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25 - 28 November 2003
by Craig Faanes
Having traveled the Bahamas from Grand Bahama and the Abacos south to
Great Inagua I had never given myself the opportunity to hang out in
the Bimini’s. Visions of several new birds for my West Indies
list paraded through my mind until I finally told myself that I was
Timing a visit to these islands (link) made famous by Ernest
Hemingway, Big Game Fishing, and the ultimate scene from the movie
Silence of the Lambs, was an important consideration. Summer
months in the Bimini’s are overloaded with all manner of fishing
tournaments making hotel rooms (if you can get one) expensive.
March is another fishing tournament month confounded by spring breakers
drinking themselves senseless on not-so-cheap Kalik beer.
Fall migration seemed logical for “good” birds. P. William Pigeon
visited Bimini for a day in September in the early 1990s and found four
species of Vireo and twelve species of Warbler. Chris Haney,
David Lee, and I had extremely good luck on Grand Bahama over
Thanksgiving in 1995, and I bet that a similar time in the Bimini’s
would produce good birds. I settled on Thanksgiving 2003 for an
exploratory jaunt to this “foreign” land 60 miles east of the frenzied
pace of Fort Lauderdale.
Unless you own a sailboat, or a yacht, or are friends with someone who
does, the simplest option for getting to the Bimini’s from South
Florida is the twice-daily flight on Chalks Ocean Airways, the
“world’s oldest airline." They fly twice daily (for $59.00 each
way plus taxes) from Fort Lauderdale to North Bimini in an ancient but
highly cool 17-passenger Grumman Mallard. Jimmy Buffett in his
song about Jamaican mistakes says that “landing on the water’s about my
favorite thrill.” When you do a 150 mile per hour belly flop into
Bimini Harbour you’ll understand Jimmy’s thrill. The flight from
Fort Lauderdale to North Bimini is 25 minutes which, ultimately, is too
short a time to be in an amphibious plane. But you can always
come back. An alternative for flying to Bimini is to charter a
plane from Fort Lauderdale to take you to the South Bimini
airport. There are now two carriers each flying one nonstop daily
from Nassau to South Bimini. The negative side of that service is
having to go to Nassau.
The immigration officer at the airport was confused when I told him my
purpose on Bimini was bird watching. He insisted that I needed a
permit (what a nightmare that is in the Bahamas!). I finally
convinced him after dumping the contents of my day pack on his
inspection table that I had nothing with me to capture or collect a
bird. He looked askance at me, reluctantly stamped my passport,
and gave me one of those looks your mother gave you when you came home
trying to hide the beer on your breath that was intended to mean “you
better be telling the truth.”
Late afternoon arrival on North Bimini left little time to look for
birds before sunset. We arrived at low tide and the exposed sand
bars in the harbour teemed with Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy
Egret, Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron and the requisite Brown
Pelicans, Royal Terns and Laughing Gull.
Walking from the airport to “downtown” Alice Town, I checked the pond
just north of Chalks mentioned in White’s Bahama Bird Finding
Guide. He suggests looking for Common Nighthawks over this pond
in spring. Given the closed-in feeling provided by the giant
Causarina trees around the pond’s edge, I can’t imagine a Common
Nighthawk ever finding the pond. A White Ibis, my first ever in
the Bahamas, had found it, and the sighting made a pronounced tick on
my Bahamas list.
I crashed at the nearby (everything on North Bimini is nearby) Sea
Crest Hotel (Phone reservations only at (242) 347 3071) A
single room here is $95 per night. The hotel has no restaurant
which was a major bummer. My arrival was on a Tuesday and I
learned much to my chagrin that none of the restaurants or the hole’s
in the wall dives were open for dinner on Tuesday night. The
Bimini Blue Water Resort (email: firstname.lastname@example.org ) has the
Anchorage Guest Rooms and a Restaurant but the restaurant was
closed. So was the restaurant at the Bimini
Big Game Club. It's restaurant is open only on
weekends this time of year. Stumbling around in the dark hoping
to find any place to eat, a cop from the Royal Bahamas Police Force
said “it not de season, you know, mon.” Instead of my much
anticipated grouper dinner, I scarfed down a couple bags of peanuts and
an apple absconded from the Continental Airlines President’s Club in
the Fort Lauderdale airport.
