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EPIC SEABIRD BREEDING ATLAS OF THE LESSER ANTILLES 2009-2010
David and I, aboard Lista Light (our trustee 75 year old sailing boat) are working in partnership with Environmental Protection In the Caribbean (EPIC) in the Lesser Antilles. The reason; to create the first comprehensive Breeding Seabird Atlas for the Lesser Antilles. Records to date have been sporadic and random, many anecdotal. Without a complete baseline data set, it is possible to determine trends in seabird populations, plan conservation measures or attract the funding needed to conserve them. Of course seabirds frequent some pretty hostile islands, which along with a combination of other factors has prevented a thorough census to date. This lead a friend, Sylvie, to comment, ‘ahh I understand, so you are doing a survey of the worst anchorages of the Lesser Antilles!’
Katharine surveying for seabirds at Battowia, David, coaxing Lista away from the blow hole at Petit Canouan and surveying Sail Rock, all St Vincent Grenadines. Photos by Jake Burnyeat and Martha Lea.
David and I started the study in February 2009 on reaching Sint Maarten, after crossing the Atlantic from the UK. There we met Natalia Collier and Adam Brown, presidents of EPIC, the Sint Maarten based charity who we have teamed up with. EPIC does a range of work in the Lesser Antilles from training, EIAs, to surveying and campaigning. To find out more go to, www.epicislands.org
HALF-WAY NUMBER CRUNCHING
From February to July 2009 we sailed the Lesser Antilles searching for seabird colonies. Now at the midpoint in the project, some number crunching:
· Number of Countries/Territories: 9
· Number of Days at Sea: 144
· Number of Islands/Islets: 130
· Number of Miles covered: 1110
· Number of seasons: 2 / 4
· Number of Media releases (TV/Radio/Print): 33
· Number of People presented to: 770
· Number of Schools presented to: 11
(Red-billed Tropic Bird – (sub-adult) St Eustatius, by Hannah Leslie. Looking to St Kitts from St Eustatius (Lowries)
FIELD SURVEYS FOR BREEDING SEABIRDS
The main emphasis of the work is to collect breeding seabird data, so, from Anguilla (Sombrero) in the North to Grenada in the South of the Lesser Antilles archipelago, we are mapping every seabird colony. This involves first viewing the islands on Lista Light for appropriate breeding habitat, then, if at all possible boarding the island to count the colony. Boarding varies from swimming ashore with dry bags, finding a way through the surf, boulders and urchins; kayaking to the island or more recently dinghying to the island. Then it’s a case of picking our way through cacti fields, acacia stands or scrambling up a ‘ghut’ (gulley).
David surveying on Battowia, St Vincent Grenadines, Katharine counting Red-billed Tropicbirds on Saba, Katharine with Megan (3rd from left) with St Eustatius National Park Staff surveying for Red-billed Tropicbirds.
Seabirds observed using islands for hunting, roosting or loafing are recorded as additional data to help widen the pool of knowledge on areas important to seabirds. We also record evidence of threats to seabirds, placing rat traps on islands to determine their presence/absence and noting signs of predators such as: mongoose, cats, dogs, monkeys and humans. High numbers of goats and other herbivores can also affect seabirds by over-grazing suitable nesting habitat or trampling nests.
Study Area: Anguilla (Sombrero) Sint Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius, St Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Barbuda, Antigua, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and the Grenadines.
The study area includes all the countries/territories above, plus all offshore islands. It does not include the French Islands or Babados, as they have already collected comprehensive data on breeding seabirds, which will be included in the final Atlas.
The study is organised into two parts (breeding seasons) per year. In 2009, we sailed south from Sint Maarten to St Lucia surveying seabird colonies between February and March/April within the ‘winter’ season and continued from May- June surveying from St Vincent-Grenada in the peak ‘summer’ season. In 2010, we will do the opposite, surveying the southern islands in the winter season (January- March) and the northern islands in the summer season (May-July). The premise behind the approach is to produce a spread of breeding records- some seabirds nest all year round (perhaps with peaks at the start of the year) such as Brown Boobies, Red-footed Boobies and Brown Pelicans. The migrants (terns and gulls) and resident Royal Tern breed between May- July. By repeating the surveys we should achieve a broader data set for breeding seabirds and data for residents and migrants.
Brown Boobies, Diamond Rock, Grenada (Lowries).
THE SEA BIRD SPECIES and the THREATS
There are a disputed twenty-one/ twenty-two breeding seabirds in the Lesser Antilles (scientists do not agree on whether certain species are species or ‘sub-species’). These include the spectacular Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens, Brown Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus, Brown Booby Sula leucogaster and ‘butterfly’ like terns. Nesting habitat destruction and disturbance, introduced predators such as rats, mongooses, goats and cats, the collapse of fisheries and degradation of feeding grounds, threaten all the species. People still harvest adult birds, chicks and eggs on some islands. This may have been acceptable practice historically, but is likely unsustainable based on current breeding populations. Eight of the breeding species are considered at risk regionally (more comprehensive data will better inform this) and one species the Black-capped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata is ranked as ‘critically endangered’ by IUCN. The Jamaican Petrel Pterodroma caribbaea is believed extinct (IUCN).
