Intrepid Snow Birds in Paradise
by Jeff McCord
No one knew if she’d make it. Flying directly into the sustained 111 to 129 mph winds of a Cat 3 hurricane could have been suicidal for a bird weighing barely one pound. But, she was determined to make it to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Never much of a bird watcher, I’d always admired the eagles of the Potomac River and enjoyed the antics of ravens haunting Virginia barns. On the island of St. John, I now routinely dodge groups of small hummingbirds frantically jockeying for position at my wife’s bird feeder whenever I sit on our deck. Unlike Virginia hummingbirds, however, these Antillean crested birds sport fluorescent turquoise foreheads that seem to glow.
Like the spectacular Bird of Paradise plant that also thrives here (though native to South Africa), these hummingbirds confirm that we human visitors have arrived in Shangri-la. Our yellow bananaquits, brown pelicans, magnificent frigate birds with their forked tails and the rarely seen Puerto Rican parrot also conjure paradise.
Yet, the transcontinental journeys of our more ordinary and often endangered North American shore bird species truly inspire wonder. Beginning in their nesting areas ranging from the Arctic down to the northern Great Plains, such shorebirds as spotted sandpipers, blue-winged teal ducks and Cape May warblers each year fly thousands of miles south to winter in the West Indies, stopping along the way in mid-Atlantic coast staging grounds — often in the Chesapeake Bay region — to feed and recuperate.
Picking up a book written for Virgin Islands school children (“Hope is Here!”) by St. John author-naturalist Cristina Kessler, I learned the remarkable story of one such bird. Hope, a member of the whimbrel species of wading birds, was named after Hope Creek on Virginia’s eastern shore where she was found by Fletcher Smith, a research biologist with the College of William and Mary. After catching Hope on May 19, 2009, Mr. Smith tagged and fitted her with a solar-powered satellite transmitter weighing only 9.5 grams as part of a collaborative effort by the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy. They aim to discover migratory routes connecting the northern breeding with their tropical wintering areas and their staging stops in-between in order to better protect this declining species.
“Hope is one of a few whimbrels fitted with transmitters and studied for several years to identify en route migratory staging areas that are critical to the conservation of this declining species,” Mr. Smith explained at a recent St. John Audubon Society meeting. The total population of Eastern whimbrels has been cut in half since 1995 to about 40,000. Climate change in their arctic breeding grounds, hunting and other unknown factors are believed responsible for the decline in population of about 4 percent each year.
Standing about 1.5 feet tall, to my uneducated eye the whimbrel looks like a cross between a female mallard duck and a heron. Its brownish, grayish feathers stands in contrast to the spectacular snowy white egrets and great blue herons also sharing Virgin Island wetlands.
But, with their 3.5 foot wing-span, these prosaic birds can fly 3,500 miles non-stop at speeds up to 50 mph. The speed of the hurricane defying bird described in this story’s opening paragraph, though, had fallen to only 9 mph as it battled incredibly strong Cat 3 head winds on a course directly into the storm’s eye, Mr. Smith explained. Once there, the bird seemingly wind-surfed the eye’s wall and was propelled as though from a sling shot. Surfing the hurricane’s tail winds, the avian projectile was clocked at 92 mph as it doggedly kept on its course tracked by satellite.
“Whimbrels are able to survive a hurricane because of the tremendous fat stores that they’re able to put on,” Mr. Smith said. They almost double their weight before their migratory departure. “That means they’re able to expend the energy it takes to fly through a hurricane.”
What about the need to sleep during their 5-day non-stop journeys? Incredibly, the whimbrel shuts down half of its brain while in migratory flight. “So, they’re half asleep, but also alert,” Mr. Smith said.
Whether wide awake or not, these birds are incredibly territorial about their destinations during their 10 to 15 year life spans. The Virginians’ studies determined that each year Hope returns to within a few feet of the exact same spots to feed almost exclusively on fiddler crabs, whether in her northern Hudson Bay breeding ground, eastern shore Virginia staging area or her protected winter home at Great Pond, St. Croix. Great Pond is part of the birder paradise of the St. Croix East End Marine Park.
“I think Hope is a great story of science with a heart,” Virgin Island author Cristina Kessler said. “I found it very inspiring and I thought maybe kids would too.”
“Thousands of people come to our islands in-part for the birding,” explained Laurel Brannick, Supervisory Ranger at Virgin Islands National Park (VINP). “The Park provides a protected habitat for neo-tropical migrants like Cape May warblers, which breed in Quebec province, fly down and stop along the mid-Atlantic Coast and winter here.”
The VINP has the Caribbean’s largest intact tropical dry forest and plenty of mangrove fringed wetlands these shore birds need, Ranger Brannick said. Each week, she leads a bird-watching group to St. John’s pristine Francis Bay. A few years ago, following a storm, a rare pink flamingo resided there, she noted. Although native to the Virgin Islands, these birds were hunted to near extinction for their iconic feathers and are now struggling to make a comeback.
While leading one group of VINP visitors, Ranger Brannick was particularly moved by a gentleman with the progressive eye disease macular degeneration. He wanted to see certain species before he went blind. And, that day, she helped him successfully view the mangrove cuckoo, the lesser Antillean bullfinch and the rare bridled quail dove.
For birders and most other visitors, the Virgin Islands live up to its slogan “America’s Paradise.”