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A Brown Booby
A brown booby.

Watch a short video documenting the abundance of wildlife on Dog Island.   Real Video -   56k   200k
Photo - Chris Johnson

July 15, 2005
Dog Island, Anguilla - A Living Eden in the Caribbean

  >>View more photographs of the wildlife of Dog Island

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.

A few weeks ago, the Odyssey arrived in the Caribbean and the island of Anguilla. Anguilla is a United Kingdom Overseas Territory and is the most northerly of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean. It is a low-lying, coralline island formed from limestone and volcanic rock.

Traditionally a close-knit society of peasant farmers, fisherman, boat builders and seafarers, 'Anguillians,' are experiencing a recent explosion in tourism. Today, this rapidly developing industry drives the economy. Catering to only a few thousand tourists in the 1980's, today over 100,000 visitors are attracted by Anguilla's stunning, white sandy coastline and crystal clear, electric blue sea annually. At only 90 square kilometers and with a population of less than 13,000, tourism is driving rapid development while increasing pressure on natural resources.

Although exposed to the prevailing winds off the Atlantic, Anguilla is sheltered by extensive reefs off the north coast and by a largely unbroken string of fringing reefs to the southeast. Anguilla also boasts a series of small outer islets or cays, Sombrero, Dog, Prickly Pear and Scrub Islands as part of its territory. All are considered critical regional habitat for several species of seabirds, waterfowl, migratory shorebirds and sea turtles.

A Brown Booby
A sooty tern hovers above its nest.
Photo - Chris Johnson

The crew was ecstatic after receiving an invitation to spend the day on Dog Island. At 2.5 square miles in size and 11 miles from the main island of Anguilla, this privately owned island is one of the most interesting offshore outposts. After a two-hour sail, the calm, azure bays off the southern sandy coastline were visible. The brush-covered cliffs to the north were covered in a swirling cloud of birds and as we crew nearer, the shrill calls of thousands of sea birds could be heard above the breaking swell.

The crew eagerly made there way ashore at Great Bay. Even at 6am, the heat of the brilliant sunrise hinted at the searing temperatures ahead. Packed with water bottles, hats and cameras, the crew set off to explore the island.

Dog Island is important for seabirds in a regional context and the month of June is nesting season for several species. Little terns hovered protectively, each above a tiny, single white egg laid on the hot sand. Nesting in the open reduces the chances of a surprise attack from a predator. Laughing gulls are always lurking and will steal an egg or a young chick whenever an opportunity presents itself.

As we walked along the sand dunes of Great Bay we noticed two sets of sea turtle tracks, each leading to a nest high up at the back of the beach. The tracks were fresh and obviously made after the heavy rains of the previous evening. Anguilla is of regional significance for sea turtles. The near pristine fringing reef and plentiful sea grass beds, although poorly documented provide prime, undisturbed foraging and nesting opportunities and are considered one of the most important reef systems in the eastern Caribbean.

The small, undisturbed beaches of Dog Island are recognized as important nesting and foraging habitat for several threatened species of sea turtle. Hawksbill turtles, followed by green turtles are the principle species nesting in Anguilla. Hawksbills are known to forage year round in the extensive coral reef system, while loggerhead turtles forage around Dog Island, though nesting is yet to be documented. Perhaps of greatest significance is the presence of the enormous, critically endangered leatherback turtle. The week prior to our visit, a the research group TUKOT - Turtles in the United Kingdom Overseas Territories - recorded with a satellite tag, an adult female leatherback turtle coming ashore on Dog Island.

A Brown Booby
A colony of magnificent frigate birds.
Photo - Chris Johnson

At first glance, sandy bays, low cliffs and a rocky shoreline characterize Dog Island. However, a walk inland reveals extensive tracts of low thorn scrub forest and prickly cactus, surrounding a scattering of salt ponds and open marshland.

The marshland interior was inundated with waders, grebes and geese, an essential habitat for waterfowl and migratory shorebirds. The birds congregated in the water and on the mud flats, feeding, grooming and courting in the dawns orange glow. Our westerly track line took us toward Bailey's Cove, a small stretch of glaring white sand criss-crossed by incalculable numbers of hermit crabs in seashell outfits of infinite shapes and colors. As we traced the shoreline, we were delighted to find more fresh turtle tracks and nesting sights.

