Guests of Honour in Tobago

Faraaz Abdool is an avid wildlife photographer and conservationist. His passion is to record and share the beauty of nature in the hope that future generations would be able to also enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth. In this feature, he asks that we ensure the safety and survival of some very special visitors to Tobago's shores, by preserving the healthy ecosystems on our shoreline and beaches. All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool

What if I told you that each year, our shores are hosts to hundreds – maybe thousands – of extreme long distance travelers. None of these intrepid voyagers travel by plane, boat or bus. Many of them weigh no more than a few ounces. And all of them have feathers.

Ruddy Turnstones have a short, thick bill that is designed not for probing in the sand, but for flipping stones and small rocks to reveal what’s hiding underneath
These feathered friends are on the run, escaping the cold fingers of the northern winter. They are collectively known as “shorebirds” – unsurprisingly they are usually found near water. That thin line between land and sea is their main habitat. Shorebirds don’t eat a wide variety of food – all of their nutrition comes from various invertebrates they find by probing with their long bills in the mud and sand. This means that they can only eat from very specific locations – sort of like a picky person who will only eat from a certain restaurant. They don’t swim, so they can’t venture into deep water. They don’t dig their prey out of the ground, so they can’t eat where the ground is too dry and hard. This is precisely why coasts and waterways are of such great importance to these migratory birds.

The long legs of the Greater Yellowlegs allow it to wade in deeper waters than other shorebirds
Shorebirds can be found around Tobago, on beaches from Pigeon Point to Charlotteville, as well as  on the banks of slow moving bodies of freshwater. The wetlands of Bon Accord are among their most preferred sites. They can be found from late August to March each year, wintering in the tropics.
A shorebird’s life begins high in the Arctic; many are hatched in the late spring on the tundra of the north. As flowers bloom and food is plentiful, the ground is also soft and rich with food for these tiny birds. Shorebirds are precocial – meaning that from the time they hatch they are already in an advanced state of development – most of them can run around from a few hours after hatching! Such is their level of independence that many of their parents begin their southward migration not long after the eggs hatch. This may seem cruel, but in fact it is to reduce competition for food, ensuring that the young birds have enough to eat to survive on their maiden journeys.

Shorebirds have built-in GPS and impeccable memory. Once they leave the Arctic, they make several stops along the way at what are termed “stop-over-sites”. These locations are not unlike a rest stop and gas station rolled into one; a place where they can rest their wings, refuel, sleep and resume their journey after a few days.

By the time August draws to a close, the first shorebirds start arriving. Of course, the adults arrive first.  The juvenile birds stay a little longer in their Arctic breeding grounds fattening up and growing their first set of feathers for a journey of a lifetime. The young birds know exactly where to go, without a single adult to show them the way. Flying day and night, some of them arrive at the verge of starvation! Before long, areas that were once devoid of birds are now filled with scores of brown and white birds scampering everywhere.

A pair of Sanderlings chases the receding surf
Superficially, they are all very similar. This is because they all occupy a similar place in the ecosystem. They all poke around in the soft mud and sand for invertebrates. They are all painted with various shades of brown, russet and white. Their coloration ensures that they blend in perfectly with the landscape to avoid detection by would-be predators. But as one examines closer, the differences start to appear. Some are big, some are small. Some have extra long legs, some have short legs. Some have short, cute bills, others have very long bills. These finer details give an extra insight into their individual lives. Long-legged birds can afford to wade into deeper water than their short-legged cousins. Shorebirds with short bills will catch food close to and even on the surface of the mud, while longer-billed species can afford to reach deeper into the mud.

Beach specialists like the Sanderling have adapted to a lifestyle of being on the go – these are the birds that seem to madly chase each wave as it breaks on the shore. Every time a wave breaks, tiny invertebrates hidden in the sand emerge for a brief moment in the water. As the wave recedes, there is a tiny window where the little creatures would still be visible – a tiny window which the Sanderling capitalizes upon with a mad dash to the water’s edge. In fact, it’s been running at full speed for so many generations that it has lost its hind toe entirely!

White-rumped Sandpipers have excessively long wings that extend far beyond the tail.
Some species of shorebird spend the entire winter here, in the tropics; others use our available habitats as stop-over-sites on their way further south. In fact, every year some species of shorebird such as the White-rumped Sandpiper migrate from the Arctic to the southernmost tip of South America – and back again! This pole-to-pole migration means that this species in particular undertakes one of the longest animal migrations in the world. How special we must be that this bird will grace us with its presence, albeit for a few weeks each year! This small bird has unusually long wings for its extra-long journey.

Well-camouflaged, this Wilson’s Snipe crouches in the grass. This is the only species of Snipe found on Tobago.
They may seem dull, drab or even inconspicuous, they don’t have the flair of the Motmot or the song of the Wren – but they are most intriguing pieces in the puzzle of life. They are true citizens of Mother Earth herself, and we should be honoured that they choose our shores to spend some time. The preservation of the habitats they feed in is completely essential to their survival as a species – their finicky nature has made them extremely vulnerable to extinction. In fact, the shorebird family has suffered the highest rate of extinction in recent history among avian families. Developments of beachfront as well as tidal lagoons have proven to be detrimental to the survival of these very unique and special birds. Let us all help to ensure that these tiny travelers complete their epic journeys and return safely to their breeding grounds. We can make them at home every year by preserving their feeding grounds.

A Whimbrel manipulates a prey item before consuming it. All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool

Comments

  1. Thanks for the pictures and very informative article.

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  2. Shorebirds are some of my favorite birds to photograph or just observe. Thanks for your interesting and informative article on these special birds.

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  3. Wouldn't it be great if this information is shared in school classrooms or the subject of school field trips? This would help to develop pride in our natural heritage and respect for the environment we call home.

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