I was up before dawn and checking out nearby vegetation,
From the hotel I walked a block west to Radio Beach, then walked north
past the Anchorage and then back east a block to “main” street and
turned right (south) to Captain Bob’s restaurant. In that 20
minutes of searching among land birds, I saw 8 Palm Warblers and too
many Eurasian Collared Doves to want to count. That was it!
A water-taxi service operates on an unscheduled basis between North and
South Bimini. It leaves from the very conspicuous municipal dock
by the pink customs building. The fare is “tree dollars if you
want de bus, mon; two if you wanna walk.” I wanted to walk when I
got to South Bimini (my 14th island in the Bahamas). The crossing
took maybe three minutes and deposited me in “downtown” South
Bimini. The pace of life on North Bimini is best described as
‘comatose”; its even more laid back on South Bimini.
Walking away from the ferry landing, I was surprised by the dearth of
bird voices. Other than the ever-present Palm Warblers, there
were very few songbirds. A patch of coppice by “Big Willie’s
Three-In-One Store” produced a singing Thick-billed Vireo. It
also produced two (the only two) Yellow-rumped Warblers for the
trip. Following directions in White’s book, I stayed straight
where the asphalt road swings left (east) to the South Bimini airport
(no sign), and walked the dirt road south past the expanding Bimini Sands Resort.
Again, this stretch of coppice was ghostly quiet.
Invasive vegetation (a.k.a. Causarina) had been removed (and hopefully
fully killed) from the edge of a large mangrove wetland across the road
from the Bimini Sands. Vegetation removal produced exquisite
views of the wetland but here, across from the Bimini Sands there was
not one bird on the wetland! An Osprey perched in a mangrove and
scanned the wetland for an unsuspecting fish. Other than that,
there was nobody home.
Continuing south I passed through more good coppice habitat that held
the occasional Palm Warbler and at a couple places a Common
Yellowthroat. In this stretch of coppice I saw the only Western
Spindalis (Stripe-headed Tanager) of the trip.
White describes a road to the right (west) where the power lines
diverge from the main road. There is also a totally out of place
stop sign here. Walking along the edge of the fields here I found
two Bahama Mockingbird, several Northern Mockingbird, three or four
Indigo Buntings, one Painted Bunting, and the only Zenaida Dove
of the trip.
Returning to the main road I turned right (south) and followed the road
to its end at the ocean. At another conspicuous intersection the
road leads to the left (northeast). Just beyond this intersection
(to the south) is an inconspicuous sign for the Shark Lab. No
self-respecting Jimmy Buffett fan will be able to pass up a visit.
Walking northeast on the road passing through the mangroves, I heard
one Clapper Rail, saw several Northern Mockingbirds, and one Belted
Kingfisher. Occasionally a Palm Warbler would hop out onto the
road and tail-bob before disappearing. A Northern Waterthrush
called infrequently from the mangroves. Just before the
intersection with the main (paved) east-west road leading to the
airport, I saw a very large raptor in flapping flight over a
wetland. I disregarded my initial thought about the bird’s
identity, and continued to the main road.
Turning right I walked through what White described as “the best
coppice remaining” in the Bimini’s. It certainly is nice Jamaican
Dogwood-dominated coppice, but it held so few birds. About the
only excitement in the a little over a mile walk to the airport was a
North American race Yellow-throated Warbler and another Bahama
Returning slowly from the airport I saw much the same for birds until
just past (west of) the intersection with the mangrove wetland road
(there is a large shed for some wayward marine supply company
here). Along the main road, by an old building on the right, were
39 Smooth-billed Ani’s squawking and whistling and being normal
Ani’s. All was well as I watched them until a very dark Merlin
darted in from the east at about the same instant that a Sharp-shinned
Hawk appeared from the west. Pandemonium reigned and the Ani’s
beat it for cover. The only reason I can think that neither
raptor scored was they were probably both young inexperienced
birds. Yet if neither of them can grab an Ani sticking out like a
sore thumb in a leafless tree, you have to wonder how they survived
this late into the year.
