For The Birds

MSC Buon Gusto - - Contents - Janet Groene

Meet the beloved an­i­mals pro­vid­ing the Caribbean

TO TRAV­EL­ERS, the is­lands of the Western Caribbean are a string of pearls to be plucked for the plea­sures of seascapes, sandy shores and sunshine. For birds, how­ever, they are sim­ply step­ping stones on the sea. Mi­grat­ing birds hop­scotch from is­land to is­land for hun­dreds of miles, from desert to wet­land to rain­for­est, from moun­tain peak to sea level.

Flights may take birds from deep­est South Amer­ica to sum­mer homes as far away as the Cana­dian Arc­tic. Many species mate and nest on the same is­land ev­ery year ac­cord­ing to an­cient rit­u­als.

Though per­haps not as boun­teous as they would have been be­fore hu­man devel­op­ment, land­falls in both the Eastern and Western Caribbean form a bird buf­fet lled with sweet­wa­ter ponds abuzz with juicy in­sects. Lush forests teem with prey for car­niv­o­rous species. Brack­ish swamps shel­ter a menu of small fry and shell­fish. Ocean shoals pro­vide tasty seafoods.

And even bar­ren rocks off­shore serve as rook­eries, safe from preda­tors.

More than 770 bird species have been recorded in the Caribbean. Of them, about 172 species are en­demic to the re­gion while more than 100 species are found only on sin­gle is­lands. Lucky is the vis­i­tor who spots a tiny chi-cui (nar­row-billed tody) when in the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic, or an endangered Gre­nada dove, a St. Vin­cent’s par­rot or Trinidad and Tobago’s bril­liant scar­let ibis.

Se­ri­ous in­ter­na­tional bird­ers make spe­cial pil­grim­ages to the Caribbean be­cause it’s a home­land for many unique species and is also one of the world’s great mi­gra­tion routes. Even if you haven’t come here for bird-watch­ing, how­ever, you’ll see birds. Birds that y, swim, wad­dle and strut. Birds that dive deep and come up with a sh half their own size. Rap­tors that plunge into the rain for­est and rise with a hap­less snake or small ro­dent writhing in their talons.

You’ll see bril­liantly plumaged birds and dowdy birds. You’ll hear a sym­phony of bird voices. Bar­buda war­blers war­ble. West In­dian whistling ducks whis­tle. The bearded bell­bird sets up a din that sounds like a black­smith bang­ing on iron. The shiny cow­bird is a nest par­a­site that warns its vic­tims with a Gatling gun call known as “rolling chatter.” The trop­i­cal mock­ing­bird has the var­ied

Meet the beloved an­i­mals pro­vid­ing the Caribbean its dis­tinct sky­lines and sound­track.

reper­toire of an opera diva.

Some birds sing sweetly while oth­ers squawk or shriek. Some will talk to you in plain English or Span­ish. The An­til­lean nighthawk is nick­named for the sound of its cry: “Gimme-me-bit.” Leg­end says that the bird is de­mand­ing pay­ment for get­ting rid of mos­qui­toes af­ter night­fall.

Some birds are so com­mon and bold, out­door din­ers have to be pro­tected by screens. Some are so shy it’s a once-in-a-life­time priv­i­lege to see them. Birds in­clud­ing the Ja­maican poor­will and Cuban ivory­billed wood­pecker are so rare, they are feared to be ex­tinct.

Birds as Sym­bols

Ev­ery­one knows that owls are wise, mag­pies talk too much, larks wake up early and the al­ba­tross makes a heavy bur­den when worn around the neck. Birds are a wel­come sign to sailors that they are near­ing land­fall. Doves bring peace to hu­mans, es­pe­cially when they’re free as a bird. In a time­less song, a yel­low bird sits high in a ba­nana tree. But what other roles do birds play in Caribbean cul­ture?

