Brac nature reserve consolidated

The Brac Parrot Reserve, a pristine forest and heritage nature trail situated atop Cayman Brac’s famous Bluff, is finally consolidated after 10 years.

The achievement of this longstanding goal was recently made possible by the joint efforts of the Ministry and Department of Environment, the National Trust and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Grants Program, stated a press release.

‘The Government is pleased to demonstrate its commitment to preserving the natural environment in all three islands by partnering with local and overseas environmentalists on this worthy project,’ said Charles Clifford, Minister for the Environment.

‘In addition to safeguarding our local natural heritage, preservation of habitats of this nature honours our international responsibilities towards the preservation of global biodiversity.’

The purchase and protection of this biodiverse slice of ancient forest land has been a top priority of the National Trust’s Environmental Programmes since 1994, the release said.

Founded in 1991 through the donation of a 100-acre strip of land by US citizen Mr. Donald Pennie, the Reserve expanded by a further 80 acres in 1994 courtesy of an anonymous donation. Mr. Pennie further donated an additional 17 acres, protecting the historic Bight Road trail, which spans the length of the reserve.

The Bight Road quickly became the Brac’s most popular nature trail, and a regular haunt for local and visiting birdwatchers.

The opportunity to gain a glimpse the otherwise inaccessible interior of the Bluff forest proved an attraction for wilderness seeking locals and tourists alike.

Guided walks

To aid the growing number of visitors to the area, guided bird-walks were established, along with educational signage and a boardwalk. Ornithological studies showed the hollow trees in the forest to be an important breeding site for the unique Cayman Brac Parrot.

Additionally, the dry forest habitat was discovered to support a diverse array of migratory birds.

Just one problem remained. The two pieces of land which constituted the Brac Parrot reserve were separated by an 80-acre strip of land, which remained vulnerable to clearance and development. If this were to have happened, the nature reserve would be split down the middle, forever.

In 2004 the National Trust launched Forests Forever, a fund-raising initiative targeting the purchase and protection of the most ecologically significant areas of dry forest in the Cayman Islands.

These priority areas were identified as half a dozen parcels in the Mastic Reserve, and the strip of land separating the Brac Parrot Reserve. As local corporate donors and individuals dug deep, and funds came in, the Department of Environment assisted the conservation effort, with an application to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Grants Program.

The NMBCA grant is awarded to projects with outstanding potential to support the conservation of neotropical migratory birds, through population and habitat management, legal measures, research or education.

Migratory birds

The location of the Cayman Islands in the western Caribbean Sea places it at an important crossroads for three main flightpaths for migratory birds. These lengthy routes, known as ‘flyways’ (Mississippi flyway, Atlantic flyway and Atlantic seaboard) are tackled by millions of birds each year.

Flying from their summer breeding grounds in temperate North American, they head south for the winter. Many remain in the Caribbean over the winter months. Others merely take a break here; a brief rest-stop, before embarking on a further journey, down to South America.

Over land, the flyways tend to follow topographical features: mountain ranges, river valleys and coastline. However, at some point, most flyways pass over open-water, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers.

Birds ranging in size from large herons and raptors, to tiny warblers (weighing just a quarter of an ounce), tackle this mammoth exodus twice each year. Braving incredible distances, unpredictable weather conditions, and many featureless miles of open sea, it is a miracle of nature that they ever get here – and back again.

Of the 257 species of birds recorded in the Cayman Islands, about three-quarters are migratory. One hundred or so species are regular visitors. This means that most of the different birds we see have actually travelled a great distance to be here.

Dry forest habitat, such as the Brac Parrot Reserve, is important for migratory birds, especially warblers. Fifty-nine different species of migrants have been recorded in Cayman Brac’s Bluff forest alone. Many of these observations were made right from the Brac Parrot Reserve’s historic Bight Road trail. The pristine habitat and good trail access combine to make the Parrot Reserve a great place for the birds, and a great place for people who would like to see them.

Research and education

Given the ecological value of the Bluff forest habitat, and the potential of the reserve for research and education, US Fish and Wildlife Service NMBCA agreed that the consolidation of the Brac Parrot Reserve was a worthy cause, and supported the grant application for the full amount requested.

Despite this generous contribution, almost two-thirds of the price of the land purchase price remained to be met.

Further signalling its support for the conservation efforts of the Trust, CI Government agreed to make up the shortfall of funds through a contribution from the Environment Fund.

The National Trust took the unprecedented step of borrowing US$250,000 towards making up the immediate shortfall in finances, in order that the land transfer be finalized as soon as possible.

‘The National Trust for the Cayman Islands is extremely grateful that the consolidation of the Brac Parrot Reserve has been possible thanks to the assistance of both local and overseas partners,’ said Frank Roulstone, General Manager of the National Trust.

‘The timing is especially fitting as bird populations continue to recover from the long term effects of Hurricane Ivan and many migrating birds begin their winter visits. The land will now rest in its natural state in perpetuity as a home for diverse species of plants and animals.

‘It will be a living classroom and place of wonder to residents and visitors to the Cayman Islands for generations to come. The National Trust is extremely appreciative of the financial support from the Government of the Cayman Islands and US Fish and Wildlife Service NMBCA for making this consolidation possible,’ he said.

Preserving heritage

‘The conservation of biodiverse habitat is a priority objective for the Department of Environment under the Darwin Initiative programme, and the consolidation of the Brac Parrot Reserve is a very significant achievement,’ said Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director of the Department of Environment.

‘Over the next two years, the Initiative will focus on the development and implementation of practical action plans towards maintaining the terrestrial and marine diversity of our Islands.’

The land purchase was successfully concluded earlier this month, as the remaining strip of land was finally transferred to the ownership of the National Trust.

The new area will be declared inalienable, consolidating and protecting the nature reserve in perpetuity. This will ensure that future generations will be able to visit the Bluff forest, and enjoy this unique place, and the wealth of wildlife, both local and international, which it supports.

‘This will help preserve Cayman Brac’s wild heritage forever, along with other lands already protected and more that must be set aside, for the benefit of all plants and creatures, including ourselves,’ said Wallace Platts, long-time Trust member.