18 - 22 April 1999
by Douglas J. MacNeil
In preparation for birding while attending a conference in the Cayman Islands Apr. 18 to 22, 1999, I got help from several bird chat members, and obtained Birds of the Cayman Islands, by Patricia Bradley. Grand Cayman Island is relatively small, 15x30 miles, and all the local breeders were easily accessible. Although Omni busses run along the main Island roads, I recommend a rental car for convenience, and to reach the better birding areas in the less populated eastern end. The main tourist hotels are located on the western coast of Grand Cayman. Opposite the hotels are a mix of residential neighborhoods, undeveloped lots, and some Mangroves. Each morning before the meetings I walked the local neighborhoods. Birds seen included Greater Antillean Grackle, Bananaquit, Northern Mockingbird, Caribbean Elaenia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, White-crowned Pigeon, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Bullfinch (only 1), and a Rose-ringed Parakeet (presumed escapee).
I called Patricia Bradley and asked if she had any recommendations for areas not mentioned in her book. I learned there is a new updated edition of her book (1998) so if you buy the book be sure to get the latest edition ( I had her 1985 edition). She recommended two sites not in my book. The Botanic Park (new since my edition and good for most woodland birds) and the San Pedro Castle, since White-tailed Tropicbirds were breeding on the cliffs below the parking lot.
Since each day of my conference had the afternoon free, I did most of my birding in the late afternoon to early evening. Thus I was able to avoid the hottest part of the day (all 5 days the weather was mostly sunny, highs mid 80's, evening low about 70). In addition to the lovely April weather, there was an amazing absence of nuisance insects. Despite spending most of my time in or around mangrove swamps, I never saw a mosquito, was never bothered by flies, or attacked by any other insect.
The first area I birded was Barkers Swamp in the North end of the Island. This Mangrove swamp, like other swamps on the island, is bisected by sand/limestone MRCU dyke roads allowing easy walking access to the swamp. Birds seen included: Osprey, Merlin, White-crowned Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Yellow Warbler, Caribbean Elaenia, La Sagra's Flycatcher (adults feeding young), Yucatan Vireo, Palm, Blackpoll and Yellow Warbler. Although supposedly extirpated from Grand Cayman Island, I also saw a Black-whiskered Vireo. At a few shallow ponds I saw Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, American Coot, Snowy Egret, Common Moorhen, and Black-necked Stilt. However, I was surprised by the low abundance of herons and egrets and the lack of shorebirds throughout the island.
I saw a few Ruddy Turnstones on the beach near my hotel, and only 1 Semiplamated Plover and 1 Semipalmated Sandpiper. Another surprise was the lack of gulls and terns. Along the coast I saw only two Royal Terns and 12 Magnificent Frigatebirds, while on a golf course I also saw 15 Least Terns. Luckily I did get to see the White-tailed Tropicbirds. As suggested by Patricia Bradley, I arrived at the San Pedro Castle at 9:00 AM to await for the Tropicbirds to return with food for their young. The coral cliffs are only about 20 feet high and very rugged, the surf below was a gorgeous indigo, and it was a very pleasant place to wait for Tropic birds. At 9:15 five birds arrived and proceeded to call while flying just off the cliffs. I didn't see any obvious nests nor did the Tropicbirds land, so after a few minutes I left in case I might have been disturbing them. The entrance road to the Castle had numerous Grey Kingbirds on the wires, as well as Tree and Barn Swallows over the fields.
Later I visited the South Swamp, the cross swamp roads were mere paths here and very much overgrown. Nonetheless I observed, West Indian Woodpecker, Caribbean Elaenia, Vitelline Warbler, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Stripe-headed Tanager, Smooth-billed Ani, and the ubiquitous Greater Antillean Grackle, Banaquit, Northern Mockingbird, and White-winged Dove.
However, not surprisingly, the two best birding sites were on the less developed eastern end of the island. Birding along the High Rock Dr.- New East End Rd. loop road, was excellent. This road loops through woodland and overgrown pasture land. I found several groups of Cuban Parrots, numerous Loggerhead Kingbirds, Vitelline Warbler, and more smooth-billed Anis. I also saw a male/female pair of Baltimore Orioles, a supposed non-breeder on the island. Surprisingly, I also got excellent views of a Mangrove Cuckoo, in a bush at the edge of the road. I took North Side Rd. across the island and then drove along the north shore to Hutland. There a road heads South for a bout 3 miles and ends near "Willie's Pig farm". Here there were over 40 West Indian Whistling-Duck. In the trees/fields near the farm were Cuban Parrots, West Indian Woodpecker, Caribbean Elaenia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Vireo American Redstart, Stripe-headed Tanager, Smooth-billed Ani, and White-winged Dove.
The last site I visited was the new Botanic Park, a combination of natural woodland, a pond, and formal gardens. The Gardens were beautiful and the nature trail yielded, Cuban Bullfinch, Zenaida Dove, Caribbean Dove, Thick-billed, Black-and-white Warbler, and Ovenbird. The pond had Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Common Moorhen, West Indian Whistling-Duck, and Purple Gallinule.
During my short stay I managed to see 56 species, including 38 of the 42 breeding birds on Grand Cayman, and, happily, all 16 target life birds.
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