Discoveries & Mysteries

TCI birding: Questions answered; questions raised.

By Simon Busuttil

There are around 11,000 species of birds in the world. “Around” because the number changes all the time. Totally new species are fairly frequently discovered, and a thankfully few (as yet) others are deemed extinct, but most of the changes occur through “splitting” existing species. These “splits” come about either when increased observation or research, or new scientific techniques such as DNA analysis, identify that races or sub-species of an existing single species are deemed sufficiently different to be considered different species despite superficially appearing the same. One, the widespread Rufous Antpitta Grallaria rufula of the Peruvian Andes has just been split—after years of taxonomic debate and research—into 16 different species!

An endemic species is one found only in one place. Almost anyone with an appreciation of the natural world knows that islands are hotbeds of endemism. That is, because of their geographic isolation, most islands are home to species found nowhere else in the world. 

This is one of 77 Piping Plovers found on the inter-tidal flats at Sand Bore Cay in the Turks & Caicos Islands in January, 2022.

Being an island-based species does come with downsides, particularly being more vulnerable to factors such as hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, habitat loss, or the introduction of predators or other damaging non-native species. Only about 10% of the world’s bird species are found on islands but 47% of the world’s threatened bird species are. Many island species have small populations given the limited land area that they cover and islands are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic changes.

Biogeographically, Turks & Caicos are two of the banks that make up the Lucayan Archipelago. Nature does not generally conform to national boundaries, so a systematic list of bird species of TCI is very much an artificial affair. That in itself does not mean that the list has no value. Politics and thus nature conservation policy are man-made affairs, and a national bird list and the associated status of each species can and should be an important tool in helping national governments carry out their moral—and in some instances internationally legal—duty to help conserve the world’s bird species.

A systematic list with the status of each species can also be a useful tool in encouraging birdwatchers to visit a country. The worldwide bird tourism market is huge. In the USA alone it was valued at $32 billion in 2012, according to the United Nations. Central to visiting a country to watch birds is having an idea of what species are there and what the chances are of seeing a certain species. This is one value of the systematic list.

Over 700 of the earth’s bird species are found in the Caribbean. Of these, 171 are endemic—found only in the area. The larger islands of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba each support over 30 endemic bird species and the Lucayan Archipelago just 8 endemic bird species. TCI has no endemic species of bird, but one of the Lucayan endemics, the Bahama Woodstar (our “hummingbird”) is a familiar resident species. TCI is thus never going to “compete” as a birdwatching destination with the likes of many other Caribbean countries which draw birdwatchers  from around the world.

That said, over 200 bird species have been recorded in the Turks & Caicos Islands. There is a good range of species, some accessible sites, and many species can be approached quite closely as there is no tradition of hunting. With few birdwatchers and sparse historic records there are opportunities to get away from the crowds—which can be difficult in some hot spots in popular regions—and make your own discoveries.

From a birdwatching point of view, TCI is both under-watched and under-recorded. There are few resident or visiting birdwatchers and birders. Additionally, there is no bird club or strong network of recording and sharing sightings. The online citizen science portal eBird (www.eBird.org) has helped, as anyone can log their sightings which are then reviewed by a network of regional experts. The sightings can then be viewed by anyone.

To be able to look after our birds, to conserve them, we need to know what species occur here, how many of each and where they are. This is where birdwatchers can contribute their sightings and records as data to support the science of conservation. Once these questions are answered, then conservation planning—protecting the important areas—can be implemented as part of the National Development Plan and the moral and legal imperatives to protect the world’s wonderful bird species can be met.

So then, what is TCI important for? What do we know and what more do we need to find out? Given the country’s ongoing rapid development and the needs of the humans living here, on what and where should we spend our political, social, and financial capital protecting?

These Short-billed Dowitchers are congregating on the Middle Caicos Banks in January, 2022. They are part of the flock that comprises 3% of the world’s population.

The Piping Plover Charadrius melodus is a federally protected species in both USA and Canada. It is also an incredibly cute little ball of fluff that spends its summers and winters on beaches around 1,000 miles apart. Like other beach-living species, it suffers from increased development and human recreational use of beaches throughout its range. Having implemented significant protective programs in its breeding range in small areas on the Great Plains, around the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic coast, authorities in North America realised that as numbers were not increasing, the problem lay elsewhere.

