Jeannette and I traveled with our friends Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist for a 10-day escape from winter’s grip. While the 5 endemics (species found nowhere else on Earth) of the Bahamas (not including the “new” hummingbird on the Inaguas that was split after we planned this trip) were our primary targets, these were, in all reality, the excuse to visit, not the sole reason.
Like all of our journeys, Jeannette and I use species of interest as a guide, getting us to interesting places, seeing great birds, eating great food, and perhaps even resulting in a little rest and relaxation. When most people think of the Bahamas, they think of resorts with expansive landscapes of concrete pools and golf courses, or casinos. Yeah, we didn’t visit any of those. Instead, we prefer the periphery of where the hoards of tourists flock (sorry for the pun, I couldn’t help it). In other words, we flock to where the birds are.
We arrived in Nassau on the heavily-developed island of New Providence less than three hours after departing from Boston. That short trip resulted in a welcome gain of over 70-degrees. I was soon hot.
We had a relaxed afternoon, mostly being “regular” tourists around town, including a visit to the John Waitling rum distillery where the opening scene of Casino Royale was filmed, and where some fine rums are made.
Wintering migrants such as Yellow-throated and Prairie Warblers foraged in gardens and street trees, and Jeannette scored her lifer White-crowned Pigeon as it came into roost in a tree just outside our downtown hotel. Eurasian Collared-Doves were ubiquitous, but it was interesting to see them here. Besides the surprising “dark morph” birds in the city, there is a fair amount of ornithological history with these birds: it was here in Nassau that they were released in 1974 and from here, rapidly colonized the North American continent, now breeding all of the way to southern Alaska!
The next morning (2/27), we were already back at the airport, this time for the short 30-minute jump over to Abaco. Now it was time to really go birding!
Poking our way from the airport to Marsh Harbor, as Paul adeptly navigated the “wrong side” of the road for the first time, we soon found just how outdated the Birder’s Guide to the Bahamas was. Nonetheless, we still found the first lifer for all four of us – LaSagra’s Flycatcher. Shortly after arriving at our quiet little cabin rental at The Lofty Fig (much more our speed than a loud and bustling downtown hotel!), the first of the five endemics we were after flew overhead – 4 Bahama Swallows!
A short walk over to the Abaco Beach Resort yielded lifer Greater Antillean Bullfinches and Thick-billed Vireo, and lifer Western Spindalis for Jeannette in the neighborhood nearby. The spiffy, white-bellied resident race of American Kestrel was exciting to see and we became familiar with the common cast of migrant warblers that would appear at almost every “pish:” Prairie, Cape May, Yellow-throated, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, and especially Palm, and of course one of our favorite birds, the Bananaquit.
The 28th was our most important birding day, with three endemics and several other regional specialties on the agenda as we birded the south end of the island. Following breakfast in a little shop in Sandy Point (lifer Guava Duff!), we immersed ourselves in the pine forests of Abaco National Park.
Olive-capped Warblers and Cuban Emeralds were abundant, Cuban Pewees were scattered about, and we teased out two skulking Bahama Yellowthroats – endemic #2. We finally picked up a couple of Bahama Warblers – their long, decurved bill and yellow bellies rapidly separating them from Yellow-throated.
When you think of mockingbirds, you think of bold and conspicuous, but apparently not so for the Bahama Mockingbird in the middle of winter. We only saw one bird on our trip, and it was a skulker. After a bit of gentle squeaking, however, it popped out and offered a short but satisfying moment. Apparently, we were lucky to see one at all at this time of year.
We wandered around a little bit before arriving in the afternoon at the Bahama Palm Shores to look for the endemic subspecies of the Cuban Parrot. It took us all of about 10 minutes before we heard parrots, and a handful of yards further down the road, we found ourselves surrounded by a confiding flock of 20 or so feeding on fruit.
Having cleaned up on our first full birding day, the agenda was more relaxed on our second full day on the island. We worked our way north to Treasure Cay, stopping at a roadside coppice which yielded more migrants, another Bahama Warbler, and more Thick-billed Vireos than we could look at.
