late August 1999
by Ian Stewart
This was supposed to be a budget trip, though the plan went out the window in the first couple of days! Took the Greyhound from Lexington, Kentucky, to Miami ($119 return), then flew to Nassau ($185 return). Unfortunately, the flight was (inexplicably) delayed for an hour, and by the time I got to Nassau it was about 7.30 pm and starting to get a little dusky. Realised that Nassau wasn't a nice place to be wandering around looking for cheap accommodation at that time of night (couldn't get through on the phone to book before I arrived) and so I had to think 'safety first' and stay at a fairly plain hotel on the edge of town for $85! Help!!! Still, at least it had a safety deposit box, so I locked my binoculars/camera away and sat in my room all night with a few beers and watched TV.
Next morning things brightened. Moved into a cheaper, nicer place, and went birdwatching around the old cemetery on Delancey Street. Great start, finding two SMOOTH BILLED ANIS (capitals = 'lifer') lolloping around on the headstones. I was really pleased about this, one of my prime target birds for the whole trip within an hour! Funny looking birds, really humpbacked and clumsy looking. Also in the cemetery were BAHAMAS MOCKINGBIRDS, CUBAN/MELODIOUS GRASSQUITS, GROUND DOVES and a kestrel. Wandered along to the beach front, finding several more ground doves, mourning doves, laughing gulls, and in the trees, GRAY KINGBIRDS. Did the tourist stuff for the rest of the day.
Next day wandered over to Paradise Island - gorgeous place. Followed the road east and found a little parking area next to the housing where there was a WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON. Very dapper bird, chunky, slate grey colour, much underrated by the field guides. Went through the trees north to Cabbage beach, finding several BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS in the dust, and BANAQUITS in the trees - pretty things. Not many birds on the beach, though I didn't mind, as I paddled along in the clear warm waters and surveyed the white sands, not that many people on them either.
Heading back to the PI bridge, I came across a little pond with several families of BAHAMAS PINTAIL, plus common gallinules and double crested cormorants.
Next day I wandered over to Crystal and Abaco cays to the marine park/zoo. Here there were more bananquits, plus good views of RED-LEGGED THRUSH and also a green heron in flight. Another kestrel overhead too. (Are these a sub species? They seem much more pale bellied than the mainland birds). Wandering back I found maybe 20 ruddy turnstones feeding around the rotting fish and empty conch shells piled up behind the conch seller's stands, also two spotted sandpipers and two semi-palmated plovers.
My other two days there were spent sightseeing and mooching about in search of birds. Although I didn't find any other species, I saw several more 'quits', plus, on the way to the airport, two more white-crowned pigeons. Saw the marching flamingos at the zoo too! I am sure that I would have seen more stuff had I bought the ABA guide to Bahamian birds, especially if I had had my own transport too. Several chatters (wisely) recommended this, I thought it too expensive at the time, especially as I was only going to be there a few days. Plus, I had no guide to Bahamian birds, so there were probably several local birds I passed over without realising they were Bahamian races. In retrospect, I should have spent the extra cash, but c'est la vie. Money money money!
Incidentally, for anyone thinking of going there, I generally found the Bahamas to be a place of real contrast. Paradise Island is gorgeous, and Nassau throughout the day is a lively, colourful place, lots of Caribbean sounds and smells. Unfortunately, things are a lot different when the sun goes down. Nassau was dirty and dimly-lit, with many people hovering in dark alleyways, which, coupled with a minimal police presence, makes it an uncomfortable place to be. People would follow me around trying to get me stop and talk (and I didn't think the sentiment was friendship) and several people would pull up in cars and offer me drugs. Mostly hash, occasionally cocaine (once, depressingly, by a boy who couldn't have been more than 16). The bars are expensive, and not particularly welcoming, and I generally found Nassau to be frankly, seedy. I experienced little of the fabled Bahamian friendliness, in fact, the majority of locals were pretty surly characters.
Having said that, I am under 30, with long hair, so maybe some people assumed I was there for drugs (?) Maybe I was just unlucky, other people may have found Nassau to be OK. To be fair, there are some very nice parts, the other islands are supposed to be safer and more friendly, and some of the birds there are fantastic. I would recommend it to other BIRDCHATTERs, but would draw attention to my own experiences and urge wariness (and take PLENTY of money!).
Back to the birds. I went back to Miami and down to Key West. Complete change, this is about as safe a place as you can be, very pretty, plus a cheap youth hostel. Some very nice birdwatching spots, even just mooching about the harbours I saw plenty of brown pelicans almost within touching distance, and on the wooden 'stilts', a few sandwich terns and about a dozen royal terns. Going east from Higg's beach I happened upon a good little swampy area by the beach front hotels, in which there were several snowy egrets, green herons, white ibis and a yellow-crowned night heron. Moving onto the beachfront, there was a sizeable clump of shorebirds, mostly turnstones, but also spotted sandpipers, a few sanderlings and black-bellied plovers, several semi-palmated plovers, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER, and several least sandpipers. Also two chunky shorebirds which I thought were red knot until I consulted my guide afterwards. Dumpy things, shortish bills, with pearly grey/white plumage, a few feathers had black tips. Anybody any ideas? Very distinctive colour, pearly, not the dull grey of other shorebirds. Found more of the same shorebirds all along the beach towards the airport, a very pleasant walk actually.
