The Islands are a superb complex of natural coral reefs, tidal flats, mangroves and marshlands, which provide a haven for wildlife, as well as the natural basis of these fisheries and tourism industries.

Flats and marshes complex at Middle Caicos in the Ramsar Convention Wetland of International Importance. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Flats and marshes complex at Middle Caicos in the Ramsar Convention Wetland of International Importance. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The dry tropical forest ecosystem is one of the most threatened habitats in the world. This ecosystem has not been studied extensively, but supports many endemic species from invertebrates to reptiles.

Thick-billed vireo, a subspecies restricted to TCI; it is abundant in the dry forest and a remarkably varied songster. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Thick-billed vireo, a subspecies restricted to TCI; it is abundant in the dry forest and a remarkably varied songster. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The mosaics of habitats scattered across the islands function as ecological corridors. For example, East and Middle Caicos are believed to provide overwintering habitat for Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii and several other passerine species.

Pair of white-tailed tropicbirds in display, Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Pair of white-tailed tropicbirds in display, Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

In the marine environment, there are approximately 1,200 km² of coral reefs. A single barrier reef fringes the north coasts of the 6 islands of the Caicos Bank (West Caicos, Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos, South Caicos) whereas, shallow-water patch reefs are common around all of the islands and cays. Vast areas of seagrass beds occur in the Caicos Bank, important habitat for a variety of marine wildlife.

Osprey over Wheeland Ponds, Providenciales, with fish recently caught in the sea nearby. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Osprey over Wheeland Ponds, Providenciales, with fish recently caught in the sea nearby. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Extensive mangroves connect the seagrass and coral reefs, acting as nurseries for fish as well as providing many ecosystem services to the islands for example, protecting coastal areas from storm surges. The old salt-pans are internationally important for birds and also provide the service of holding water from tropical storms, reducing the flooding risk. Ann Pienkowski has produced a short introductory video about the birds of the salt-pans in the centre of Grand Turk:

YouTube Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThN1FQ-7Gmc

Old windmill for pumping sea-water on the salt-pans at Salt Cay, before destruction by hurricanes in recent years. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Old windmill for pumping sea-water on the salt-pans at Salt Cay, before destruction by hurricanes in recent years. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Male least tern brings fish for his mate as part of the display and help to egg production. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Male least tern brings fish for his mate as part of the display and help to egg production. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Turks head cacti. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Turks head cacti. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

There is an extensive network of protected areas in TCI under local legislation. In total there are 35 protected areas (71,714 ha), 5 are terrestrial and 28 are marine. They are managed by the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources. They include: 11 national parks; 11 nature reserves; 4 designated sanctuaries; 9 areas of historic interest.

In international terms, the Turks and Caicos Islands are entered on to the UK Government’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. TCI has one designated Wetland of International Importance, under the Ramsar Convention, with several others proposed.

Flaningos at Boiling Hole Salina, South Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Flamingos in display at Boiling Hole Salina, South Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The North, Middle and East Caicos wetland complex forms one of the best examples of its type in the Caribbean. It is also one of the most natural amongst the 175 Wetlands of International Importance listed under the Ramsar Convention by the UK Government.

Adult brown pelican fishing on Town Salina, Grand Turk. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Adult brown pelican fishing on Town Salina, Grand Turk, one of the proposed Ramsar Sites. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

A further 6 proposed Ramsar sites were identified during a UKOTCF study, commissioned by Defra and conducted jointly with TCI Government and NGOs in 2005. These six include the historically important salinas (salt-pans) at Grand Turk and Salt Cay, which are now internationally important for birds. They offer some of the best bird-watching in the world for normally shy wild water-birds, which here allow a close approach.