8 - 9 May 1993
by Gail Mackiernan
Our birding trip to Grand Bahama was almost spur-of-the-moment, triggered by severe cases of work burnout on both Barry's and my part, and the fortuitous appearence of cheap package fares to Freeport from Baltimore. The four-day, three night deal for $225 each seemed perfect, since neither of us could take much time off work -- but we both needed a break, and could really get off on seeing some new birds. So we booked up and counted the days until departure.
SATURDAY, MAY 8.
Checked into the Carnival Air booth at BWI, and after a brief wait, we boarded a plane already half-full of eager faces from Phila- delphia. Everyone was looking forward to sun, sand, surf and maybe the casinos. We were undoubtedly the only birders, but were as eager as any. Left BWI about 15 minutes early (a good sign) and after an uneventful flight, were treated to scenes of green and turquoise water as the plane descended into Freeport. It was 11:30 am.
Upon deplaning, we saw our first birds, a group of GULL-BILLED TERNS sitting next to a little puddle on the runway. Through customs, where the woman informs Barry that "Cooper" was a very common Bahamian name, then across a road to the Hertz office, where we picked up our Suzuki Sprite ($45/day includ- ing tax) and were off! Driving on the left was no sweat, having an in-house expert, so we were soon at our hotel, Castaways, conveniently located next to the International Bazaar, two British pubs, the casino, two golf courses and a pastel McDonald's. Change into shorts --it is hot -- and after throwing just the bare necessities into the car, are off east on the Grand Bahama Hwy.
This is a dual carriageway with absolutely NO traffic. Interesting shapes flit across the road. The terrain is flat, and the main vegetation Caribbean Pine with an understory of Palmetto. Sort of like Florida before it got ruined. We soon learn why there is no traffic, as the road ends abruptly with a pile of dirt -- seems 20 years ago, some misguided development scheme led to the cutting of a canal across the entire island, cutting through some of the main roads (the bridges were never built). Neither were the anticipated fancy houses, so there are miles of roads (all named) cut through the pines with no sign of human life. Very strange. But great for birds.
We turn down one of these roads, then left onto a side road where the pines seem to have a lot of deciduous/broadleaf undergrowth (called "coppice"here). Hop out and start pishing. Birds arrive from all sides! We are bombarded by curious feathered shapes, and learn one of the main characteristics of these island species. With no native mammalian predators, they are incredibly confiding and tame. In quick succession, we see BANANAQUIT, BLACK-WHISKERED VIREO, THICK-BILLED VIREO, PINE WARBLER, and then a large but familiar form -- it turns out to be a BAHAMA YELLOWTHROAT, like a Common Yellowthroat-and-half but more sluggish. It virtually flies up Barry's nose, and he says,"Help, I'm being attacked by the Mother of all Yellowthroats!" It is endemic to these islands, in fact, only to three of them.
We move on to another likely spot, and as we get out, see several nighthawks above us. They are flying around calling, and thus give us the ID -- ANTILLIAN NIGHTHAWKS --"Pitty-pit-pit, Pitty-pit-pit." It is nice to see them in daylight as our looks in Florida had been dimly- seen birds at night. They appear to have different flight characteristics and definitely a slightly different jizz than the Common Nighthawk. Amazingly, a couple of these appear as well, calling "Peent, peent!" but they soon pass on. A little grey job flies up at our pish, and sits flicking its tail -- GREATER ANTILLIAN PEWEE, another new bird. It is much more active and flighty than our Pewee, and also much greyer in color. Several more Bananaquits -- they have a very strange little song -- more vireos, a couple of Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers. WHITE-CROWNED PIGEONS fly over.
We are headed for Garden of the Groves, which we think will be good, even though we were warned that it would be crowded at this time of day. The Garden, 12 acres of exotic trees, shrubs, ponds, and glades, is an oasis amongst the dry pine woods. We never even make it into the garden. Pulling up in front, we find a fig tree in fruit and full of birds. Almost immediately, we see one of our target species, the beautiful RED-LEGGED THRUSH, a large robin-like bird with remarkable red legs and red, fleshy eye ring. There are several in the tree gulping little figs. Then another glorious apparition, a male STRIPE- HEADED TANAGER, rather a grosbeak-looking tanager, with a sunset breast and dramatic black and white head and wings. After oohing and aahing over him, we turn to find BAHAMA SWALLOWS overhead, their blue backs and long tail streamers flashing in the sun.
