19 - 26 October and 12 November 2001
by Jan Hein van Steenis
Aruba is a small, hot and dry Caribbean island 25 km off the coast of Venezuela, with tourism as a major source of income. It has a bird list of under 200 species, of which none are endemic. However, endemic subspecies of Brown-throated Parakeet and Burrowing Owl occur, it is one of the few sites in South America for Caribbean Elaenia (along with Curaçao and Bonaire) and its position in the Caribbean makes it a good place to search for vagrants. Maybe you can add a species to the list!
I went to Aruba to visit friends of mine. When they were at work, I could go birdwatching (mostly from 8 to 1). I chose October to have a chance of seeing Nearctic migrants. My one day spent on Aruba in November was necessary to catch my plane home after visiting Venezuela (less migrants were present, I only added Common Sand-Martin).
I found that many songbirds were conspicuous, possibly triggered by the start of the ‘rainy season’. Salt pans and mudflats were wet, providing feeding grounds for waders.
Significant numbers of terns breed, but these had all left by October. I also missed the rare residents White-tailed Hawk, American Oystercatcher, and Reddish Egret. Scaly-naped Pigeon is apparently extirpated.
I stayed in Santa Cruz, in the center of the island; most tourists stay in the Hotel Area, north of the capital Oranjestad.
Aruba has a ‘status aparte’ within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (do not call it ‘part of the Netherlands Antilles’!). The island is small (30 by 8 km), with about 100,000 inhabitants. Despite this small number, four languages are spoken (Papiamento, Dutch, English and Spanish).
It is hot (average temperature 28 ºC), with the almost ever-present easterly trade winds giving some relief. Daily highs reach 34 ºC in the hottest months (August–October), when the trade winds weaken. The wettest time is October–December. The first rain of the season was headline news! I had four ‘rainy’ days, which meant at least one short shower at night or in the morning. Prolongued rain is very rare.
The western (leeward) side of Aruba is mostly built-up. It supports some wetland areas like salt pans, mangroves, and artificial lakes. Sea birds are plentiful; reefs and wrecks off the coast provide diving opportunities (not just for birds). The hilly interior (‘mondi’) is covered mostly with thorny scrub mixed with impressive cactus species. Vegetation is densest in the dry riverbeds (‘rooi’), or on the west side of hills. The east coast is barren. I did not see any sea birds here, but patience could be rewarding. Only at the end of the riverbeds (‘boca’), vegetated areas are found, either old plantations (good for birds) or Sea Grape (‘Druif’) bushes (not so good).
I reached most areas by mountain bike. Conditions are far from perfect for cycling at leasure (hot, windy), but most drivers were considerate (beware of tourists and dogs). Rental cars are plentiful. A four-wheel drive is not necessary, but be prepared to walk or drive carefully if you want to visit parts of the east coast. Buses run regularly along the Hotel Area and Routes 1 and 4. I used a map bought at a ‘Coastal’ gas station. A good map is at http://www.aruba-experience.com/addendum/islandmap/aruba/index.html; it shows many of the sites.
I will give an overview of interesting sites, some of which I did not visit, but were recommended after I came back. Between straight brackets, I put my number of visits.
Route 1, running along the entire west coast, provides access to a number of easy-to-reach birding sites with (potentially) ‘wet’ habitats. The built-up areas support some land birds that do not (or scarcely) occur elsewhere on Aruba, like Tropical Kingbird, and introduced species.
California Lighthouse  is apparently good for Terns, the Lagoon south of it  is good for water birds.
Salt Flats between the Hotel Area and Malmok, inland from Route 1 .
Bubali Bird Sanctuary : a fresh water lake from treated waste water,
fringed by (too) high reeds and covered with water hyacinths (which were
being removed when I visited). There is a central observation tower reached
from the north side opposite the windmill. A telescope is useful. The surrounding
scrubby areas are worth birding, as is the waste water treatment plant
itself, on the south side (easily watched through the fence).
Spanish Lagoon Bird Refuge : mangroves and mud flats. Although Route 1 crosses it, access is easiest through Frenchman’s Pass (‘inland’ section).
Savaneta : mangroves and overgrown salt pans. Turn off from Route 1 into Pos Chiquito, and follow the overland pipe line to the south. An overpass provides access to the beach and some mangroves.
The off-shore islands near San Nicolaas , with important seabird
colonies, lie behind the oil refinery and cannot be viewed from shore (they
are probably easiest to watch if you go diving).
Seroe Colorado : shallow bays and some broad beaches.
INLAND AND EAST COAST:
Route 4 (Oranjestad–Santa Cruz–Pos Chiquito) is the main access road. The tourist attractions are signposted, which is helpful to reach interesting sites.
Rooi Awa Marga : on the rough road from the Ayo Rock Formations (signs) to the palm plantation of Andicuri.
Boca Daimari : another old plantation on the east coast, providing shelter to migrants amidst barren hills. Best reached from Andicuri; the road from Santa Cruz is hard to find and almost impassible.
