First Cayman bird count launched on Sunday

Cayman’s first bird survey will begin on Sunday, led by the National Trust and the Bird Club in an effort to assess the environmental damage from Hurricane Ivan.

Patricia Bradley, ornithologist and council member of the National Trust, said Sunday’s estimation was the start of efforts to determine the extent of Ivan’s destruction of island wildlife and habitat.

‘It’s an extremely complicated exercise,’ she said. ‘No one really knows how much habitat we lost; this is the first step.’

Both the Department of the Environment and the Bird Club estimate that between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of the island’s bird population was lost to the storm. No one, however, is willing to guess at the forest acreage that was damaged.

‘There was a lot of destruction, but we don’t have an accurate estimate yet,’ said Dr. Mat Cottam, Special Projects Officer at the DoE. ‘Trees that lost leaves and limbs are very slow to recover.’

Because of extensive habitat damage, the populations of such endemic bird species as the parrot, the vitelline warbler, the Cuban bullfinch and the thick-billed vireo have suffered badly.

‘The worst hit is the grassquit,’ said Ms Bradley. ‘There would have been several thousand of them [previously], but only eight or nine have been seen.’

She described the environmental shock of Ivan as ‘profound’, interfering significantly with breeding patterns.

‘There are 224 bird species that have been recorded in Cayman,’ she said. ‘Only about 50 of them breed because the others are migratory, but the shock has interfered with things related to breeding,’

Ivan stripped trees of leaves and fruit, destroyed insect populations and drowned vast areas of mangroves, leaving birds homeless and starving.

Dr. Cottam held out hope that the bird populations would recover, but said it would be slow.

‘Mangroves don’t necessarily come back, but as the forest recovers, we can look for the birds to come back.

‘We have a system that was previously stable that is now rebalancing, but it is very slow. It’ll become more apparent in the next few months.’

Ms Bradley said a proper survey of the environmental damage would take several months and require satellite mapping. Sunday’s 12-hour bird count, she said, ‘was just a beginning, a first estimation, really.

‘It will give us an idea of where [the birds] are and their numbers.

‘At a later stage we can do more scientific studies. You expect this kind of damage after a hurricane, but you don’t expect it to stay like that.’