Birding the Americas Trip
and Planning Repository
Return to the Main
Return to the North
Return to the Caribbean
Return to the Cayman
22 - 24 September 2007
by Craig Faanes
I know I don't get there often enough,
God knows I surely try.
a magic kind of medicine,
that no doctor could prescribe
… Jimmy Buffett
After a 20-year hiatus it was time to head back to the Cayman Islands
for a few days. On my first trip there I had no problem seeing
the island-specific Vitelline Warbler and also the various Cayman races
of several other species. This time I wanted to visit the two
other islands in the country to learn about them and their
birds. [Note - Caribbean specialities in boldface]
September 22 –
US Airways flight 1680 left on time from Washington National for the
quick short hop to Charlotte. There I endured the Bud-drinkin,
NASCAR-watchin, Fox “News”-believin, Republican-votin, “Christian”
crowd for a couple hours until US Airways flight 1123 departed in a
southerly direction for Grand Cayman island, deep inside the reality of
the West Indies.
My only previous trip to this banking-rich country was in 1987 when
Northwest Airlines offered a $198 roundtrip from Omaha to the island
with the provision that I stay only one day. That was all the time I
needed to seek and find Vitelline Warbler, the only species endemic to
the Caymans. That single-day on Grand Cayman whetted my appetite
to explore the country more, but for whatever reason I did not return
The last time I cleared Cayman customs they asked me to produce a
return ticket – the first and only time I have ever been asked to do
that. Today Cayman immigration wasn’t really worried about me over
staying my visit. Once through the entry formalities I sought out
the Cayman Airways counter to check in for their 5:15 p.m. departure to
Cayman Brac with an intermediate stop on Little Cayman. There was
an earlier flight to “the Brac” but it was a nonstop. I wanted to
get Little Cayman on my various lists so I opted for the later flight
and engaged in the time-honored West Indian tradition of waiting.
Anyone who has traveled the Caribbean (and taking a cruise is not
traveling there) knows that waiting is a way of life in the islands.
It’s nearly as well-honed here as waiting for everything in Asia.
The only time before today that I have flown on Cayman Airways was in
February 1985 when Paul Sievert and I left Grand Turk for Miami. In
those days, Cayman Airways displayed a smiling Green Sea Turtle as its
tail emblem (its still there) and beneath the turtle was the motto “We
go the extra smile for you.” To us, that motto seemed totally
inappropriate for this fine Caribbean airline and Paul and I decided to
get it changed.
Later that same day after switching to Bahamasair and plunking down in
Nassau, we sought out a bar where we spent several hours bouncing
around ideas for a new Cayman Airways motto. It took at least
three Goombay Smashes and maybe a Yellowbird or two before we settled
in on a suitable alternative.
And the motto we settled in on was perfect, absolutely perfect.
What we decided on was “Yah Mon Fly
Caymon”. It was short, sweet, and simple. Using the
word “mon” made it most appropriately West Indian, and changing “man”
to “mon” in the word “Cayman” clinched it for us. We accomplished our
goal after only a few boat drinks, and we were still relatively sober.
It appeared that we were on a quite a roll.
Being serious about this motto, we later contacted the Vice-President
for Marketing at Caymon Airways and offered our proposal. We were so
serious about it that we offered the idea to the airline for free.
Simply seeing our motto splashed across the tail of every Caymon
Airways jet in their fleet (they had 3 planes at the time) was more
than enough compensation. With high hopes and a surefire route to
fame in the airline marketing business, I mailed the letter to Caymon
Airways the next time I was in Miami.
Caymon Airways never wrote back; not even a note saying “Thanks. We’ll
get back to you.”
Although the rejection was difficult to take, I still think it’s the
perfect motto for the airline. Nearly 23 years after the fact, I
still think Caymon should use our motto. I am so convinced of
that I mentioned my idea to Elizabeth, a rather busty Caymon Airways
employee who checked me in for my flight to Caymon Brac.
