Birdwatching on Bonaire
Bonaire is now officially a stop on the Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT), an initiative that seeks to connect the natural and cultural heritage of the Caribbean islands through the training of local naturalist guides who will then be able to identify and interpret the birds and their habitats for local and foreign visitors. The CBT is being developed to raise global awareness of the unique birds and biodiversity of the Caribbean and to create a sustainable economy around these rare species, in an effort to protect them.
Bonaire has no endemic species of birds, however, there are a number of subspecies, or geographical races that are restricted to just the islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.
Bonaire’s most famous is the pink flamingo, which on most evenings, around sunset, you may be able to see a few small flocks leaving the southern tip of the island, near the Willemstoren Lighthouse. Contrary to popular belief, they are not all flying off to Venezuela, although some undoubtedly will reach the South American coast. These birds can be seen at several sites on Bonaire, including the Washington Slagbaai National Park and Lac Bay.
There are a number of environmental factors that have made Bonaire a very interesting site for birders to enjoy, and there is always the chance that an alert birder will record the occurrence of an extra-limital bird. The island boasts over 190 species including the Lora (Amazon parrot), which is now protected against capture by international treaty.
A bird book that is available on the island is the “Bonaire Bird Guide“, published in 2013 in a cooperation between STINAPA, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, and Vogelbescherming Nederland. This guide provides an in-depth look into the birds of Washington Slagbaai National Park.
Another excellent resource is the Princeton Field Guide entitled, “Birds of Aruba, Curacao, & Bonaire,” by Bart de Boer, Eric Newton, and Robin Restall. It has photographs of some of the more common birds with descriptions.
Many of the tour operators can guide interested birders to catch glimpses of some of Bonaire’s illusive winged residents.
Birding on Bonaire
© Jerry C. Ligon
Most of the 200 species of birds that have been officially recorded for Bonaire, with a few notable exceptions, are affiliated with xerophytic and thorny scrub and cactus wilderness type vegetation. Exceptions are the water-dominated habitats: coastlines, inland saltwater lakes (salinas), and mangrove marshes that harbor many species of egrets, herons, and other species of marsh and shorebirds. Exceptional birding can be expected if the island is under the influence of a heavier than normal year of rainfall (average, 22 inches), when freshwater impoundments can attract many rare and unusual migrants from both North and South America.
Woodland specialties dominate the northern half of the island where scrub-covered and wooded hills form the 3800 ha (8300 acre) Washington/Slagbaai National Park (small entrance fee required). This area forms the center of the nesting range of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Parrot (Amazona barbadensis rothschildi), which is often confused with Caribbean or Brown-throated Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax xanthogenius). Get pet store parakeets out of your mind (budgerigars) when observing our parakeets and look for the mourning dove-sized parakeets, with similar-sized elongated tail feathers, to have brilliant orange- yellow faces and heads, and the Yellow-shouldered Parrots to be the size of rock doves, with similar short tails, and to be same green color on both upper and lower body with small amount of yellow on sides of the face, and on bend of the wing.
Other notables of the woodlands and also often found around the hotels and residential yards are Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), very colorful orioles of two species, Troupial (Icterus icterus), which is orange and black, and Yellow oriole (Icterus nigrogularis). Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus), looking a lot like our Northern from North America, but missing the bright wing patch, if you look closely, and very common Black-faced Grassquits (Tiaris bicolor). Only two species of hummingbirds here but like hummingbirds everywhere, they get their share of attention. The largest, Ruby Topaz, (Chrysolampis mosquitus) with rufous on the tail of both adults and a male with a splendid, fiery-red gorget and glistening orange-red crown, and the smaller, Common Emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus) can be found at many sites where flowers are conspicuous, but neither come readily to hummingbird feeders.
Away from the developed parts of the islands are such stealthy species as Smooth Flycatcher (Sublegatus modestus), Caribbean Elaenia (Elaenia martinica), Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), Pearly-eyed Thrashers (Margarops fuscatus) and larger and more conspicuous birds like the Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) in the cactus hillsides, Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) along the coasts throughout the island, and Bonaire’s signature bird, the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rubber) which can be seen both north and south.
One site where your chances of success at finding White-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus cayennensis) is almost 100% found on a hill which overlooks the village of Rincon, in the northern section of the island. Bring a flashlight, and here, after dark, the nightjars come in to feed on moths that are attracted to the 4 street lamps, and often can be seen perched on the fence that borders the microwave tower. Otherwise, driving along dirt roads after dark may reveal these secretive goat-suckers, with fiery-red glowing eye-shine.
You will find five species of doves and pigeons, six, if you count rock dove, here on Bonaire. Most of them are of limited geographical distribution, which makes them sought after species for most intense birders while on Bonaire. Very large and all dark is the Red-necked or Scaly-naped Pigeon, (Columba squamosa) which should be easily seen as you drive through the countyside, and is only found in the Greater and Lesser Antilles islands. A bit smaller with conspicuous white wing patch is Bare-eyed Pigeon (Columba corensis), which is only found on the arid Caribbean islands along the Colombian and Venezuelean coasts. A bit smaller and appearing most like mourning dove from North America is Eared Dove, (Zenaida auriculata), except eared dove does not have elongated central tail feathers and white corners, but equal length tail feathers and cinnamon-colored corners. It is found in South America and the southern Caribbean islands, and the southernmost Lesser Antilles, but absent from the Greater Antilles and Central America, where it is replaced by Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita). About the same size and more of a forest dweller, and found in Central and South America, but missing from the West Indies is the White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi). Our smallest, and probably the most common bird on Bonaire is Common Ground Dove (Columbigallina passerina), which is sparrow sized with an attractive, scaly-patterned throat, and has a wide geographical range throughout the tropical regions of the Caribbean and Central and South America.
The southern end of the island is the driest section of the island and consists of the salt works and a breeding preserve of 55 ha (120 acres) established for the flamingos whose numbers can vary from a few thousand to near twenty thousand, depending on several variables. Also along the southern coasts and inland where water accumulates can be found many species of waders and shorebirds, such as both color morphs, normal and white, of Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), Tricolored Herons (Egretta tricolor), Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets, (Egretta thula) and Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Also many of the smaller shorebirds, both Greater and Lesser Yellowleg species, dowitchers, sandpipers, plovers, including the rare Collared Plover (Charadrius collaris) from South America, are here in winter or on migration.
In the mangrove marshes along the eastern coast, one can find many of the previously mentioned water dwelling birds and roosting Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), neither of which nest on Bonaire. Also, this is the most likely site for both species of night herons, Black-crowned (Nycticorax nycticorax) and Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) and Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea). This is the area to scrutinize carefully, especially around dawn for many rare migrants that use the mangrove marsh for feeding and resting sites.
Another special phenomenon that birders should be aware of is the migrating seasons, both April/May for the spring migrants going north from their wintering grounds in South America, and in the fall, September/October, when the migrants are leaving their breeding grounds in North America on their way through the Caribbean to their wintering locals. During the spring, the eastern deciduous forest birds, come through Bonaire in their breeding colors, especially the males, and add excitement to days afield when local birds are complemented by these colorful visitors. It is interesting to note that almost all the breeding warblers of northeastern United States have been recorded here on Bonaire, and a complete list of sightings during a migratory season reads like a Who’s Who of birds from eastern North America. Just this past summer, a very astute birder from National Audubon Society, discovered and photographed the first record of Western Tanager for the southern Caribbean, while birding on Bonaire, so, like birding anywhere along migration paths, one never knows what will show up, and Bonaire offers many surprises for visitors who mistakenly think that Bonaire is only for divers and snorkelers.