For The Birds
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
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...