“Huh,” she said when I told her my idea for changing the airline’s
motto. I repeated the idea and asked her what she thought. Her
nose crinkled up a bit and she looked at me a tad strangely but finally
said “well, mon, you could write to the Vice President for Marketing
and see what he has to say about it.”
Oh, well, I’ll just wait another 23 years and try again when a new
generation of Caymon employees is running the show. Until then,
I’ll continue to say “Yah mon, fly Caymon” every time I see one of
With four hours to kill before I left for Caymon Brac, I exited the
Grand Caymon airport terminal and walked east (right) paralleling the
airport fence and past some oil storage tanks. Here I entered a
mangrove forest that was largely devoid of birds. A passing rain
shower dampened my spirits but caused bird activity to increase. Before
the rain there was nothing to watch but when it started raining, a
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron bolted from the cover and a Green Heron
started to squawk. Soon a Sora started called while a Common
Moorhen croaked from the edge of the water. Then a Prothonotary
Warbler, Yellow Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush began calling as a
troop of Smooth-billed Ani crashed into trees trying to get out of the
deluge. Then a Cerulean Warbler popped up on a mangrove
branch. This was all pretty comical to watch and then just as
quickly when the squall passed the birds disappeared.
Caymon flight 4425, a fully-packed DeHaviland Dash 6 (“fully-packed” on
this plane means 19 passengers) lifted off from Grand Caymon on time at
5:15 p.m. on an 87 mile trek east to Little Caymon (which incidentally
is not the littlest of the Caymon islands). The flight departed
to the east and climbed to 7,000 feet for the 30 minute hop.
Areas of Grand Caymon that are not mangrove wetland are being developed
rapidly. The island I saw 20 years ago certainly has now passed into
obscurity. The northwest part of the island containing the famous
Seven Mile Beach now looks about as packed as does Bermuda. No
wonder the Cayman Island Thrush went extinct.
Thirteen of the 19 passengers deplaned on Little Caymon. My first
of five species seen here was Cattle Egret followed by the endemic
Little Caymon subspecies of Greater
Antillean Grackle. It was standing firm along the edge of
the runway as we zipped by. Soon a Barn Swallow flew over and a
Northern Mockingbird flashed through the tiny loading area for the
airport. As we taxied to the end of the runway, I saw a group of
maybe 15 Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the south coast of the
island. And so ended my Little Caymon bird list for the day.
We lifted off from Little Caymon on time for the seven minute, 14 mile
flight to Caymon Brac (everyone simply calls it “the Brac”). As
we skimmed over Little Caymon at 1,000 feet elevation I was mesmerized
by how much of the original vegetation remains wild. If it wasn’t
so hideously expensive on “Little” (as everyone calls Little Caymon) I
would love to spend a week here exploring. Maybe 500 people live
on the entire island and they are concentrated on the south
shore. On the ground, I had the impression of a lush palm tree
laden tropical paradise. From the air it was even more impressive.
Little Caymon is definitely the sort of place where I could spend a lot
We landed on the Brac at 6:07 p.m. with Antillean Nighthawks flying about
overhead. I had to check my bag in Grand Caymon and was impressed
that it was on the baggage rack before I could walk into the terminal
from the plane. The Caymons certainly are not the Bahamas!
I picked up my rental car from CB Car Rental paying $35.00 US
per day for a clunker that I had to return the next morning.
While doing the paperwork on the car I asked Joanne behind the counter
where she would recommend that I go for dinner. She instantly said “if
you want island food, you must go to Biggies, mon.” And so I did.
Biggies is on the north side of
the island not far from Stake Bay. It has an unpretentious
exterior and excellent food inside. Following instructions from
Jimmy Buffett in one of his songs I had “fresh snapper fried light” and
washed it down with two ice cold Red Stripes. I have never
understood why Red Stripe tastes so much better on an island in the
tropics, but it does.
I checked in at Walton’s Mango Manor Bed and Breakfast
in Stake Bay where I paid $115 US per night for a very nice room.
George and his wife Lynn are most accommodating and were a wealth of
local information, including some of the local gossip. They also
knew a lot about the Caymon Brac subspecies of Cuban Parrot – the main
reason I came to the island.
