Birding in Aruba Trip Report (January 4-8, 2005)

I had a lot of frequent flyer miles on USAirways that I wanted to use due to the carrier’s recent problems. My wife and I decided we wanted to go some place very warm and we had heard very good things about Aruba. With my daughter’s school schedule, we had a tight window but were able to go to Aruba from January 4-8.

Aruba is in the Caribbean just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Tourism is the main source of income on this small, hot, and dry island. There are no endemic species on Aruba, but the Aruba bird list has just fewer than 200 species. All of the hotels are on the west coast of the island where the surf is gentle and the beaches sandy. The east coast is battered by a constant 10-20 mph wind and crashing surf on the rocky shoreline. The constant breeze is nicely refreshing, but you must be careful of the tropical sun! Aruba is a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Dutch, English, Spanish, and Papiamento are spoken on this island. We had no trouble conversing with anyone in English. We arrived at the end of the rainy season (October – December), but there were still daily showers, usually of very short duration.

The west side of the island has the hotels, some wetlands, mangroves, and artificial lakes. The east side of the island is barren along the coastline, with thorny scrub and cacti dominating the hilly interior. Goats roam freely over much of the island, as well as donkeys.

Day 1:

    We landed in Aruba at about 2:30 in the afternoon and took a cab to our hotel, about five miles away. Amazingly, I saw no birds until we got into the capital city of Oranjestadt. My first trip bird was Rock Pigeon. Lovely. But soon, we were driving along the coastal road and the second species I observed were Magnificent Frigatebirds, which were plentiful and seen every day along the western shore. We checked in at the La Cabana resort and walked to our room across a courtyard. Carib Grackles were beginning to aggregate in the trees for their evening roost. There could have been Shiny Cowbirds among them, which is common here, but I could not pick one out. We dressed for the beach and walked through the pool area, where two foot long Common Iguanas moved easily among the sunbathers. Also, quite common in the swimming pool area were House Sparrows, Eared Doves, and Common Ground Doves. Brown Pelicans cruised overhead and Tropical Mockingbirds sang constantly. Bananaquits were easily spotted in shrubs, trees, and inside restaurants, where they would drop down to an empty table and collect food scraps before the dishes were cleared. Anoles were common also, but were not as easily seen unless you looked for them carefully. In the evening, tree frogs began to sing. I don’t know the species, but I was easily able to capture one on the side of the hotel. It was tiny, greenish brown on its back and white on its underside, but otherwise had no distinguishing marks on.

Day 2:
    I woke early to discover that there was a Dunkin Doughnuts shop in the courtyard below our room! With coffee and a doughnut in hand, I watched a family of American Kestrels fly about the courtyard. I walked toward the Bubali Bird Sanctuary; a large wetland that I was fairly sure was close to our resort. Basically, the sanctuary started right on the north side or our resort! At the south end of the sanctuary is the sewage treatment plant, where trucks bring the hotel wastes for treatment before the effluent flows into the large wetland for final cleaning. Here, I quickly added White-cheeked Pintails and Bare-eyed Pigeons to my life list. Other birds here included Great Egret, Black-necked Stilt, Green Heron, and Neotropical Cormorant. Along the shrubbery, I was able to see the chestnut-capped subspecies of the Yellow Warbler, which may be split into a separate species. I also saw a dull gray finch that I believe was a female Black-faced Grassquit. Later, I saw males and females together, so they were indeed Black-faced Grassquits. I circled the marsh, first walking up the east side along busy Route 1. At various spots, I was able to find Common Yellowthroat, Blue-winged Teal, Groove-billed Ani, Shiny Cowbird, Sora, and Pied-bill Grebe. At the north end, there is a windmill (actually brought intact from Holland) that is now a restaurant. In the marsh behind that restaurant, I found Least Grebe, Caribbean Coot, Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Greater Yellowlegs, and Killdeer. Across the street from the windmill is a path leading to a tower overlooking the Bubali Sanctuary. I didn’t have a scope with me, but I was able to add Black-crowned Night-heron, Common Moorhen, Hooded Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush to my list. Parrots kept flying by, but never stopping in a place where I could identify them. Along the west side of the sanctuary on my way back to my hotel, I spotted a Bananaquit flying up to a nest just over my head and feeding at least two young. Across the road, I thought I heard an oriole singing. I walked along a nicely landscaped garden path and finally found the oriole, a Troupial! This spectacular black and orange oriole resembles a Baltimore Oriole, but is larger and has a striking white eye. This was the first of many that I saw all over the island. As I was watching the oriole, a flock of parrots flew in and landed close by in a tree. They were Brown-throated Parrots, which I saw frequently over much of the island, but not on the barren east side. As I continued my walk back to the hotel, I saw Royal and Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gull, and Ruddy Turnstone.