The northwest coast and along the higher, rocky elevations of the limestone cliffs is where we encountered the first of many nesting and roosting colonies of brown boobies. The colonies consisted of adults, juveniles almost ready to fledge and a scattering of newly hatched chicks donned in powder puff white down, struggling to stay upright on seemingly super sized webbed feet.

The cliff tops on the windward side overlook a beautiful expanse of sloping sandy beach and turquoise blue that fades into the Atlantic Ocean. The boobies prefer the higher windward nesting sights as the wind provides the lift for a more energy efficient take off. We watched brown and masked boobies feeding on flying fish and squid, either taking them in flight or power-diving in a vertical plunge that may take them several meters below the surface. Throughout the morning, the black silhouettes of magnificent frigate birds riding the thermal currents circled high overhead. We were yet to see any sign of frigates nesting on Dog Island and wandered if they were restricted to the few rocky outcrops offshore?

A Brown Booby
The marshland interior supports an abundance of waterfowl and shorebird species.
Photo - Chris Johnson

The delightful, raucous cackle of black-faced laughing gulls was an ever-present delight as they bunched tightly in rafts on the sea surface and in dense groups on land. These scavengers are always on the lookout to snatch an unprotected egg, or chick. Immediately inland from the cliffs, the densely vegetated areas provide habitat for Anguilla's reptiles. Green and brown lizards sunned themselves on rocks, or scampered across our path.

By mid-morning the sun was scorching and shade was sparse. The crew stopped frequently to rest and re-hydrate along the cliff tops of Savannah Bay. Boobies and Brown noddies nested along the flattened vegetation, while the scrub was utilized by delicate black and white sooty terns. June is the height of nesting season for the terns and as we ventured back inland and toward the East Cay Peninsula, there numbers increased dramatically. We were careful to skirt around the edge of the vast expanse of bush, which increasingly teemed with calling adults, chirping chicks and egg-laden nests. The sheer number of sooty terns was astounding, not since the uninhabited atolls of the Pacific Ocean has the crew seen seabirds in such impressive numbers.

We realized as we continued to walk that East Cay and the length of the entire peninsula was a sooty tern breeding colony. Chicks and eggs were present in the shrubbery from coast to coast across the neck of peninsula. We estimated the colony to comprise over 10,000 birds.

The habitat nearest the cliffs was worn down, grassy and open, possibly a result of pressure from the nesting boobies. We continued to hug the cliff, careful not to disturb the nesting sooty terns in the scrub nearby. We noticed more frigate birds circling at this end of the island and were still hopeful of finding some sign of a nesting or roosting sight. We stopped to photograph a pair and watched them land on the far side of a gentle incline. We continued on before being stopped dead in out tracks. Stretched out ahead of us was a colony comprising of a few hundred frigate birds, both adults and juveniles. Frigate birds are truly impressive seabirds as anyone who has seen them will attest. The frigate is a piratical seabird specializing in robbing others, particularly boobies, of their catch by harassing them and even forcing them to regurgitate fish. They are distinctive in shape with long black angular wings and a deeply forked tail. Interestingly, they are barely able to swim and if they land at sea will quickly become waterlogged due to a lack of adequate waterproofing. A waterlogged frigate is unable to take off again and will drift at the surface awaiting its fate.

Pelicans soared overhead as we made our way back to the zodiac, and Odyssey. The crew was hot, exhausted but elated by our seven-hour adventure around one of the few remaining undisturbed seabird and turtle habitats in the Atlantic Ocean. We plunged triumphantly into the sea and completed the afternoon with a long, cool snorkel in the clear calm waters around Dog Island. The island supports spectacular, relatively undisturbed terrestrial and marine ecosystems rich in biodiversity. In response the surrounding waters were declared a Marine Protected Area over twenty years ago. The crew agreed Dog Island is a living eden of the Caribbean.

A Brown Booby
Sea turtle tracks lead to a nest high on the beach. 'Malliouhana' - Anguilla's first satellite tagged leatherback sea turtle visited Dog Island in June 2005. Track her progress through the Atlantic Ocean at - click here.
Photo - Chris Johnson


Odyssey log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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