Arikok NP  (signs), reached from Santa Cruz: probably the best Aruban scrub forest is found here, although the area is infested with goats. Of the many trails, those around Cunucu Arikok and Cero Arikok (both close to the entrance) were most interesting. Normal cars can work their way around the park; I did not try all slopes by bike. At the southern end of Arikok is Fontein, with plantations and caves.
Frenchman’s Pass  (signs), a narrow well-vegetated ‘canyon’. At the end of the Pass, you reach the mud flats of the Spanish Lagoon. A short dirt road to the right on its north edge provides access to a path along the Spanish Lagoon’s mangroves. A dirt road to the left follows Rooi Taki, a rather wide riverbed.
The mondi of San Nicolaas : less hilly than the Arikok area, with a (former?) golf course. Follow the signs to the ‘Tunnel of Love’ or the golf course, and explore the area from there.
Seroe Colorado : the access road and the lighthouse area (both rather thinly vegetated) may be interesting. A heavy shower hit me when I visited this area, so I could not do much birding here.
K. H. Voous, Birds of the Netherlands Antilles, 1983, is out of print, and also somewhat outdated (most wetland species are now much more common). The local STERN guide ‘Birds of Aruba’ is of little use, with many bird only given in a checklist (Voous’ list with some additional species).
This means you’ll have to carry a combination of your favorite North American Field Guide, and R. Meyer de Schauensee, The Birds of Venezuela. Then all you need is a picture or description of Caribbean Elaenia:
K. Beylevelt, Natuurreisgids Nederlandse Antillen en Aruba, 1999 (‘Nature Guide to the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba’ in English); incomplete, but covering other wildlife as well. A good description (taken from Voous) is given in Ridgely & Tudor, The Birds of South America, Volume 2, The Suboscine Passerines, 1994. (The subspecies depicted in H. R. Raffaele, A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, 1998; and Howell & Webb, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern central America, 1995 are of no help.)
LIST OF SPECIES
Crested Bobwhite Colinus cristatus - widespread, common in south: Malmok golf course (1), Arikok (2), Balashi (1 heard), Rooi Taki (4), San Nicolaas mondi (6), Seroe Colorado, Baby Beach (4) and Lighthouse (4)
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis - 6 at Bubali
American Wigeon Anas americana - 1 male at Bubali
White-cheeked Pintail Anas bahamensis - common at Bubali
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors - common at Bubali (common), a few at Savaneta Salt Pans
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus - 1 at Boca Daimari
Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris - common at Bubali; 5 along Route 4 near Quinta del Carmen
Mitred Parakeet Aratinga mitrata (escape) - 1 in Oranjestad
Aruban Brown-throated Parakeet Aratinga pertinax arubensis - abundant throughout
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird Chrysolampis mosquitus - fairly common at Spanish Lagoon, Rooi Taki, Arikok; 1 in Santa Cruz
Blue-tailed Emerald Chlorostilbon mellisugus - throughout in low densities
Aruban Burrowing Owl Speotyto cunicularia arubensis - 1 in Santa Cruz (more heard) [occurs in Noord, Hotel Area, along the Spanish Lagoon, and on golf courses, but proved difficult]
Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor - 1 in Santa Cruz
Feral Pigeon Columba livia (introduced) - in populated areas, probably mostly racing pigeons
Bare-eyed Pigeon Columba corensis - abundant throughout
Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata - abundant throughout
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina - abundant throughout
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi - fairly common inland, but inconspicuous
Sora Porzana carolina - 1-2 at Bubali
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus - common at Bubali, uncommon at Savaneta Salt Pans
Caribbean Coot Fulica caribaea - common at Bubali
Wilson's Snipe Gallinago (gallinago) delicata - 1 at Savaneta Salt Pans
American Whimbrel Numenius (phaeopus) hudsonicus - a few at Salt Flats, Savaneta Salt Pans
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca - fairly common at Salt Flats, Bubali, Savaneta, Spanish Lagoon
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes - common at Salt Flats, Bubali, Savaneta, Spanish Lagoon
Spotted Sandpiper Tringa macularia - common at Bubali, uncommon at Savaneta Mangroves/Salt Pans
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres - common along beaches (Malmok, Hotel Area, Seroe Colorado)
(Eastern) Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus - 2 at Savaneta Salt Pans
Sanderling Calidris alba - 1 at Salt Flats, <10 at Seroe Colorado, Baby Beach
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla - fairly common at Salt Flats, Bubali
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla - fairly common at Salt Flats, Bubali
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus - common at Bubali, Spanish Lagoon, Savaneta Salt Pans
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus - 1 at Spanish Lagoon, mud flats
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus - 1 at Santa Cruz (more heard inland)
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola - 1 at Salt Flats, small numbers on beaches of Seroe Colorado, Savaneta
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger - 5 at Salt Flats
