Interviewed by Melissa Normann, Rainforest Alliance
More than 560 species of birds call the wider Caribbean region home. In addition to 148 endemic species, these beautiful islands provide a critical refuge for hundreds of migratory bird species that leave their temperate and sub-arctic North American habitats to spend the winter months in Caribbean forests and wetlands, or use them as a resting stop en route to their final destinations in Latin America.
The Caribbean faces the common challenge of balancing economic development with the conservation of its unique and fragile ecosystems. As a result, critical bird habitats have been degraded or destroyed, causing a decline in many populations. Since 1988, the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) has worked to build capacity in the region by supporting local conservation organizations in their efforts to conserve Caribbean birds and their habitats. We talked with Lisa Sorenson, the President of the SCSCB, about the Society’s goals, successes, and its plans to continue advancing conservation in this important region.
Question: What are some of the major threats that Caribbean birds are currently facing?
The most serious threat is the loss of habitat from development — forests are being cleared and wetlands are being drained to build houses, roads, and businesses. Also, there are many large-scale tourism development projects such as resorts, marinas, and golf courses that are destroying important wildlife habitat — not just for birds, but for many other important species as well. Habitat is also being lost due to other inappropriate and unsustainable uses such as cutting trees to make charcoal, mining, and livestock grazing. Other serious threats include invasive species and pollution, and some species are being hunted, poached, and captured for the pet trade.
Q: How does the Society support the conservation of Caribbean birds?
Sorenson: Everyone involved in the Society shares an overall goal to conserve Caribbean birds and promote the conservation and sustainable use of their habitats through education, site protection, capacity building, and research, and we have a tremendous network of partners that work together to help advance this goal. With international partners such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and Wetlands International, the Society aims to increase the capacity of our local partners to carry out bird and habitat conservation projects. To this end, we develop regional projects and programs that help our partners do their work. For example, we develop and distribute many outreach and educational materials such as books, posters, identification guides, and fact sheets about birds and habitats that are written especially for the Caribbean, materials that are often difficult or impossible to get otherwise. We also hold training workshops to develop the professional skills of natural resource managers and publish The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology to share the results of applied research and conservation projects. We help with advocacy, provide technical assistance, and assist partners with securing funding for activities such as publishing or printing educational materials, celebrating local bird festivals, organizing or attending workshops, and more.
Q: How do you coordinate conservation projects across such a large and diverse region?
Sorenson: Every two years, we hold a regional meeting to coordinate bird and habitat conservation efforts within the host country, and also throughout the region. The meetings bring ornithologists, natural resource managers, and interested citizens from the islands together with international experts to share ideas and exchange information and methods to solve applied conservation issues. Everyone appreciates the opportunity to come together, and they leave the meetings very inspired and energized. Everyone in the Caribbean is so passionate and committed to conservation and willing to share and work together — it’s a great group to be a part of.
For each meeting, we choose a theme of special interest to the local host organization and offer an in-depth treatment of the topics through training workshops, symposia, and roundtable discussions. Participants have an opportunity to develop projects, and all of the Society’s Working Groups meet to review progress, develop new projects, and make plans for the coming years. This year’s meeting was held in Antigua in July, and the theme was “Beyond the Beach – Birds and Tourism for Sustainable Islands.” We talked about using birds and the natural world to promote sustainable development at the grassroots and community level. We invited experts to present case studies on bird and nature tourism initiatives, bird guide training, and developing birding trails.
The Society is interested in developing a program to train and certify bird guides. We’d like to provide training in business management, customer service, ethics and more. We are also interested in developing a Caribbean birding trail based on the Rainforest Biodiversity Group’s work in Costa Rica.
Q: How can interested people become involved in the Society?
Sorenson: Anyone interested in Caribbean bird conservation is welcome to join the Society on our Web site. Our membership has grown to around 300 members, which includes ornithologists, natural resource managers, local and international conservation NGOs, community leaders, educators, students, tourism professionals, and also volunteers and interested citizens from every island in the Caribbean, as well as from the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe. Another way to become involved is to join our Yahoo! Birds Caribbean listserve, which is a great way to keep people informed about what’s happening in the region — workshop and training opportunities, regional conservation issues, bird sightings, and more.
Q: How is the SCSCB working to conserve resident and endemic bird species?
Sorenson: A large part of our efforts is devoted to raising public awareness about the importance and value of wild birds and their habitats, especially the many unique species that are in the region. Approximately 148 bird species are endemic to the Caribbean, including colorful parrots, hummingbirds, todies, and warblers — 54 of these species are threatened with extinction, and populations of others are declining. We emphasize that birds and their habitats have intrinsic value because they are part of the natural and cultural heritage of each country — but they also have economic value. Through tourism, birds can be a source of sustainable income for local communities, and their forest and wetland habitats provide many ecosystem services and products that are vital to human well-being.
