Bird by bird, we come to know Antigua.
The focus of the central theme is birds. At one level we have every expectation that people will visit Antigua to watch birds. Certainly this strategy will address their needs. But at another level birds provide a perspective of Antiguan patrimony as a whole. A visitor looking for birds is attracted to every corner of the islands. In this way birds leads people to Antiguan patrimony. Given the potential audiences, this metaphorical use of birds is critical. Bird by bird, we come to know Antigua.
A people’s poet,
provincial and birder,
I’ve wandered the world in search of life,
bird by bird I’ve come to know the earth.
One of a Kind
The Caribbean islands have given rise to an astonishing number of endemic species. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity:
In terms of biodiversity, the issue is clearer: islands boast a truly unique assemblage of life. Species become island dwellers either by drifting on islands, like castaways, as they break off from larger landmasses (in the case of continental islands) or by dispersing across the ocean to islands newly emerged from the ocean floor (oceanic islands). Henceforth they are confined to small, isolated areas located some distance from other large landmasses. Over time, this isolation exerts unique evolutionary forces that result in the development of a distinct genetic reservoir and the emergence of highly specialized species with entirely new characteristics and the occurrence of unusual adaptations, such as gigantism, dwarfism, flightlessness, and loss of dispersability and defense mechanisms. Genetic diversity and population sizes tend to be limited, and species often become concentrated in small confined areas.
The Barbuda Warbler is the only endemic bird from Barbuda. This warbler is closely related to Adelaide’s warbler (Setophaga adelaidae) from Puerto Rico and the St. Lucia Warbler (Setophaga delicata) from St. Lucia. This bird inhabits a diversity of habitats on this small island, including thorn-scrub forests in the interior and woodlands bordering pools and ponds. The population of the Barbuda warbler has been estimated to be between 1000 and 2500 individuals. However, this warbler has been little studied, and population trends are unknown. The small range of the Barbuda warbler (160 sq km), as well as the low elevation of the islands (highest point 38 meters) contribute to this bird’s vulnerability.
The evolution of a small yellow warbler on a small brown island testifies to the influence of evolution in these insular spaces. Even more inexplicable are the endemics of Redonda, the third major island in the nation of Antigua. Redonda is only about about 1 mile (1.6 km) long, 0.3 miles (0.48 km) wide, and 971 feet high. Yet on Redonda there are two endemic lizards (Ameiva atrata, Anolis nubilus) that have arisen and survived.
Caribbean Specialities: West Indian Whistling-duck, Caribbean Coot, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Bridled Quail-dove, Purple-Throated carib, Green-Throated carib, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Caribbean Martin, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Antillean Euphonia, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, and Carib Grackle
Non-Avian Endemics: Antiguan Racer (Alsophis antiguae)
Out of One, Many
Each Caribbean Island hosts a number of species that have radiated from a single ancestor (or a limited number of ancestors) that found its way across the water to Caribbean lands. The Myarchus flycatchers are distributed throughout the Caribbean. Most of these are endemic to one island, or, in the case of the Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, to several. This flycatcher is found throughout the Lesser Antilles, with the exception of Antigua. This Myarchus is replaced in Grenada by the Grenada Flycatcher. Lesser Antillean Flycatchers are generally found in the thorn-scrub forests of Barbuda, associated with birds such as the Caribbean Elaenia, Barbuda Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Black-faced Grassquit, and Lesser Antillean Bullfinch. The Caribbean Myarchus likely arose from a single species that immigrated to the islands. The Grenada Flycatcher, however, is thought to be a recent arrival and is more closely related to the Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus) of the mainland.
Additional examples: Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Yellow Warbler (races), Bananaquit (races), Antillean Euphonia
Additional non-avian examples: Anolis lizards (Anolis forresti, Anolis watti, Anolis leachii, Anolis nubilus), ground (Ameiva) lizards (Ameiva griswoldi, Ameiva atrata)
Masters of Flight
The Caribbean islands offer critical habitat and species sites for migratory birds that otherwise have little to depend on other than instinct and these small islands in the vast open waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
Examples: Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, and migratory shorebirds
Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon supports the largest breeding colony of magnificent frigatebirds in the Caribbean. Codrington frigatebirds have been found as far north as coastal Florida. These masters of flight wander widely in the Caribbean, only returning to Codrington to nest.
Several species of seabirds, such as red-billed tropicbird, sooty tern, bridled tern, and brown booby, nest on the offshore islands around Antigua. Uninhabited Redonda (according to Birdlife) is regionally important for breeding colonies of magnificent frigatebird, masked booby. red-footed booby, and brown booby. The isolated islands in and around Antigua may be used by nesting seabirds for only a few months each year, but these birds are critically dependent on these island habitats during this essential period of their lives.
Shorebirds also depend on the wetlands such as McKinnon’s Pond and Darkwood throughout the year. A few (Wilson’s plover, black-necked stilt, willet) breed here. Other shorebirds winter in these wetlands, while some only pass through during migration. Shorebirds are among the longest distance migrants in the world, and species such as white-rumped sandpiper and whimbrel depend on these refueling stations during their flights between the boreal north and the wetlands of South America.
Mangroves also offer important habitat for migrant birds. Mangroves protect these open tidal flats by decreasing the destructive energy of tidal and storm surges. Mangrove clearing continues in the Caribbean, although in recent years this appears to have diminished in Antigua.
At the Edge
The Caribbean islands are aligned along a political, social, cultural, geographical, and ecological divide. This is the Caribbean patrimony; this is Antiguan patrimony.
This is little about Antigua that is not at the edge. Locals boast of 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. Rocky coastlines, mangrove forests, and tidal mudflats dominate the edge between land and water. As with so many times in the past, however, Antigua stands at the edge of changes initiated elsewhere in the world. These shallow coastal waters are threatened by the sea level rise associated with global climate change. Antigua itself emits little in the way of greenhouse gasses. In fact, when the carbon sequestered by mangroves is considered it is likely that Antigua is a carbon sink.
Birds and other wildlife that depend on these shallow coastal waters, species such as the West Indian whistling-duck, white-cheeked pintail, and Caribbean coot, are now threatened with displacement by rising sea level. Additional threats to birds at the edge include introduced predators (rats and mongoose), loss of forested habitats, and the loss of coastal habitats due to resort development.
Avitourism enhances the values people (resident and visitors alike) place on the natural heritage of Antigua as reflected in its birds and other wildlife. As noted by Yi-fu Tuan, “…an unknown physical setting is a “blank space” that only becomes a “place” as it is endowed with meanings through lived experiences.” To visit and experience the real Antigua, the Antigua that is revealed through its birds, is to fill each person’s “blank space” with authentic meanings. Stedman has written that “…individuals who are emotionally, cognitively, or functionally attached to a place will act to protect that place.”
Avitourists to Antigua will experience a land that is changed, yet unchanged. Codrington Lagoon, a RAMSAR site, remains one of the most pristine mangrove wetlands in the world. The isolated rain forests at Wallings and Christian Valley conserve what was once a dominant habitat on the islands. And then there is the water itself. Antigua is afloat in a turquoise sea, with water so brilliantly clear as to defy imagination.
Through birds visitors learn about Antigua, its heritage, and how that heritage is at risk. Bird by bird, they will experience Antigua, its nature, its history, and its people. And, bird by bird, we hope that they learn to care about this world at the edge.