The plover was known to spend its winters on the southeast and Gulf coasts of the USA, but regular counts of birds in these largely accessible and well-watched areas could not account for the whole known population. A significant number were missing. Upon instigating an international Piping Plover census, several hundred were “discovered” wintering, widely dispersed in The Bahamas in 2006 and 2011, and in January 2016 a team from North America successfully searched likely habitat for this species in TCI, finding 96 birds.

Since then, teams have visited TCI almost every January to look for Piping Plovers. We now know that around 200 spend the winter with us at several key sites. The area between South Caicos and East Caicos is particularly important, with almost half of our birds on the inter-tidal flats around Sand Bore, Plandon and McCartney Cays. A further 30 stay on Little Ambergris Cay.

The sixth and final year of the TCI Piping Plover survey was undertaken by a local team of six birdwatchers in February 2022. We now have a very good idea of how many of this Globally Threatened species are here in TCI and which areas are important for them.

All surveys have also searched for birds “banded” with individually identifiable coloured plastic rings or flags on their legs at their breeding sites. With a good telescope or camera these are legible in the field, allowing individual birds to be sighted and reported. From this we know that the birds spending the winter in TCI come from eastern Canada and northeastern USA, a flight of around 1,200 miles each way with stops at coastal sites in Virginia and North Carolina en route.

This long migration is why disturbance on their wintering grounds is such an important issue for Piping Plovers. They need to be in peak physical condition to make the flight home to their nesting areas and breed.  Disturbance has been shown conclusively to reduce this physical fitness. Birds feed less and are more stressed and this has a direct impact on their subsequent survival and breeding success.

We need to consider taking this species’ needs into account in certain key areas such as the south side of Half Moon Bay. This is also a bird of open spaces and many of its favoured haunts such as the sandy spits on Dellis, Fort George, and Dickish Cays are being squeezed by the remorseless increase of the invasive Australian pine or Casuarina. This tree favours the disturbed or newly created habitat at the backs of beaches, and it casts a physical shadow which many species appear to avoid.  Removing it as the Turks & Caicos National Trust is now doing at Half Moon Bay will make more of the beach available to birds like Piping Plovers.

There is another small plover that is rapidly declining across its world range (North America and Mexico) and about which there is growing concern. The Snowy Plover Charadrius nivosus is superficially similar to the Snowy Plover and nests on beaches and saline flats. There are twice as many in the world as Piping Plovers, but unlike the Piping Plover population—which has been the subject of intense co-ordinated conservation management and is now stable and maybe increasing—Snowy Plovers are thought to be declining and are not (yet) the subject of international co-ordinated effort.

Records in TCI suggest that it was just recently more widespread and common here. Small numbers are most regularly seen in winter on the salinas on Grand Turk and more frequently, South Caicos. However, the species was thought to breed here a few of decades ago—even on Providenciales. I have not seen one yet despite having spent hundreds of hours in the field, often in likely habitats such as saline lagoons at North West Point Preserve. We just don’t know what is happening and need to find out if we are to contribute at all to the effective action that needs to take place to conserve this charming and vulnerable little bird.

Members of the survey team count migratory waders on the Middle Caicos Banks in January, 2022.

In January 2017, the Piping Plover survey team visited the areas of sand flats exposed at low tide around Black Rock on the Caicos Banks a few miles south of Middle Caicos. There we found the single most important area in TCI for migrant waders from North America. Around 3,500 birds were using this concentrated area. Among them we found another wading bird of global conservation concern. Breeding in the high Arctic, some Red Knots fly 18,000 miles annually on their migrations. We found 400 roosting at high tide on the Middle Caicos Banks, though we still do not know where they all go to feed. Previously, only a few had ever been recorded in TCI and this is by far the largest population found in the Caribbean—a real surprise. Surveyors have returned to this site several times and we have consistently recorded large numbers of birds here. There were almost 5,000 wading birds in this small area in January 2020, including 3% of the entire world population of Short-billed Dowitchers. This is a migratory wader from the sub-Arctic that can often be seen close-up in much smaller numbers at places like Wheeland Pond on Providenciales or many of the salinas.

