On the wing: birdwatching in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is a birdwatchers’ paradise, thanks to six hundred bird species, including some of the world’s most spectacular. Nazma Muller learns about eleven birds that serious ornithologists long to cross off their lists, and what bird tourism could mean for the region

Scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber). Photograph by Faraaz AbdoolSisserou (Amazona imperialis). Photograph by Images DominicaHarpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). Photograph © Alfredo Maiquez/shutterstock.comGuianan cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola). Photograph © Pedro Bernardo/shutterstock.comBee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). Photograph by Bill DixRed-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). Photograph by Wendy LeeCuban tody (Todus multicolor). Photograph © Elliotte Rusty Harold/shutterstock.comTufted coquette (Lophornis ornatus). Photograph by Faraaz AbdoolMontserrat oriole (Icterus oberi). Photograph by Gregory GuidaPurple honeycreeper (Cyanerpes  caeruleus). Photograph by Faraaz AbdoolOilbird (Steatornis caripensis). Photograph by H Diaz

Every year, from mid-December to early January, thousands of people across the Western Hemisphere get up before the crack of dawn and trudge out into the cold darkness (some colder than others), binoculars in hand (and in some cases, snow under foot), to go bird-watching.

Each bird they spot will be counted excitedly, photographed if possible, and added to a tally that goes down in history as the annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition going back more than a century. In 1900, American ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed that on Christmas Day, instead of shooting birds — as had been the tradition for centuries — the hunters should count what was left of the decimated avian population.

Today administered by the National Audubon Society, a US conservation group, the Christmas Bird Count is the largest and longest-running wildlife census on the planet. It is now spread across the Americas, and includes more than two thousand circles of birders. The data collected during the count does something remarkable: it helps ornithologists and conservationists assess the health of bird populations around the globe. This critical information pinpoints immediate environmental threats, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from pesticides.

Many of the Caribbean’s bird species have evolved in the unique conditions of these tiny, isolated dots on the map. The archipelago is home to almost six hundred species of birds (plus many more in nearby South and Central America). A mind-boggling 160 of them are endemic — they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The Zapata rail, bay-breasted cuckoo, Barbuda warbler, Jamaican tody and many others are unique, and need to be protected at all costs.

As with humans, the Caribbean is a warm stopover habitat during winter for migratory species of birds, and spotting these visitors is an added attraction. Many birders come to the Caribbean to see our charismatic and beautiful todies, trogons, parrots, hummingbirds — and many others. Of the eleven species rounded up here, some are rare and endangered, others spectacular for their size or plumage — and for serious birders, all of them are worth making a trip.

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count, visit christmasbirdcount.org

 

 

Scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber)
Range: Throughout large areas of South America, plus the Netherlands Antilles and Trinidad
Where to see it: Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad

The sight of hundreds of these blazing red arrows gliding through the sky at dusk over the Caroni Swamp is awe-inspiring. The ibis return from foraging for food in the evenings to roost among the branches of trees, bright splashes of red among the vivid green. In the heart of the swamp, the bird sanctuary provides a protected, patrolled reserve for the national bird of Trinidad. A communal and social species, the ibis form large colonies in the bountiful swamp, teeming with their varied diet of crustaceans, molluscs, insects, fruits, and seeds. Researchers estimate that one colony can have between twenty and six hundred nests, and sometimes up to two thousand.

 

Sisserou (Amazona imperialis) aka imperial amazon
Range: Dominica
Where to see it: In mountainous rainforest near the Morne Diablotins and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park

The Sisserou parrot is endemic to Dominica, where it inhabits mountain forest areas above 2,100 feet. Extremely rare and critically endangered, only a small population of less than two hundred have survived natural disasters, habitat loss, and the pet trade. The island’s national bird now has protected status, and campaigns to raise awareness, provide education, and conduct research have reduced the bird trade. In addition to having to compete for nesting space with the Jacquot, or red-necked amazon — another parrot species found only in Dominica — the Sisserou must also avoid being eaten by boa constrictors, broad-winged hawks, opossums, and rats.
Parrots are among the oldest bird species, and several other Caribbean islands have their own endemic parrots, rare and endangered, which have evolved in isolation — including the Jamaican amazon, the Puerto Rican amazon, the St Lucia amazon, and the St Vincent amazon.

