bird watching Turks and caicos

As I load my things onto Skyfall, I wonder about the kinds of birds we will be observing during the day. I don’t know much about birds–to be honest, I know almost nothing. But I’m going with Simon Busittil, who leads this fieldwork. Simon, a biosecurity advisor actively working with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands, tells me that he has studied coastal birds for over 40 years, and his mission is to protect the areas that they inhabit.

Skyfall heading out for another epic adventure.


Understanding Coastal Birds and Shorebirds

My first lesson: among the birds known as “coastal birds”, I learn that there is another term known as “shorebirds”. Coastal birds are broad category, since the coast can refer to the shore of a lake, a river, or the coastline of a marine area. When identifying shorebirds specifically, I’m told to look for long beaks, long legs, and perching in wet areas.

Unlike the birds we commonly see in our garden, which are active during the day and sleep at night, coastal birds depend on the tides for their activities. Whether it’s day or night, the tide is the main factor. They usually feed when the tide is low, as their feeding areas are inaccessible when the tide rises. As the tide ebbs, these birds practice what is known as “roosting,” a communal wait: a time for birds to bathe, rest, and sleep in limited but safe and comfortable areas. The impressive thing about this practice is its social aspect! One reason for waiting in groups is that it allows them to share information together about other feeding areas.

Before we begin, Simon advises me: “Counting birds is a science, as well as an art… It’s easier to count birds during roosting time and not while they are feeding. But, just as it’s easy to count them while resting, it’s easy to disturb them.”

In just the first few hours of my time with Simon, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: detailed observation and the sensibility – towards animals being comfortable in my presence. (As Philip taught me during whale watching).

Observation is key, not only for distinguishing between bird species but also for noticing when the tide is high and most importantly: knowing where they perch to rest, since we – humans – tend to be an impacting factor on nature.

A Message for Photographers 

I want to pause for those of us who are into photography (like me). This is a message for those of us who constantly seek “the perfect scene of birds taking flight.” Well, I won’t see it the same way when flying the drone again. 

Simon’s words about human impact extend to us photographers! It’s a common practice to want to use the drone over “deserted” areas… without considering that it might be the habitat of a protected species. A new and severe impact on the behaviour of many birds, including the famous flamingos, is that the use of drones will eventually not only force them to leave these areas but also recognize them as unsafe zones. 

Let’s consider this on our next takeoff. This world is not ours, we share it with thousands of creatures. Small considerations improve our coexistence.

Our first stop: Middle Caicos

When I asked Simon where we would go for this research trip, he told me far away, to the impressive sandbanks near Middle Caicos… to a place called Black Rock. I’ve had the opportunity to explore the Caicos Banks more often since I started working at Big Blue, and on each trip, I learn more about the diversity of wildlife and habitats of the Caicos Islands.

A few metres from Black Rock, we spot a couple of birds standing on the bank, about 15-20 total. I examine the infographic card and Simon points out what kind of birds we’re seeing: the Royal Terns.

Royal Terns are residents of the islands throughout the year. Most of these species can spend almost their entire lives out in the vast ocean, and will return to land only for the purpose of mating, nesting and raising their young on remote banks like this one.

Breeding birds have a distinctive feature unlike older adults or non-breeders, which is evident in the colour of their heads, having black feathers.


Black Rock

At Black Rock, Simon tells us that we can expect to witness thousands of birds wading in this area as the tide is about to rise. I notice mangroves growing here, and new roots sprout from the ground. Arynthia and I share knowledge of different plant species; I show her one of my favourites, a type of algae: the mermaid’s wineglass and she shows me a resilient and edible one: the Salicornia depressa. It feels like we’ve stepped onto another planet.

While we try strips of Salicornia, Simon tells us about a very rare bird species we’re here looking for, with only 9,000 adults worldwide! The Piping Plover.

Plovers are migratory birds and commonly breed on beaches in the northeast of the United States and Canada. But they come to TCI during their migration, approximately from September to March, and this event has been happening for 7 consecutive years. It was only recently that Simon conducted the initial survey, as until 2016, there were approximately no more than 6-7 plovers on the islands. However, with the help of Google Earth and his team, Simon identified potential areas where the Piping Plovers would return. Plovers are picky… they don’t return to just any beach; they return to very specific areas. Different individuals choose the same beach every year: some prefer Delis Cay, and others travel to South Caicos, using only that area year after year.

Several of these individuals have a colored band on their foot, making it easy to identify them and know how many have returned to TCI. The birdwatching team has an individual history for each bird. This has been possible thanks to the TCI Birdwatching Group, who along with Simon, go out to explore different sites with their telescopes. They scan the different areas in search of plovers, and if they see a colored band, they try to take a photo and collect the information for their online database, which returns a record of this individual: where it was born, what year, on which beach, and where else it has been seen. All of this is done with the aim of protecting the various migratory species that visit the islands.

During one of his expeditions, Simon noticed that Black Rock has been chosen by thousands of birds as a resting area. Now, every year during the winter months, he returns to collect more information about which species use this area for their ongoing scientific study.

We head to the west side of the small island, to a wading area that Simon has discovered. Once positioned away from the wading area, we identify the species through the telescope. It’s hard to give the exact number of birds in each count, so the data is collected with a variation between 10-20 birds. This same method is used every year, so that the ornithologists can easily detect a pattern of increase or decrease in the number of birds.

Currently, the numbers have not varied significantly for the last seven years. However, they have found that sightings during November, December, January, and February have been significant, particularly for one species: the short-billed dowitcher, which we observe through the telescope. On this trip, we counted approximately 1,000 dowitchers, but on previous visits in this area, Simon has witnessed around 3,000 individuals. This is a striking number: out of all the Dowitchers existing on the planet, 3% were standing on that piece of rock in front of us, their safe place.

These species aren’t migrating along the same route as the piping plovers. The dowitchers have traveled from the northernmost part of Canada, even Alaska, a flight of approximately 10,000 kilometers… But like many of our tourists, they travel to spend the winter here in Turks.

It’s possible to find these and other species like Willets, Black-Billed Plovers, and Western Sandpipers, who also migrate from the northernmost areas of Canada, feeding near the mangroves and in the Ramsar Preserved Area when the tide is low. When the tide returns, they travel a few kilometers away to Black Rock to rest.

A successful day: my camera full of photos, the battery empty, learning on various levels, and much to reflect upon.

At another time in my life, one where I still didn’t understand this idea of coexistence with other living beings, I would have run towards a flock wading quietly on the beach. Who hasn’t done it? With the sole purpose of seeing them fly, on a whim, and to entertain ourselves… It’s easy to disregard what we don’t understand. Make space for nature, but not just appreciate it but understand it, understand that every living being has a reason to exist and to act.

The next time you see them, remember that the birds are there because it’s a safe place. Let’s not be the ones to make them abandon it.

— Mercedes