Picture: Jenn Yerkes presents at the BirdsCaribbean conference.

By Mark Yokoyama

St. Martin wouldn’t be what it is today without birds. It emerged from the sea as a barren rock millions of years ago. Seabirds were probably the first animals to live here, raising their chicks and depositing a layer of poop that would provide nutrients for the first plants. The seeds of sea grape trees and countless other plants were brought here by birds as well.

When humans arrived, birds and their eggs were a source of food. Fishermen used birds to locate fish at sea. The behaviour of the frigate bird was an indicator of bad weather before satellite forecasts. Birds were also a part of culture. St. Martiners gave them names and told stories about them.

Today, birds face many challenges on St. Martin and in the Caribbean. The wild spaces that birds depend on are small and shrinking, as islands continue to develop and build. Non-native animals, like rats and mongoose, are deadly to bird chicks and eggs. The region is home to over 150 kinds of birds that are found nowhere else in the world, and many of these species are rare.

From July 25 to 29, over 250 bird scientists, conservationists and educators gathered at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference in Guadeloupe. The mission of the organization is to protect birds and their habitats. There are many ways this is done.

Scientific research helps us understand the challenges birds face. This year, a lot of research about bird survival and recovery after hurricanes was presented. For example, Hannah Madden presented a study of the Bridled Quail-dove population on Statia. Sadly, about three-quarters of these doves died during and after the hurricanes of 2017. Future research will tell us how quickly they are able to recover.

Conservationists present their work preserving or restoring wild spaces. Like on St. Martin, these success stories seem rare on most islands, but they can be inspiring. Orisha Joseph presented on the restoration of Ashton Lagoon at Union Island in the Grenadines. The project took over a decade through many obstacles, but it transformed an abandoned marina project to a vibrant wild space that could be enjoyed by wildlife and people.

Educators around the Caribbean are helping kids and people of all ages discover and fall in love with birds and nature. The conference is a place to share ideas and educational tools. Jenn Yerkes from St. Martin presented on how to use local culture, like folklore, to generate interest in nature. She also shared how bird education can be valuable after a natural disaster like Hurricane Irma.

On St. Martin, it is easy to be saddened by ecological problems, like the dump and pollution. While these issues are also facing other islands throughout the region, there are some solutions and successes. The BirdsCaribbean conference is a chance to share and learn. Hopefully, the result will be a new generation of Caribbean people with a deep love for nature, scientific discoveries that help us understand what birds need, and a desire to work together to preserve natural heritage all over the Caribbean.