I did the same route the next day, seeing several of these shorebirds again, plus a GLOSSY IBIS in with the whites, and in some brackish water, a LITTLE BLUE HERON. A little inland there is a 'nature area', which is free to get into. Here there was a white ibis perched in a tree (I didn't know they did this!), plus a yellow warbler, more glossy ibises, quite a few white-crowned pigeons (which never seemed to let me get close), and in a tree, two small parrots! I presume they were an escaped pair since I couldn't find them in my bird guide ( basically all green save for an orange forehead and upper breast, and VERY noisy). A couple more glossy ibis in the marsh here too. Walking back to my youth hostel I glimpsed in the air one of my other prime targets for the trip - MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD!! Superb bird, hanging in the air like that!
The day after that I splashed out $95 on a trip to Fort Jefferson/Dry Tortugas. A 2 ½ hour catamaran trip, from which I saw more turnstones in flight, and nearing the fort, SOOTY TERNS. We had 4 ½ hours at the fort itself, which wasn't really enough, especially after I went on a tour of the fort and indulged in the picnic they provided. Still, I saw enough to make me want to return there at migration time! What a sight it must be to see the bushes inside the fort dripping with birds!! (I can't recall a Tortugas trip report?). I saw blue-gray gnatcatcher, and a satisfying bunch of warblers; palm, black and white, hooded, PRAIRIE, NORTHERN PARULA, PROTHONOTARY, ovenbird, and a female tanager. Also great crested flycatcher, and more grey kingbirds. Heading outside the fort I walked to the eastern 'coal harbour' where there were several BROWN NODDIES on the posts, plus brown pelicans and amazingly, frigatebirds sitting there about 10 feet away! Bizarre birds, very heavy looking and ungainly while on the posts, but all though the day about 50 of them continually circled overhead as graceful as could be. Also several bank and barn swallows around the moat. Walking back to the fort I flushed a green heron from the spiny little bushes, and lingering a while, a little grey bullet dipped into the bush. It soon appeared to provide a lovely sight - BLACK-WHISKERED VIREO! Very clean looking bird. Did some enjoyable snorkelling around the forts perimeter, seeing some colourful fish, and (help!) barracuda! Tried to see the masked boobies from the boat on the way back, but they're too far away really. Great day all round, I'd recommend it to anyone!
Went to Key West cemetery the next day, though the only birds of note were red-bellied woodpeckers, and a yellow-throated warbler. A few humorous headstones however, my favourite was inscribed 'I told you I was sick'!!
Took the bus from Key West back up to Miami, seeing a few belted kingfishers and turkey vultures on the way. Followed Bill Pranty's excellent tips for locating the exotics around the suburbs. Unfortunately, I left it a little late in the day (deliberately, to avoid the heat), and left the youth hostel at 5pm. Asked the bus driver to drop me off at Government center, but we were halfway back to the hostel before it dawned on me that he had forgotten. Hence, by the time I could get another bus to make the metrorail connection, then walk to the Royal Palm tennis courts, it was 7:30 pm and getting dark. I could hear parrots, but couldn't see them, and within 30 minutes it was so dark I'd have had difficulty picking out a rainbow lory never mind a dusky!! So I had to go back to the hostel with just a red-winged blackbird to add to the trip list.
Next day was spent sightseeing around south beach. Walking down Ocean Drive three parakeets zipped past just above my head. No clear distinguishing marks, they were all green apart from their red 'armpits'. I couldn't find them in my bird guide - any ideas anyone?
The day after that I was booked on the hostel's Everglades trip, the only way I could get there, since it is disappointingly difficult to get there by public transport. Although the trip was fun, we didn't go into the real birdy parts, so sadly no wood stork/anhinga/snail kite to add to my life list, though I did see plenty of great egrets, an osprey, brown thrasher, common gallinule, cardinal, two common nighthawks sitting on telegraph wires in the middle of the day, and a lot of turtles and alligators.
The day I was booked on my returning Greyhound I decided I had to have another try for at least one psittacid (incidentally, I saw Eurasian collared doves on several occasions in the Bahamas and Florida!!!). Got up early and got across to the tennis courts for about 10.30, leaving me about 90 minutes. Wandered round and round the courts with no success, and finally happened by chance upon Mrs Furchgott's house. Still no luck, but the with about 20 minutes to spare some pistaccids flew into a big tree near here house. After much scanning I mananged to pick out MONK PARAKEET and YELLOW-CHEVRONED PARAKEET. Relief! Mrs Furchgott then came out of her house - she's very nice- and tried to call in spotted orioles and bulbul with her pre-recorded tapes, but sadly no luck. I tried inside the tennis courts themselves on the way back (according to Mrs F they don't mind birdwatchers going inside). No luck, though I literally had just about 10 minutes to look. Walking back to the MetroRail station I saw a little bunch of about five monk parakeets. Nice birds, though they sure do take some finding, even if you can hear them in the tree right above your head!!
(Sure enough, I missed my Greyhound by 5 minutes, and had to wait for the next one, finally getting into Lexington at Midnight the following day!)
All in all a very enjoyable trip, a good mix of birdwatching, sightseeing and generally relaxing. I'd recommend Florida especially to any BIRDCHATTER, it isn't too expensive, the weather for me was nice and sunny, so no problems with visibility. Beautiful scenery, even if you don't see any birds, and the journey down US-1 to Key West is breath-taking. Good mix of birds down there too, plenty passerines, but also lots of shorebirds, larids and waterbirds. Must go back sometime to try to see the things I missed!!
Ian R.K. Stewart
T.H.Morgan School of Biological Sciences
101 Morgan Building
University of Kentucky
40506 - 0225