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Birding in the Bahamas

article spread
by Brian Sullivan
Photographs by Brian Sullivan

Easing my way through the forest, I carefully avoid the razor-sharp palmettos and fallen logs now covered in tall winter grasses. Overhead, Bahama pines soar above 100 feet, seeming impossibly tall with their skinny, arrow-straight trunks propping up umbrella-like long-leaf pine needles against the blue sky. Approaching a clearing, I recognize faint chips from Dendroica warblers in the overstory. With the involuntary reaction of a birder born in the northeastern United States, I begin to “pish” at these noises, interspersing Tufted Titmouse scolding with my best wren-like chatter, hoping to entice the birds down for a closer look. To my surprise, the vegetation around the clearing quickly fills with birds. Flitting through the trees, dozens of North American migrants—including Cape May, Palm, and Prairie warblers, who recognize these sounds as a familiar call to arms—come close, giving their “chip-note” calls in solidarity. Resident Yellow-throated and Pine warblers join the mix, along with the endemic Olive-capped Warbler. Thick-billed Vireos scold from a nearby shrub. A West Indian Woodpecker rattles while two La Sagra’s Flycatchers look on disapprovingly. In the distance, two Loggerhead Kingbirds argue with each other over the best foraging perch.

I’ve never seen such an amazing density of birds. I guess I must have happened upon a large “feeding flock” and simply gotten lucky. Little did I know that this scene would play itself out over and over again throughout the day as I drove south through Abaco National Park in search of the endemic Bahama Parrot. At every stop, a deluge of birds responded to my calls, despite the fact that not a single Tufted Titmouse or Carolina Wren had ever set foot (or wing) on this soil. I was a little disappointed in only hearing the parrot, but it was a fantastic day nonetheless, and I would be lured back to this place several times over the next few years to try again, obviously hoping to find the parrot, but also secretly happy to be surrounded by such an incredible mix of birds.

Flying over the Bahamas en route to Abaco, it’s easy to see why so many North American migrants call this place home during winter. Long strands of powdery beaches, sparkling warm, green waters, and dense tropical vegetation attract “snowbirds” of all kinds, both avian and human. Abaco is a place shaped by the sun and the sea, where rolling dunes meet impenetrable coppices that protect a serene native long-leaf pine forest. With its postcard-perfect beaches and large tracts of unaltered native vegetation, it is an absolute paradise for birders, nature enthusiasts, and other tourists. It’s one of the best examples of a place where great birding mixes with more general tourist appeal, and one of the few places you might be able to sneak excellent birding into an otherwise “normal” vacation! A respect for nature is ingrained in the local population here, which leads to an appreciation of the developing ecotourism business on the island. Diving, snorkeling, and sport fishing are all well established in the Bahamas, and a trip here can be enjoyable not only for birders and nature enthusiasts, but also for nonbirding friends and family.

Geography and History

The Bahamas are an archipelago of more than 700 islands and thousands of cays (pronounced “keys”), stretching roughly from northwest to southeast and spanning more than 650 miles of the Caribbean. From Florida, the nearest major island is Grand Bahama, lying roughly 60 miles east of West Palm Beach. Another 25 miles east lie the Abacos, consisting of Little Abaco and Great Abaco and its offshore cays, or “out-islands.” The Abacos are roughly elbow-shaped, with Little Abaco being a small island on the northwestern tip and Great Abaco extending from there off to the southeast, and then making a sharp turn toward the south. At the eastern edge of this precipitous bend lies the town of Marsh Harbour, serving as the hub of activity on the island, housing its major airport and many restaurants and resorts. It is also the main source of supplies for locals and tourists going to and from the offshore cays. Green Turtle Cay and Elbow Cay are the most popular, with the latter being the best for birds. Birding the offshore cays is fun, but you have to get there by ferry and must bird on foot or by bicycle, because only permanent residents are allowed to drive cars there. Most tourists travel on the offshore cays by golf cart or bike, which can be rented for day use in the major towns. These cays offer spectacular birding and are a must-visit for anyone traveling to the Abacos. To the south there is little development, and much of the southern tip has been preserved as Abaco National Park.

Birding on Great Abaco is easy: you can simply rent a car and explore the island. And because it has only one major road, it’s hard to get lost. But be forewarned: the Bahamians still follow the British tradition of driving on the left-hand side of the road, despite having typical American-style cars with steering wheels on the left. Although this is a bit disconcerting at first, it’s easy to get used to, and it tends to make the island’s few intersections more “fun” to drive through.

The Bahamas enjoy a long and storied past that ranges from the indigenous Lucayan Indians’ initial contact with Christopher Columbus, subsequent Spanish persecution and native depopulation, British proprietary rule (when the likes of the infamous Blackbeard and other pirates dominated its ports), to settlement by Loyalists and their slaves, who fled the East Coast after the American Revolution. Ships traveling to and from Africa set thousands of slaves free on the islands after Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s. The current population still reflects this diverse and sometimes troubled past, but the warmth and hospitality of the Bahamian people show little indication of the islands’ painful history. Indeed, everywhere on Abaco the locals greet you with a smile, all too eager to help with directions, cook you a meal, or tell you where and how to find the Bahama Parrot.