One of our key programs is the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, which is celebrated for one month every spring and aims to increase public awareness and support for conservation. Volunteer local coordinators organize activities such as bird and nature walks, tree plantings, art exhibitions and competitions, TV and radio programs and articles in the media about birds, and more. We’ve had really great success with this festival — it started in 2002 with 1,000 people participating in eight countries, and last year we had more than 60,000 people participating in 17 countries. The Society supports these festivals by providing local partners with materials such as posters, fact sheets, t-shirts and presentations, and small grants for festival activities.
The Society also encourages and supports partners to develop local bird field guides. Guides have been developed in Haiti, Dominica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Herb Raffaele from the US Fish and Wildlife Service has generously donated the use of all of the illustrations from his Birds of the West Indies book for these guides. And we work with BirdLife International on the development of an Important Bird Area (IBA) program in the Caribbean, including the publication of the Caribbean IBA Directory in the fall of 2008.
Q: Do you have a different approach to encouraging migratory bird species conservation?
Sorenson: Generally speaking, people in the Caribbean are not aware of the fact that many bird species breed in temperate and subarctic North America, and then travel thousands of miles to use Caribbean islands as either their winter homes, or as stopover habitat on their way to Latin America. We aim to raise local awareness that their forests and wetlands are critically important, not just for resident and endemic species, but for migratory species as well. We’ve been working with Environment for the Americas and Sue Bonfield to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. Just a few countries had been celebrating the festival individually, but fall of last year was the first time we celebrated as a region.
Q: What’s the status of the SCSCB’s West Indian Whistling-Duck and Wetlands Conservation Program?
Sorenson: That’s one of our flagship programs, and it supports the conservation of all waterbird species. The program provides training and educational materials to help teachers, community leaders, and NGOs carry out wetlands education activities in their communities. In addition, we have developed a draft waterbird conservation plan available on our Web site, and have assisted BirdLife International with an inventory of wetland sites throughout the region that provides information on all wetlands in a given island, the species present at each site, threats, management issues, and more.
We have a very active Seabird Working Group, which is currently working to eradicate invasive species, especially rats, on islands where seabirds nest. The Society just published a book that summarizes everything that we know about seabird breeding colonies in the region, and now we’re prioritizing which islands are the best candidates to eradicate invasives and restore habitats. Island Conservation has been very successful in this regard — they attended the meeting in Antigua and are helping us to develop projects and identify funding to begin eradication. We know it can be done, yet it will take a dedicated effort and commitment on the part of NGOs and government, as well as sufficient funding.
Q: Has your work made a difference? Are you beginning to see increased numbers of waterbirds?
Sorenson: We are seeing increased numbers of whistling ducks in Cuba, Antigua and Barbuda, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to carry out really rigorous monitoring. The best data comes from Antigua, where Joseph Prosper has been closely monitoring West Indian whistling ducks for the last few years and has data showing increased levels of breeding activity and increased numbers of individuals. However, we need to be constantly vigilant. A few weeks ago, Prosper reported that there is a large new construction project there, and a number of foreign workers were brought in to work on the project. Apparently they went out into a couple of the key wetlands and shot a number of whistling ducks, and also killed an entire population of little egrets. It’s so unfortunate that one or two individuals can cause such serious damage and compromise years of conservation effort and investment — we need to constantly monitor what’s happening in the field.
Q: How can we do a better job at monitoring?
Sorenson: We have a new program called Caribbean Birdwatch, launched with support from the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative (WHMSI) and the Organization of American States. This program is developing a Caribbean Regional Bird Monitoring program that provides simple, standard protocols to monitor landbirds, waterbirds, shorebirds, seabirds, and their habitats.
The program is also organizing a number of workshops to provide training in using this methodology. The first workshop was held in Nassau, Bahamas in February 2009, where we provided training on how to design a monitoring program, how to count birds in the field, and how to analyze and present data. The second workshop will be held in Jamaica in February 2010 and will focus on providing training in the new Caribbean Waterbird Census. This will be done in conjunction with Wetlands International, which has developed waterbird censuses in other parts of the world, such as the Neotropical Waterbird Census. At least twice per year, in breeding and wintering periods, we would like our local partners to go out in the field and count waterbirds at key wetlands such as Ramsar sites, Important Bird Areas, and protected areas. This program should provide important data that will help to better manage waterbird populations. We will ask all contributors to add their information to eBird Caribbean so that it is accessible to everyone.
Q: Why is monitoring so important?
Sorenson: We cannot effectively manage and conserve birds unless we know what species are out there, how many there are, and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing. For example, we recently found that West Indian whistling ducks are dispersing to Guadeloupe and breeding there. Hunting is a strong tradition on Guadeloupe. There are about 2,500 hunters on the island, and they shoot a lot of birds each year — any duck that shows up there is essentially a dead duck. However, more and more whistling ducks have been showing up there, and we think that they are dispersing from Antigua where the population has been increasing, thanks to conservation efforts there. Anthony Levesque, the Society’s Vice President and head of a local NGO in Guadeloupe called Amazona, discovered a nest and ducklings, indicating successful breeding. There has been no documentation of nesting in the last hundred years, so this is a major success. With increased monitoring and data, we hope to see similar results on other islands.