Peering into the parking lot, it is filled with cars, so we walk up to the abandoned clubhouse of the abandoned Shannon Golf Course. The flowering shrubs have CUBAN EMERALDS buzzing and fighting. They are very long-winged, long-tailed hummingbirds. It is hard to get one to sit still long enough for a good look. Finally one little male perches and sings, a song rather like that of the Anna's HB, lots of effort and not much music! Walking back to the car, we see a large flycatcher alight on a pole -- it is a LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD, and we examine it carefully to compare it with the much more common GREY KINGBIRD (which is everywhere). The browner back, dark cap, and shorter tail are the main features. It also has a slight yellow wash on the underparts.
Along the road are a number of COMMON GROUND DOVES, little toy birds. We havenever seen so many of these little guys as we will see in the next 4 days. Also present are EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES, but these thin out as we drive east and leave the settled areas. Over the boondoggle canal and out towards Lucaya National Park, where there are mangroves and maybe other birds. It is only 3 pm and we already have a good list building.
We are really enjoying the lack of traffic. If you see something, jam on the anchors and just stop. Sommetimes a rare passing car will slow and the driver will enquire if you are OK (it is a long walk to a service station). When told we are just birdwatching, they smile and say, "Okay, mon!" and zip off.
At Lucaya Park, (which is being developed, the visitor's center is just a foundation) we park and walk out to the beach, over a short boardwalk. We hear YELLOW WARBLER (the local, "Mangrove" race) and then a little form shoots out at us, about two feet away, and starts to sing energetically. It is a BLACK-FACED GRASSQUIT, which proves common everywhere there is suitable habitat. The beach is lovely, deserted, and there is only a single LEAST TERN feeding offshore.
Walking back, we hear a MANGROVE CUCKOO call, but it will not come in to our imitation. Across the road, into a pine/coppice area, we have Thrushes, both Vireos, Yellowthroat, a couple of late Redstarts. Then a larger bird comes into view -- a Pewee? No, a LASAGRA'S FLYCATCHER! This is very different from a Great Crested, browner, paler, smaller, and with a rather weak but carrying "Whit!" call. We study it as long as it stays, since this species is a vagrant to Florida and one which is poorly represented in US field guides.
We become aware that the sky is starting to darken and that a storm is on its way. Hurry back to the car, just as large, tropical raindrops start to fall. We are also starving, having forgotten to eat lunch (and we are miles from the pastel McDonald's!) Back to Freeport in a blinding rain, which very considerately clears as we reach our hotel. It is 5 o'clock, time for a little something to eat, and a rest. Supper at one of the pubs, Bahamian steamed chicken, peas n'rice, John Courage beer on tap. Great!
The rain must have brought a front, because the humidity of the day is broken and it is dry and pleasant the rest of our stay. We find a local Winn Dixie (even though there are definite British touches, there is also a lot of the good ol' USA here), buy supplies (fruit, especially, seems expensive) and a small Styrofoam cooler, and are set. They take American money, though change may be a odd mixture of Bahamian and US currency.
We total up the day's birds, decide to hit Garden of the Groves early the next day, and crash. The motel is cool, quiet and we are soon asleep. Five am will come early enough!
SUNDAY, MAY 9:
(We head East...) We are awakened at 5 am by the alarm clock; it is dark but there is a lot of dawn birdsong, most of it unfamiliar, except for the Northern Mockingbirds which abound in Freeport. Our window is open, and as we stagger about dressing, we hear a strange, nightjar-like call from (what appears to be) across the road. It is certainly not a Nighthawk, or a Chuck-Will's Widow (and those are gone now, in any case), but it has the same repetitive, rapid cadence. "Pitty -REE- ee, Pitty -REE-ee..." endlessly, over and over. THIS is interesting, so without further ado we scramble into our clothes, grab binocs, and hurry out, past a surprised security guard. (No one else is stirring, they are on *vacation*!)