Continuing west, I stopped by the Sough Bimini dump but only Palm
Warblers put on a show. Returning to the main road I walked to
the intersection with the dirt road south to the Bimini Sands. I
turned right and planned to walk to the ferry. Big Willie’s store
was open; it was 11:30, and I was extremely thirsty from walking all
morning. The sign outside the liquor store said “Stop the Bus and
Have a Cold One” which I did.
Seeing binoculars around my neck the store clerk asked if I was a
birdwatcher. Saying I was he said ‘did you see the Bald Eagle,
mon?” I asked “WHAT eagle??” and was told that one had been seen
on the island for the last week or so. The clerk pointed out the
window and said “I seen one in that Causarina right dare on Sunday.”
This revelation shed some interesting light on the large raptor seen
earlier in the morning. Gulping down the ice-cold Kalik, I walked
back to the intersection with the mangrove wetland road by the old
shed, turned right, and walked to where I had seen the bird earlier. I
waited. I worked on my tan and fed mosquitoes for about an hour
when finally the bird appeared, flying toward me from the east.
Not having worried too much about the age-specific plumage of Bald
Eagles for some years, I wasn’t sure about the age. However, my
best guess is it was a second-winter bird. It was most likely the
Florida subspecies that has been experiencing exceptional reproductive
success in recent years. I watched the eagle as it flew
around scaring the hell out of everything wearing feathers or scales,
and then it disappeared back to the east.
I returned to North Bimini in early afternoon, stocked up on bottled
water, and cold Kalik beer and walked north along the waterfront in
Alice Town. In Baliey’s Town (where the boundary between them is
remains a mystery), I found a dive called the Seaside Café where
I had a Conch sandwich that blew my eyelids off for tastiness.
Having consumed tons of Conch prepared in every conceivable way, this
Conch sandwich at the Seaside Café was in a league of its own.
After lunch I walked further north to the end of the road checking
power lines for non-existent Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and checking
roof tops and towers for equally non-existent Fish Crows. I saw
some men cleaning Conch and while talking with them saw the single
Ruddy Turnstone and the single Spotted Sandpiper of the trip.
Walking back along the west side of the island (Kings Highway) produced
a single Prairie Warbler in someone’s yard, and three female
Magnificent Frigatebirds over the ocean. That was it. I
hung out on Radio Beach watching successfully for my first Bahamas
Green Flash in 18 years then went to the Anchorage for dinner.
There at the bar sat Mike the Mercedes dealership owner from
Atlanta. He was on the island for five days fishing for
Wahoo. He and his buddies had apparently hauled in quite a catch
of Wahoo. We swapped fish stories until he told me ‘George Bush
is the best thing to happen to America since Ronald Reagan.”
Telling Mike I thought they were both the most brain dead
abominations ever foisted on the Nation; the only difference
between them was that Reagan had been brain dead longer than
Dubya. Mike didn’t like my politics and made a comment about my
mother just as my grouper dinner arrived.
27 - Turkey Day
I followed much the same pattern as yesterday. An early breakfast
at Captain Bob’s. A ferry ride to South Bimini followed by a walk
along the same route as yesterday. This morning I was able to see
the young Bald Eagle again. The Ani’s were in the same tree
where they laughed themselves silly when attacked by the hapless Merlin
and Sharp-shinned Hawk yesterday. A flock of twelve White Ibis
flew over me near the entrance to the South Bimini dump. Not far
west of the dump road I heard and then saw a La Sagra’s Flycatcher in
the coppice. Returning from South Bimini at about noon, I found
an adult Great Black-backed Gull sitting on one of the pilings of the
marina just south of the ferry landing.
After another great Conch sandwich lunch at the Seaside Café I
continued my futile checking of all the power lines for non-existent
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. The only real excitement this
afternoon was a Black-throated Green Warbler in someone’s yard, and a
Northern Parula in a palm tree by the government office
buildings. Watching the ocean I tried my best to make a Northern
Gannet out of the frequent Royal Terns that darted by, but with the
same success as my Scissor-tailed Flycatcher search.
