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22 - 24 September 2007

by Craig Faanes

I know I don't get there often enough,
but God knows I surely try.
It's 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 until now.

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 their planes.

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 of time.

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 12 hours.

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 found here.

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 at CB.

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 time here.

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 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 here.

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 there.

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 then left. 

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 morning.

“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 another customer.

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 and Breakfast.

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

Pied-billed Grebe

White-tailed Tropicbird

Brown Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Reddish Egret
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Glossy Ibis

West Indian Whistling-Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler



Purple Gallinule
Common Moorhen

Black-necked Stilt

Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover

Short-billed Dowitcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper

Brown Noddy
Least Tern

Rock Pigeon
White-crowned Pigeon
Zenaida Dove
White-winged Dove
Common Ground-Dove
Caribbean Dove

Monk Parakeet
Cuban Parrot

Mangrove Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani

Antillean Nighthawk

West Indian Woodpecker
Northern Flicker

Caribbean Elaenia
Gray Kingbird
Loggerhead Kingbird
La Sagra's Flycatcher

Bank Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cave Swallow

Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird

Red-legged Thrush

Thick-billed Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo
Yucatan Vireo

Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Vitelline Warbler
Palm Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat

Western Spindalis

Cuban Bullfinch
Yellow-faced Grassquit

Greater Antillean Grackle

Species seen - 87

Craig Faanes
Falls Church, Virginia

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