by Lisa Davis-Burnett
Birds are everywhere in our environment, in the sky, in the trees, on the ground, on the water. They are easy to take for granted, but plenty of people pay close attention to birds. For some it is the pleasure of seeing them nesting, watching them fly or listening to their song-like cries. For others, the observation of birds is a way of checking on the health of the environment. Whatever your motivation, birding is cool, and even more fun when done with friends. Then again, watching birds can be like meditation, helping calm the mind and developing a more mindful lifestyle.
On May 13 the global birding community came together to count as many birds as possible. Birding enthusiasts worldwide used the day to collect data, some even travelling to prime locations to note how many individual birds of various species could be documented.
Here on the Friendly Island, we were not about to miss the fun. Led by our local bird expert, Mr. Binkie Van Es, a group of six bird-loving St. Maarteners got out their binoculars and boots and spent the day looking at birds and recording what they saw.
Van Es explained to WEEKender: “it’s important to understand the bird populations, and this is a day we try to achieve an accurate snapshot of the status of birds on the planet.”
He noted that many years ago, ornithology was hardly even a real science, only a hobby for a few diehard bird admirers, but in time it became clear that birds perform important tasks in the web of life, such as dispersing seeds to propagate plants. Even more prescient, they are valuable indicators of environmental well-being, known to scientists as an indicator species. “They are the first to tell us something is wrong in the environment.”
“For instance,” Van Es related, “in the early twentieth century, the chemical DDT was a widely used pesticide and no one realised how toxic it was for wildlife and people, until it was discovered that pelican populations were declining at an alarming rate. So they started doing research it was discovered that when the pelicans were sitting on their nests, instead of protecting their eggs they were crushing them. DDT was causing the shells to be too thin. More research found the pelicans were eating fish that had consumed DDT through the food chain. The fish were in rivers draining off the vast farmlands of North American, a food chain extending into the coastal wetlands near the mouth of the Mississippi River.” In time the effects of DDT were found in field mice, song birds, and many other species. DDT was banned in the early 1970s.
Imagine there is a migratory bird that travels from Alaska to Brazil, how in the world can a single bird scientist, or even a team of scientists, keep up with that? That is when the concept of citizen science started to be formed. And now there are more than 2 billion observations worldwide.
To keep all that data accurate there are local reviewers all over the world, people who know the area and know the bird populations, and so they will verify the unusual sightings as likely or unlikely. Van Es himself is a local reviewer for our region.
But with all this citizen science going on, Van Es notes, an amazing amount of data is being generated and it is all available to researchers. Much of it is being coordinated by the Ornithology Lab at Cornell University. A few years ago the idea of a Global Big Day was dreamed up as a way to use dedicated bird watchers all over the world to get a global snapshot of bird populations. Basically, how many birds and how many species can you see in 24 hours? The idea is a great success and now there are more than 60,000 participants in almost 200 countries. This year more than 7600 species were identified.
There’s an App for that
Most avid birders keep a life list of all the species they have seen with the location and date. Now the EBird App, and similar platforms, lets them keep their life list in the cloud, always on hand for review or adding a new sighting to the list. But the App does so much more! Anyone using the EBird App can access all the data to know where and when migrations are passing by, or to discover a wayward bird that is rare to a region.
There are also apps that let you learn how to identify birds by their call or their appearance. Van Es recommends Cornell University’s Merlin App that let’s your phone listen to bird song and tell you the species.
Through this year’s Global Big Day 42 species were identified at 13 different locations on both the French and the Dutch sides of the island. Top sites for a good diversity of species included Etang Chevrise, Salines d”Orient, Great Salt Pond, Little Bay Pond and Emilio Wilson Park.
Two species were noteworthy: the bare-eyed pigeon, normally not this far north, and the shiny cowbird, a bird that is new to the island. The Shiny Cowbird, which Van Es says originated from South America, is easily overlooked. To the untrained eye it appears like a grackle, a common black bird in this region, but the Shiny Cowbird is not a Grackle. It is smaller and has a dark iris in the eye and it has a slightly smaller and a shorter stouter beak. Plus the cowbird has a nasty habit of laying her eggs in other birds nests, letting someone else care for the eggs and raise the baby! Photos from Van Es’ personal library are contributed here so perhaps you can learn to recognise these two unusual birds.
According to Van Es, the most amazing thing about this year’s Global Big Day on St. Maarten was the people. “For all these years I have been busy with this, doing it on my own. And this year I have been able to conduct a bird guide training class, with the help of 4CRC, and it was so fantastic to have six people doing the data collecting with me. We went to many spots and worked together and had a amazing time.”