Birding On Grand Cayman Island - March 2017

For our 45th wedding anniversary we have just treated ourselves to a two week cruise from Miami Florida to Cartagena Colombia and back to Miami. On the way down the western Caribbean, we called at Key West, Havana, Cozumel, Costa Maya, Costa Rica and Colon. Plenty of opportunity for birding there but, surprisingly, the highlight was Grand Cayman Island on the way back.

Some basic facts. Located some 250 miles south of Cuba, Grand Cayman is by far the largest of the three Cayman islands. Yet it measures only 76 square miles, 22 miles long and 8 miles wide at its widest. The terrain is virtually flat (max 60 feet above sea level). The soil is thin as the subsoil is limestone. Hence whilst there are several lakes surrounded by mangroves (great for water birds), the groundwater is brackish (most fresh water produced by two desalination plants).

The resident population is around 55,000. Once a lair for pirates in the 16th century, it is now an upmarket holiday destination (especially on its famous Seven Mile Beach of fine coral white sand and for the diving opportunities). It also boasts a very successful offshore financial services industry (600 banks though no high rise buildings to indicate that). So, unsurprisingly, it has one of the highest per capita incomes of the whole Caribbean. As a British Overseas Territory, its runs its own internal affairs under the oversight of a (currently) lady Governor and is staunchly British.

Whilst the above did not seem promising for a birder, development has generally been along the coasts, leaving the centre of the island full of mangrove wetland and in some places (such as the Botanic gardens) decent expanses of woodland. On the day of our visit it was very warm but with overcast skies – so the birds were more active than usual. Furthermore, we had an excellent local birding guide in Geddes Hislop, a manager in the famous Green Turtle farm (see later in this blog).

As to the birding, there are reported to be 244 species on the current list, including 98 rare or accidentals and 4 introduced. The regulars include 1 endemic full species (Taylor’s Bullfinch), 16 endemic subspecies, and virtually the whole of the world population of the Vitelline warbler.

Where to start? What about the national bird, the lovely Grand Cayman Parrot? An endangered endemic subspecies, here is a shot of one of the three pairs of the Rose-throated Parrot that Geddes found for us.

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And here is a great close-up of a male West Indian Woodpecker in the Botanic Gardens car park. He was busy excavating a nest hole in a tree trunk that seemed far too thin for that purpose, whilst his partner watched on.

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Another colourful bird was the elusive Western Spindalis (aka Stripe-headed Tanager) hiding in the shrubbery.

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As to warblers, we did manage to see the near endemic Vitelline Warbler, a Prothonotary Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler. But pride of place goes to this spectacular Yellow Warbler. The curious bird approached our parked car and sat on the wing mirror before it flew down to the shrubbery to resume its search for food when I opened the window.

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Anyone who has travelled across the Atlantic will be familiar with Grackles. This blackbird family member is omnivorous, resourceful and opportunistic. I have read that they even learn to drop stones in water to raise the water level in order to obtain food. The local representative is the Greater Antillean Grackle, whose range is limited to the western islands of the Caribbean. Here is a photo of the iridescent glossy male near the Governor Core bird sanctuary. Note the baleful yellow eye and the typically very long tail (which is often swivelled like the US species- the Boat-tailed Grackle). The female of course looks like an entirely different bird, being smaller and brown.

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Another black bird with a long tail which we saw was the Smooth-billed Ani. This species has a most unusual club-shaped bill. Although a member of the cuckoo family, the species does not share its relatives’ compulsion to foster its young. Here is a photo showing the strange bill.

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Another common bird on the other side of the Atlantic is the Mockingbird. The range of the US species, the Northern Mockingbird, extends down through the western Caribbean islands. Highly vocal, it is an excellent imitator of other birds’ sounds. So when tracking down an unusual call, don’t be surprised if you are disappointed! Here is one example where there was no difficulty.

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One of the 4 introduced species is worth a mention. The wild Junglefowl is widespread throughout the island, males and females seemingly foraging on every piece of waste ground and in gardens as we passed in the car. Geddes says they are becoming a bit of a pest, particularly because of the early morning crowing of the cockerel. Here is a splendid male exploring the possibilities on the promenade sidewalk in George Town (the capital) as we waited for our pickup.