Birding

Birding on Abaco is nothing short of spectacular. Only an hour’s flight from Florida, you are treated to a host of Bahamian specialties that would take a lifetime to see in North America. Bahama Mockingbird, Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Cuban Emerald, Bahama Woodstar, Loggerhead Kingbird, and La Sagra’s Flycatcher—all of them are considered mega-rarities in North America but are common here. A full day of birding on Abaco can provide birders with tremendous experience with these species. In addition to the local birds, numerous North American migrants are present during late fall and winter, adding volume to the already dense populations of birds.

Spring and summer are marked by hot days and tropical breezes, when the sounds of the Antillean Nighthawk fill the evening skies. Known locally as the “Killikadeck,” an onomatopoetic take on its call, the Antillean Nighthawk is a common breeder. These nightjars depart in early fall. Their wintering grounds are still unknown, but researchers believe they lie somewhere in South America. Nesting seabirds also abound in the Bahamas though somewhat less so on Abaco than on the more southerly islands. Nonetheless, White-tailed Tropicbirds nest right in Marsh Harbour, where they can be seen trailing their elegant ghostly white tail streamers near the fishing boats. Migration of seabirds is relatively little known here, but there is much potential, and some birders have observed excellent flights of migrating shearwaters, storm-petrels, and even a few Black-capped Petrels from shore near the town of Crossing Rocks in April. Very deep water off the eastern side of Abaco probably serves as a pathway for many of these species en route from warm Gulf Stream wintering waters to their Caribbean breeding islands.

Fall and winter are without a doubt the birdiest times of the year on Abaco. It can be calm, warm, and sunny, or surprisingly cold and very windy, especially when the tail end of a strong winter cold front whips across the islands. Abaco is actually north of the Florida Keys, and in winter, it occasionally has extended periods of blustery, chilly weather. Although cool weather might curtail your snorkeling activities, it will give you a better excuse to get out and look for birds. A few of the endemic breeders leave for the winter, but many are resident and some remain in reduced numbers throughout the winter. Ornamental plantations at the town of Bahama Palm Shores often host some of the scarcer winter residents, such as Western Spindalis, which possibly moves to the more southerly Caribbean islands in winter. But the big story in winter is the number and diversity of North American migrants. Gray Catbirds abound, mixing in the understory with the beautiful Red-legged Thrush. Painted and Indigo buntings share dense thickets with Black-faced Grassquits, while Palm and Prairie warblers vie for your attention. Many North American warblers winter here, including Palm, Prairie, Cape May, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-throated, and Black-and-white warblers plus American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, and Ovenbird. White-eyed Vireos are numerous, along with the endemic Thick-billed Vireo. Pishing into the coppice on the offshore cays can yield a colorful experience.

Conservation

The Bahamas have taken excellent steps toward protecting their natural resources, and Abaco is no exception. The crown jewel of this system is Abaco National Park, which stretches across much of the south end of Great Abaco. Here, the native long-leaf pine habitat is preserved, and this area serves as a haven for the endangered Bahama Parrot. Just after dawn, it’s easy to hear flocks of parrots, and you can often spot them flying from their roosting to their feeding areas across much of the park. Driving along slowly, you can hear their raucous calls, even over the din of a noisy rental car. Spotting the parrots when they’re perched can be difficult, though, and you may have to be satisfied with seeing a passing flock—what the locals call “rainbows in the sky.”

In addition to the parrot, small numbers of endangered Kirtland’s Warblers have been found in recent years wintering in the dense beachfront coppice along the south end of the island. The largest known wintering area for this rare North American breeder and winter visitor is the island of Eluethra, a small stretch of dense coppice to the southeast of Great Abaco. More study is needed to determine exactly where the Kirtland’s Warbler winters in the Bahamas, and although I’ve yet to see one on Abaco, it’s always at the back of my mind when I search through flocks of North American migrants and winter visitors.

The Abacos offer birders a chance to see many of the Bahamian endemics, despite being just a stone’s throw away from Florida. It’s not uncommon to bird for a week there without seeing any other birders. A lot still remains to be learned about this place, and you get the sense that you are making a true contribution to our understanding of birds when you bird there. The atmosphere in the Bahamas is incredible for birds and birders. Things move pleasantly slowly. A good attitude and a sense of humor are mandatory.

For an excellent overview of birding in the Bahamas and advice on accommodations, logistics, and more, pick up the American Birding Association’s Birdfinding Guide to the Bahamas by Tony White.

Anyone seeking a respite from the long northern winter will love the Bahamas. Just bring your binoculars and a sense of adventure. And don’t forget your bathing suit!

Brian Sullivan is eBird and Avian Knowledge Network project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Visit his web site: www.briansullivanphotography.com

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Living Bird Magazine

Spring 2009

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Brian Sullivan is eBird and Avian Knowledge Network project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Visit his photography web site here.