Jamaicans counting waterbirds (and holding their noses)

BirdLife Jamaica is at it again. For the past two years, since the pandemic started, we have been quiet; having said that, while group trips (we always carpool) have been difficult, we have, as individuals, in ones and twos, been busy doing our birding activities. Our WhatsApp group has remained as busy as ever – enhanced with illustrations from our highly talented cadre of photographers, obscure and somewhat baffling videos from me of warblers flitting through the bushes at home, and wise observations and information from our expert guides.

The CWC is not just for the experts. Anyone can do it – go out and see what you can find, then record it on eBird Caribbean. This is “citizen science” in action!

Nevertheless, as the Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) rolled around, BirdLifers were galvanized into action. The CWC is an annual event established and organized by BirdsCaribbean. From January 14, 2022, birders were out and about, counting and recording the numbers of waterbirds we found. The period of the Census ended on the day after World Wetlands Day (which I need to write some more about) on February 3. It’s what’s called “citizen science,” which proves invaluable to ornithologists who are compiling the data and figuring out what’s happening: where the birds are (and where they are not), what they are feeding on, and most importantly, how many are out there. It’s all about the count.

Mr. & Mrs. Blue-winged Teal. It’s the most common wild duck you are likely to see during the winter months in Jamaica.

But what are waterbirds, you may ask? They are seabirds (like gulls); wading birds (those you see sloshing around at the edge of the sea, a pond or a marsh); shorebirds, which you may see pottering around on beaches, nibbling at crabs; and waterfowl (ducks, coots and moorhens, like those on the pond in Hope Gardens). There are 185 species in the Caribbean, and sadly many are in decline.

So, one fine morning a couple of weeks ago, a group set out in search of waterbirds. Here is the account (and photographs!) by our fabulous photographer, Stuart Reeves, of their trip to a particularly odorous place, the Soapberry Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Catherine – where there was, as expected, additional wildlife to be found. (Stuart recently emerged from COVID quarantine; read his story of backyard birding here).

Birds flocking in the early morning near the Port of Kingston.

The CWC Expedition to Soapberry

As the sun got out of bed on Sunday January 30, 2022, sending purples and oranges creeping across the sky, Birdlife Jamaicans gathered to convoy to Soapberry led by the intrepid eagle-eyed Ricardo and Damion, birders par excellence! The Caribbean Waterbird Census was on.

Soapberry greeted and enveloped birders in that unforgettable aroma of sewage ponds. Our noses immediately (well, a few masked breaths later), became deaf to the odors, until  of course we happened upon scents that were – well, just worse. Undaunted, the team walked the pond dykes marveling at the murmurations playing out across sky, pond and the Kingston Port back drops, as hundreds of birds took wing and flew in ever changing formations, stunning.  We were puzzled….Which bird was in charge?

Waterbirds on the move.

Everywhere birds in the sky, in the water, on pond edge, in vegetation and trees. Apart from the intrepid leaders, everyone was checking off new finds. Blue-winged Teal, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt and more! There were crocs, yes – lounging on the dykes taking in the sun, running or diving in whenever the group got too near, surfacing to watch in case someone fell in?

Birders do sometimes have companions of the four-legged, reptilian kind. Fortunately, the American Crocodile is not inclined to be sociable.

Near or far, we had the kit to observe and capture images, our leaders with spotting scopes sharing the close ups and giving a running commentary and thankfully real names….not the “Pinked legged bud” or “Big Duck” of the unknowing birder. All the while the sun in a clear sky was beating down without mercy. The only shade was the bush growing outside the perimeter fence and that was far away – and yes, we lingered there in the shade a while, watching countless warblers and Redstarts drawn in to “phishing” calls. Then we reluctantly set out across the baking dyke to the vehicle park. Along the way we found just where the rough road would have taken us and saved our skin… but all things good in hindsight.

It was a wonderful morning in good company with really cool experts. Everyone enjoyed the visit. Today we are probably heading out to a vehicle cleaning business to have the wet entrance road marl blasted off their vehicle and perhaps the sewage pond muck from their boots. I admit to a washing machine encounter for my outerwear as soon as my wife realized where I had been.

At least that was not ordered for the photographic gear!

The Glossy Ibis is becoming more common it seems, and that is good. We could always do with some more beauty. Look at those colors!

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