    For the afternoon, we rented a car and headed north to the rough coastline and California lighthouse. Here, I went off road along the rocky coast. Among the puddles, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Least Sandpipers probed for food. Feral goats have destroyed much of the vegetation here. Along some of the streets that abutted the scrubby desert, we drove searching for more birds. Lots of doves and mockingbirds were evident. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a Bobwhite. This was undoubtedly a Crested Bobwhite, but we were frustrated by the birds that kept calling but were never visible. I took note of the site and planned to return another time. My off road experience resulted in a flat tire, which I had to change in a MacDonald’s parking lot. While waiting for another spare tire to be delivered to the rental car office, we had a delightful dinner sampling the tapas and drinking sangria.

Day 3:
    I got up early, went to Dunkin Doughnuts, and hit the road to California lighthouse again. Along the way, I stopped at a shipwreck and watched the birds diving into the waters around the wreck. Among the pelicans, gulls, and terns were at least five Brown Boobies, another life bird for me! Both adults and immatures could be seen diving just off shore. I returned to the rocky shore and this time added American Oystercatcher to my list. Apparently, American Oystercatcher is not seen on Aruba very often, but I had no knowledge of any kind of hotline or person to report my sighting. I returned to the site where I had heard the quail the day before. Again, I heard the calls, but this time, I carefully got out of my car and walked slowly to where I thought the bird might be. My patience was rewarded! There was a Crested Bobwhite perched on a brush pile not 30 feet away.

    I didn’t stay out long because we had planned an excursion to the southern tip of the island. Our goal was to swim at Baby Beach, so named because it is in a protected lagoon where you can walk out 100 yards and the water is only up to your waist. As we drove south, I could see a distant oil refinery with long plumes of smoke coming from the stacks in the plant. This refinery happened to be within a mile of Baby Beach, spewing its air pollution out which was carried off shore by the constant wind. I’m not much for sunbathing, so I explored the lagoon area around Baby Beach and found new birds. Ospreys appeared regularly over this lagoon to hunt fish. A Spotted Sandpiper was working around a puddle just off the beach. As I approached some rocks, I noted Ruddy Turnstones. A few flew away, but then some larger birds took off from the same rocky area. 13 Whimbrels took off and landed in the same pool as the Spotted Sandpiper! I kept seeing them off and on at various places around the lagoon, but mostly on the rocky shore and reef. Normally, I would expect to find Whimbrels in a grassy field or grassy marsh, but perhaps they change their feeding behavior and favor the rocky shores during the winter. I returned to my family and went snorkeling along the reef. It’s always amazing to me how tame the fish are in these lagoons. I don’t know the names of them, but there must have been at least thirty varieties. I saw at least two species of parrotfish. As I returned to my beach chair, the Ruddy Turnstones had become quite bold and were wandering among the sunbathers with a few Sanderlings.

    At mid-afternoon, we decided to leave the beach and drive through Arikok National Park. Driving along the rocky coast, two Peregrine Falcons soared above the cliffs. After many wrong turns and asking for directions, we finally got on the correct road into the park, but as the pavement gave way to dirt and jagged rocks, we began to wonder if we were indeed on the right road. Some locals that we asked assured us that we were. The east coast of Aruba is about as barren as a moonscape. There was not much there besides rocks and spectacular rocky shorelines. Driving up this coast was a stark contrast to the west side with the tourist motels. I suspect that there would have been more plant life, particularly now toward the end of the rainy season, but there were feral goats everywhere and feral donkeys in a few areas. I really wonder how the natural landscape would look without the goats. About halfway up the east coast the road turns inland. There are several ranches in the area and a restaurant out in the middle of this barren coastline! Had it been a little closer to supper, I would have liked to eat here to really savor the local cooking.

    As we started to climb the rocky hills, the vegetation suddenly returned with cacti and the divi divi trees. Birds began to appear again, including Southern Caracara, Troupials, and Black-faced Grassquit. I could hear Crested Bob-white calling and caught a very quick look at a Blue-tailed Emerald, one of two common hummingbird species found on Aruba. The four-wheel drive came in handy, as we had to traverse some deep puddles and rocky terrain on our way back to our hotel. I decided I had to come back here on my own to bird this area in more detail.

