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Avian Crossroads

Humans aren’t the only visitors flying down to Vieques. Sixty percent of all the birds here also live elsewhere—their numbers topping ours.

Most come for the winter season, just like people. Others are “passage migrants” stopping over like a weekend visitor for a quick rest and grub. Migrators are part of a great diversity of birds who find protected habitats like the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge conducive to the good life. About 20% of all birds migrate immense distances along annual flyways. Of the 2000 migratory bird species worldwide, about 110 come to Vieques. They navigate, often along coastlines and mountain ranges, as if using GPS, except it is learned behavior or genetic programming–scientists are still figuring it out.

One winter migrator to our shores is the Semipalmated Sandpiper, who summers on the U.S. east coast. “Semipalmated” describes this wading bird’s partially webbed toes. Now a year-round resident, the Egret is a signature sight on Vieques, so often seen standing on the back of a horse. It’s full name is Cattle Egret or Garza Africana in Spanish, and it originally migrated here but is now a native. Its relatives, the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret, are natives too, and their numbers swell with winter migrators as they do for the Great Blue Heron.

Many of our migrators are pollinators of wildflowers and other plants and the dispersers of seeds, while others contribute to the control of insects and rodents. Birds cover both ends of the food chain – predator and prey. And yes, big birds eat little birds.

For a small island, Vieques has a long and rich ornithological history. The Taíno had at least 40 words for birds while their symbolic art often mixed bird characteristics, such as a long pointy beak, with the human form.

Outsiders have been cataloguing Vieques’ birds going back to the French naturalist LaBat in 1705. These historic records reveal that parrots and flamingoes were once common here. Today, a flock of flamingoes is a glorious, rare sight on Vieques.

“We’re celebrating the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty that helps conserve birds that migrate across national borders,” says Mike Barandiaran, manager of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. He shared that there are plans to reintroduce endangered species like the Yellow Shouldered Blackbird and the Puerto Rican Parrot. Two Vieques birds have flourished enough to be removed from the endangered species list the Brown Pelican and the Peregrine Falcon.  Mike also says we can look forward to more trails in 2017 on the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.

So keep your eyes peeled for our winged friends. They are such a visible part of the extensive wildlife that makes Vieques so special.

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