September 23 –
I was up and functional at 6:00 this morning and out in the yard (that
would be “garden” in British) by 6:15. Three Caymon Brac
subspecies of Cuban Parrot
were munching on mangoes in the yard.
I’ve now seen Cuban Parrot on each of the five islands where it’s
extant (Great Abaco and Inagua, Bahamas; Cuba; Grand Caymon, and Caymon
Brac, Caymon Islands). Only on Great Abaco does this species nest
underground. That makes me wonder once again if the Great Abaco bird is
a different species.
From the Walton’s yard I walked down the main road toward the southwest
(toward “town”) picking up the usual West Indian birds plus Vitelline Warbler and Caribbean Dove. The Vitelline
Warbler on Caymon Brac is an endemic subspecies, and the subspecies of
Caribbean Dove in the Caymon’s is endemic to that country. With the
Little Caymon subspecies of Greater Antillean Grackle seen from the
airport yesterday, and the Vitelline Warbler and Cuban Parrot today I
was able to see the three subspecies I came in search of in less than
After breakfast I drove back toward town and then cut across the island
to the south side (about 1 mile away). At the intersection with
“South Side Road” there is an open brackish wetland on which were 78 West Indian Whistling-Ducks – 76
more than I have ever seen before.
The ducks were on the wetland, along its shore, one was on top of a
small building and two were on the roof of a nearby house! I was
able to listen to them whistling, something else I had never done
before. All in all this was a very cool experience.
Surprisingly the National Audubon Society has an extensive amount of
information about this species on their website
From the Whistling-Duck wetland I worked my way west past the
now-defunct Tiara Beach Resort and past the still-functioning Brac Reef
Resort to the shore of the large wetland adjacent to the Brac
airport. This wetland was crawling with shorebirds – every
shorebird species on the attached list except the Ruddy Turnstone was
Leaving the wetland my car started to act up. There was definitely a
problem with the starter.
From the shorebird wetland I followed South Side Road to Ashton Reid
Road and then “climbed” the Bluff (“Brac” is a Scottish word for
“Bluff”) to Major Donald Road where I turned right and followed the
road past the National Trust’s Brac Parrot Preserve
to the road’s terminus at the Brac
Lighthouse Its strange calling this a light “house”
because there is no structure present that resembles a house.
There is, however, a light, so they weren’t completely off base.
A snake crawled across the parking lot at the lighthouse just as I
pulled up. This species, the Cayman Island Ground Snake
was the first species of any snake I have seen anywhere in the West
Indies north of Trinidad. Strong trade winds were blowing
over the island from the east causing nice updrafts that both Brown
Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird were taking advantage of as they
sailed back and forth not moving a muscle.
I had more difficulty starting the car – it was clicking several times
before finally starting to turn over and when it turned over it sounded
like it wasn’t going to make it all the way. Reluctantly I
returned to CB Car Rental and dropped off the car in spite of me going
to be there just a few more hours. The rather snotty and
less-than-helpful woman behind the counter (not Joanne from last night)
reluctantly gave me a new car and I was on my way. As I drove
away I noticed that the speedometer cable was obviously broken.
Keeping cars in top running condition is obviously not a high priority
From CB I followed the South Side Road to “the Wetlands” where there
was a great assemblage of herons and egrets with a pair of Brown Booby
sailing back and forth overhead. I think the south side of Caymon
Brac would be a logical place to get Brown Booby for a yard list
bird. I then returned to the Parrot Preserve where the
temperature was becoming oppressively hot and stifling. There was
very little bird movement or sound here other than an American Redstart
and the distant calling of at least two Cuban Parrots.
I next followed the North Side Road to its terminus beneath the east
end of the bluff then returned toward “town” looking for lunch.
Biggies had a sign out announcing their Sunday Caribbean Buffet for
only $12 CI (the Caymon Islands dollar is at $1.25 US dollars to 1 CI –
yet another country with a currency worth more than the American
dollar. This appears to be another one of the many benefits we
are reaping from the compassionately conservative administration of
Chimpy McFlightsuit in the White House).