Thanks to two mutual friends, we hooked up with local birding expert Woody Bracey. Woody generously offered to show us around his part of the island. Mentioning we hadn’t yet seen our life White-cheeked Pintails, Woody took us to a local golf course pond, where 48 pintails were present. What a gorgeous bird; here’s one where the field guides definitely don’t do them justice! Cute and elegant, dapper and colorful all at once, these great little ducks were a great way to start our birding day together.
Interestingly enough, the rarest bird in the pond was a vagrant Canada Goose, which arrived here in November – a great bird for the islands. Three Mallards, if indeed genuine vagrants, would be a close second for their rarity. The Blue-winged Teals and Pied-billed Grebes, however, were common and expected.
As luck would have it, after working hard for West Indian Woodpecker to no avail, we heard one call right behind our Marsh Harbor lodging on the morning of the 2nd. However, in about an hour, it only yielded two glimpses as it darted between tall ficus trees. Four Loggerhead Kingbirds were more conspicuous however, and a small thicket of trees held a nice mixed species foraging flock of overwintering warblers, included a Black-throated Blue and a Worm-eating.
Today we took the short ferry ride to Hope Town on Elbow Cay. Wandering through the village – which reminded us all a little of Monhegan Island (but with palm trees) – we did the touristy thing before heading out of town and walking the edges of coppice habitat outside of town all of the way to White Sound. And guess what we saw – West Indian Woodpeckers! Two, about 20 feet away foraging on a roadside tree for over 10 minutes. Isn’t that always how it works out? No Key West-Quail Doves as we hoped for, however.
Early in the morning on March 3rd, we departed Abaco, and arrived back on New Providence. With 6 hours until our next flight, we splurged on a car rental and checked out some birding sites on New Providence. The Harold and Wilson Ponds National Park was the most productive of the destinations. Our trip list grew with Snowy Egret, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Virginia Rail, and Sora, plus 6 more White-cheeked Pintails. Another female Bahama Woodstar entertained us at the Clifton Heritage National Park, which unfortunately, we ran out of time to explore.
Jeannette did the planning for this trip, and once again, she had us in prime position for our target bird. This time, it was the rarest bird of our trip (and therefore my “most-wanted” species), the critically endangered Bahama Oriole. We checked into the Lighthouse Yacht Club Marina motel, a place that’s glory days are long since past. While its history was fascinating, it was a tired place, but we weren’t here for the ambience – or thankfully, the “pool.” Instead, we were here for orioles.
And within about 10 minutes of stepping outside into the front “yard,” an oriole sounded off. We hustled down the entrance road, and Paul spotted the bird teed up on a dead snag. It turned out that a pair was present, and they afforded good views. Now, with the last of the island endemics checked off, we could finally relax a little!
There wasn’t much of a town here in Fresh Creek, but Hank’s Place – the only restaurant open in the area – was not just a great meal, but had the local color, character, and ambiance that one misses staying at gated resorts. Bahama Swallows were on the wires as we crossed the bridge, but unfortunately, we didn’t rediscover any extinct three-foot-tall Barn Owls on the walk home.
The next morning, White Ibis were out on the front lawn of the Lighthouse Yacht Club, and then spent some more quality time with the orioles – at least three were in the area, including two males counter-singing.
Soon thereafter, we took a cab for a short ride over to our final destination of the trip, the Small Hope Bay Lodge to end our vacation in style. Wandering around the grounds and some of the trails yielded more quality time with Thick-billed Vireos, Cuban Emeralds, Bananaquits, Greater Antillean Bullfinches, Black-faced Grassquits, and pockets of North American migrants. Vocal Clapper Rails were added to our trip list.
Jeannette and I took a bike ride (5 miles on old bikes and mostly rough dirt roads, so this might have been slightly more effort than we had anticipated!), through pine forest that was alive with the songs of resident Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to the most impressive of the local “blue holes.” Circular sinkholes into the limestone, blue holes are famous for their relaxing swimming. In we went.