Across the street, we locate the singer at the top of a dead snag. We regard him curiously, and he pauses to look at us. A Loggerhead Kingbird! Certainly not what we expected, but on checking the book, we read "The song, mostly heard at dawn and dusk...each phrase having six syllables and a certain rhythm, constantly repeated..."
By now it is getting light, and the McDonald's will be open (promptly at six am, it turns out). A quick Mcbreakfast, then on to Garden of the Groves. When we arrive, it is barely 7 am. No one about, the gates are open, so we walk in. Lots of bird song, including North American warblers -- Redstart, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Northern Waterthrush -- as well as Bananaquit, Tanager, Thrush, Yellowthroat (the BIG one). Cuban Emeralds in the flowering shrubs, no Woodstars, which we had been warned were rare on Grand Bahama. The Gardens are lovely, but we see no new birds, so we decide to trek the abandoned golf course, which Tony White had recommended. Lots of Vireos, both species, a LaSagra's, more hummingbirds, pigeons, ground doves, swallows aloft. There is a large pond which contains a good bird -- a single LEAST GREBE. It swims towards us. Is everything here tame? We puzzle a bit as to why Least Grebes are found in the Bahamas, Texas, but not Florida.
It is starting to get a bit warm, so we opt to head on. Our goal is to revisit Lucaya Park at a better time of day, then head east all the way to McClean's Town, to parts of the island Tony White had not visited and where (we hoped) we might find something interesting!
Over the boondoggle canal again, then the 14 miles to Lucaya, interrupted by a short stop at an interesting patch of coppice about half-way, an extensive growth along a little ridge, next to a fine palmetto/grass wetland. There is a large flock of SMOOTH-BILLED ANIS feeding there, and they fly off in all directions with loud calls. We walk around a bit, then reboard our trusty steed and hit the road again.
At Lucaya, we decide to walk the inland trail and look at the limestone caves. This park is the site of the world's longest explored underwater cavern, and a new order of arthopods was described from this cave. The inland entrances are sinkholes, which have little spiral stairs down into them. There is a large sign, "NO SWIMMING!" I, for one, would never *think* of swimming -- the tiny claustrophobic entrance to the water-filled cave is enough to make my skin crawl! Barry is even worse about things like that, and doesn't swim, so is more nervous still. One of the caverns has a nice colony of small bats; the sign notes these are females which use the cave entrance as a summer nursery. We examine them carefully, but see no babies. They all look rather fat and pregnant, hanging carefully by one foot and scratching themselves with the other. We leave the bats to their sinkhole and ascend into the bright sunlight.
Almost immediately, a couple of annoyed birds fly right into our faces and scold us -- a pair of GREATER ANTILLEAN BULFINCHES! The male is absolutely striking, in a jet-black glossy plumage with burgundy eyebrows, throat patch and undertail. We have to back up to get him in the binoculars. He continues to scold, then pauses to eat a small seed pod, then scolds again. Finally we break off the encounter and move on. We see no other new birds, but enjoy a good look at a tame LaSagra's and have to practically kick a few Thrushes out of the trail.
Moving onward, we head down the pine-shadowed road. There is a certain sameness, even boredom, about the landscape. Pine, pines and more pines. A little coppice here and there. We stop wherever it looks good (large pines, for example) and pish. About the third stop, a pair of angry OLIVE-CAPPED WARBLERS descend from the treetops to scold. The male is quite a handsome fellow. with his yellow gorget, black necklace, and golden-olive crown. They are another Bahama pine endemic, being found only on Grand Bahama and neighboring Abaco.
We proceed, through occasional small settlements -- Pelican Point (which has a lovely white beach but no pelicans today, thank you), High Rock. Past the (apparently abandoned) USAF tracking station. We are passing through some second-growth pine when Barry yells, "STOP!" and I back up to stare into the face of a BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD, singing only a few feet off the road. This is a rather different bird than our own Mockingbird -- it is larger, browner, streaked faintly on the breast and sides, has no white in the wing, and has a long tail (longer even than Northern Mockingbird) with a white tip. The song is similar, but the Bahama doesn't mimic, and uses a lot of distinct phrases like "ChiwEE, chiOO," which supposedly make it identifiable by the experienced by song alone. Bahama Mockingbirds are uncommon and local on Grand Bahama, where the Northern (introduced about 70 years ago) seems to be driving it into the back country. We get out of the car and the bird stays put (are we surprised). Walking along the road, we hear three others singing, so there is a little colony here.
