Birdlife International's Julian Hughes was sent to Anguilla earlier this year on a conservation fact finding mission. This is his report.
By Julian Hughes
This report is the result of a one month trip to Anguilla in January and February 2000. The purpose of the visit was to identify potential Important Bird Areas (IBAs) as part of BirdLife Internationals Americas conservation programme and to produce the first country checklist for Anguilla, on behalf of the Anguilla National Trust. This meant that I was in the field almost every day and so was able to visit most of the sites more than once. A full list of the birds seen during the visit is provided at the end of this report, but I am in the process (with the help of other birding visitors to Anguilla) of putting together a comprehensive list of the birds of the islands. I hope that this will be available from the offices of the Anguilla National Trust (near the library in The Valley) from late 2000.
Anguilla is the most northerly of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. The main island is 16 miles long and 3 miles wide (at its widest point), running almost east to west, 18 degrees north of the equator. At 35 square miles, Anguilla is a small island, dominated by scrub, with 18 brackish ponds of various sizes. In addition, there are several smaller islands, some of which are inhabited (Sombrero, by lighthouse-keepers; Prickly Pear east, by a restaurant; and Scrub Island, by a private house) and others which are not (Anguillita, Dog Island and Prickly Pear west).
Anguilla is one of five UK Overseas Territories in the Caribbean. Responsibility for the administration of the island falls to the Governor. However, for most Territories, there are limited data available on the birds and sites. In Anguilla, some information about the birds of the islands was collated in 1996 by Roy Thomas, an American birder, with the help of local people interested in birds, and numeric information about the seabirds on Sombrero and the other islands were compiled as part of an Environmental Impact Assessment undertaken by Beal Aerospace in summer 1998 and 1999 and by a Rapid Environmental Assessment carried out by Tony Murray in November 2000.
Without doubt, Birds of the West Indies by Herbert Raffaele et al is the best field guide for the region. It includes all the species known to occur in Anguilla. I also found it useful to have a North American field guide (National Geographic, Peterson or the Golden Guide) to provide additional plates of waders (shorebirds), which are not well depicted in BWI. There is no dedicated bird book for Anguilla, but the Anguilla National Trust has produced a Field Guide to Anguillas Wetlands, which details the main ponds and the wildlife not just birds likely to be found. It is available from the Anguilla National Trust offices in The Valley, where staff may be able to answer any additional queries about wildlife of the island.
Getting to and staying in Anguilla
Anguilla is not a cheap place for a holiday! It is one of the more expensive and up-market islands of the Caribbean chain, with a handful of holiday complexes, which can cost upward of $300 per night. There are a few smaller hotels in the main settlement The Valley contact the Tourist Information Centre for details.
I found that the cheapest way to get to Anguilla was a flight from Heathrow to Paris and then the daily 747 flight to St Maarten, the Dutch/French island which lies a few miles to the south of Anguilla. I took a US$10 taxi ride to Marigot Bay and then the ferry (for another US$10) to Blowing Point on the south coast of Anguilla. A plane also makes the journey from St Maarten to Anguilla, but is much more expensive. The alternative, but more expensive routes, are from London to Anguilla via Florida and Puerto Rico, or London to Anguilla via Antigua.
Tourism is the principal source of money for the Anguillan economy. There are relatively few things to do on the island: white beaches, sailing, snorkelling and diving are the main sources of daytime entertainment, and there are a handful of bars and a single nightclub for the evening though the action doesnt get started until close to midnight.
For birders, there probably isnt a sufficient range of habitats to fulfil an entire holiday, but there is enough to keep an interest for a week, or perhaps for a fortnight if combining birding with watersports.
Principal habitats in Anguilla
Anguilla has a low karstic (weathered coral) structure, with spray-pitted and wave-washed limestone, in stark contrast to the more elevated, volcanic structure of neighbouring islands to the south.
From the air, it is apparent how much of Anguilla is uncultivated. An estimated 80% of the island is covered in scrub, in many places right down to the shoreline. Across much of the island, this is interspersed with small agricultural holdings or housing, but in the Katouche Valley and across the north of the island, it is more complete. Buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), sagecop (Lantana involucrata), loblolly (Pisonia subcordata), white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa), frangipani (Plumeria alba) and white cedar (Tabebuia pallida) are the dominant plants in the dry areas, while manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) and both red (Rhizophora mangle)and black mangroves (Avicenna germinans) are found around the wetlands; seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) is more coastal. Since European colonists arrived in the late seventeenth century, areas have been cleared for sugar cane, tobacco and cotton plantations during different periods (the latter flourishing until the 1930s to service the mills of Lancashire). Low rainfall and poor soil meant that exploitation was never on the scale of neighbouring Caribbean islands. The scrub would seem able to recover fairly quickly from low-input agricultural use: areas which were cultivated less than a decade ago have returned to scrub.
There are around 20 ponds around the island, varying in size from large, open ponds (e.g. Road Bay Salt Pond) to small ponds with considerable vegetation around the margins (e.g. Mimi Bay Pond). For birds, the ponds are undoubtedly the most important habitat on the Anguilla mainland, used both for breeding and as passage/ wintering refuges. All the ponds contain some salt, since there is no freshwater on the island (there are a few springs, but these are all reported to be brackish to some extent); most ponds are filled by run-off from rain in September-December, with coastal ponds topped up by seawater during storms. Some of the larger ponds were exploited for salt, generally for export to other Caribbean islands, but this ceased during the 1970s, causing major unemployment (the ponds were at their height of production when the petroleum industry changed its processing techniques and the market disappeared). Experimental shrimp farming (at Long Pond) and desalination (Cauls Pond) also proved short-lived; there is no longer commercial exploitation of any of the ponds on the island.
