First New World Little Egrets under threat on Barbados
Last significant mangrove woodland and largest lake may be ‘developed’The first colony of Little Egret Egretta garzetta in the New World, and its home, the last significant red and white mangrove swamp in Barbados, are at risk from deteriorating habitat quality and threatened development. Marshlands within the Graeme Hall Swamp –a Ramsar wetland of international importance which holds the last significant mangrove woodland and largest lake in Barbados- were recently put up for sale for potential ‘environmentally appropriate commercial operations’.
Conservationists have expressed concern at the sale, and are urging priority be given to buyers with ecologically sound credentials and intentions; rather than sale for a ‘monoculture theme park’ as some fear, that has little consideration for species conservation.
More than 85 bird species have been found at Graeme Hall Swamp, including Caribbean Coot Fulica caribaea, and the mangroves and environs of the swamp harbour the highest density of the endemic race of Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia on Barbados. Three other Lesser Antilles endemic species occur (Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib and Barbados Bullfinch). The permanent wetland is also critical habitat for migrant and vagrant waterbirds.“The Graeme Hall Swamp and Chancery Lane Swamp Important Bird Areas [IBAs] are critical to the conservation of the Little Egret in the New World,” states the lead story in the new issue of Birds Caribbean, the newsletter produced by BirdLife International for the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. “The Little Egret is an Old World species that naturally colonised the Western Hemisphere when it began nesting in Barbados in 1994. The population now numbers about 24 birds.” But in recent years, Birds Caribbean reports, the numbers found in annual Christmas Bird Counts have been declining.
Little Egrets nest only in the Graeme Hall Swamp, specifically in an excavated lagoon within a private reserve, the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary. There are no other suitable sites in Barbados. Although they have in the past nested on mangroves around the main lagoon, the birds have shown preference for a mangrove islet in the middle of the lagoon. These few small mangroves are degrading due to the birds’ presence and the effects of storms. Work is urgently needed to restore these nesting trees, and to establish other suitable islets for nesting in the lagoon.
For Little Egret, there are very few suitable feeding sites in Barbados. Those remaining include government-owned marshes within the Graeme Hall Swamp adjacent to the sanctuary, Chancery Lane Swamp, and some privately-owned and artificially maintained marshes used for hunting. The US$12 million sale of the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary could mean an uncertain future for the Little Egret in the New World. However, conservationists have highlighted how correct management of Graeme Hall Swamp could boost egret numbers: “Future plans for management of Graeme Hall Swamp could better be focused on enhancing rather than decreasing available egret feeding habitat,” the authors of the Birds Caribbean story assert. “Such management would also contribute positively to mosquito control in the wetland.” They also call for permanent protected status for the Chancery Lane Swamp IBA.
4th July 2014