A bird on which there is less focus these days (compared to 20 years ago) is the West Indian Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arborea. As its name suggests, it is a Caribbean endemic and unlike the wading birds discussed above, does not migrate. Hunted for food and sport and suffering from the destruction of its habitats and from predation by introduced predators like cats, this crepuscular and nocturnal species underwent years of decline. It is now recovering largely due to public awareness and education campaigns across the region.

At the height of concern for this species in 1999, surveys were carried out across likely areas of habitat in TCI but no large, previously undiscovered population were found here and the species’ status remained as it was; a scarce breeding resident possibly moving between smaller cays and the larger islands in search of food and water. With recovery taking place across many parts of its range, there is less concern for this species here now. It will probably continue to exist largely secretively in small numbers, particularly in the east of the archipelago.

That said, we should still look after this enigmatic species. New threats can arise quickly. Destruction or inappropriate development of a key wetland on somewhere like East Caicos could be the loss of a key link in the chain of sites that this species needs. This would be a shame. This species may be a more important part of TCI’s natural and cultural heritage than currently thought. There is an interesting reference to it being domesticated on Salt Cay in the 1930s quoted in the Birds of the Southern Bahamas by D.W. Buden. I have not yet found any other reference to this species being domesticated anywhere else.

An observation made by many birdwatchers from temperate climes when they visit the Caribbean is just how few seabirds there are given the vast areas of food-filled seas and numerous islands for nesting. The explanation for this unexpected scenario has been given in terms of trophic levels; tropical seas are like tropical forests, very complex, giving rise to a great variety of species none of which was present in vast numbers. Think of a coral reef. The temperate and polar seas, on the other hand, gave rise to far fewer species, but in productive areas many fish and seabird species occur in vast numbers. Think of the vast shoals of herring or a penguin colony. 

We now understand from both written records and archaeological remains that human colonisation of the Caribbean brought about two factors which have, almost unbelievably, led to a loss of between 90 and 99% of the seabirds that once bred here. Harvesting of seabirds and their eggs on their breeding islands has almost certainly been a part of every colonisation event, temporary or permanent, over the thousands of years of human history.Today it is often functionally replaced by high levels of disturbance. Seabirds are long-lived species that reproduce slowly—many just lay a couple of eggs per year. Pressure on these populations, for instance when eggs don’t hatch because they are taken or are abandoned, inevitably leads to declines.  

With European colonisation came the additional pressure of the introduction of non-native predatory species such as cats and rats to most islands, and on some, mongooses were introduced to control the previously introduced rats. The impact of introduced predators on species which previously had no experience with them is described in a seminal paper from our own Pine Cay. John Iverson studied Turks & Caicos Rock Iguanas Cyclura carinata there before, during, and after the construction of the Meridian Hotel in 1973/74. His 1978 paper describes the numbers of iguanas falling from over 15,000 to fewer than 30 as a result of predation by cats and dogs introduced to the island by construction workers. Elsewhere, other non-predatory species such as goats significantly change the vegetation on islands which had never had a significant population of grazing animals and the plant communities of which changed through grazing.

With over 250, mainly uninhabited, cays it is no surprise that 15 of the 23 Caribbean species of seabirds breed in TCI. Counts of breeding seabirds in TCI from some 15 years ago suggest that there are about 60,000 pairs of seabirds breeding here, mainly on those cays on the edge of the banks that are adjacent to oceanic waters, but there are small numbers across the country even still on Providenciales itself. Since the counts were made much has happened which may have impacted on these important populations—from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to significantly increased numbers of tourists and residents which may cause added disturbance.  

Shown here are three of TCI’s breeding seabirds at the National Trust’s Wheeland Pond on Providenciales, one of the best sites in TCI to watch and photograph birds.

