Because I am passionate about the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats (very close to where I was raised in southwestern Puerto Rico) and its surprising local fauna, this article from BirdsCaribbean (2 May 2018) caught my eye. I would love to visit Bonaire’s Cargill Salt Ponds, a site designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of Regional Importance.
Imagine a vast expanse of rectangular saline ponds in surreal colors – pinks, turquoises, greens – that reach out towards the horizon, flanked by a collection of enormous, immaculately white pyramids of salt. It’s an extraordinary landscape, with an eerie beauty.
Now, there is something even more remarkable about Bonaire’s Cargill Salt Ponds. BirdsCaribbean is excited to share the fantastic news that this important stopover and wintering site for migratory birds has been designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) site of Regional Importance. This is the second WHSRN site in the Caribbean, joining the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats in southwestern Puerto Rico. This designation will ensure the protection and management of the site for shorebirds. It’s excellent news for the Red Knot, in particular. In addition to this threatened migratory bird, more than 20,000 shorebirds, representing 17 species, have been recorded at the location.
What is the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network?
The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network is dedicated to protecting key habitats throughout the Americas, helping sustain healthy populations of shorebirds. With the addition of Cargill Salt Ponds Bonaire, there are now 103WHSRN sites covering nearly 15 million hectares (38 million acres) in 17 countries. Sites are categorized as having Regional, International or Hemispheric Importance based on the total number of shorebirds they support annually; or if the sites support a substantial percentage of the population of a single species. The new site, the first for the Dutch Caribbean, also lies within BirdLife International’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Pekelmeer Saltworks, Bonaire. This area includes the 400-hectare Pekelmeer Ramsar site (a designation given to Wetlands of International Importance.
The Big Attraction for Shorebirds at Cargill Salt Ponds
Why do shorebirds thrive at the Salt Ponds? What on Earth could possibly survive in this alien landscape? The answer: brine shrimp and brine flies. These small invertebrates lay the foundation that support thousands of shorebirds annually. Most of them are hungry migrants, taking a much-needed break before continuing on their journey, or spending the winter at this food-rich site. A privately-owned salt production facility at the southern end of Bonaire, owned by Cargill Salt Bonaire B.V., the site comprises 3,700 hectares: 2,700 hectares are artificial wetlands – primarily solar evaporation ponds for salt extraction. Brine shrimp fill the ponds. The dike roads running between the ponds are covered with brine flies. For shorebirds, the shrimp and flies are a delicious food source, right amongst the mountains of salt.
Many are familiar with the extraordinary migratory cycle of the Red Knot: every year, this shorebird flies a roundtrip of close to 19,000 miles, from the Arctic to southern Chile and Argentina. If that wasn’t impressive enough, this bird’s journey includes multi-day stretches (even up to one week!) of continuous flight between stopover sites. These sites that allow the birds to rest and refuel are critically important to the success of the Red Knot’s migration. Without them, this fascinating shorebird would not survive. [. . .]
[Photo above by Peter Nijenhuis: Pink water and salt pyramids create a surreal landscape at the Cargill Salt Ponds.]