The next morning, one of the resident guides, Tarran Simms, took us on a van tour two three blue holes, taught us about traditional medicinal plants, and brought us to one of the more productive coppices for two of our last “target birds.” Although the notoriously challenging-to-see Key West Quail-Dove was heard twice, it was not surprising that we couldn’t track it down through the impenetrable forest. However, although we heard at least two different Great Lizard-Cuckoos, we weren’t able to spot one of those either. We couldn’t complain, though, as these were our only to “misses” of the trip.
Two Least Grebes were at the Rainbow Blue Hole, along with a chance to dip your feet in for a little fish-exfoliation treatment. A Merlin was new for our trip near Cousteau’s Blue Hole, where Tarran also pointed out an old Barn Owl nest. It’s certainly not where I would have expected to see a Barn Owl nest, but without any barns around, clearly they make do. No one was home at this season, but several pellets below proved they have been eating rats nearby.
After lunch, Jeannette, Kristen, and I rode into “town” to check out the Androsian batik (fabric) factory and store, passing a small pond that hosted a few waterbirds. An Osprey, of the regional subspecies “ridgewayi” with a nearly all-white head flew over, our first (surprisingly) Osprey of the trip.
On our last morning on Andros, Jeannette and I briefly spotted a Bahama Oriole in a Coconut Palm as we left our cabin. We then took a longer trail through the property, hoping for quail-doves or lizard-cuckoos. We didn’t hear or see either, but we did get an unexpected lifer: Swainson’s Warbler. One of the few eastern North American birds neither of us have seen, we’ve never been in the right place at the right time to look for one, so it was exciting to first see the bird in its “wintering” grounds – the place where it spends almost 8 months of each given year. A really good look at a Red-legged Thrush was nice, as well.
For a chance at seeing some seabirds, Jeannette had booked us on the ferry from Fresh Creek back to Nassau, instead of flying back. The boat left from near the Lighthouse Marina, and as we departed, a Bahama Oriole was singing away, teeing up for one last look as Bahama Swallows zipped around the creek.
It was a nice boat ride, and seeing 6 flying fish was pretty neat, but we only had one distant seabird in the three-hour journey: an unidentified shearwater that was really far away, but presumably an Audubon’s (which would have been a lifer for Jeannette). A few Laughing Gulls were finally around as we approached Nassau, and once in the harbor, we added Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls to our trip list.
Jeannette and I like to splurge at least once on a trip, if possible, and we went all out on this one: dinner the Greycliff in Nassau. And it was fantastic…and amazingly expensive. But you only live once, right? Besides, while waiting to be seated, we strolled the impressive gardens as dusk approached. A Louisiana Waterthrush wandered around the edge of the tile-lined pool, and a Red-legged Thrush foraged in the garden. White-crowned Pigeons and Eurasian Collared-Doves were arriving to roost in the palms and other trees around the property. And the refined guava duff (no Styrofoam clam-shell here!) was exquisite.
March 7th was our last day of vacation, so Jeannette and I wanted to make the most of it. Paul joined us for a walk around the tourist Mecca/hell of Paradise Island. It was not our cup of tea, but thickets of vegetation, especially around a couple of stagnant but very productive ponds, were surprisingly birdy. Especially around the ponds, there were White-crowned Pigeons and Bananaquits in the trees, all of the now-expected wintering migrants at every pish, and several really good looks at Red-legged Thrushes. Mourning Dove was new for our trip.
Phone-binned Red-legged Thrush
Paul peeled off, and Jeannette and I set out on two missions. One, was my now-desperate attempt to find a place that had invasive Lionfish on the menu (I’ve heard it tastes great, and with the damage it is doing to the reefs of the region, I was hoping to single-handily increase demand for it!). No luck there. Our other mission was to find the introduced Cuban Grassquits.
