Green Pages

Bird Watch!

Looking out for the birds in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Story & Photos By Eric F. Salamanca, Ph.D., Environmental Research and Development Officer, DEMA

Watching and listening to birds is a gratifying way to appreciate the abundance and diversity of these creatures in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Through distinctive behaviors and vocalizations, they communicate with each other in order to: impress and attract a mate, declare territorial boundaries, identify family members, announce the presence of a predator and convey information about food. Some birds can be seen in TCI throughout the year, while others are present only during the winter or fall and spring migrations periods.

This Reddish Egret was spotted in a salina on Grand Turk.

This Reddish Egret was spotted in a salina on Grand Turk.

Bird migration is the seasonal movement of birds, normally in the north–south direction, along a flyway between breeding and wintering grounds. Migration is driven primarily by favourable environmental conditions and availability of food. Migrating birds navigate using celestial cues from the sun and stars, the earth’s magnetic field, and probably also mental maps.

The geographic location of the Turks & Caicos Islands makes it a popular stopover area and wintering ground for birds that migrate seasonally between temperate regions of North America and the American tropics. Migration has developed independently in different groups of birds and does not appear to require genetic change. While a few birds journey straight over water to their wintering grounds, the majority of birds from eastern North America (USA and Canada) “island hop” from Florida, through the Bahamas and Cuba, TCI, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, then on down the chain of the Lesser Antilles into South America. Each island stop is necessary for the birds to acquire food and rest during their journeys. Every fall season, millions of birds flee cold North America, taking flight for warmer places and plentiful food. Some spend up to nine months in the Caribbean, others stop over for a short time to rest and refuel for longer journeys. These birds have winter and summer homes and find their way back to the same spots each year, as if they have GPS devices in their heads.

There are nine Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in TCI, as designated by BirdLife International. IBAs are critical places for bird conservation, providing essential stopover areas for migratory birds and habitat for one or more resident species of bird. The nine recognized IBAs are on or near North, Middle and East Caicos, Grand Turk, Salt Cay and several small cays. Surprisingly, there are no IBAs on West Caicos, Providenciales or South Caicos. The Pigeon Pond and  Frenchman’s Creek  Nature  Reserve,  Juba  Sound and Flamingo Lake may qualify as IBAs, but further field studies are needed. Similarly, the re-connection of the tidal flow around Boiling Hole in South Caicos may lead to the (re-) establishment of the extensive saltpan area as an internationally important site for waterbirds. The Lake Catherine Nature Reserve in West Caicos would also be a candidate for IBA designation if the required studies are conducted.

For the past several years, different species of migratory birds have been observed in TCI. To name a few, we have White-tailed Tropicbird, Neotropic Cormorant, American Avocet, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis, Whimbrel, Belted Kingfisher, White-crowned Pigeon, Greater Flamingo, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser, Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Snowy Plover, West Indian Whistling-Duck, Cuban Crow, Smooth-billed Anis and Antillean Nighthawk.

The White-tailed Tropicbird soars gracefully over the sea, nesting on island cliffs.

The White-tailed Tropicbird soars gracefully over the sea, nesting on island cliffs.

The White-tailed Tropicbird is a slender-bodied tropicbird with long narrow wings and long tail streamers, which can be missing. It bears a moderate-sized bright orange or yellow bill. This bird is pelagic and nests on island cliffs.

Glossy Ibis is a medium-sized somewhat short-necked wading bird, with a very long, thin, down-curved bill. During the summer months, the adult Glossy Ibis has a reddish-brown head, neck, upper back and underparts. The rest of the body is glossy iridescent bronze-green. The White Ibis is similar to the Glossy Ibis but the bill, facial skin and legs are red.

Whimbrel is a large, heavy-bodied shorebird with moderate-length legs, a relatively short neck and a long down-curved bill.

Belted Kingfisher is a medium-sized, sturdy, big-headed bird with a bushy crest and a long, massive, sharp-pointed bill.

White-crowned Pigeon is a heavy-bodied, broad shouldered, moderately long-tailed pigeon with a long, thin neck and flattened crown.

The Neotropic Cormorant is a rare visitor in TCI, but recently, a huge number were spotted in West Caicos from August to December. Cormorants are large, dark waterbirds with heavy bodies, longish necks and large hooked bills. They dive from the surface and swim to catch fish. Their feathers are wetable, and after diving, they often hold their wings out as they dry.

The American Avocet is a large, long-necked, long-legged shorebird with a distinctly needle-thin, up-curved bill. During the summer months, it has a bold black-and-white pattern on its back, buffy cinnamon head and neck, white underparts and pale bluish legs. This bird loves alkaline shallow water.

Ducks are small waterfowl, with generally moderate-length bodies, short necks and fairy long flattened bills. The sexes of most species look different. Ducks can be divided into dabblers, which feed by tipping up their rear as they reach underwater with their head and take off directly from the water surface, and divers, which feed by diving underwater and usually take off by first running across the water. Male ducks are generally easy to identify due to their distinctive colour patterns which have evolved to attract a mate. Species with similar plumage have fairly marked differences in the shape of the bill and head. Male ducks start out looking like females and gradually acquire their adult male breeding plumage over the first winter. Following the breeding season, male ducks molt into a drab non-breeding plumage (which resembles the female), during which they undergo a wing molt and are flightless during this period. The cryptic plumage provides protection from being spotted by predators when they are most vulnerable. Female ducks generally wear mottled brown plumage year round. The shape of head and bill are the best clues to distinguishing most of them. It is also useful to note the fine details of colours and patterns on the head and bill.

