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HomeNewsArchivesSnowbirds, Meet Real Birds: Southgate Tour Covers Avian Habitats

Snowbirds, Meet Real Birds: Southgate Tour Covers Avian Habitats

Jan. 30, 2008 — Thirty-four residents and snowbirds learned about and viewed the habitat of resident and migrating birds Wednesday during an informative walking tour of Southgate Coastal Reserve.
"These migrating birds are the real snow birds," said Carol Kramer-Burke, tour guide and program director for the St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA).
The hike was the last in a series of tours sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources' East End Marine Park. The reserve is on the northwest boundary of the marine park. The 102 acres, managed by SEA, consists of a coastal salt pond, mangrove forest, beach forest and upland grassland.
The tour began in the upland grassland, where waves of bright green invasive and native grasses rippled in the breeze. One could look out and see the remains of a sugar mill and other signs of past agricultural use. Also visible were a few cotton plants with snowy white tufts of cotton. The land was also used for grazing cattle hundreds of years ago, Kramer-Burke said. There were also non-native plants such as tan tan and acacia trees introduced on St. Croix for the cattle to graze on.
Eradication of the tan tan is prohibitive in that there is just too much to get rid of, Kramer-Burke told the hikers. However, SEA volunteers are reintroducing native plants that will eventually provide a seed source for more plants.
As the hike continued, Kramer-Burke pointed out the transition zone to wetland grasses. The three key sources delineating a wetland area are the type of soil, plants and the presence of water, she said.
Kramer-Burke picked and ate the succulent annual herb purslane. She told the group it tastes salty and the common moorhen eats it. The moorhen is a black waterbird with a distinguishing red callous on its beak.
White salt residue was evident in dry areas of the pond. Bird movement on the island depends on the condition of the pond.
"If the pond dries out, birds move upland or to other islands," Kramer-Burke said. "They need to have fingerling fish, crabs, macro algae and grasses that live in water to feed on."
The group walked to the shore of the pond through a moist, gray muddy area populated by short, stiff grass, beetles, grasshoppers and ants.
The dominant tree species on the site, white mangrove, is a popular nesting tree for native birds. The area, which has good cover and fresh water, is inhabited by several species of birds classified as threatened or endangered. The pond is populated with birds such as the pied-billed grebe, fulvous whistling duck, blue winged teal, Wilson's plover and much more.
"Season to season we see different birds here," Kramer-Burke said.
The call of the black-necked stilt was heard, but the birdwatchers didn't catch a glimpse of one. The birdwatchers did see a juvenile frigate bird and a gray kingbird. Not many birds were seen on the hike, since early morning is the best time for viewing and it was getting to be late morning.
The short walk continued to the beach on a deeply rutted dirt road that looked like only trucks with four-wheel drive could pass over it.
In the future the road may be gated and maintained by SEA with pedestrian access. SEA is in the process of seeking permits to build a parking lot, educational center, hiking trails and a caretaker's house at the entrance of the reserve. The strategically placed parking lot will be environmentally sensitive, Kramer-Burke said. The lot will provide a safe, secure area for parking.
"At this time there are no laws to keep people from driving on the beach," she said. "It is important to keep cars off the beach, since it is a nesting site for three types of endangered sea turtles."
She also told the hikers about the nesting habits of the turtles. The leatherback builds its nest close to the water on the extreme west and east end of the reserve. The green turtle builds its nest on the edge of the vegetation, generally under sea grapes and the buttonwood tree. The hawksbill builds her nest farther inland; she is small and can build the nest between roots and trunks.
Then Kramer-Burke turned the hike over to John Farchette III, East End Marine Park ranger. Farchette told the hikers about a male leatherback turtle weighing more than 300 pounds that frequents the area, breeding numerous times during mating season. He also told about snappers, barracuda and large conch that can be caught right offshore. He pointed out that Green Cay, seen from shore, has an osprey rookery on it. White terns also nest on the cay, and it is home to the rare ground lizard.
"It was nice to see the big turnout of people wanting to learn more about St. Croix's natural resources," said Rosemary Aldrich, a snowbird. "It was very intelligent commentary."
The Southgate Coastal Reserve was created in 1999 and expanded in 2000 through two generous gifts from an anonymous donor with a keen interest in birding and education, according to the SEA website.
SEA strongly supports the implementation of an effective, comprehensive land- and water-use plan and the identification and protective management of St. Croix's significant natural areas.
The mission of SEA is to promote the conservation of environmental resources, provide education and advocate for environmentally responsible actions that benefit St. Croix.
The marine park was established in January 2003, according to the website. It encompasses approximately 60 square miles. The park protects and manages the natural and cultural resources of the eastern end of St. Croix. The shoreline of the park is approximately 17 miles long and extends from the high-tide line to three miles out.
It's a multi-use park with four managed areas in its boundaries. There are the recreation areas where people can snorkel, dive, catch-and-release fish and cast net-bait fish. It is a turtle wildlife preserve with protected nesting beaches. There are no-take areas, which are protected spawning grounds. Open areas comprise 80 percent of the park, where the only restriction is the removal of coral.
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