We walked towards a well-known place to see them, finding a great little café (Le Petit Gourmet) for lunch, before we arrived at the Bahama Art Handicraft Gift Shop on Shirley St. We soon spotted some feeders, and within seconds, Cuban Grassquits started arriving. There were at least twenty of these darling little birds…and a rather gorgeous one at that; the field guides didn’t really do it justice. House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, and a single Common Ground-Dove were the only other visitors to this feeder, but the grassquits were yet another life bird that offered stellar views and solid “life bird moments.”
“We’re going to see a life bird here?”
It was a long, hot walk back to our hotel, making a couple of stops in pursuit of leads on Lionfish, but finding another grassquit at Betty Cole Park near the waterfront. Then, the four of us rendezvoused back at our downtown Towne Hotel, and took the bittersweet cab ride back to the airport. It was time to head home: back to winter, back to work, but back to Sasha and the climate I am more comfortable in!
This is our triplist, in order of first appearance. Birds marked with an (*) were lifer birds for me and Jeannette, and two (**) were the two species that were new for just Jeannette. Endemics or regional specialties are in all caps.
New Providence Island:
1. House Sparrow
2. Northern Mockingbird
4. Laughing Gull
5. Eurasian Collared-Dove
6. Rock Pigeon
7. Yellow-throated Warbler
8. Prairie Warbler
9. Black-and-white Warbler
10. American Kestrel (endemic subspecies)
11. WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON**
12. Cape May Warbler
13. Smooth-billed Ani
14. Common Gallinule
15. American Coot
16. Great Egret
17. Belted Kingfisher
18. Common Ground-Dove
20. Black-faced Grassquit
21. LASAGRA’S FLYCATCHER*
22. Ring-billed Gull
23. Magnificent Frigatebird
24. BAHAMA SWALLOW*
25. Little Blue Heron
26. Red-tailed Hawk (resident subspecies)
27. Tree Swallow (actually, a pretty good rarity)
28. American Redstart
29. Northern Parula
30. Greater Antillean Bullfinch
31. Red-legged Thrush
32. Palm Warbler
33. Yellow-throated Vireo
34. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
35. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
36. THICK-BILLED VIREO*
37. Red-winged Blackbird
38. European Starling
39. American Oystercatcher
40. Indigo Bunting
41. WESTERN SPINDALIS**
42. Turkey Vulture
44. Pine Warbler
45. “GOLDEN” YELLOW WARBLER
46. Northern Waterthrush
47. CUBAN EMERALD*
48. OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLER*
49. CUBAN PEWEE*
50. Great Blue Heron
51. BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT*
52. BAHAMA WARBLER*
53. BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD*
54. BAHAMA WOODSTAR*
55. Hairy Woodpecker (endemic subspecies)
56. Ruddy Turnstone
57. Royal Tern
58. Double-crested Cormorant
59. CUBAN (BAHAMA) PARROT
60. Reddish Egret
61. Common Yellowthroat
62. Worm-eating Warbler
63. Yellow-rumped Warbler
64. WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL*
65. Blue-winged Teal
66. Pied-billed Grebe
67. Canada Goose (mega-rarity!)
68. Mallard (very rare)
69. Forster’s Tern
71. LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD*
72. Peregrine Falcon
73. Spotted Sandpiper
74. White-eyed Vireo
75. WEST INDIAN WOODPECKER*
76. Black-throated Blue Warbler
79. Snowy Egret
80. Neotropical Cormorant
81. Tricolored Heron
82. Virginia Rail
84. BAHAMA ORIOLE*
85. Magnolia Warbler
86. White Ibis
87. Green Heron
88. Clapper Rail
89. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
90. Least Grebe
92. Osprey (ssp. Ridgewayi)
93. Swainson’s Warbler*
New Providence Island:
94. Lesser Black-backed Gull
95. Herring Gull
96. Louisiana Waterthrush
97. Mourning Dove
98. CUBAN GRASSQUIT*