West Indies

All At Sea: The Seabird Working Group provides an extensive update, invites ideas

The online Seabird Fest on December 2 really made waves! It was a tremendous success, with a substantial participation by over 50 partners and individuals involved in seabird research and monitoring. The online meeting, over two hours long, was a sweeping and extensive overview of BirdsCaribbean’s Seabird Working Group’s (SWG) activities and findings, followed by a discussion on ways in which its members’ work can be strengthened. Reports came in from islands off the coast of Yucatan (including the Isla Contoy National Park, or Island of the Birds) to Bermuda, the Grenadines, and all the way to the offshore islands of Venezuela – and many islands in between.

Group photo of Seabird Fest 2021 participants
Seabird Fest 2021 Group Photo on Zoom

A Caribbean Seabird Census?

The SWG is hoping to organize a major seabird monitoring effort in 2023, along the lines of the Caribbean Waterbird Census. A major part of the Seabird Fest was not only to report on activities and results, but also to seek ideas on the way forward, especially in regard to the proposed count. The goal was also to obtain feedback from partners on their needs and challenges. Would it be training, personnel, funds – or all of the above?

What is the Seabird Working group?

Rhiannon Austin, a seabird ecologist working in the UK Overseas Territories since 2015, gave a short introduction to the work of the SWG. Its core objectives are to connect people, share knowledge, promote conservation, and advocate for seabirds. In the past year the SWG has done a revamp of its web pages, updated its database, and is seeking to create new ways of sharing information – for example, they now have a Facebook group and have launched a Seabird Newsletter. And funding and support is always needed!

Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world, both at sea and on land.

There are some 23 resident seabird species in the Caribbean – not all regularly monitored. There are some gaps in information. At the Seabird Fest, participants shared updates on the work they have been doing and the status of seabirds in their area. Most of the published information only extended up to 2012, so updates were greatly needed.

Austin noted that many partners need help with planning, as well as support for seabird research, education and training. With this in mind, a series of workshops and webinars is planned for 2022.

Cats, rats, and humans – a problem for nesting seabirds

A map of the Dominican Republic highlights areas that are monitored and not monitored for seabirds.
Tweet shared during Miguel Landestoy’s presentation on seabird monitoring in the Dominican Republic – Seabird Fest 2021

As each island reported on its progress, it became apparent that partners involved in seabird monitoring had several issues in common. Invasive species and human disturbances were of concern in almost all the territories, including Dominican Republic, where Miguel Landestoy reported that surveys of inland salt ponds where Least Terns breed can only be done on foot. From the offshore islands of Belize, however, Dominique Lizama was happy to report that Half Moon Caye is “rat-free.” In the Cayman Islands, where seabird monitoring by the Department of Environment is supported by the Darwin Plus Project, cats remain a significant problem. On Anguilla, mouse eradication has been successful but the work continues to prevent reinvasions.

As noted, there are information gaps in some islands, for example in Trinidad and Tobago, where there is no national monitoring of the four species that breed there, according to Shivam Mahadeo. There are many challenges in the Grenadines also, where there are more than eighty islands, islets and cays with three globally important seabird colonies and more than 18 of regional significance. The islands have 12 breeding species and a number of non-breeding and migrant species. What a task to monitor them all!

The impact of climate change

Some islands face even greater challenges, many due to aspects of climate change. Dominica, for example, currently has no seabird monitoring on the island; Hurricane Maria in 2017 had a very negative impact on White-tailed Tropicbird colonies and seabird records were all lost in the storm. Bermuda’s report was mixed: its population of Common Terns has been badly impacted by numerous storms, and sea level rise has also affected breeding sites. Anguilla is also suffering from coastal flooding.

Seabirds are under pressure in many areas. For example, in Turks and Caicos Islands, where there are very large numbers, tourism development is taking place on many of the cays, while up to date information and management plans are needed. In the US and British Virgin islands, the numbers of boobies have “crashed.” Developments and the inability to monitor privately owned islands is an issue in some areas.

A busy Working Group with good news to report

However, the seabirds are fighting back, thanks to SWG members: the Bermuda Petrel or Cahow has benefited from a sixty-year long recovery program, now with 155 breeding pairs. Sixty years is truly long term! Their White-tailed Tropicbirds make up the North Atlantic’s largest breeding population, supported by no less than 800 artificial nests of fiber glass, installed on cliffs.

SWG members are working hard. In the French Caribbean, partners are working on a Seabird Atlas, which includes a summary of all historical data of the 20th/21st centuries. The Environmental Awareness Group in Antigua (with 51 offshore islands) reported that it is conducting training and capacity building of volunteers and members of its bird club, who conduct surveys as citizen scientists. The UK territory of Montserrat, covered by the Darwin Plus Project, has been conducting surveys and has recently rediscovered a previously known nesting site of the Audubon’s Shearwater during a boat survey.

More resources needed – including funding!

For many of the islands, financial and trained human resources are in short supply. For example, in St. Kitts and Nevis, there is a need for equipment and boat time, according to Lynelle Bonaparte. Similarly, Dr. Ann Haynes Sutton reported from Jamaica that monitoring of its 14 breeding seabird species is “very much constrained” and funding is badly needed for training. Cuba also reported that it requires more technical personnel for monitoring, and funding to support field work. In Puerto Rico, funds are needed for boat time and to pay surveyors; training is also a great need.

Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean Lisa Sorensen wrapped up the lengthy session by encouraging participants to give talks, write articles, make videos, and raise awareness of seabirds in their countries. She also reminded partners to make sure to record sightings on eBird Caribbean.

BirdsCaribbean is committed to supporting all its Working Groups, and looks forward to working with them in 2022. If you would like to assist the Seabird WG in any way, you may contact them on their home page or via Facebook. We wish the Seabird WG all the best for the New Year as they get into their boats to go checking on those seabirds!

A BIG thank everyone that presented and participated in the Seabird Fest webinar of 2 December, 2021. Thanks also for taking the time to look through your data and share your work. We found it very exciting to learn about what is happening on the islands: despite many difficulties, there is a lot of work being done!  We will soon share a written report summarizing all the information shared. If you missed the Seabird Fest, you can watch it here: n the meantime, you can watch the recording here.
Thanks also to EPIC (Environmental Protection in the Caribbean) for co-hosting the Seabird Fest with us!
We are following up on the suggestions made during the Seabird Fest and will organize quarterly online meetings to catch up and chat. 
If you did not yet respond to our online questionnaire, please consider doing so here. You can also join our listserv at https://birdscaribbean.groups.io/g/SeabirdWG
– The Caribbean Seabird Working Group Co-chairs and Seabird Fest organizers