Today, seabirds are believed to be at a fraction of the original millions thought to have once nested in the West Indies before man discovered the islands and the bountiful protein snacks awaiting him. Seabirds evolved on the islands without mammalian predators (bats and perhaps a mouse species, were the only mammals in the Lesser Antilles prior to human colonisation). Their habit of nesting on the ground in large colonies deemed them easy prey for both humans and the introduced predators. This is known through the work of archaeologists who have unearthed middens packed full of seabird remains and from historic texts. The other issue is that many of the species are loyal to only a few traditional nesting sites. Should any of these sites be threatened than a significant proportion of the population will be lost irreparably.
2009: FINDINGS TO DATE
Go to www.epicislands.org/ for the findings from the 2009 study in the SEABIRD BREEDING ATLAS OF THE LESSER ANTILLES, INTERIM REPORT.
Katharine teaching Mustique primary school about why seabirds are important, seabird fieldwork training with Amos Glasgow and Fitzroy Springer, St Vincent Government Forestry staff and David presenting to islanders and sailors in Sint Maarten (Lowries).
As well as the field work, David and I (and Megan Friesen who worked with us throughout 2009) undertake outreach within the study area. This involves firstly gaining consent from governments to undertake the work and then discussing seabird conservation and priorities with them, as well as training in seabird identification and field methods. Last year, we presented to various environmental interest groups, universities, schools, colleges, diving centres, sailors, fishermen and even a police and church group.... whoever wishes to contribute to seabird conservation in the Caribbean. We also promoted the project and seabirds on the TV, local radio stations and through papers and magazines. In July we presented the project findings at the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSC) in Antigua www.scscb.org . This year we are launching a poster competition to raise the awareness of seabirds amongst school children in the study area:-
POSTER COMPETION: Calling all schools in the Lesser Antilles,
Red-billed Tropicbird in nest with chick, St Eustatius (Lowries)
Sint Maarten based charity, Environmental Protection In the Caribbean’ (EPIC) is launching a poster competition as part of the Seabird Breeding Atlas of the Lesser Antilles project. The competition is open to all schools in the study area from Grenada to Anguilla.
Judges are looking for a design that is eye catching and will raise the profile of seabirds in the Caribbean. Work should address why seabirds are important to people and the environment and why they are important in their own right. Entrants might consider their links to fishermen, Caribbean culture, role in the marine food web etc. For ideas you could look at the EPIC website www.epicislands.org , SCSCB website www.scscb.org, Birdlife website www.birdlife.org and project partner’s website: http://www.listalight.co.uk/webpages/seabirdspecies.htm .
Age categories:6-9, 10-13, 14-18. Any size poster, media of your choice (i.e. paints, textiles, mixed media, relief etc). Words can be included in the image, but are not mandatory. The poster must be photographed/ scanned and the signature of the Principle of the entrant’s school attached and sent via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The address, telephone number, email and contact information for the school and student should also be included.
Closing Date: April 30 2010. Winners will be announced in June 2010.
Prizes: One winner in each category, with a prize to the student and the student’s school.
Student’s prize: book- “Birds of the West Indies’’, pair of binoculars, poster displayed in press and government building.
School’s prize: book- “Birds of the West Indies’’ and $EC 300 “Book Token” to purchase books on nature conservation, addressed to the principal of the school.
Prizes generously donated by Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB), Bird Life International (BLI) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (BLI).
Brown Pelican with ‘meal’, Trinidad; Female Magnificent Frigatebird, Battowia, St Vincent Grenadines. (Lowries and Burnyeat & Lea)
NEW SURVEY YEAR: 2010
David and I have started field work in Grenada, after Devi and Hunter of yacht Arctic Tern, have generously donated their dinghy to us for surveying. We have discussed the 2009 results and future seabird conservation measures with the Grenada Government and presented to: St George’s University, St Andrew’s Anglican Secondary School, Anglican High School and Phare Bleu Marina in Grenada and Secondary Government School, Hillsborough, Carriacou.
In February, David Wingate (eminent Bermudan ornithologist) is joining us to search for the critically endangered Black-capped Petrel Pterodroma hasitata off Dominica. Black-capped Petrel occur in much depleted breeding colonies in Haiti and the Dominican Republic today. The species also historically bread in the Lesser Antilles, breeding on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique where it nested commonly in the 19th century, but is now long extirpated. Black-capped Petrels have been seen off the coast and inland on the island of Dominica in more recent years, with a bird found on land in suitable nesting habitat (high up in steep rainforest, where it nests in cavities or excavates a burrow).
Boat Flag- Painting of the Black-capped Petrel (K. Lowrie)
In September 2010 we will begin the analysis of the data and the write up of the Seabird Breeding Atlas of the Lesser Antilles. This will be published at the end of the year and will be available to all online, with hardcopies given to all participating countries within the study area.
Katharine and David at the helm of Lista Light, with the Devon County flag and British Ensign!