Where When How — May/June 2017
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Our Feathered Friends Bird Watching In Our Salt Ponds
Kim Mortimer

IN YEARS GONE BY, THE TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS (TCI) were cited as hiding out at the southern end of The Bahamas. They are now however very much on the radar for many global vacationers. Boasting some of the world's most spectacular coral reefs, soft white beaches and surreal turquoise waters, it has built itself into a luxury destination. While sunbathing, snorkelling and scuba diving might seem like the main attractions on island, one only needs to observe how increasingly popular the range of ecotourism activities are, to know there are many natural attractions to enjoy.

If you are a bird watcher, then the TCI should also be on your radar. The islands are home to over 200 species of birds and the TCI is located on one of the major ‘new world’ migration routes. With a permanent resident population, a migrating winter population, plus a large number of other birds passing through, these islands enjoy being part of the Caribbean’s biodiversity hotspot for birds. Add in the endemic birds and TCI might be considered a birder’s paradise.

Regardless if a bird is a full time resident or a visitor to TCI, they can be found in a wide variety of habitats. Like The rest of its natural wonders, the islands have some truly unique areas to explore for birdlife. One of the distinctive habitats where I like to look for birds is the abandoned salt ponds. The islands of Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay once had extensive coastal flatlands. These flooded naturally during abnormal high tides or winter storms and then baked under the tropical sun. With the water eventually evaporating it left natural deposits of salt crystals. These natural salt ponds saw the beginning of the salt industry with seasonal salt rakers coming to the islands from Bermuda in the late 1600’s. Over the next two hundred years, extensive salt works were built on these islands with about 800 acres of salinas being utilised across the three islands and over 80 miles of walls built to manage the salt production. With the end of the commercial exploitation of salt, these networks of constructed salt ponds have been left mostly derelict with little human activity since the early 1960’s.

Observing birds in the ponds on any of these three islands is relatively easy with many natural viewpoints easily accessible. The variety of birds that one might expect to find in the ponds may include great white egret, reddish egret, tri-colored heron, osprey, brown pelican, black-necked stilt, greater and lesser yellow legs, short-billed dowitcher and the Caribbean flamingo to name a few. The ponds create a reservoir ecosystem that supports the growth of algae, which in turns provides a home for species of fish and crustaceans, in particular shrimp. This then draws a variety of water birds to the dense offering of prey. Besides birds happily taking advantage of the varying seasonal water levels in the ponds, they also take advantage of the walls that were used to divide the saltpans. The walls create a resting area above the surface for them, also somewhere to feed from and sometimes even nesting sites.

The question currently being asked by different research groups is ‘if the ponds are left to continue to be reclaimed by the island with no human activity, will we see a change in bird activity as the ponds are silted in and no longer provide the same ecosystem?’ It is an interesting dilemma that is being looked at closely on South Caicos, with the Boiling Hole being recognised as an area of historical interest with important economical and cultural implications for the island. Besides monitoring closely what happens with the birds over the years to come, maybe we can also look at other salt ponds in the Caribbean for answers.

The Caribbean flamingo might be considered one of the emblem birds of the TCI. It owes its pink colour, at least partially, to the carotene contained in the shellfish it feeds on. Indeed salt ponds and the Caribbean flamingo’s fate might be more closely connected than one might think. Bermudians arrived in Inagua in the southern Bahamas via the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1803 and started harvesting salt. The Morton Salt Company was formed in 1848 and is still in operation there today. The Morton Salt Company's main facility comprises of 300,000 acres on Great Inagua. Through careful management, the salt field has been able to stabilise the ecosystem by supporting and protecting naturally occurring plants and animals, even assisting in bringing the population of protected Caribbean flamingos back from near extinction. The Caribbean flamingo population has risen from a low of 5,000 to current numbers of 50,000 nesting birds.

Nine different Important Bird Areas (IBAs) have been designated and recorded by the Bird Life International in the TCI. These areas are considered as critical habitats for bird conservation in the islands and the whole region. While two of the areas include former salt ponds and adjacent creek areas, the salt ponds on South Caicos are not included. Although it is believed that reinstatement of tidal flow at the Boiling Hole would undoubtedly lead to South’s extensive salt ponds needing to be included as an IBA for water birds.