The Finer Points of Waterbirds: A Bit of a Brain Twister

The devil is in the details, they say, and as birders across the region gird themselves up and go out to muddy, sandy, wet places to spot birds, figuring out what is what is no joke. The birds are – what’s the word, indefinable? – at times.

As I may have mentioned before, it’s always important to find birds, but it’s also very important to count them. This helps scientists figure out populations – what, when, where and how many – and to map them to see how these populations are moving around the planet. What has become apparent in recent years is that waterbirds have been declining in numbers around the world for decades now. In the UK, for example, waterbird numbers have declined by 25 per cent in just the past ten years, according to one survey. There are many reasons for the global decline (some 40 per cent since the 1970s in our hemisphere), with climate change and coastal development high on the list in the Caribbean.

Bearing in mind that we need to understand more about our waterbirds, by observing and recording them, in order to conserve them, BirdsCaribbean has organized the Caribbean Waterbirds Census (CWC), now in its twelfth year (January 14 to February 3; including World Wetlands Day on February 2). This year, three webinars were organized to help confused birders identify those delightful birds, of all shapes and sizes, that potter around on our beaches, salt flats, marshes and riversides at this time of year.

In descending order… Big, little and…smaller still, like the Least Sandpiper. Last, but not least.

The thing is, you see, there are 185 species of waterbirds around the Caribbean. These include dabbling ducks and diving ducks, tall stately herons and small crouching herons, egrets with various colored legs and bills, and a baffling (and disconcertingly large) group of sandpipers and plovers – breeding, non-breeding, and in between (sometimes they are molting in or out of their breeding plumage). Males, females, and immature ones. Most of them actually are super-migrants, breeding way up in the Arctic and making their way all the way down to the Caribbean in winter to just hang out, rest, feed and prepare to migrate back again.

Ducks a-dabbling. These are Green-winged Teals, which are quite rare in Jamaica. The male is the fancy green (as you might guess).

I had some little chuckles to myself during the webinars. It was harder than the most difficult New York Times crossword at times – the Sunday one. We had regular quizzes throughout to “test our knowledge,” during which I felt increasingly desperate and took wild guesses. Is A or B a Semipalmated Sandpiper? Or could it be a Spotted Sandpiper? Is it “front heavy” (it could be a Western Sandpiper)? Is its back the color of wet sand, or dry sand? What is the difference between a Greater and a Lesser Yellowlegs (if you saw just one of them)?

I took this photo in Portland Bight, Clarendon, in 2019. Could it be…? Is it…a Lesser Yellowlegs?

Look for clues, our presenters urged. Sometimes the differences can be “very subtle.” Indeed.

So, next weekend, all being well, I will be taking the “Waterbird Challenge.” Why don’t you try it too? If you need some inspiration, go to BirdsCaribbean’s YouTube page – the webinars were all streamed live on Facebook, so you can find them there, too. I would also recommend downloading the free Merlin bird ID app from the Cornell Lab on your phone!

The year 1970 (when Earth Day was founded) seems to be the year when everything went into a downward trajectory.

Ultimately, as for so many things in life, the best advice is “practice makes perfect.” In other words, the more you get out there and tackle those waterbirds, the better. Spend hours with them!

And, as Jeff Gerbracht from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who gave us those finer points, reminded us: “Waterbirds need the Caribbean.”

If you would like to become a member of BirdsCaribbean, you do not have to be an expert at all! What unites us is our love of birds. For students and Caribbean nationals, the membership is only US$25 annually. If you are a Caribbean institution, the membership is US$60. Your membership helps BirdsCaribbean’s efforts to raise awareness, train and mentor conservation professionals, support research and monitoring, advocate for birds and their habitats, and engage people in citizen science and conservation actions. One big plus is that as a member you get free access to Birds of the World, a fabulous online resource which costs more than your membership fee to subscribe to!

Happy New Year from BirdsCaribbean!

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