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On Grand Cayman, besides warblers, there are several flycatcher and other insect-eater species, of different sizes but with generally rather dull plumage. We saw Grey Kingbirds, Loggerhead Kingbirds, La Sagra Flycatchers, Caribbean Elaenias, and a Black-whiskered Vireo. Resembling a warbler, here is also a close-up of the Yucatan Vireo, a very active species which I was fortunate to catch on camera.

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Of seed-eaters, we had great views of the endemic Taylor’s Bullfinch (recently reclassified from a subspecies of the Cuban Bullfinch) feeding in the top of trees. The species is similar in size to our Bullfinch but the male is completely jet black, apart from a white wing bar. It is reportedly near threatened (red list) because of the small and declining population size. We also saw a bright male Yellow-faced Grasquit feeding on grass seeds. Geddes found a female Indigo Bunting too in the top of a tree – pity it was the dull brown female, rather than the bright blue male.

Of pigeons and doves, we saw the ubiquitous European Collared Dove, a coloniser everywhere, some White-winged Doves, and many pretty and diminutive Common Ground-doves. At the Botanic gardens Geddes spotted this Zenaida Dove also foraging on the ground.

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As to birds liking the water, there was no shortage of egrets and herons, who like to fish under the mangroves for small fry trying to shelter from their predators. As our car passed the trees on the edge of one of the lakes, we disturbed many Snowy Egrets (almost identical to our Little Egrets-black legs with yellow feet), a few Little Blue Herons, the odd Great White Egret, the odd Little Green Heron, and my favourite – the so-called Tricolored Heron. Here is a shot of one that I took a few days earlier in a mangrove swamp near Cartagena. The white neck plume and bulging white eye ring seem like hurried afterthoughts in its dress, but the very long needle-like bill is impressive.

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The surprise of the day for Geddes was a flock of 8 Anhinga, passing overhead. Never in his life has he seen that many at once in the island and will report- two years since he saw the last one.

Of ducks and other waterfowl we saw very few species: our own Common Moorhen, American Coots (slightly different white frontal shield), a large group of Pied-billed Grebes, several Black-necked Stilts (similar to our European Stilt), several Blue-winged Teal (the commonest duck in the Caribbean) and this assembly of West Indian Whistling-ducks. Apparently it is an endangered species (also red listed), with a range limited virtually to Grand Cayman and Cuba. Geddes took us to a private estate with a lake, where the owner feeds the ducks regularly. At lunchtime, this impressive flock suddenly flew in and approached us looking for handouts.

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And here is a close-up of one of the flock of these very pretty birds.

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As to waders, we saw a small flock of Ruddy Turnstones on the rocks by the promenade (we see them seemingly everywhere we go in the world) and a smart Spotted Sandpiper probing on a muddy pond. But our best sighting was this Lesser Yellowlegs in breeding plumage. Hard to spot initially, it is so well camouflaged – except for its bright yellow legs.

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As to other creatures on the island, the introduced Green Iguanas abound and are a pest. Growing up to 6 feet in length, they are agile climbers and spend much time in trees. They breed faster than the native Blue Iguanas – such that there is a specialist breeding centre for the Blue to try to redress the balance. Apparently they are good to eat, tasting a bit like chicken, but Geddes reports that Caymanians cannot be persuaded to change their diet from Green Turtles. From this photo of a lazing Iguana in the Cartagena port terminal complex, I think I understand why!

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Finally, I must mention the Green Sea turtles. Apparently this is the only almost wholly vegetarian species of turtle. For centuries Cayman islands’ beaches have been an important nesting place for laying its eggs. In fact in times past, ships would stop at the islands to take on turtles for provisions, such that the population was almost eliminated. A determined effort was made from 1968 to set up a conservation programme at the so-called Turtle farm (in which Geddes is involved). Despite setbacks from two serious hurricanes and financial problems, the farm, now owned by the island’s government, has managed over the years to return over 30,000 turtles to the wild, as well as providing the local economy with turtle meat (now banned in many countries). The farm is now also an important tourist attraction. Here is an underwater picture of the creature.

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Peter M
April 2017

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