Among the many items on the buffet I grabbed some tuna, peas and rice
(the West Indian equivalent of “a belly full of rice and beans” from
Buffett’s song First Look),
calaloo, breadfruit and cassava washed down with an ice cold Red Stripe
and what felt like half a gallon of water. To top off the meal, and
make it even more enjoyable, the local radio station was playing
Buffett’s Tryin to Reason With
Hurricane Season as my bottle of Red Stripe arrived.
I spent the afternoon at the wetland on the south side of the airport
picking up a few more warblers in the mangroves. I also spent time on
the dock at the end of Track Road off the north side road. From
the dock I found a group of 11 Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over a
group of Brown Noddy and 1 White-tailed Tropicbird. I thought the
Tropicbirds would have departed by now and I was happy to see one
sticking around. Turning around to walk back from the end of the
dock I saw a Glossy Ibis sail over the beach headed east.
This afternoon there were only 30 West Indian Whistling-Ducks on the
wetland. I’ll be damned if I know where the rest of them went.
They were not on any of the other island wetlands. Maybe they
went to Little Caymon for the afternoon?
Reluctantly I returned to the airport about 4:30 to check in for my
flight at 5:20. Before dropping off car number 2 at CB, I stopped at
the Texaco station where I paid the equivalent of $5.50 US per gallon
for gasoline. In another totally un-Bahamas-like move Caymon
Airways flight 4165 left the island at 5:00, a full 20 minutes
early! We made a short hop over to Little Caymon where we picked
up 11 more passengers (and where I added Smooth-billed Ani to my island
list) then departed for Georgetown on Grand Caymon. We landed on
Grand Caymon at 5:55 pm, fully 25 minutes ahead of schedule. My
few experiences with Caymon Airways and their concept of punctuality
suggest that this is most definitely not Bahamasair.
Caymon Brac was the 67th island I have visited in the West Indies and
its one of my three most favorite (the others are Dominica in the
Lesser Antilles, and incomparable Anguilla in the Windward Islands).
The lack of people on the island makes it most enjoyable. The
vegetation is almost all entirely in place and the beaches (and I
assume the reef) are impeccably beautiful. There simply is no reason
not to return to Caymon Brac. Only next time I will spend much more
I picked up a prepaid rental car from Avis/Cico in the building across
the street from the airport and then followed signs around the runway
toward Bodden Town. The man at the rental car agency said there
were no restaurants between the airport and my hotel and suggested that
I should go into Georgetown for dinner. The traffic was
absolutely surprising when I got on the main road and from that small
experience I concluded that driving into Georgetown was not a good
idea. Instead I kept on keeping on heading southeast from the airport.
Along the way I saw an “On the Go Café” associated with an Esso
gas station and stopped there for “dinner.” Little did I know at
the time that the Caymonian concept of café and that of the rest
of the world are worlds apart.
I spent the night at the Turtle Nest Inn in Bodden Town,
about 10 miles from the Grand Caymon airport. This
hotel is not mentioned in any of the online resources for
the Caymon Islands. Instead I found out about it from
www.tripadvisor.com where everyone and their brother who stayed here
before raved about the place. When I contacted the hotel for a
room reservation in July I was informed that they between that date and
February 1, 2008, they had one vacancy and that was for the night I
wanted to stay here. In the end I was lucky I was able to stay
This beautiful Spanish hacienda-like building sits right on the beach –
and I mean right on the beach. The only downside to the place is
the lack of any restaurants nearby. If you stay here you must have a
rental car or plan on stocking up on groceries and cook all your meals
The original plan was for me to stay in Apartment number 7 and because
of my late arrival (after 7:00 p.m.) they would leave the room open for
me. However on arrival I found that 7 was locked. A Jamaican
woman working in the office told me that I had been switched to a
different room and with more luck on my side it was a more expensive
ocean front room on the second floor. The employee was from
Mandeville, Jamaica and had moved to Grand Caymon looking for work. She
said that Grand Caymon was nice but “it just a rock in the middle of
the ocean, you know, mon.” She then went on to tell me how
wonderful she thought Jamaica was. I didn’t have the heart to
tell her how absolutely horrible I thought Jamaica was. Keeping
my mouth shut she offered me a glass of red wine as a welcome drink and
Instead of using the air conditioning, I turned on the ceiling fan in
the living room and the one in the bedroom (king bed) then opened the
windows facing the ocean and fell asleep being lulled by the constant
lapping of the ocean waves on the beach. Pure bliss.
