The Turks and Caicos Islands lie on two shallow, limestone banks (Turks Bank of 254 sq km (98 sq mi) and Caicos Bank of 5,334 sq km (2059 sq mi). Much of these areas is less than 2 m (6 ft) deep, but the two banks are separated by about 30 km (19 mi) of deep ocean, called the Turks Island Passage or the Columbus Passage, with a depth of 7000 feet (2100 m). The maximum altitude is about 50 m (164 ft) asl. Further shallow banks (Mouchoir, Silver and Navidad) to the south-east, some within TCI territory, are important for whales and probably for feeding seabirds. The Bahamas lie on separate banks to the northwest, and share some aspects of the geography. There are about 38,000 ha (94,000 acres) of intertidal sand banks and mudflats. Of the 500 sq km (50,000 ha; 124,000 ac) total “dry land” areas of the Turks and Caicos Islands, 26,669 ha (65,000 acres; over half the land area) are wetlands.
Only six of the larger cays and three of the smaller cays are inhabited. More than four-fifths of the population lives on three islands: South Caicos, Providenciales (commonly called Provo), and Grand Turk.
The name Turks is said to derive from a species of indigenous cactus, the Turk’s head (Melocactus intortus), whose scarlet top resembles a fez, although this is now questioned. The name Caicos may derive from caya hico, a phrase meaning “string of islands” in the language of the indigenous Lucayan (Arawak) people.
The Turks Bank holds the inhabited islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay, as well as numerous smaller cays, several of which are important for seabirds. The Turks Bank islands generally have very short vegetation, partly as a result of historic clearing to enhance salt-production. Shore-types include cliffs, rocky shores, sand beaches, mangrove marshes and extensive flats.
The Caicos group lies northwest of the Turks and consists of six principal islands—South Caicos, East Caicos, Middle (or Grand) Caicos, North Caicos, Providenciales, and West Caicos—and several cays. There are extensive caves and sink holes in the islands of the Caicos group, with important bat populations, and endemic crustacea. However, there has been little survey work on these important ecosystems.
The islands are important for resident and migratory waterbirds and land-birds, some of which breed as far north as arctic Canada and winter in TCI, or re-fuel to fly on to South America. The birds are relatively easy to view, because they are used to people, who do not disturb them. Additionally, the islands are important for many endemic plants and other animals. TCI has an impressive number of protected areas, but lack of resources for enforcement leaves many vulnerable to illegal activities. Developing the bird-watching tourism market will highlight the importance of the islands for their wildlife, and increase stakeholder participation in protecting the environment by raising public awareness of their value.
To this end, the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF) has produced a series of five booklets “Birding in Paradise – A guide to bird-watching and heritage sites”, for each of Providenciales, North and Middle Caicos, South Caicos, Grand Turk, and Salt Cay. These are available for purchase from outlets in TCI or online in hard copy (it usually takes about a week for hard copies to be delivered to addresses in North America) or as a PDF download suitable for tablets.