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BAHAMAS -- New Providence & Abaco

26 March - 7 April 2007

by Nick Lethaby

I visited New Providence and Abaco in the Bahamas from March 26 to April 7, 2007. I was on New Providence from March 26 to April 1 and on Abaco from April 1 to April 7. I spent a lot of time on family activities but also did a fair amount of birding, especially on Abaco where I birded about 50% of each day on average. This was my first visit to the ‘Caribbean’ and my goal was to see all the species not found in Florida as well as a few that are but I had missed on Florida trips due to being too early.

For those of you planning a more dedicated birding trip, I would offer the following advice:

1.    I think you only need a day on New Providence to clean-up. You can visit the Retreat (Bahama Woodstar, Cuban Grassquit, Caribbean Dove) in the morning (this place is often open by 7.00 or 7.30) and then go down to Rainbow Farm (Shiny Cowbird) before finishing up at the pond by Lakeview Road (White-cheeked Pintail).

2.    It was moderately windy during my stay (apparently more so than normal). As a result, birding tended to be a fair bit less productive after about 9.30 AM as the heat and wind rose. My impression is that pine forest birding was more affected by this than coppice birding. As a result, you want to allow extra days to get more morning birding, at least in the spring or summer.

3.    Most Bahama ‘specialities’ are easy to see. Almost any species can been with a couple of hours effort in the correct habitat and many can be found almost instantly. The only two species that appear to be genuinely difficult in New Providence/Abaco are Key West Quail-Dove and Zenaida Dove. The latter species is much easier further south in the Bahamas and very easy in places like Puerto Rico, so may not be worth the effort unless you want to see it in the Holearctic like me. With the exception of the two doves, you should be able to see all the specialties on Abaco in a day or day and a morning (although White-tailed Tropicbird might require an extra morning).

4.    Note that road signage is often poor in the Bahamas. For example, the road to Treasure Cay from Marsh Harbour is completely unsignposted. You will certainly need a decent map (the ones in the ABA guide are probably good enough on Abaco) and I would recommend driving around Marsh Harbour a bit in the afternoon/evening when you arrive to make sure you understand how to get to the roads out of town. Otherwise you might waste valuable morning time.

5.    With one exception, I had very little insect trouble during my visit, although mosquitoes are active at night.

6.    Although I mention Abaco National Park below a lot of times, many other birders see the pine wood species much closer to Marsh Harbour and you may not want to go all the way down to the park. I only went there because it seemed to be the best bet for Zenaida Dove.

7.    For wintering and migrant passerince migrants like Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers, New Providence appeared to be much better, with better variety and densities of birds. Somewhat unusual migrants I saw were 2 Summer Tanagers, a Blue Grosbeak, a Wilson’s Warbler, and a Western Kingbird.

8.    Away from specific nesting colonies, the Bahamas are very poor for seabirds. I just saw a few Magnificent Frigatebirds on Abaco along with odd Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns.

9.    The ABA bird-finding guide by Tony White is about 10 years old and has a number of errors as a result of changing road conditions and bird populations that you should be aware of. I would still probably recommend getting this guide, but much of the guide is focused on islands that few birders will ever visit and information on seeing some of the specialties seems a bit weak, with more information on where to find migrant passerines and shorebirds (all good for a resident birder, but most visitors will really want more on species like Key West Quail-Dove).

I have summarized a few important changes to note from ABA guide:

•    Great Lizard Cuckoo appears to be extirpated from New Providence due to destruction of its habitat for development according to the local birders I spoke to.

•    Zenaida Dove is much more difficult to find on either New Providence or Abaco than implied in the guide. Neither of the New Providence birders I spoke with knew of a reliable area to see the species.

•    Key West Quail-Dove appears to be very difficult to see on New Providence now with the two birders I spoke to only occasionally even hearing about sightings, let alone seeing one.

•    The White-tailed Tropicbird site at Little Harbour on Abaco is now easily accessible by road, contra to statements in the guide.

•    There is now an established colony of Shiny Cowbirds at Rainbow Farm in New Providence. The location of this farm is not given in the guide.

Key Species Accounts

I have summarized my experience in seeing (or missing) all the key Bahamian and Carribean specials available on these two islands. I have also included information on a few species that are restricted in the USA to S. Florida since it makes sense to see these as well rather than go to Florida to look for them.

