Flamingos of Anegada

 

FLAMANGOS RETURN TO ANEGADA, BVI

by – Nancy Terrell

 

This may be the season of rushing and racing but Caribbean bird lovers have something else on their minds.  Not a pink and racy yacht but a pink and spectacular bird – the flamingo. In tune with spring, the BVI National Parks Trust (NPT) has recently introduced a new T-shirt design to commemorate the return of these bright and beautiful birds to the British Virgin Islands.  BVI artist Ann St. Ives designed the rendering of two of the large flamingos and the slogan “After 50 years, Flamingos return home, British Virgin Islands.”

The flamingo story is interesting and begins in 1832 when R. H. Schomburgk, a German naturalist, reported seeing flocks of hundreds of flamingos on, what is now called, Anegada’s Flamingo pond. During the decades that followed the flamingo population declined as young birds were herded into boats and sold down island for their meat.  The mature birds were hunted for their feathers.  By 1950 the entire flamingo population had departed.

The saga picked up once again in 1980 when Skip Lazell, Director of the Conservation Agency of Rhode Island, arrived in Anegada to study the fauna of the island.  Believing that the missing flamingo population was crucial in helping to balance the ecosystem of Anegada’s salt pond, Dr. Lazell began the drive to find flamingos and return them to the BVI.

In 1992, with the help of James Conyers of the Bermuda Aquarium and Numi Goodyear of the BVI Conservation Agency, twenty birds were released on Anegada. As U.S. regulations do not allow for birds to be carried on planes through transit, Dr. Henry Jarecki, owner of Guana Island, BVI, assisted by flying the birds into the territory on his private plane.

For the next two years, members of the Conservation Agency and the NPT waited for signs of enlarging flocks.  Courtship rituals were in high season and nests were built, but unfortunately no eggs appeared.  However in 1994 a native of Anegada and the NPT’s Resident Field Researcher, Rondel Smith, eagerly reported the hatching of five flamingo chicks.  

These chicks are really the center of attention.  It takes three years for flamingos to reach sexual maturity so the new population is still under observation.

Nicholas Drayton, Director of the NPT, believes that this project is very important to the residents of the BVI.  The design of a Flamingo Logo will help create awareness, as well as funding, for the project. The shirts, which are already a popular item in the BVI, are available in a variety of colors, including flamingo pink, and can be purchased at any of the NPT offices.  

 

 

 

The British Virgin Islands are a group of 36 islands in the Caribbean Leeward Isles. Only 16 are inhabited. They are mostly mountainous and all but Anegada, a low coral island, are of volcanic origin. Remnants of the original tropical rainforests linger on Tortola, the biggest island, but the vegetation mostly ranges from scrub to cactus. The tropical climate is cooled and moderated by the prevailing trade winds.

 

The flamingos of Anegada.

In 1995 the British Virgin Islands issued a postage stamp to celebrate the flamingo restoration project. 03/30/96

 

Tall, elegant and the colour of a Caribbean sunset, a flock of Roseate Flamingos wades through an Anegada salt pond in a single graceful motion. The flock, which includes five rapidly growing fledglings, looks perfectly at home on Anegada's Flamingo Pond, even though the birds were only brought to the island four years ago.

 

Once plentiful in the Virgin Islands, the Roseate Flamingo had been absent from the Territory for nearly 50 years. Restoring these magnificent birds to their former nesting grounds is part of a challenging project coordinated by the British Virgin Islands National Parks Trust.

 

"What makes our project most exciting," says Nicolas Drayton, Director of the Trust, "is that it is the first time, as far as I'm aware, that captive bred flamingos have successfully been re-introduced to the Caribbean and have reproduced."Although not an ornithologist, Nick has taken an avid interest in the birth of the flock's five chicks in May of last year. "The complexity of the flamingo's reproductive cycle, makes the birth especially record breaking," he contends.

 

Describing it as a "splendid sight", R.H. Schomburgk, a German-born naturalist reported seeing flocks of hundreds of flamingos on Anegada's Flamingo Pond in 1832. Just a few short decades after Schomburgk's observations, the island's flamingo population declined dramatically. Young birds were herded into boats and sold down island for their meat, and the mature birds were hunted for their feathers. By 1950, the remaining few flamingos were gone.

 

Their journey back to the Virgin Islands began when naturalist Dr. James (also known as Skip) Lazell, Director of the Conservation Agency in Rhode Island arrived in Anegada to study the island's fauna in 1980. The re-establishment of natural populations is one of Skip's primary interests, and the animal most obviously missing from Anegada was the flamingo.

