Helping hand for nesting birds

Many types of birds make their nests on Cayman Brac’s cliffs and rocky shores, but due to an unfortunate chance convergence of ocean currents, its rugged coastline also accumulates masses of floating garbage. 

On the Brac, bottles, flip-flops, cigarette lighters and medical waste, along with many smaller pieces of plastic, litter potential nesting sites of brown booby birds. 

“The BBC recently released findings from its studies of these and other deep water species that nest on other such islands. The results were a shocking: six out of eight birds [dead or alive] had stomach contents of plastic,” said Kathleen Bodden-Harris of the Brac’s GREEN Team. 

“At such an alarming rate, it is estimated every bird of every pelagic species will have plastic stomach contents by 2030. The plastics floating on the water resemble fish bits that the birds naturally consume. They eat or pass them along to their hapless chicks. The excess and undigested weight affects their ability to fly and hunt. The particles remain intact in the guts, causing slow and painful death by starvation of both chicks and adults. Eventually, this will lead to the extinction of these lovely native birds from our skies and seas,” she said. 

On Saturday, Oct. 24, a group of three volunteers set out to clean up a brown booby nesting site on the southern shores of Cayman Brac. 

“The GREEN Team scheduled the cleanup at that specific time to address the issues of plastic consumption by our local species of pelagic seabirds,” said Ms. Bodden-Harris. “The mating pairs are just now beginning to assemble and check out real estate for their annual nests.” 

Time is of the essence, as once the birds begin nesting, the sites are strictly off-limits to humans. 

“Trespassing within 100 feet of these posted sites is prohibited so as not to disturb their breeding and parental duties,” said Ms. Bodden-Harris. “Their well-camouflaged eggs and nests are difficult to see and an unwary trespasser could easily damage or injure eggs or small chicks.” 

In the Cayman Islands, brown booby birds are only found on Cayman Brac. Their cousins, the red-footed boobies, are found exclusively on Little Cayman. Neither are found on Grand Cayman. 

Ms. Bodden-Harris noted the birds have, of late, taken leave of the relative safety on the Brac’s high bluff and begun nesting on the more exposed beach areas. 

“Here, abandoned nests show clear signs of the birds collecting flotsam in the form of bottle caps, plastic bottle rings, cigarette lighters and other various forms of the noxious debris amongst the twigs and sticks that form their crude round nests in the sand,” she said. “Fledglings have been witnessed playing, like typical human toddlers, with the trash by tossing it around for amusement. Inevitably, it ends up digested by the chicks.” 

After collecting the larger items, the small team shifted their concentrated efforts on the smaller ubiquitous pieces of plastic, netting eight large bags of beach litter. The final tally included three clear plastic bags of recyclable plastic bottles that the Department of Environmental Health will store for future recycling shipments. 

“For two hours, the chore of cleanup seemed like taking a teaspoon to stop the flow of Niagara Falls,” said Ms. Bodden-Harris. 

However, she said the small stretch where work was done was markedly pristine in stark contrast to the other untouched areas. 

“The group truly needed the force of a small army to complete the mission, just in the nesting site at that one particular area,” she said. 

The Sustainable Sister Islands for Recycling’s GREEN Team conducts at least one cleanup each month and hopes residents will consider making it a family affair. A commitment of even a few hours each month will be a big help to the birds and animals that inhabit the Brac’s environment, even if the trash comes from somewhere else. 

“It may not be your mess, but it is your island,” noted Ms. Bodden-Harris, “and we need everyone to be ‘part of the solution, not the pollution.’” 

Plastic garbage is taking a heavy toll on sea birds the world over. On the Brac, the GREEN Team is doing its part to remove the washed-up trash littering Brown Booby nesting sites. 

While they used to make their nests on the relative safety on the Bluff cliffs, brown booby mating pairs like these are now selecting nesting sites on Cayman Brac’s trash-clogged beaches.
While they used to make their nests on the relative safety on the Bluff cliffs, brown booby mating pairs like these are now selecting nesting sites on Cayman Brac’s trash-clogged beaches. – Photo: Kathleen Bodden-Harris

A brown booby on the Brac. - Photo: Jewel Levy

A brown booby on the Brac. – Photo: Jewel Levy