13 Kilometres northwest of of Anguilla, lies the small, low-lying, rocky Dog island. Its 511 acres are covered mostly with dense and prickly scrub. Steep cliffs show the scars of years of pounding by waves; the wounds are menacing – jagged points and deep crevices. In stark contrast are the white sand beaches that, from afar, look as though they are being lapped by gentle waves.
However, looks are often deceiving. The nearshore is often subject to heavy ground seas and swells.
For a small island, its ecology is wondrous. Small ground lizards sprint across the hot, dry rocks and dusty clay-soil. Birds such as plovers and sandpipers wade in the shallow waters of the salt ponds, while others that are usually found in scrub-like vegetation – flycatchers, grassquits, and banaquits – can be heard singing their melodies from somewhere between the cacti and brush. But it is the seabirds that draw the visitor’s attention.
Dog Island is ranked as one of the top three seabird breeding areas in the entire Caribbean. Its importance exceeds even Cuba – one of the biodiversity hotspots of the region.
Eight different types of seabirds nest on this island. While eight species may not sound like much, their nesting populations are staggering. In 2003, there were 5 Red-billed tropicbird nests, 30 Masked booby nests, 1 267 Brown booby nests, 10 Least tern nests, 8 Bridled tern nests, 6 000 Sooty tern nests, and 111 Brown noddy nests.
That is a total of 7 573 nests. This means that on 511 acres of land, there were at least 15 146 adult birds.
Given its location, it would be assumed that this little island would be protected (for the most part) from outside damaging activities and threats. But it is not. Rats were recently observed on the island. Rodents tend to be extremely destructive and can destroy entire bird colonies by stealing and eating eggs.
They do not naturally occur on the island – they may have been brought over on driftwood or debris from Prickly Pear, from the mainland, or from some other nearby island. Since they do not have any real predators here, the potential for their population to explode is substantial.
At the same time feral (wild) goats are also found on Dog Island. Domesticated goats were brought there years ago from the mainland when livestock farming used to take place.
These goats are what are left of that herd. As in most places in Anguilla, goats that roam free tend to have a strong impact on the environment because they eat almost all types of vegetation, thereby destroying important habitat that other species rely on to survive. Sometimes they eat so much that they cause almost desert-like conditions.
Marine pollution, including oil spills can also cause huge mortality rates for seabirds since oil is able to coat the birds’ feathers which will cause them to lose their waterproofing.
This makes it easier for water to penetrate their feathers and forces the birds to spend more energy on staying warm. It can also cover them so much so that they cannot move their wings or bodies and this would eventually lead to death by drowning or starvation. Other forms of garbage such as six-pack rings and fish nets trap birds and can also cause either injury or death.
And the threat of development is even here, on this isolated part of Anguilla. As a privately-owned offshore cay, owners have the right to sell and currently, approximately 500 acres of Dog Island is on the real estate market. Selling the island to any type of developer will only mean one thing for the seabirds – a decrease (probably dramatic) in their numbers. Habitat destruction to make way for buildings, jetties, and roads, noise, foot traffic, introduced mammals such as dogs or cats, garbage, and grey water and sewage runoff will all negatively impact this relatively pristine environment.