 

Believing that the flamingos were an important factor in balancing the ecosystem of Anegada's salt ponds, and that they could provide a great tourist attraction, Lazell and his Agency approached the National Parks Trust with a scheme to return the birds to the B.V.I. But even though the Trust heartily endorsed the idea, returning flamingos to Anegada proved tricky. The Caribbean's only resident populations were located in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Bonaire, but politics or international regulations protecting the endangered species made it impossible to acquire birds from these islands.

 

In 1987, the Trust and the Conservation Agency turned to the Bermuda Aquarium and Natural History Museum and Zoo which had eight birds that they were willing to part with ­p; four flying birds and four pinioned ones. Since commercial flights would have taken the birds first to the U.S. before coming to the B.V.I. and because U.S. regulations would not allow the birds through transit, a private jet funded by Dr. Henry Jarecki, the owner of Guana Island, was chartered to transport the birds.

 

The first group were taken to Guana Island to see how they faired under a more controlled environment. Not so well as it turned out. Highly social creatures which prefer to live in large flocks, the four clipped birds eventually died, while the free flying birds took off.

 

Assisted by James Conyers of the Bermuda Aquarium and Numi Goodyear of the Conservation Agency, and again with the help of Dr. Jarecki, a second attempt to bring back the birds was made in 1992, yielding better results. With a great deal of governmental fanfare and eager anticipation on the part of the public, 20 birds were released on Anegada. The number was short of the minimum breeding stock, which is generally in the hundreds ­p; but it was a good start.

 

For the next two years, members of the National Parks Trust and the Conservation Agency waited for positive signs, and although the birds exhibited appropriate courtship behaviour and began to build nests, nothing happened until last winter when four wild flamingos unexpectedly joined the flock. Then last spring, Rondel Smith, a native of Anegada who is the NPT's Anegada Resident Field Researcher, excitedly reported the hatching of five flamingo chicks.

 

For Skip Lazell who has taken an avid interest in the project, the whole process has been "magical." He contends that the restoration of flamingos would not only be beneficial for ecotourism, he predicts, "the salt ponds on Anegada could someday support thousands of flamingos. . . And because the birds disperse to find food out of nesting season, these birds would be found on all of the Territory's salt ponds."

 

Nicolas Drayton, nonetheless remains cautious about assessing the project's success. "Our ultimate goal," he says, "is to see the population flourishing. The project won't be a success until these chicks themselves reproduce."

 

He sees a number of pitfalls in the way, not least of all the flamingos' great popularity. Already, low-flying planes and overeager hikers tracking through Anegada's salt ponds have disturbed nest sites. "A great concern of the National Parks Trust," explains Drayton, "is that the birds receive the peace and quiet they need to establish themselves."

 

Lianna Jarecki, a senior instructor of biology in the Science Department at the B.V.I. Community College has taken an active interest in the behaviour of the Anegada flamingos as well as the eight flamingos that were re-introduced to Guana Island's main salt pond in 1991. Like Nick, she emphasizes that the birds are shy creatures that prefer their own company to those of humans.

 

Especially interested in the bird's relationship to their ecosystem, she has observed that the flamingos' diet changes as the salinity of the salt pond decreases with the addition of rainwater. The flamingos primary diet, which includes brine shrimp and other minute aquatic creatures containing carotene, gives the flamingo its rosy hue. Lianna has observed that as the salt ponds fill with rainwater, a greater diversity of creatures, including waterboatmen and copoepods appear, and in turn provide a more diverse diet. Conversely she believes that the birds have a positive impact on the pond's ecosystem.

 

There are seven species of flamingo world-wide, and in addition to the Caribbean, wild flocks are found in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, as well as occasionally in Florida. A wading bird, the flamingo feeds by straining water through special filtering plates along the inside of its bill and trapping its food. The Roseate ­p; or Caribbean ­p; Flamingo is the largest of the world's species, and can reach five feet in height. Nests are constructed of mud and usually only one egg is laid at a time which both parents incubate. Fluffy and white when first born, the chicks are like the proverbial ugly duckling, retaining a light gray colouration until they turn a pink hue later in their maturity.

 

Since it takes three years for the chicks to reach sexual maturity, it will be a while before the B.V.I.'s newly established population will be pronounced stable. But in the meantime, those most closely involved in the project, as well as many British Virgin Islands residents, are eagerly awaiting to see if more babies will be hatched. It may be a while before the flamingos in the B.V.I. number in the thousands, but so far they're off to a good start.

 

It has been three months since the original Flamingo flock hatched up more excitement on Anegada, and seven chicks became native Anegadian flamingos, bringing the flock count to 34 birds.

Initially, the flock started out with 16 birds and later, four more were added. Unfortunately, of these 20, two died. Another four stray birds were discovered, bringing the count to 22 birds. In 1994, there was a hatching of five chicks hatched. Now, with the seven new born chicks, there are 34 birds.

