The Graeme Hall Swamp: Return Of The Birds

The Graeme Hall Swamp in Barbados was slowly filled in over the course of a century, in the process losing much of its wild inhabitants. Now they are coming back. Roxan Kinas explains

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Dusk is approaching. The birds will fly in soon. A large fish jumps, breaking the glassy water and setting off a small circular wake that ripples into oblivion. In the distant sky, a jagged white puff appears. Soon, great waves of wings flap as the egrets begin alighting on the treetops in the mangrove swamp.

Things have not been this good here for nearly 80 years. This was Barbados’ largest mangrove and sedge swamp; legions of migratory birds passed through every year. It was the only swamp that enjoyed both fresh water springs and a sea source. But the 80-acre Graeme Hall Swamp, once the great mangrove and water catchment for much of Barbados’ south coastal and upper inland areas, is also the place that still holds the record for the most birds shot in one day – 700, to be exact. That was more than 70 years ago, when the swamp’s well-tended canals banked with manicured grass attracted birds into the range of the hunters’ guns, a “sport” introduced to the swamp in 1827.

The swamp declined, in size and state. The process worsened when a small section was barricaded off, severing the bulk of the swamp from its sea and fresh water access. This area became a “wetland” or, to be more precise, a mosquito breeding ground. That was almost 50 years ago. While the “wetland” was drying up, the swamp’s unclouded waters grew murky and tainted with debris and contaminated runoffs from adjoining properties; the owners soon reclaimed their pieces of the swamp. Then one owner dredged the small severed section, reclaiming land on the south and west. Shifting “volume for volume”, the “lake”, as it was called, shrank from ten to five acres and deepened from two to 15 feet in some areas. But that was almost 30 years ago.

Then, environmentalists, ecologists, birders and other concerned parties began touting swamp-salvaging proposals to government and anyone else who might listen. Nobody did. But that was almost 20 years ago.

Another era of neglect passed. Finally, it took one man with a powerful pen, and another with the money to back it, to save and revive Graeme Hall Swamp, and then transform it into a magnificent sanctuary for birds and other wildlife.

A Barbadian resident, retired Canadian attorney Peter Allard, became intrigued by the swamp after reading an article by Dr Karl Watson, environmental consultant and Professor of History at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill. Dr Watson took him on a tour of the “lake” section, which was up for sale. Allard’s reaction: “It’s my dream of a sanctuary, let’s buy it and do it.” That was in 1994.

Enlisting the aid of a collection of experts in several fields, Allard undertook the task of returning Graeme Hall to its natural state. And in time, the swamp began to flourish.

Forty appears to be a magic number for Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary. Today, the 40-acre property boasts a profusion of foliage and wildlife that includes more than 40 varieties of birds, a small network of ponds and a vibrant lake that contains some 42 species of fresh, salt and brackish-water fish. In addition, more than 40 varieties of migratory birds “lay over” in the swamp during their long migratory flight, and the sanctuary plays host to a number of unusual passers-through that have rarely, if ever, been seen in the western hemisphere before.

It took a lot of thought, effort and money to turn this sanctuary into the peaceful environment it is today. “Peter has spent Bds$3 million to recondition and restore the wetland areas on this property,” says Karl Watson. “Our primary objective was and is to provide a safe haven for migrating and resident birds, and to encourage nesting.” He admits to giving birds “precedence within the overall holistic framework,” but stresses, “we have not neglected our responsibilities to other life forms because it is a functioning eco-system, and birds are part of it.”

The restoration process involved reintroducing water to undo the work or past developers. “We allowed water to fill in again, and created five small ponds.” A boardwalk was built along the southern perimeter of the main lake, with vantage points looking across to the egret rookery at the northern end and to the island at the southern end. The area is now used for study by the University: the daily fish-feeding programme caters to tarpon, mullet and tilapia. The lake also contains crustaceans, molluscs and other brackish-water life.

Dr Watson explains: “The plan basically is to provide a sanctuary with an educational element and an eco-tourism aspect that will pay for the recurring costs of maintaining it. We also plan to add two large walk-through aviaries, an interpretive centre and a gift shop.”

Perhaps the bird life is the most impressive element of this success story. “Certainly the nesting population of Snowy Egrets has increased considerably,” Dr Watson says. “Every year we see larger numbers of Caribbean Coot and Red Seal Coot nesting, and for the first time in the western hemisphere, we are seeing the Little Egret nesting and breeding. These birds are normally only seen in the Mediterranean and Africa. Ospreys now take up winter residence here; the Belted Kingfisher and Yellow Warbler populations have increased dramatically; there are growing numbers of Great Blue Heron, and every year now a European bird, the Gray Heron, comes through. Last year, a Purple Heron took up winter residence, a first for the western hemisphere.”

While all the islands have mangrove swamps, Dr Watson says, “ours is special because it is the last large area of mangrove swamp left in Barbados, and the island’s geographical location puts it in a position to attract not only the north/ south migratory birds but those from Europe, Asia and Africa. In fact, more birds from Eurasia and Africa are seen in Barbados than any other Caribbean island.” This, he says, is because of Barbados’s easterly position, as well as the trade winds “which facilitate the flight of vagrants (strays).”

Though the work is far from done, the sanctuary is unofficially open to the public from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, and attracts increasing numbers of locals and visitors, as well as school and other groups. Says Dr Watson, “The primary benefit of this eco-system is humans giving something back to other life forms. We’ve taken so much, it’s time we gave back a little.”

You can visit the Graeme Hall Sanctuary website at:

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.