There are three main coastal habitats: cliffs, sandy shore and rocky shore. The main cliffs are on the north side of West End (mostly limestone, but some sandstone, rising to 60 feet); Isaacs Cliff, between Long Bay and Sandy Ground (rising to 100 feet); Katouche/Crocus Bay, between Road Point and Little Bay (rising to 200 feet); and east of Island Harbour (rising to 100 feet). The sandy cliffs hold small numbers of (apparently) breeding red-billed tropicbirds.
There are 33 beaches around the island (accounting for 19 km of the shorelines 113 km), most of which have tourist developments nearby. Few of the beaches were very busy during this visit, even though it was the peak season (Meads Bay being an exception), but the bird interest is generally limited to small numbers of turnstones and sanderlings; brown pelicans and royal terns use the shallow bays for feeding.
The remainder of the coast (particularly the north shore and the two extremes of the island) are limestone pavement, much of which is pocked and friable as a result of water-erosion (extreme care has to be taken when walking on it). Scrub grows on the limestone where it can, but cacti (particularly Popes Head Cactus Melocactus intortus) is the predominant vegetation, especially in exposed areas which even the seagrape cannot tolerate. Again, the bird interest is limited to turnstones (for feeding) and brown pelicans (for resting). It may be that magnificent frigatebirds and brown boobies use these areas to roost during or immediately after the breeding season.
Several of the offshore islands hold large numbers of breeding seabirds. Difficult sea conditions (the swell to the north of Anguilla remains significant into February, with advisory warnings for small crafts on most days) limited my visits to Sombrero, Dog Island and Prickly Pear West. The only islands viewable from the mainland are the western tip of Scrub Island and the east side of Anguillita. No seabirds were observed using these latter two islands, though only a small proportion of Scrub Island can be seen from Westward Point.
Conservation in Anguilla
Biodiversity conservation is a relatively new concept in Anguilla. Prior to 1988, there was little structured environmental activity on the island, though some legislation had already been introduced (e.g. Wild Birds Protection Ordinance, no.11 in 1972; Protection of Animals Act, no.8 in 1977, Marine Parks Ordinance, no.10 in 1982).
In 1988, the National Trust Ordinance was passed, setting up a quasi-statutory organisation, the Anguilla National Trust, half of whose Council members are elected by the membership and half appointed by the Governor. Like much else in Anguilla, these political appointments slowed the process of development considerably, and it was not until 1993 that the Anguilla National Trust was formed.
In 1989, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) funded an environmental education co-ordinator, who started to organise a structured programme. This undertook a series of tasks, including the incorporation of environmental issues into the school curriculum, the creation of environmental clubs in schools (some of which are still in existence) and, in 1993, a ballot to vote for a national bird. The latter event, which resulted in one-third of the population casting a vote and the zenaida dove becoming national bird, remains one of the highest profile public-involvement environmental events in Anguilla.
In 1993, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) undertook an Assessment of the Critical Environmental Issues Facing Anguilla for the Government. It made a series of recommendations, on education, land-use planning, biodiversity conservation, agriculture, fisheries, protected areas, coastal erosion/sea-level rise, water supply, pollution control, waste management, archaeology and built heritage.
Although some of the recommendations have been taken forward, the bulk have not. In order to move biodiversity conservation and protected areas forward, WWF-UK and the Anguilla National Trust, funded by the UK governments Darwin Initiative, has appointed Tom McCarthy for 18 months (from January 2000) to look at ways to introduce new conservation legislation and to develop the capacity for both statutory agencies and NGOs to develop the structures necessary to protect the most important areas for wildlife in Anguilla.
The Anguilla National Trust has been the sole voice promoting wildlife conservation on the island, since funding for the UNEP programme ceased. Among these has been a five year moratorium on catching turtles for food (this ends in 2001) and the production of a Field Guide to Anguillas Wetlands, focusing on the birds to be found around the islands 20 ponds.
Birds in Anguilla
The wetlands and the offshore islands hold the main interest for birders. The ponds hold a reasonable mix of shorebirds, ducks and other waterbirds, such as herons and egrets. Many winter in Anguilla, but a few remain throughout the year (particularly plover species) and others are on passage from January to April and September to November. There would appear to be a great deal of interchange of birds between the ponds. During my visit, in the wake of one of the most severe hurricanes to hit the island during the twentieth century, the water level was high in most of the ponds hence the variety and number of birds seen during winter 1999/2000 may not be typical. The water level drops rapidly during spring so that, by summer, several are completely dry.
The breeding season for the seabirds varies according to species. The boobies (brown and masked), for example, would appear to breed throughout the year. The red-billed tropicbirds are winter breeders, with adults incubating during January. The terns and noddies, on the other hand, arrive from South America in April (except for royal tern which is year-round) and breed during the summer months by the tens of thousand.
Relatively few birds inhabit the scrub, but since passerines generally come off worst after a hurricane, my visit may not have been typical. There were certainly plenty of bananaquits and grassquits and reasonable numbers of yellow warblers, some of which were breeding. Hummingbirds, however, were very difficult to find, and one species may actually have been extirpated from Anguilla by Hurricane Luis in 1995.
Birding in Anguilla is about blazing new trails. It has places that a rarely watched, so you could find almost anything during my trip, I recorded four species that were new for the country (ruddy duck, hooded merganser, sora rail and red knot). How many countries can you visit and do that?! If you visit, please pass a copy of your sightings to the Anguilla National Trust to contribute to the national record.
The daytime temperature in January/February is generally in the high 20s/low 30s (centigrade). I found that birding was best between dawn (around 6.30 am) and 9.30 am, and again from 4.30 pm until dusk (around 6.30 pm), with the hottest part of the day best spent in the shade or snorkeling.
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