 

Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)
Range: South and Central America, including the Guiana Shield: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana
Where to see it: Rupununi savanna, Guyana

The second biggest raptor in the world, the harpy eagle lives at low elevations in the rainforest, where they can find prey and large trees to build their nests. They can grow to have a wingspan of over six feet — wider than most humans are tall — and their rear talons are about four inches long. In addition to their keen eyesight, harpy eagles use their hearing to help them pinpoint prey. It is one of the few diurnal raptors that have a facial disk (like owls), made up of feathers that form a circle around its face. The disk can be lifted or lowered at will, and when the feathers are raised, they help direct sounds to the bird’s ears. Harpy eagles don’t hunt every day, as they can feed on the same kill for several days in a row, or go a week or more without food.

 

Guianan cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola)
Range: The Guiana Shield: French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, southern Venezuela, eastern Colombia, and Amazonian Brazil
Where to see it: Wowetta, North Rupununi, Guyana

In addition to his distinctive half-moon crest, the male Guianan cock-of-the-rock is polygamous, and loves to show off to attract as many females as possible. The latter, in comparison, have a dark-brown or greyish hue, and do all the raising and minding of chicks single-handedly. Males and females live separately, except when the females choose a mate. The “bling” factor has a lot to do with mating success: the brightness of a male’s plumage relates directly to the number of “hits” he gets. At Wowetta, the Amerindian community, along with the North Rupununi District Development Board, offers hikes along easy and accessible trails through pristine forest to view the nesting and lekking grounds — where the male cocks-of-the-rock dance to attract mates — of a population of thirty birds.

 

Bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), aka Zunzuncito
Range: Cuba
Where to see it: The extreme west of Cuba, on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula; further east in the vicinity of the Zapata Swamp; and in the far east of the island

The world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird weighs just 1.6 to 2 grams (less than an ounce!) and barely measures two inches long. Endemic to the dense forests and woodland edges of Cuba, it is often mistaken for a honey bee. Currently considered to be near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the bee hummingbird is also famous for its speed: it can beat its wings eighty times per second in a figure-of-eight pattern, and during courtship displays, it can do up to two hundred beats. It eats up to half its body mass in food each day, and drinks up to eight times its weight in water. Capable of flying at speeds of thirty miles per hour, it really turns on the turbo boost during territorial chases and dives.

 

Red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus), aka doctor bird
Range: Jamaica
Where to see it: Rocklands Bird Sanctuary and Feeding Station, near Montego Bay, Jamaica

Considered the most striking hummingbird in the Caribbean, thanks to the male birds’ long tail feathers, the national bird of Jamaica is a popular icon in the island’s folklore. It was even made famous in the opening line of the James Bond novel For Your Eyes Only — author Ian Fleming lived on Jamaica’s north coast and penned many of the spy’s heroics there. “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica,” wrote Fleming, “and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.” According to folklore in rural Jamaica, anyone who kills the doctor bird will bring misfortune upon themselves. The doctor bird is often seen in gardens, especially where feeders are put out, and at the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary you even get to feed them by hand.

 

Cuban tody (Todus multicolor)
Range: Cuba and adjacent islands, such as the Isle of Pines
Where to see it: Across the Cuban mainland

This delightful little creature tends to perch on a branch and search for its prey — mostly insects, sometimes caterpillars, spiders, and small lizards — under twigs and leaves. Todies pair for life, after engaging in some striking courtship rituals, such as showing off their bright pink sides. The parents dig burrows in the earth or in rotten logs, with a chamber at the end, where the female lay three or four tiny eggs. Poverty in Cuba has given rise to the unfortunate incidence of todies being caught and eaten, as well as the threat of poisoning from pesticides. The tody family — which includes four other species — is found only in the Greater Antilles, with others endemic to Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico.

