April 22, 2006 – A laughing gull, a pelican, pigeons by the bushel, snowy egrets or an occasional kestrel, sure, but 210 species of bird here in the Virgin Islands?
Jim Corven, assistant biology professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, says an emphatic, "yes," and maybe even a few more with a vagrant now and then.
Corven held a small but intent group of bird fanciers rapt Saturday morning as he presided over a "Birding for Beginners" class at the UVI Marine Science Center.
The event was part of the fifth edition of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival. Corven was busily touting the class Friday at the UVI second annual Pro-Enviro Fair at the Sports and Fitness Center where several environmental groups had information and displays.
The Saturday class laid the groundwork for a two-week activity for school children and adults to compete for premiums in bird identification called "Birdwatching the Best Birds."
Corven said results of the bird watching will be reviewed May 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Checklists will be submitted and posters, stickers and "BirdBuddy" wristbands will be awarded.
Corven described UVI's new Web site –www.ebird.org/usvi – where entries will be posted at the end of the two-week period. Started in February, it supplies anything a Virgin Islander could possibly want to know about local bird life, including sightings, maps and bird checklists from anywhere in the Caribbean. The site is the creation of a partnership between UVI and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Sean LaPlace, 13, a ninth-grader at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, sat intent on the proceedings. He was there with his mother, Chrys Petersen, and his little sister Analise LaPlace, 9, a fourth-grader at Gladys Abraham Elementary School (formerly Kirwan Terrace).
Corven showed a rare photo he had captured of a mockingbird. He said the birds are difficult to catch on film, sensitive even to the sound of a camera shutter. "They shy away from people," he said.
Sean LaPlace said that's why they don't go in large groups. "We sit quietly and wait."
His mother said when groups of 20 or so are birdwatching, they often, though not intentionally, scare away the best sightings.
Corven showed an astounding display of photos he has accumulated personally over the last three years he has lived and taught on the island. The variety ranges from a yellow-billed cuckoo to scaley-naped pigeons to spotted sandpipers to cattle and green herons, warblers, raptors and, of course, the ubiquitous pelican.
Corven has a passion for the birds. "Birders are a different sort of person," he said. "We have our own pathology. We like to travel, but never without our binoculars, never without knowing what bird life will be in any area we decide to vacation in. We love to know what others have seen."
And Corven has his prejudices. People, certain people that is, and cats. Anything, basically, that prevents birds from flying naturally and living in their own habitats.
"We used to have blue grosbeaks living right here," he said. "On the road leading down here, they lived in the grass by the side of the road." Shaking his head, he said, "Someone here decided to gravel over the parking lot, and that chased the birds away. They had no grass to live in."
Corven has special words for cats. He showed a graphic display of cats holding their prey, little dead birds. "It's natural to them; they're hunters," he said. "But, they should be kept indoors. For the cat's sake and for the birds' and other wildlife, keep them indoors." He said scientists estimate cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year.
Corven showed exquisite photos of red-tailed hawks on the wing, laughing gulls, magnificent frigates, rich in detail. "People think they are so common, but they are not – the blue herons, the egrets came from Africa."
He said, "You will never see a laughing gull in the winter. They migrate from Venezuela. They are summer visitors, they come here to nest."
He showed a photo of a bird all too common to Virgin Islanders, the pearly-eyed thrasher, commonly know as a "thrushie." "People hate these birds," Corven said. "They are loud, they're greedy, they thief. In other words, they're too much like people."
He talked about the birds we no longer see, "largely because of people." He said flamingoes once lived here, and parrots. "The parrots were brought here as pets about 100 years ago, and some got loose. It's illegal now to catch a parrot," he said. "Though I hear there's a market for them."
After the class, Corven took a small group of students for a brief walk to the lagoon immediately behind the science building.
"See that gravel?" He pointed to the parking lot. "This road used to be covered with the grosbeaks."
LaPlace had library date, but he couldn't be kept from the brief bird walk. For his age, he has a comparable knowledge to Corven's, though his is home-grown yet.
His mother has nurtured her children's interest in nature. "It's a part of our lives," Petersen said. A native St. Thomian, Petersen says she had roots going back 300 years. "I took walks before the kids were even born," she said.
LaPlace has raised something most of us have never seen: a baby pigeon. The rafters in Cancryn's outdoor walkways are cluttered with the birds, something parents and students complained about in last year's school protest, as the droppings are unpleasant and unsanitary.
LaPlace said, "The babies fall out of the nests, and some of the kids stomp on them and kill them. I gather up the babies and take them home to raise."
He said he has raised two or three of the pigeon chicks now. "It takes about two months before I can release them," he said.
Another critter in peril from nature, or human nature, is the duck. "I've taken baby ducks home from the agriculture dam in Dorothea," he said. "The mongooses get them, so I keep them until they are big enough to fend for themselves, and then I take them back to the dam."
As we walk down to the water's edge, LaPlace and his sister are all eyes. "Look," they shout almost in unison, "There come two pintails, no it's three!" That would be the white-cheeked pintail. The lagoon, which separates the university from the airport, is a boon for water birds.
Pelicans and ducks abound. Corven has supplied all of us with binoculars. "There's a gashawk," he joked about the birds sitting on the runway.
Corven reminded everyone to bring their checklists May 1, where the data will be entered into the new Web site, which allows a user to enter his own data, as well as check other information.