White-tailed Tropicbird: 7+ seen at Little Harbour on Abaco on April 6. Birds arrived about 7.30 AM and were present at least until 9.15 when I left. The birds nest in caves in the low cliffs at the mouth of the harbour. The road has been significantly upgraded and this location is easily reached in a normal car. Directions are as follows:

Head south on the road from Marsh Harbour until you come to the turn for Cherokee Sound. Follow this road for 8 miles and you will come to the left turn for Little Harbour. This is signposted. Follow this road for two miles and you will come out to the Harbour. Follow the road around the edge of the harbour past an art gallery or two and you will to a turning circle that has a (firm) sandy road leading off to the right. You can ignore the private sign on it (verified this with two locals) and turn down here. In a few hundreds yards you will see a sign on the right for the ‘lighthouse trail’. Park by the road here or in the small pull-off a few yards on.  The trail takes you to the beach, from where you can look west across the bay and see the tropicbirds or out to the lighthouse where you can see more down on the low cliffs. In sunny conditions, you will get better views from the beach because of the light. I also looked at the bird from the deck of the house at the end of the road. I just knocked on the door and asked the owners.

Note that Little Harbour was very buggy in my visit due to hordes of midges. There is good coppice on the road into town that is worth some effort in my view.

White-cheeked Pintail: Up to 23 seen at the pond by Lakeview Road on Paradise Island, New Providence. Very tame. Not looked for at the known sites on Abaco.

Rose-throated (Cuban) Parrot: Outside of the May-October breeding season, the current good site to see this species easily and at very close range is Bahama Palm Shores. I also saw the birds in the Abaco National Park.

Caribbean Dove: Easy to see at the Retreat in New Providence. I saw up to 4 very well on both visits.

Zenaida Dove: I was able to get a bird to respond and came into a tape 8 miles down the road (from the ‘Y’) into the Abaco National Park. I saw it about 400 yards down a side road that heads off to the left. Shortly after this side road, the main road goes through an obvious cut in a rocky ridge that has 8-10ft high rock embankments either side of the road.

I never heard any birds of this species calling spontaneously. I also taped fairly extensively along the first 8 miles of the track from the Y with no response. Information from Mike Danzenbaker suggested that this species may prefer more mature pine forest and the trees at mile 8 were a bit bigger, but clearly not as big as the place he saw them. This appears to be a fairly hard bird to see on Abaco.

Key West Quail-Dove: I missed this bird. The day I went to Elbow Cay, off Abaco, it poured with rain and there was little bird activity. I had no response to taped calls. I tried taping around Bahama Palm Shores for about 10 minutes one afternoon but got no response. In retrospect I should have tried harder for this bird in areas of coppice, but didn’t realize I would get skunked so badly by the weather on Elbow Cay.

White-crowned Pigeon: Easy on New Providence at the Retreat and around the Lakeview ponds and even seen in the Atlantis hotel gardens. On Abaco, this species was much more local and I saw it at Little Harbour and in the trees around the Abaco beach resort. This bird is much more confiding in the Bahamas than in Florida and much easier to see well.

Smooth-billed Ani: Common in open habitats in both islands.

Great Lizard Cuckoo: Not looked for as extirpated on New Providence. Still apparently fairly easy on Andros.

Mangrove Cuckoo: Not seen or heard. I did not try to tape for this species. Presumably this bird becomes commoner in late April as in Florida.

Antillean Nighthawk: Not seen or heard. This species does not arrive until late April.

West Indian Woodpecker: Easy to see in Bahama Palm Shores with up to 6 per visit. Also 3 at Little Harbour. Not seen or heard anywhere else so possibly somewhat local.

Hairy Woodpecker, Bahama subspecies: 1-2 seen at Bahama Palm Shores and in Abaco National Park. I expected it to be commoner in Abaco National Park than it was.

Bahama Woodstar: Easy on New Providence with up to 4 in the Retreat and 1-2 seen on Paradise Island. A single seen in the Abaco National Park.

Cuban Emerald: Seen at several locations throughout Abaco in different habitats, including Bahama Palm Shores, Abaco National Park, and the Abaco Beach Resort. This is pretty easy to see.

Loggerhead Kingbird: Seen at Bahama Palm Shores and Abaco National Park. Surprisingly difficult to see, although once the call is known, you realize they are fairly common. At least in April on Abaco, this species does not appear to perch on wires like other kingbirds and is often up in the crowns of pines making it difficult to see. I got the impression that Bahama birds may call differently to Cuban ones and I didn’t get a strong response when I played the calls of Cuban birds.

Gray Kingbird: Not seen. Other trips at this time of year also failed to note this species so presumably it doesn’t arrive in numbers until mid April.

Crescent-eyed (Cuban) Pewee: 1-2 seen at the Retreat on New Providence along with a nest (raided by a Pearly-eyed Thrasher). Only one seen on Abaco in the Abaco National Park. Less common than I expected.

