from Caribbean Tours International. Everyone received a Bird Trail Card and the use of binoculars from Caribbean Tours International. Bill, our bus driver, took directions from Mike Pienkowski until a cattle egret decided to land in front of the bus by North Wells. The egret obviously knew the trail better than Mike (after all, he has been doing this for generations). For about 200 yards this egret walked in front of the bus, only diverting to catch a gecko from the bush alongside the road. I guess he needed a snack. Finally he flew away, and we continued our tour.
As we approached Town Salina we saw an osprey sitting atop an old windmill, used during the salt industry. While driving down Pond Street, seven flamingos took off from the pond and flew directly over our bus. We stopped the bus and watched as they gracefully landed on the salina. Most folks on the bus had never seen a flamingo in flight, and were amazed at the black colouring of their flight feathers. (I wanted to charge extra for that view!)
With all of these wonderful sightings under our belts we headed back to Jack’s Shack so we could loosen our belts with delightful food. Jack’s Shack stayed open for this party, and also donated money back to the Museum from the sale of drinks and food. Another corporate partner we can always count on!
Friday was the official grand opening of the Bird Trails, and the ribbon cutting was led by Mrs. Lillian Swann-Misick. Following the ribbon cutting, a presentation was given by Dr. Mike Pienkowski at the Osprey Beach Hotel on the trail cards and trail itself, and all attendees received an official bird trail osprey pin and were given the opportunity to purchase the trail cards to re-sell at their retail establishments.
The Bird Trails will be the first of their kind in the Caribbean, and were presented by Dr. Mike Pienkowski at the July 2011 conference of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) in Freeport, Bahamas. SCSCB plans to encourage and market such trails throughout the region in a network of Caribbean birding trail experiences.
When I took the position of director of business development for the Turks & Caicos National Museum, little did I know I would have the opportunity to learn so much about birds, and how they depend on our salinas. I also never knew that TCI is one of the best birding places on earth, where one can see many different species of birds even without the use of binoculars.
As I sit in my backyard, I watch the pelicans over the ocean, an osprey sit atop a telephone pole and eat a fish, and cattle egrets tease my dogs by landing on trees just out of their reach. But as I write this I am reminded not to take too much of my work home with me, so Tweety Bird and Big Bird will always have a special place in my heart.



2 Comments

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Yves Bousquet
Feb 17, 2013 19:56

Good evening,

My wife and I will be in Grand Trurk for a few hours on April 1st. We would like to hire someone to take us bird watching. Can you suggest someone? Thank you.

Dodly Prosper
Sep 8, 2018 14:09

Hiya, I’m one of the teenagers that got up bright and early to go and go bird watching with you all (I’m actually the boy in the photo have there). I just want to say thank you to you and all the others that help children understand and admire the wonderful thing that is nature and to show you how successful you were, I’ve gone out and gotten a Bsc. in ecology. Thank you. If you’re still in Grand Turk and would like to relive that moment, I’m here.

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