Birdwatching tours, and birds, thrive on Anguilla

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Jackie Cestero, owner/operator of Nature Explorers Anguilla.
Jackie Cestero, owner/operator of Nature Explorers Anguilla.

Anguilla is for the birds, literally.

More than 130 species live on the island for all or part of the year, and many have returned to their nesting spots after being temporarily displaced by Hurricane Irma last September.

Pre-Irma, I had squinted through binoculars on the edge of one of Anguilla's salt ponds on a birding tour offered by Jackie Cestero, owner and operator of Nature Explorers Anguilla. Stumbling awkwardly along the shoreline was a day-old black-necked stilt chick with mama close behind. Nearby, several other soon-to-be mama stilts nestled comfortably on their nests.

Several months post-Irma, thankfully, the scene was much the same.

Cestero is an avid photographer and bird watcher who knows just which species have returned to the island, down to the last shorebird and warbler. She began offering her birding tours in 2013, the first ecotourism company on the island to offer wildlife tours year-round.

"Thus far we're seeing all of the species that we normally do," Cestero said. "We visited all the wetlands across Anguilla on Global Big Day in May" -- an annual event organized by eBird and Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- "to count the number of species and record them in the eBird database to compare the data with our counts from previous years."

The other citizen science projects that she has participated in during the post-Irma months have shown a significant decrease in overall numbers of birds but no decline in the individual species or variety.

"Perhaps the most exciting news on Anguilla was the return in March of not one, but two, American Flamingos," she said. "A single bird arrived in October, one month after Irma. We suspect that it was outrunning Hurricane Maria. This time it seems to have brought what appears to be a mate, as the experts at eBird and Cornell believe that they are a bonded pair."

In May active nesting species that were spotted included white-tailed pintail ducks and killdeer, and all have since had chicks. Same for the snowy and cattle egrets who had what Cestero said was "an excellent breeding season with lots of chicks."

Green herons with chicks have been spotted in the wetlands. Courting began this spring between pairs of black-necked stilts, who were slower than usual to begin the nesting process this year, according to Cestero. The least terns returned to the wetlands pretty much on schedule. Cestero said that May through August are critical breeding periods for the seabirds on the island as well as on the offshore cays.

Cestero offer three tours a day year-round, limited in size to be more intimate and customized to guests. All must be booked in advance, and she provides pickup at hotels or villas.

If young children accompany parents on the tours, she includes a nature scavenger hunt to keep them engaged.
The Early Bird Tour has a 6:30 a.m. pickup, is three-and-a-half hours long, visits two to three wetlands and is priced at $65 person.

The Late Riser has an 8 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. pickup, is two-and-a-half hours long and explores two wetlands for $55 per person.

The Afternoon Sampler, a 3 p.m. pickup, is two hours in length, visits one wetland and costs $50 per person.
Cestero also offers an Anguilla Wetland Beach and History tour, a full-day excursion with lunch at Shoal Bay East and visits to Sandy Ground/Road Bay Center of salt production, historic sites, the Heritage Museum plus, of course, the birds.

This tour is priced at $165 per person.

"I never want people to feel like they are not getting my full attention, and everyone's level of interest and understanding of birds is different," she said. "We like all levels of birders to enjoy the tours, from first-timers to experienced birders who keep lists."

Since Irma, the first few months of the year were quiet on Anguilla, although many repeat visitors returned to contribute to the island's recovery. The recovery is nearly complete now, or soon will be. Cestero is grateful that many first-time visitors decided to try birdwatching for the first time.

All tour proceeds this year go to Cestero's Bring Back the Buttonwoods program to restore the mangroves lost in the wetlands, especially on the western end of Anguilla.

"This is a long-term project. It will take years for these plants to be restored to the level they were prior to Irma," she said.

Nature Explorers Anguilla is using part of the Anguilla's Jammin aquaponic garden as a nursery to start new mangrove seed stock for future use.

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