It is important that we get a clearer understanding of how our breeding seabirds are doing and areas they currently use. This data can inform planning and development decisions so that this asset is not damaged further. There are plans for a full survey of all TCI’s breeding seabirds over the next few years using both human surveyors and a range of recently developed technology such as drones, remote cameras, and acoustic recording. The latter will be particularly important to help understand how many Audubon’s Shearwaters Puffinus Iherminien there still are in the Islands. These birds breed in burrows so are particularly vulnerable to predation by rats. They are also nocturnal so are rarely encountered. They are still here though. Small flocks can be seen beyond the reef in Grace Bay during the spring and summer.

The Turks & Caicos Islands are blessed with natural beauty. The threat of destruction from development is obvious but if there is to be a vibrant economy and homes and jobs for people then this is the inevitable trade-off that must be made. There are though far more insidious threats which degrade and eat away at the remaining natural areas. even those protected through legislation. Many of these arise directly from Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS), species which have been introduced either deliberately or accidentally to these islands. The negative impacts of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and alien Lionfish on TCI’s valuable reef and marine life have been effectively communicated locally by the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund and Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR).

On land, Green Iguanas Iguana iguana are already present in small numbers on Providenciales. The DECR, National Trust, and volunteers are catching and euthanising them when found. This creature is a significant economic pest. The Cayman Islands Government has just spent over $8 million removing over 1.2 million of these animals from Grand Cayman, an island just twice the size of Providenciales, and will have to spend valuable resources into the foreseeable future managing a species which should simply not be there. If we want to keep TCI “Beautiful by Nature,” we need to work together to keep this species out. A project funded by the UK Government through Darwin Plus is currently underway to highlight the threat this species poses to both the natural environment and the economy of the Islands.  

This typical Australian Pine woodland in TCI demonstrates how no native plants grow under the alien trees.

What does this have to do with the systematic list of birds of TCI? Another invasive non-native species is the Australian Pine Casuarina equisetifolia which is widespread at the back of beaches and on disturbed ground across the Islands, particularly on the north shore. Around human settlements it has a function of creating shade and is appreciated for the sound of the wind blowing through its leaves. In natural areas it is a disaster, shading out native vegetation that is food for the endemic Rock Iguanas. It was noticeable during our Piping Plover surveys that the birds avoid beaches where tall Australian pine trees create a shadow effect and in January/February 2022, we identified that many sandy spits being used by the plovers as roosts at high tide were beginning to be hemmed in by Australian pines.   

We do not know what impact the further spread and growth of these trees will have on this marvellous migratory wader for which so much effort is being put into saving by communities in North America. A precautionary principle should be applied, and areas of Australian Pine quickly removed from Piping Plover roost sites, all of which have been identified. At Half Moon Bay, where National Trust volunteers are removing this tree, the plovers were clearly feeding adjacent to areas which had been cleared but not areas backed by tall trees. This is active conservation management and it seems likely that to counter the threats from invasive alien species and to balance the impacts of development, more of these initiatives will need to be developed and implemented in the future if we are to keep our piping plovers, flocks of migrant waders and cays of breeding seabirds.

There is already a largely unsung story to be told about a world-leading conservation success in Turks & Caicos. Over the past decade or so, over $2.7 million has been invested in the conservation of the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana, resulting in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature uplifting the conservation status of the species from Critically Endangered (one step short of extinction in the wild) to Endangered. To date, this is the only one of the 44 species of iguana worldwide which has had a genuine positive change in fortune. Part of this success story is on Pine Cay, where the cats introduced in the mid 1970s have now been successfully removed.Pine Cay is thus one of a small but growing number of islands worldwide (currently fewer than 100) which has successfully removed feral cats.

Turks & Caicos has a proven track record of conservation success. We need to build on this and identify what are the further challenges we need to tackle.

Simon Busuttil is Biosecurity Advisor for The Iguana Islands Partnership.The partnership is a collaboration between Turks & Caicos National Trust, Turks & Caicos Government, private island managers, and international wildlife conservation organisations—The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, San Diego Zoo, and Wildlife Management International Ltd. The partnership, with funding from the Darwin Initiative, is working to ensure Turks & Caicos’ iguana islands remain “Beautiful by Nature.”

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