I parked myself on the shore of Radio Beach just before sunset hoping
for a rare repeat of last night’s Green Flash. Tonight for the
first time in my Green Flash watching history I saw another Flash - the
first time I’ve ever had two of them on back to back nights.
November 28 - I was out at sunrise looking in vain for more warblers
but with little more success than the last two days. We left Bimini
about on time on Chalk’s 9:30 a.m return to Fort Lauderdale. The
take off was a repeat of the rush of landing here three days ago.
There are definite benefits to flying on a seaplane.
Cleared US Customs in Fort Lauderdale where two GS-7 trainee Customs
agents did their best to live up to John Ashcroft’s total disregard for
the Constitution. They’ll be GS-15's in a year or so at this
rate. In the afternoon I caught Northwest’s flight to Memphis and
then the connecting flight back to Washington National, arriving in a
drizzly rain with temperatures in the 40s.
Bimini is most definitely one of the places you want to go to when you
want to get away from everything. Absolutely everything.
Other than catering to sport fishers and sailors there is very little
to do on North Bimini other than chill out. Transportation is by
foot, by rented golf cart (numerous outlets including one at the Sea
Crest) or the occasional taxi-bus. There really is no pressing
need to hire any transportation because so much is within easy walking
distance. For instance, its less than two miles from the Chalks
seaplane base to the end of the Queens Highway on the north end of the
island. One note of change from White’s book. I never saw a place
on North or South Bimini for renting a bicycle.
The bird life was remarkably unexciting for the Bahamas in
winter. Maybe it’s a function of their small size and remoteness
that contributes to the few wintering warblers I found. Yet,
Grand Turk island is smaller and more remote and it drips with
wintering warblers. Habitat destruction on North Bimini no
doubt contributes to the dearth of wintering birds there, but that
comment cannot be made for South Bimini where extensive areas of
coppice and mangrove exist. Who knows why? Maybe it would
be a good topic for a masters thesis some day.
It might be productive to spend a long weekend here in late August or
early September to see what shows up for migrants. Being only 60
miles from the South Florida coast there must be some “good” birds
showing up in fall migration. Its just a matter of being there at
the right time. Who knows, it could be a bonanza for falling out
migrants if the weather systems are right. Jon and Ali Andrew and
I were on Grand Bahama in late September 2003 when a stalled front
produced lousy weather and great birds for us. Looking back on it
I wish now I had been in the Bimini’s instead of Grand Bahama when the
Two or three full days will give you more than enough time to
thoroughly most of both islands for whatever might be lurking out
there. I agree with Tony White’s comment that if you are going to
the Bahamas for the first time you don’t want to spend that time in the
Bimini’s. Your chances for Bahamian specialties is way limited
here; go to Grand Bahama or the Abacos or Eleuthera for your first
Bahamian trip. Leave the Bimini’s for when you need a new island
to search in the hopes of finding a new bird for your country or West
Indies list. The fact that I found two Bahamas birds (White Ibis,
Bald Eagle) and the eagle for my West Indies list, means that the
islands certainly have potential for adding other good birds, and I”ll
be back at the right time to check them out.
It might be beneficial to visit the islands in July or August if you
can talk your way onto a boat going fishing in the Gulf Stream.
With the stream only 7 miles off Bimini it would be a short run to deep
water where you should have a chance at several good shearwaters or
storm-petrels for your West Indies or Bahamas list. And in
winter, if you can get off shore, I’ll bet there are more than a few
Northern Gannet’s and maybe a Black-legged Kittiwake lurking just off
the reach of land-based binoculars.
Regardless of when you go, be prepared to be totally laid back.
Without doubt Bimini is the kind of place that Buffett thought about in
the verse in “Margaritaville” where he lamented the need to find his
lost shaker of salt. Very likely, searching for a salt
shaker could be the most strenuous thing you’ll have to do here.
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
La Sagra's Flycatcher
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
505 Roosevelt Blvd, B106
Falls Church, Virginia 22044