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Home away from home

Heather-Lynn Evanson

Home away from home

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There is a plot of land in Barbados where all birds are welcome.
There, the worms are plenty; no guns are trained on them, and winged predators can be seen coming from a distance.
It’s the Woodbourne Shorebird Refuge (WSR). Located in the semi-rural district of Woodbourne, St Philip, it was once a shooting swamp before Wayne ‘Doc’ Burke took it over in 1999.
Burke is now the man behind the care of these migratory birds, who call Barbados home for a few months every year.
The Woodbourne refuge is not a commercial venture. It is a place where those with a love for nature and birds can visit for free.
The timing of the NATION’s visit was unfortunate, to say the least.
For while the international birding community was celebrating World Migratory Bird Day last weekend, the island’s migratory season starts in July.
“And unfortunately you are here in the peak of the dry season,” Burke noted.
In other words, all but one of the ponds were dry and the shorebirds were still elsewhere, probably in the Canadian Arctic.
It’s when they meet bad weather on their trip south that they head for the first available land mass – Barbados.
“Very, very few stop on Barbados during their spring migration going north. But in August there could be 1 000 shorebirds down here feeding at any one time,” he said.
Mind you, the island’s water birds, like the Snowy Egrets and the Great Egrets, have also realised the Shorebird Refuge is a good thing. Fish are there for their taking.
The fish/bird arrangement works for everyone and every feathered visitor.
“The more fish there are, the more fish-eating birds there are. And no mosquitoes,” Burke stressed.
But the running of such an expansive property, even though he gets funding from international wildlife agencies, is a challenge.
“The other shooting swamps on the island, they have wells and pumps so they can regulate their water levels,”
Burke noted, adding “the sole objective of WSR is shorebird conservation”.
Woodbourne, on the other hand, is at the mercy of nature; the ponds dry out when there is very little rain and flood when there is too much.
Fish, too, have to be sourced and Burke remembered a year when his fish levels were so low he bought, borrowed and begged for fish for his ponds.
In addition, he is the first person to admit that bird hunting was a long, established tradition among the white population on Barbados.
But that segment has come a long way from the ancient days of carrying their shotguns into church and hurriedly leaving services when a flock flew overhead.
“My goal, the goal of Birdlife International, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, is not to stop the hunting; it’s to regulate it. So I’ve been negotiating with the hunters, collaborating with the hunters to establish bag limits on species that are of concern,” he said.
“It’s quite obvious to my mind that a hunter must be a conservationist otherwise you’re cutting your nose to spite your face, because your grandchildren might not have any birds to shoot at.”
His view is buttressed by local hunting data released by the Migratory Bird Population analyst at the Canadian Wildlife Service, to him. Through scientific analysis, the data revealed that the current levels of harvest were sustainable.
In addition, Burke said there was another benefit to the hunters’ artificially maintained wetlands – they allow other birds which were not hunted to use the wetlands as a habitat.
“Without those artificially maintained wetlands Barbados’ avian species richness would be severely dimished,” he said.