Bonaie Birding Trip Report(August, 2006)

Here is a geography trivia question for you- where is one of the largest flamingo breeding grounds in the western hemisphere — a place where the flamboyant birds actually outnumber the residents? Need a hint? It's a place of saltpans, cacti, feral donkeys and goats, grazing near cliffs of volcanic rock lapped by a turquoise sea.

If you answered Bonaire, then kudos to you — most people don't even know the island exists. Part of the Netherlands Antilles, and 50 miles north of the Venezuelan coast, Bonaire is best known as a premier destination for divers. All of its coastal waters have been protected since 1979 as a Marine Park, and since over 90% of the land is undeveloped, the water surrounding the 24-mile long, boomerang shaped island is crystal clear. The Susoeff family spent a week there and, as usual, birding was a big focus of our trip.

Over 200 species of birds have been documented on Bonaire, and the most famous of these is the island's signature bird, the Caribbean flamingo. In preparation for our trip, we did a bit of research to learn that there are five species of flamingo in three genera. Phoenicopterus ruber consists of two distinct and geographically diverse subspecies: P. r. ruber and P. r. roseus. P. r. ruber, the Caribbean flamingo, is slightly smaller than P. r. roseus, the Greater flamingo, and is limited to the Yucatan, parts of the West Indies, the Bahamas, Galapagos Islands, and the northernmost tip of South America. The Caribbean flamingo has only four main breeding sites: Great Inagua, Bahamas; Archipelago de Camaguey, Cuba; Rio Lagartos, Mexico; and Bonaire. 

While we did not see the 10,000+ birds promised by most Bonaire travel web sites, the flocks of hundreds reflected in the calm water of the saltpans were a spectacular sight. Normally very easily disturbed, we came upon a few individuals who obligingly posed near the edges of Gotomeer, the large lake found in the north. A shallow, permanent, saline lagoon, Gotomeer is isolated from the sea by a beach rock bank. Brine shrimp and brine fly are abundant in the hypersaline areas, providing valuable food sources for birds. The site is important for several species of breeding birds and for migrating shorebirds that nest in North America. In fact, Gotomeer is one of four Ramsar Wetlands found on the island. (The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.)

We went one morning on a bird outing led by one of the island's leading naturalists, Jerry Ligon (jcligon@telbonet.an). During the outing, Jerry pointed out an interesting behavioral adaptation by some enterprising, less skittish flamingos. They were feeding on the millions of brine flies that are found on the edge of the lake- swinging their heads in characteristic fashion over the swarms of insects.

Before you think that the only bird we saw was the flamingo, let's spend some time talking about another of the island's famous feathered residents, the endangered Yellow-shouldered Parrot, Amazona barbadensis rothschildi. Locally referred to as the Lora, this pigeon-sized parrot has dwindled in number due to its popularity as a pet. Numbering only in the hundreds on the island, we found it along the northwestern coast, where it nests in cavities found in the rocky cliffs. Far more prevalent, and sometimes confused with the Lora, were the Caribbean or Brown-throated Parakeets (Aratinga pertinax xanthogenius), which are about the size of a Mourning Dove.

One enjoyable adventure was a night sojourn to see the White-tailed Nightjar. Here is the strategy that has a 100% degree of success.  Drive up the bumpy dirt road through the desert scrub off the main road north from Kralendijk, the largest town on the island. Head for the microwave towers constructed on a hilltop overlooking Bonaire's only other town, Rincon. When you arrive, park, grab your flashlight, and walk down the road. Overhead some of the few streetlights on the island attract a bevy of white moths. As you walk, watch for the eerie glow of red eyes on the side of the road and don't be startled by the sudden flap of wings as the Nightjar takes off, practically under your feet, for a moth overhead. We saw dozens of these goatsuckers, and one practically landed on Patrick's head!

Bonaire was a delight, combining fabulous snorkeling with awesome birding. Here is our complete list. We saw 52 species but missed some life birds, including the Saffron Finch and the Southern Lapwing (which was especially disappointing). Wait a minute; I guess that means we'll have to go back! — Joanne and Patrick Susoeff

Bonaire Species List
Brown PelicanSemipalmated PloverCommon TernNorthern Scrub-flycatcher*
Magnificent FrigatebirdWilson's Plover*Rock PigeonBrown-crested Flycatcher*
Great Blue HeronSnowy Plover*Scaly-napped Pigeon*Eastern Kingbird
Tricolored HeronShort-billed DowitcherCommon Ground-DoveBarn Swallow
Little Blue HeronGreater YellowlegsRuddy Ground-DoveTropical Mockingbird
Great EgretLesser YellowlegsWhite-tipped DovePearly-eyed Thrasher*
Cattle EgretRuddy TurnstoneBrown-throated Parakeet*House Sparrow
Green HeronSemipalmated SandpiperYellow-shouldered Parrot*Black-whiskered Vireo*
Caribbean Flamingo*Western Sandpiper*Groove-billed AniYellow Warbler (Lesser Antilles race)
White-cheeked Pintail*Least SandpiperWhite-tailed Nightjar*Bananaquit
Osprey Stilt Sandpiper*Ruby-topaz Hummingbird*Black-faced Grassquit
Crested CaracaraLaughing GullBlue-tailed Emerald*Yellow Oriole*
Black-necked StiltSandwich Tern*Caribbean Elaenia*Venezuelan Troupial*
* Denotes life birds

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Mission of 3RBC

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