Day 4:
    This was to be my best day of birding in Aruba. I chose to go to Frenchman’s Pass (named after an attempt by the local Indians to defend the pass against the French invaders) and Spanish Lagoon (where pirate ships anchored to replenish supplies and hide from their pursuers). As soon as I got out of the car, I picked up Tropical Mockingbird, Great Egret, Bare-eyed Pigeon, and heard orioles and parrots. I walked barely 30 feet when several birds flew along a dirt bank. They were the Caribbean race of the Burrowing Owl, a family group of four! They were quite tame, allowing me to watch them at leisure from a respectable distance of about 50 feet. Continuing along the edge of the lagoon, I quickly added Brown Pelicans, Greater Yellowlegs, Shiny Cowbirds, Black-faced Grassquit, Common Ground-Dove, Eared Dove, Troupial, Bananaquit, and a fly-by Southern Caracara. I heard a different oriole song and walked up into the ruins in the pass and found Yellow Oriole! This stunning oriole is about the same size as our Baltimore Oriole, with less black on the head and back and yellow replacing the orange. I retreated back to the lagoon and walked along the trail next to the mangroves. Here, for the first time, I had to apply insect repellent. The mosquitoes were not bad, but bothersome, especially when I ventured off the trail and into the mangroves. Pishing in the mangroves produced lots of birds. Among them were many of the warblers that we will soon be seeing in May, including Northern Waterthrush (lots), Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Black and White, Black-throated Blue, Hooded, and Blackpoll Warblers, Northern Parula, and American Redstart. Bananaquits responded at almost every pish. Green Herons and Tricolored Herons patrolled the lagoon edges. I finally got great looks at a Blue-tailed Emerald, but another hummer chased it off its perch. This hummingbird was the other common species on Aruba, the Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird – and it was a beautiful male! This hummer, with ruby crown feathers, a coppery topaz chest and throat, and rufous undertail coverts, was the most spectacular bird that I saw on Aruba! I only wish that I could have seen one in the bright sun rather than the shade of the mangroves.

    The trail led away from the mangroves into some of the scrub so common on this island. Here, I saw more American Kestrels, Brown-throated Parrots, and my first Gray Kingbirds! These large kingbirds ruled the area, chasing off any other birds that intruded. I decided to retrace my steps because I still wanted to go back into Arikok. Along the mangroves again, I found many of the same species, but at one area, a vireo responded. There was only one vireo that could be expected here and it is the Black-whiskered Vireo. I looked hard to confirm the identification. I could not see the black whiskers but I could see the heavy bill that I expected. Every thing was right except for the missing whiskers. My imagination kept telling me that surely if I looked harder, I would see those whiskers! But alas, no! After reading a field guide later, I found the black whiskers are not always apparent on this species, so I’m convinced that the bird really was a Black-whiskered Vireo by the very heavy bill. As I exited the trail, I took one more look at the open area of the lagoon and added Snowy Egret, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, and Neotropical Cormorant. The Burrowing Owls were still watching me as I walked back to my car.

    I decided to go back into the eastern end of the Arikok National Park and walk the Curucu Arikok Trail, supposedly the best in the park. It was dead this day. I left and drove on to a wash where I had briefly stopped the day before. Here were birds! Quickly, I found Troupial and Yellow Oriole. Two other species stumped me at this location. One was a sparrow-sized, grayish colored bird with a heavy finch like bill, much larger than the grassquit bill. The other was another species of kingbird that did not match anything in my field guide or in the reference books I had at home. I only had a brief look at it, but it seemed to be similar in shape to a Tropical Kingbird, which is expected here, but this bird did not have any yellow on its chest or belly. Both of these species will have to go down as unidentified. On the way back, a bulldozer was smoothing out the rough spots on the road, making the drive considerably better today than the day before. Just as I was about to leave the park, a dove with white-tipped tail feathers crossed the road just in front of me and landed by the roadside. I had been looking for this tail pattern the whole trip – the White-tipped Dove.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful as far as the birds were concerned, except for one sighting. I joined my family on the beach for the afternoon. After soaking up some sun, I volunteered to go to the outdoor bar and pick up some drinks. While the bartender mixed the drinks, I watched as a Bananaquit flew into the hut and landed on one of the liquor bottles. The bird sipped at the pouring spout on this bottle and flew to another and another, repeating this feeding behavior! The Bananaquit loves nectar, of course, and loved the sugar found in these sweet liqueurs.

I would love to have been in Aruba during a migration, when accidentals can drop in at any time; but I’m happy that I had the opportunity to go here. I found 71 species, of which about 17 were life birds. I still have some research to do on some of the species to determine if they really are different species from some of the birds that I have seen in North America. — by Jim Valimont

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!