The na­tional bird of Ja­maica, the red-billed stream­er­tail hum­ming­bird (Trochilus poly­t­mus), is an iri­des­cent gem eas­ily rec­og­nized by the two tails that stream be­hind as it ies. Its lo­cal name, the "doc­tor bird," it is said, comes from its top hat and long coat tails re­sem­bling the frock coats that doc­tors wore in ear­lier times. Even be­fore Euro­peans came to Ja­maica, Arawak abo­rig­ines honored the doc­tor bird as a god with mag­i­cal powers.

Caribbean Airlines chose the hum­ming­bird as its mas­cot, per­haps be­cause some be­lieve that the tiny hum­ming­bird some­times rides as a pas­sen­ger on larger birds. In Puerto Rico, an­cient Taino tribes see the hum­ming­bird as a sa­cred pol­li­na­tor. The leg­end says two lovers from ri­val tribes fell in love. To es­cape the wrath of the el­ders, one be­came a hum­ming­bird and one a red ower. They mate to bring abun­dance and new life.

To the Chayma peo­ple of Trinidad, hum­ming­birds are dead an­ces­tors, to be honored and pro­tected.

It’s said that an­cient Arawak tribes be­lieved it was Hum­ming­bird who brought to­bacco.

On many is­lands, wideeyed chil­dren are told yarns about chickcharnies, fairy­tale crea­tures that look like birds with red eyes, three ngers and three toes. If you al­ways carry ow­ers or bits of col­ored cloth you’ll be safe from these mis­chief-mak­ers.

Why the Caribbean?

When it comes to bird­ing, the Caribbean con­sti­tutes a “per­fect storm” of sea­sons and set­tings. There’s some­thing here for al­most ev­ery avian diet, nest­ing need, temperature and sanc­tu­ary. Moun­tains reach more than 10,000 feet in the Eastern Caribbean and al­most twice that in Colom­bia. Birds that pre­fer high al­ti­tudes also nd habi­tats in Cen­tral Amer­ica and in moun­tain­ous is­lands in­clud­ing Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guade­loupe, St. Kitts and Ne­vis, Montser­rat, St. Lu­cia, Mar­tinique, Do­minica and St. Vin­cent and the Gre­nadines.

Other is­lands barely rise above sea level, but their

Lucky is the vis­i­tor who spots a tiny chi-cui

(nar­row-billed tody) when in the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic, an endangered Gre­nada dove, a St. Vin­cent’s par­rot or Trinidad and Tobago’s bril­liant scar­let ibis.

gifts to the bird king­dom in­clude marshy wet­lands and man­grove swamps. Birds such as the Venezuelan trou­pial and the sweetly whistling ru­fous-col­lared spar­row thrive in the thorny scrub veg­e­ta­tion of the bone-dry out­back.

Al­though many species live their en­tire lives on only one is­land, and many is­lands have es­tab­lished bird sanc­tu­ar­ies for a spe­cific species, it’s the ev­ery­day bird sight­ings that most be­guile the ca­sual vis­i­tor. Only ex­perts might rec­og­nize a bird as com­mon, rare, endangered or ac­ci­den­tal but even begin­ners are thrilled to see a mag­nif­i­cent frigate­bird — the na­tional bird of Antigua and Bar­buda — dis­play its enor­mous red vest or spread its Volk­swa­gen-sized wing­span.

Some bird sanc­tu­ar­ies are vis­ited by shore ex­cur­sions. Oth­ers are ac­ces­si­ble only by long and ar­du­ous trips on foot, by small boat or in a 4x4 ve­hi­cle. For most trav­el­ers, how­ever, the en­tire re­gion is a na­ture sanc­tu­ary lled with sur­prises aloft, ashore and afloat.

Keep your eyes on the skies. You’ll soon re­al­ize why vis­i­tors go cuckoo about Caribbean bird watch­ing.

Flamin­gos at Ar­das­tra Gar­dens

Scar­let ibis

Gre­nada dove

Chi-cui

St. Vin­cent’s par­rot

Clock­wise from top: Venezuelan green heron

Be­come One With Na­ture Rain­forests, par­tic­u­larly those around Costa Rica, are in­cred­i­ble habi­tats to see many of the birds that call the Caribbean home. Puerto Li­mon’s Ver­agua Rain­for­est is just one of the ecosys­tems that make this area unique … and...

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