Royal Tern Sterna maxima - abundant along west coast
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla - common along west coast
Osprey Pandion haliaetus - up to 3 each hunting at Bubali, Spanish Lagoon, Savaneta; occasionally flying overhead elsewhere
American Kestrel Falco sparverius - uncommon throughout
Merlin Falco columbarius - 1 over beach (Hotel Area)
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus - up to 3 each at Spanish Lagoon, Arikok, San Nicolaas
Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway - fairly common throughout
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps - fairly common at Bubali
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster - 2 fishing (Hotel Area) [the ship-wreck off Malmok should be good as well]
Neotropic Cormorant Hypoleucus (Phalacrocorax) olivaceus - abundant at Bubali
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis - 1 immature at Bubali [not in Voous' checklist; also seen here in March 2001]
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias - fairly common at Bubali, Spanish Lagoon, occasionally flying overhead elsewhere
American Great Egret Casmerodius albus egretta - common, especially Bubali, Spanish Lagoon; may be found throughout at ponds or flying overhead
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis - uncommon at Bubali
Tricoloured Heron Egretta tricolor - fairly common at Bubali, Savaneta Salt Pans and Mangroves
Snowy Egret Egretta thula - fairly common at Bubali, Savaneta Salt Pans
Green Heron Butorides virescens - fairly common at Spanish Lagoon, Bubali, Savaneta
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax - fairly common at Bubali
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis - common along west coast, Bubali
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens - common and conspicuous along west coast
Northern Scrub-Flycatcher Sublegatus arenarum - uncommon at mondi sites: Frenchman's Pass (pair with young), Rooi Awa Marga, Arikok
Caribbean Elaenia Elaenia martinica - 2 at Cunucu Arikok [this rare resident should be present at Rooi Taki]
Brown-crested Flycatcher Myiarchus tyrannulus - common at mondi sites: Frenchman's Pass, Boca Daimari, Rooi Awa Marga, Arikok, Rooi Taki
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus - fairly common, mostly along west coast
Grey Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis - >5 at Spanish Lagoon mangroves, also seen from Route 1 bridge, singles unexpectedly at Boca Daimari, Siribana (north of Santa Cruz)
Black-whiskered Vireo Vireo altiloquus - 1 at Spanish Lagoon, inside mangroves
Tropical Mockingbird Mimus gilvus - abundant throughout
Purple Martin Progne subis - 2 over Bubali
Common Sand-Martin Riparia riparia - 1 at Spanish Lagoon (in November)
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica erythrogaster - abundant fouraging around/over Bubali, common over beaches, uncommon inland
Cliff Swallow Hirundo pyrrhonota - 2 in Oranjestad, small numbers among Barn Swallows at Bubali
House Sparrow Passer domesticus (introduced) - Seroe Colorado, San Nicolaas, Savaneta, Fontein
Mangrove Warbler Dendroica petechia rufopileata - common throughout mondi, at mangrove sites, Bubali, but never seen around habitation [I did not safely identify any Yellow Warbler Dendroica (petechia) aestiva]
Chestnut-sided Warbler Dendroica pensylvanica - 1 at Arikok, near entrance [rare in South America]
Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata - locally fairly common: Rooi Awa Marga, around Cero Arikok, 1 found dead on access road to Seroe Colorado
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla - 1 female at Spanish Lagoon, inside mangroves
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis - 3 at Spanish Lagoon, 1 at Savaneta Mangroves
Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis - fairly common at Arikok, especially around Cero Arikok
Common Bananaquit Coereba flaveola - abundant throughout, even seen indoors
Black-faced Grassquit Tiaris bicolor - common throughout inland sites, including gardens
Yellow Oriole Icterus nigrogularis - fairly common at Arikok, singles at Frenchman's Pass, Rooi Taki, Balashi
Troupial Icterus icterus - common, probably throughout, highest numbers in the mondi
Carib Grackle Quiscalus lugubris (introduced) - common in Oranjestad, Savaneta, Bubali, Hotel Area
Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus - 2 at Bubali, in bushes on west side
The herpetofauna consists of 1 indiginous frog, some 7 lizards (mostly geckos), 2 snakes (among which an endangered rattlesnake around Arikok), and Hawksbill turtles breeding in spring. Bats and (probably) the pygmy mouse Baiomys hummelincki are the only naturally occurring mammals. The following species are likely to be encountered:
Cane Toad Bufo marinus (introduced) - found dead on various roads
Common Iguana Iguana iguana - common throughout; the bright green young may look very out-of-place
'Kododo Blauw' lizards Cnemidophorus arubensis - abundant throughout; a variable blue-spotted Teiid lizard
Anole Anolis (Norops) lineatus - probably throughout (I saw most in the backyard in Santa Cruz)
Common House-Gecko Hemidactylus frenatus (introduced) - 1 in Santa Cruz [probably throughout]
Long-tongued Bat Glossophaga (longirostris?) elongata - many in cave near Fontein
Curaçao Cottontail Sylvilagus floridanus nigronuchalis (Indian introduction?) - common at Arikok
Feral Goats occur widely in the 'mondi'.
by Jan Hein van Steenis
Leiden, The Netherlands,