 

Tufted coquette (Lophornis ornatus)
Range: Eastern Venezuela, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil
Where to see it: Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

Like a John James Audobon painting, the exquisite details of this tiny hummingbird dazzle those lucky enough to catch sight of it. It is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, since it is uncommon within its wide range. They are mostly found alone or in small groups, as they search for nectar and small insects to feed on. A star attraction at Asa Wright, the tufted coquette is considered Trinidad’s smallest resident bird. They love the flowers of the vervain and lantana plants, where they can often be seen zipping in for a taste, but you’ll have to be quick to catch a glimpse of the magnificent plumage.

 

Montserrat oriole (Icterus oberi)
Range: Montserrat
Where to see it: This critically endangered species can be found only on the tiny island of Montserrat

About two million years ago, the Montserrat oriole evolved as the only endemic bird species on the island. Montserrat’s national bird, it symbolises the resilience of a people who have survived and endured living under an active volcano. The oriole can be “seen” in art, craft, and advertising all over the island, but most locals will tell you they have never actually clapped eyes on one in the wild. Since the Soufrière Hills Volcano became active in 1995, and lava flows and ashfall destroyed the southern half of the island, the oriole’s existence has been uncertain. Its habitat of native forest is now restricted to two areas of the island, the Centre Hills and the South Soufrière Hills. The remaining population — estimated to be between 200 and 460 — has been relatively stable over the last ten years.

 

Purple honeycreeper (Cyanerpes caeruleus)
Range: Central and South America, including Guyana and Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago
Where to see it: Asa Wright Nature Centre and Yerette Hummingbird Sanctuary, Trinidad

Although not at all rare, the purple honeycreeper is so gorgeous it just has to be included on any birder’s list. The deep purple of the male birds’ plumage stands out even among hummingbirds and tanagers, while the female has yellow-green plumage on her upper body and blackish flight feathers. The honeycreeper, which can live up to seventeen years, can often be seen hanging upsidedown to reach seeds inside open ripe fruits.

 

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), aka Guacharo
Range: Northern areas of South America, and Trinidad
Where to see it: Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

The only nocturnal flying fruit-eating bird in the world, the oilbird forages at night, navigating by echolocation, as bats do — but with a high-pitched clicking sound of around 2 kHz (audible to humans). The colony at Dunstan Cave at the Asa Wright Nature Centre is the only easily accessible one in the world, with about two hundred nesting pairs and their chicks. At night they emerge to search for food in the surrounding forests, sometimes flying as far as seventy-five miles from the cave. The name comes from the size of the plump chicks, which can weigh up to fifty per cent more than their parents, and used to be made into oil by the First Peoples of Trinidad.

 

 

For the birds

Amazingly, the Caribbean is only now waking up to the fact that the sky could really be the limit when it comes to bird tourism — if we can protect their habitats. Sadly, many species are being depleted, as forests are cleared for agriculture, housing, and commercial uses, says Lisa Sorenson, executive director of BirdsCaribbean (formerly the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds).

The Caribbean Birding Trail project, under the banner of BirdsCaribbean, promotes bird and nature tourism by showing locals the economic benefits of conservation, such as employment for guides, the sale of home-made food and craft, and the setting up of eco-friendly lodges and guesthouses. The CBT is partnering with operators and guides throughout the region to organise training and certification, so they can learn how to identify species and describe to birders how the birds interact with their environment. The CBT is also mapping sites for bird-watching and accommodation, to make it easy for birders to spot the species on their wish lists.

The Caribbean Waterbird Census is a three-week regional count, running from 14 January to 3 February. Birders can report sightings to eBird Caribbean, a citizen scientist initiative, which tells visitors what birds they may see at CBT sites, such as Woburn Bay in Grenada.

For more information on the Caribbean Birding Trail, visit caribbeanbirdingtrail.org

  • Lynda Lee Burks

    Jamaica Tour Society is offering several intimate birding trips this summer… for more information email: jamaicatoursociety@gmail.com