September 24 –
I was up at 6:00 and on the road by 6:45. My original plan was to
go to South Sound but a horrific traffic jam kept me away. By the time
I reached Savannah, myself and my fellow passengers on the highway were
lucky to be making 10 miles per hour. Frustrated I stopped in
Wendy’s for a breakfast sandwich and asked about the traffic this
“Oh, it like this every morning, mon,” the woman behind the counter
said. She then added, “We need more roads, you know, mon.”
Never being one to not state the obvious, I replied, “No, you need
fewer people.” She gave me a quizzical look and then went to
Twenty years ago South Sound was seeing the first vestiges of
development. Today, the destruction is complete as a four lane
highway from Georgetown dumps people in here every night after work and
lets them move at a snail’s pace back to town each morning. From
the air it appeared that South Sound is now a substantial housing area.
I didn’t need to go there in person to view the destruction.
Instead, I turned around and drove back through Bodden Town toward East
End. Not far past (east of) the Lighthouse Restaurant (on the
ocean side of the road) I came to Frank Sound Road that bisects the
middle of the island. It was in this area that Cayman Island
Thrush became extinct in 1937.
Although there no longer are Cayman Island Thrushes in these woods I
did see lots of other good birds like Cuban
Parrot, White-crowned Pigeon, Caribbean
Dove, West Indian Woodpecker,
the bizarre Caymon Island subspecies of Northern Flicker, Caribbean Elaenia, La Sagra’s Flycatcher,
Red-legged Thrush, Thick-billed Vireo, Yucatan Vireo, Vitelline
Warbler, Western Spindalis, Cuban Bullfinch, and Yellow-faced Grassquit. The road to
the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Garden was particularly productive.
I birded this area until about 10:30, then returned to my hotel to take
a shower and check out before returning to the airport. Arriving
there about noon I checked in for US Airways flight 1046 at 2:10 p.m.
then went up stairs to the Hungry Horse Restaurant for a Cuban sandwich
and bottle of Red Stripe. It was relatively “cheap” at $15.00 US.
We left Grand Caymon 10 minutes early bound for Charlotte. About
15 minutes north of the island we encountered some bumpy weather and it
stayed miserable until we were about over Ratworld Florida where it
cleared out and remained nice all the way home. I cleared US
Customs at the Charlotte Airport (the 30th airport I’ve cleared Customs
in) and then left for Philadelphia and eventually Washington DC,
arriving at home at 12:30 the next morning.
The Caymons are definitely a great place to hang out for a few
days. The islands are much more upscale than the Bahamas will
ever hope to be, and certainly a mile and a half in front of Jamaica in
that regard. Next time I return to Grand Caymon I’m staying for a
week at the Turtle Nest Inn – assuming I can get a room there!
And on Caymon Brac, the only place to stay is Walton’s Mango Manor Bed
It was apparent from my time here that a lot of habitat changes have
occurred on Grand Caymon and these will likely continue as more and
more people fight to develop less and less land. In the end the
earth gets screwed but that’s normal.
The other thing that really impressed me on this trip was the super
abundance of Bananaquit.
I have been on quite a few islands in the islands and all over the
range of this species in Mexico, Central America and South America but
never anywhere have I seen Bananaquit as super abundant as they are in
the Caymon Islands. That statement is especially true on Caymon Brac
where the old adage about things being “thick as the hair on a dog’s
back” is certainly a truthful adage.
Birds Observed in the Caymon Islands
September 22 – 24, 2007
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
West Indian Whistling-Duck
West Indian Woodpecker
La Sagra's Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Greater Antillean Grackle
Species seen - 87
Falls Church, Virginia