Mr. Rondell Smith, NPT's field officer on Anegada, said, "Because the habitat is perfect for the birds, there is plenty of food and safe havens in the time of storms, e.g. mangrove shelters. It is obvious that the flock is forming a colony which was once the norm."

Mr. Smith discovered 11 nests with 10 eggs. Seven hatched, two were eaten by predators and one spoiled. He was asked if any of the eggs were laid by the 1994 chicks and he said, "No, for it is too soon. It will take 3-4 years, for them to reach sexual maturity." Read more about this fascinating story at The Return of the Flamingos to Anegada.

Birds, with their beauty, diversity ofform, plumage and behaviour have fascinated mankind since time immemorial.Virgin Islanders and tourists alike are fascinated when they catch sightof some of the exotic species living in the islands. It is no surprise then,that birds have become a favourite theme on BVI postage stamps. From 1951to 1997 the BVI has issued at least 80 stamps depicting birds of the islands

1992 was an historicalyear for BVI birds; in fact itwas in March of that year that a flock of eighteen flamingos (PhoenicopterusRuber) was re-introduced on Anegada, the northernmost isle in the group.In 1831 a scientist observed that Flamingos usually arrived in the islandduring the rainy season, when the Orinoco river inundated its shores anddeprived them of the means of procuring food. He remarked that "theyusually arrive with the first southerly wind and approach Anegada in flocksof hundreds, and choose Flamingo Pond for their favourite abode;whence theyproceed every morning at sunrise to the reefs, where they feed till thesun draws near the horizon, when they return.It is a splendid sight to seeseveral hundred drawn up in a regular form, resembling the figure of a cross,approaching from the west, flapping their mighty wings, and the sun reflectingits rays upon their rose-coloured breasts, the air resounding with theircry, which, consisting of several cadences, has been compared by the inhabitantsto singing. It appears they decrease annually; they even do not breed inAnegada, as they did formerly.On the Spanish main these birds are held sacred,and are in no way molested by the superstitious inhabitants." The reasonfor their abandoning Anegada is to be found in ecological changes in theirarea of origin: the Orinoco. As lateas 1917 another scientist concludedhis report on Anegada with the following words: "But, though race succeedsrace, and generation follows generation, still the beautiful flamingo, withits scarlet feathers and high slender body, comes and goes to DrownedIsland(Anegada), even as it did before the Caribs and the buccaneers, the wrecker,and the settler had ever been." To mark the historic re-introductionand successful breeding of flamingos,a colorful set of four stamps and oneminiature sheet were issued by the BVI Postal Authorities on 15 November1995. Two weeks later, a special postmark depicting a flamingo and the uniqueAnegada Rock Iguana was utilised for the two-day Fifth BVI Annual StampExhibition. The four stamps feature young flamingos (15c); adult flamingos(20c); an adult feeding at the salt pond (60c) and an adult feeding a chick($1.45).Inspiration for the design of the top denomination came from a picture takena few months earlier in the vicinity of Flamingo Pond, Anegada. The miniaturesheet features the five chicks which have now brought the flamingo populationon Anegada to twenty-three.

 

 

FLAMINGO

In the last century, when the great explorer-naturalist Robert H. Schomburgk reported to the Royal Geological Society in London on his Antillean investigations, thousands of pairs of Caribbean or roseate flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) nested in the British Virgin Islands. The birds were very popular as food because the young - called pulli (singular, pullus) - could be readily rounded up and herded. Each year, the crop of youngsters was herded - first through the towns of each island supporting a nesting colony - and then on to ships and small boats for transport to other islands where they were sold.

 

Populations dwindled rapidly and even in Schomburgk’s day the survivors were only on remote islands like Anegada, with low human populations and difficult of access. A few nesters persisted until after World War 11, but then the widespread use of firearms by indiscriminate "sport" shooters extirpated the remainder. Until 1986 our most spectacular native bird species could be seen only as occasional stragglers from the Bahamas and Hispaniola. The native flamingo is a threatened species, listed in the IUCN Red Book (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and banned from international trade. Because of this, local tourist attractions in the Virgin Islands have often imported African flamingos - not at all the same as the native.

In 1983 The Conservation Agency began efforts to re-establish the native flamingo to its rightful place in the fauna of the British Virgin Islands. The undertaking was legally complex, difficult, and very expensive. The Guana Island Wildlife Sanctuary was the only appropriate place to begin, as it afforded protection and support. The flamingos you see here today are the real thing, natives whose ancestors came from the nearby southern Bahamas. They were reared initially on Bermuda and came to us through the great efforts and generosity of the Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo.

 

 

 

 

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