Continuing, we note the road is getting really bad -- lots of huge potholes that make driving rather like a video game where the obstacles come somewhat faster than the mind can handle. I am driving, and abandon the left side for the somewhat safer center. Weaving and dodging, we proceed to an area where there are some huge oil tanks. Bahama Swallows are all around. Just beyond the tanks, the road mysteriously becomes brand new and we resume our rapid pace. We keep our eyes open for a road to our left, indicated on the map; this should take us to the morth side of the island, true Terra Incognito.
All the way to McClean's Town. The town itself -- a small settlement -- is truly at the end of nowhere. There appears to be no store, but there is a church (in session). There are some Royal Terns out on small islands. A few cays which hang off the east end of Grand Bahama beckon, but there is no road and they are accessible only by boat. Covered with coppice, who knows what goodies lurk. They are closest to Abaco, which has some birds not on Grand Bahama, or maybe not...?
We turn around, after chatting briefly with some locals who confirm what we have feared -- there is no northern road anymore. It was abandoned when the canal was built. Of course, we immediately imagine that is where all the rare birds are! The map, carefully distributed by Hertz and the Bahamas Tourist Office, is 20 years out of date! So we are forced to retrace our steps. An adventure to be sure, but not too productive birdwise.
Heading west, we pause to explore a large patch of fine coppice. It contains lots of good everyday birds, but no Quail-Doves or other sought-after species. A few interesting butterflies are seen -- Zebra Longwing, Julia, and a fine black swallowtail of undetermined species. Walking through the coppice is no simple task -- the "ground" is composed of weathered coral rocks covered with leaves and moss -- we stagger around like drunks, trying to avoid the poison- wood trees.
Back at the car, we peregrinate westward into the sun. It is about 3 pm. At the tanks we stop for a bit, see a Barn Swallow amongst the Bahamas, then a pair of Bahama Mockingbirds sitting on the fence. Three cars come along, and the first (a van) pulls over and a person who is obviously a minister hops out, solicitous that our car has broken down in this remote spot. The other folks are dressed in their Sunday best; all seem concerned and then happy that we are fine. The cars hurry off, weaving and bobbing to avoid the potholes (it is in the bad road stretch); rather funny from behind. We soon are on our way after them.
More brief stops yield the expected, and we zip along. Past Lucaya park we come upon the good spot of coppice where the Anis were that morning. Barry is driving, and pulls over close to the edge of the woods, which is cloaked with virtually impenetrable vines and foliage. As I get out of the car, I hear something walking in the leaves, and tell Barry. I tiptoe down to try and find a place to look into the dense growth, and he kneels down right by the car and parts the leaves. Suddenly I hear an urgent whisper,"Come quick, it's one of those doves...!" "Which one?" I answer. "One of those Key West things...!" And so it is, barely eight feet in front of us, a rather bemused KEY WEST QUAIL DOVE, a beautiful male with an iridescent green head, purple shoulders, rufous back, and very red legs. The white slash under the eye gleamed in the dark woods. The bird walked away a bit, then to our right, then left, then perched briefly on a small branch, and (finally getting his thoughts together) purposefully but with dignity walked firmly away and disappeared. WOW! Tony White had been very pessimistic about our seeing this bird, one he has never found on Grand Bahama. What a great way to end a long day...!
We repaired back to the Prince of Wales pub, had a nice dinner of Fish and Chips and quite a bit of Courage beer to celebrate. Next morning we planned to revisit the Quail Dove spot and see if we could hear them calling, maybe even see one again. Then we had a 10 am appointment to visit the (officially closed for renovation) Rand Nature Center. Back at the motel, quick shower just in case we and the poisonwood had gotten too chummy, and to bed.