LaSagra’s Flycatcher: Seen only in coppice habitat in small numbers, such as the Retreat (New Providence) and Bahama Palm Shores and Abaco Beach Resort. Fairly easy to see.

Bahama Mockingbird: 1-2 seen at the Retreat and in the coppice in the pond by Lakeview Road on New Providence. Very common in the Abaco National Park.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher: One bird seen at the Retreat in New Providence. This is a vagrant to the island and had been hanging around for a few weeks.

Bahama Swallow: Not seen New Providence but not looked for as it may be extirpated here. Pretty easy on Abaco, but hard to specify a site. Just keep scanning the telephone wires as you head south from Marsh Harbour and you should eventually see a few. I did not see this species in the Abaco National Park. Similar to Stephen Dinsmore’s report from the same time, I found this species in the small towns of Crossing Rock and Sandy Point. The telephone wires are lower here and I had excellent views. This is a really cracking bird.

Red-legged Thrush: Very easy in the Retreat and I also saw this species by the Lakeview road pond on New Providence. On Abaco, I saw it around the Abaco Beach Resort several times as well as in Bahama Palm Shores. I don’t recall seeing it in the Abaco National Park and it appears to have a preference for coppice, not pine woods.

Black-whiskered Vireo: Singles seen at Rainbow Farm on New Providence on 3/30 (not singing) and at the Abaco Beach Resort on 4/7 (singing). Nice to catch up on this species after missing it at similar times in Florida. This species becomes very common from about mid-April onwards.

Thick-billed Vireo: Not seen on New Providence, although I did see White-eyed Vireo there. Very common at Bahama Palm Shores and other coppice sites on Abaco with lower densities in the Abaco National Park. In spring, separation from White-eyed Vireo is straightforward.

Bahama Yellowthroat: Up to 2 seen very well on both early morning visits to the Abaco National Park. A male seen in the low scrub by the trail to the Lighthouse at Little Harbour. Although this species is not abundant, it should be found with a few hours of effort at most. Responds very well to pishing and I had excellent looks at every bird. Checks areas of pine forest with palms in the understory.

Flavescent (Bahama Yellow-throated) Warbler: 3 individuals seen during visits to Abaco National Park. May take a couple of hours to find but I didn’t take the trouble to learn all the different songs. This is definitely a good species. Responds well to pishing and I had excellent looks at all three.

Olive-capped Warbler: Abundant in Abaco National Park.

Pine Warbler, Bahamas subspecies: Common in Abaco National Park.

Cuban Grassquit: Up to 5 each visit to the Retreat and pretty easy to see there.

Black-faced Grassquit: Pretty easy to see at most locations on New Providence and Abaco although not as abundant as I expected.

Greater Antillean Bullfinch: 1-3 birds seen at coppice locations such as the Retreat (New Providence) and Bahama Palm Shores (all three visits). Also seen in the Abaco National Park. Fairly easy to see.

Bananaquit: Pretty easy to see at most locations on New Providence and Abaco.

Western Spindalis: Not seen on New Providence. On Abaco, I saw a few on my first visit to Bahama Palm Shores, but this species is easiest in pine forest such as the Abaco National Park. I had numerous excellent looks and didn’t find this species as skulking as some reports suggested.

Shiny Cowbird: About 12 seen at Rainbow Farm on New Providence. There is an established colony here. When I arrived early in the morning, the entrance to the farm was locked so I birded the fence along the W. edge (there is a track that goes down here). I had multiple good looks at cowbirds here and it was good for migrants including a Summer Tanager and the previously mentioned Black-whiskered Vireo. To reach Rainbow Farm, follow these directions from New Providence:

Head S on Blue Hill Road (you can easily find this on a map of New Providence). Turn W on Carmichael Road. Go about 5 KMs (or 2.8 miles) and turn S (left) on to Golden Ilses Road. There is no street name. These is an Esso gas/petrol station on your left just shortly before you come to Golden Ilses Road, which is a little more major turn than most others on this road. As soon as you turn on Golden Ilses Road, you should see the juvenile detention center on your right. This is surrounded by a barbed wire compound. Head S on Golden Ilses Road and it will end in a T with Cowpen Road. Head W (right) on Cowpen Road for 0.7 KM and the entrance to Rainbow Farm in on the left. The fram is surrounded by a chain link fence and the gate was locked until about 8.30 or 9.00 on the Saturday I went. The name of the farm is written on a low wooden log by the gate. If you arrive early simply head down Cowpen Road a couple of hundred yards and turn left down the track that runs along the fence on the W side of the farm. I had the cowbirds and plenty of migrants here. Inside the farm, look for the cowbirds feeding in the long rows of chicken cages. Ask permission to bird from the manager (who is a white guy).

Nick Lethaby

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