Perched above their ocean pantry are the Royal Tern (at left) and Brown Pelican, the TCI’s national bird.

Perched above their ocean pantry are the Royal Tern (at left) and Brown Pelican, the TCI’s national bird.

The common medium to large, long-legged and long-necked wading birds with spike-like bills are Great Egret, Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Tricolored Heron and Yellow-crown Night-Heron. They live mostly in shallow ponds and feed on a variety of small insects and fish. Brown Pelican, the TCI national bird, is seen throughout the year. It is a very large, heavy bodied, long-winged bird with a very long bill and large pouch. The Brown Pelican is a common sight in the TCI, whether gliding down the wind along the sea’s edge, or diving for small fish.

Being a coastal community, TCI has a lot of seabirds, such as Laughing Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Sooty Tern and Bridled Tern. Gulls are medium-sized to large birds, strongly associated with water. They have large bodies, medium-length necks, and from thin to fairly thick bills. Their legs are fairly short and their feet webbed. The colors of adult birds are white, gray and black while immatures are mainly mottled brown. Gulls are challenging to identify because they do not attain adult plumage until they are three or four years old and many species look alike. Overall body size and proportions and the shape of the bill and head are subtle differences but can be very useful for identification purposes.

Terns are small to large sleeker relatives of gulls. They have pointed bills, long thin wings, and in many cases, long forked tails. Most terns are grey above, white below, with a black cap in summer. Some terns, such as the brown noddy, are mostly dark. Most terns feed through agile diving into water to catch fish, while some also feed on aerial insects.

The Bahama Woodstar is the only hummingbird found in TCI.

The Bahama Woodstar is the only hummingbird found in TCI.

The only hummingbird in TCI is the Bahama Woodstar. The male sports a shimmering purple gorget (patch of colored feathers on the throat or upper breast) and a deeply forked tail edged in black. This little bird plays an important role in pollinating native plants.

In South Caicos, the Magnificent Frigatebirds roost at Small Moxey Bush. Frigatebirds are mostly aerial and have very long thin wings, strongly bent at the wrist and a silhouetted form. Their long, thin tail is strongly forked for more than half its length, and a small head is half the length of a strongly hooked bill. Males have an inflatable red gular pouch, used during breeding displays. Adults are mostly all black except for the gular pouch, which is red and conspicuous when inflated (breeding), orange and inconspicuous the rest of year. Feet are grey to blackish.

Plenty of warblers (Yellow Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Indigo Bunting and American Redstart) can be spotted in various parts of the Islands, especially in small trees near water bodies. Warblers are small and generally colourful birds of woodland habitats. Most have a fine thin bill used to glean insects off leaves and branches. A few species catch aerial insects, and some feed mainly on the ground.

On Grand Turk, there are many important birding sites, considered as IBAs by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, such as the Great Salina, Town Salina and Red Salina. On South Caicos, the salt pans, the wetlands near the airport, Bell Sound pond and the docks attract birds. On North and Middle Caicos, the Flamingo Ponds and Mud Hole Pond, Turn-up Pond and Montpellier Pond are good birding sites. On West Caicos, the Lake Catherine Nature Reserve and Yankeetown are good birding sites. On Providenciales, the Wheeland Ponds, the Provo Golf Course and Juba Sound are excellent birding sites.

Flamingos are a common sight in the shallow ponds on West Caicos.

Flamingos are a common sight in the shallow ponds on West Caicos.

The presence of migratory and resident birds in TCI is an indicator that foods remain abundant, and the environmental conditions are still favorable. If we are not careful, environmentally unfriendly activities and irresponsible development practices will result in habitat degradation, and these birds may be lost from our sightings permanently. Birds need clean wetlands, robust trees and abundant food. The unregulated infilling of wetlands will definitely contribute to the deterioration of TCI as an important bird habitat.

The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA), along with the School for Field Studies on South Caicos, the Turks & Caicos National Trust and the Turks & Caicos National Museum are collecting data on bird sightings, populations and habitats. In partnership with BirdsCaribbean (formerly the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) since 2010, bird monitoring has been carried out year-round. Based on these data, a Bird Checklist for Providenciales has been developed, and plans to produce similar lists for other islands are underway. The information generated by these activities is submitted to BirdsCaribbean, who will process it along with information from other regional partners, in order to better understand bird migration patterns. This is especially important because many of these birds are under pressure throughout their ranges from habitat destruction and other threats. DEMA and BirdsCaribbean offer support to anybody interested in engaging in bird watching and promoting bird tourism in TCI.

For more information on TCI birds, bird monitoring, a bird checklist or to request a bird watching field trip for schools or groups, contact DEMA at (649) 941 5122, email environment@gov.tc or visit www.environment.tc. For more information on BirdsCaribbean, go to www.BirdsCaribbean.org.

Eric F. Salamanca joined the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (formerly DECR) on June 2007 as Scientific Officer. His interest in birds is influenced by his passion for photography. After attending training and meetings sponsored by BirdsCaribbean, he helped organize DEMA’s Bird Monitoring Team and is now serving as the TCI Bird Monitoring Coordinator, in addition to his functions as Environmental Research and Development Officer.



2 Comments

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sally larkin
May 30, 2014 17:49

At Grace Bay, TCI, we saw a group of 6-8 black birds with thick beaks (shaped like a grosbeak). They were smaller than American crows. A local called them black crows. I cannot find similar birds in my books or on line. Please help identify these birds.

Ian
May 1, 2018 10:50

Sally,

Been a long time but I think you may have seen the smooth billed ani (part of the cuckoo family).

Ian

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