St. Croix's Featherd Snow Birds
by Toni Lance
They call me the " Bird Lady. " And for good reason. I am a bird person. I watch them, I rehabilitate them, I photograph them and I paint them. And one of my favorite times of year on St. Croix is when new birds migrate to the island.
Running along the mudflats and protected sandy waters at Altoona Lagoon are the charming little Ruddy Turnstones. I love taking a morning drive down there to watch the fishermen clean their fish and the little Turnstones picking in the sand and wetting their orange legs. With breeding plumage of mahogany, black and white, these lovely small shore birds appear in little groups in the winter months.
Bird migration is a regular seasonal journey undertaken by many species of birds. They migrate for better food availability, habitat and weather. As northern America becomes cold and food becomes scarce, many fly long distances south along flyways in search of more food and warmer weather. The most common pattern is to fly north to breed in spring and summer and then head south in autumn.
So on St Croix we are fortunate to witness some of these amazing travelers. Shorebirds running along the beaches, ducks in the fresh water ponds, herons in the salt ponds, swallows on the telephone wires, terns diving for small fish, and impressive acrobatic dives from birds of prey are just a few of the thrills we bird lovers enjoy.
The fastest member of the animal kingdom, reaching speeds of up to 200 mph, is the Peregrine Falcon. Migrating great distances, they have been known to spend the summer in the arctic and the winter as far as Argentina and Chile. Diving in the air after egrets, pigeons and shore birds, a few fabulous peregrines spend the winter on our island every year. Standing 14 inches tall with their masked faces and sharply pointed wings they are real beauties to see.
Another even larger bird of prey, that is seen often by full ponds catching fish, is the Osprey or " Fish Eagle." Some spend the winter on St. Croix, but many are just stopping to rest and feed up on their way further south. Last year as many as eleven Ospreys at one time were seen fishing at Carambola Golf Course. These birds were " fall out" from a tropical storm in their path that drove them to stop on our island.
A number of ducks make their way to the Caribbean and can be seen at Southgate Pond, Great Pond and the ponds at the Buccaneer Hotel like the Lesser Scaup, Pintail, Blue-Winged Teal, and the stocky, little Ruddy duck, with his white cheek patch, blue beak and erect tail.
Shorebirds are plentiful too in the winter - the Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, with their tall yellow legs and the Whimbrel, with his large stature and long, curved beak. A few quickly moving little Sanderlings are seen on the beach. Running in and out with the surf are the busy Spotted Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers. Other local shorebirds that seem to appear in larger numbers are the delicate Black Necked Stilt, with his pink legs, the stout black and white Oystercatcher, with his heavy red bill, and the clever Killdeer, with its broken wing act.
The Belted Kingfisher, also a winter visitor, is a grand fellow, with his crest of feathers and rattling call, glides along the water's edge and snatches fish. He is a favorite of mine to paint, as is the Great Blue Heron who, standing motionless by a pond at sunset, is a sight for the eyes. And paint brush!
Birds' ability to migrate and orient themselves is a remarkable genetic adaptation. Studies and banding of birds help us to understand and protect them. The Center for Conservation Biology, at the College and William and Mary and the Virginia Commonwealth University, put a satellite transmitter on a Whimbrel named Hope, who spent two winters on St. Croix and bred three times up north. In one year she traveled more than 12,000 miles. FLYING!!!!!!
Watercolor and photos by Toni Lance.
Toni Lance runs her non-profit St. Croix Avian Sanctuary out of her home on the Southshore. See her bio as our cover artist on page 32.