Finding “Big Bird,” the white morph of the Great Blue Heron; not just another big, white bird!
In the latter part of 2016, I applied to participate in a very special, week-long course held on Bonaire sponsored by BirdsCaribbean relating to Bonaire’s membership in the Caribbean Birding Trail. There was only room for twenty participants, so I was thrilled to be accepted and assigned one of those spots. A team from BirdsCaribbean led the workshop, and we had knowledgeable lecturers from Panama who work within bird and nature tourism in that country.
Learning about Bonaire’s birds.
During the intensive five-day program, we enjoyed twice-daily birdwatching sessions at various points around Bonaire, classes on how best to impart our knowledge to visitors, bird photography, and interactive projects. We were tutored in the types of birds found on Bonaire, and I had flashbacks to when I had to “learn my fish” back in the 1980s as a first-time diving tourist.
It was during the lecture on bird photography, given by local bird photographer extraordinaire, Sipke Stapert, that set my fate. He informed the group that he had recently seen the very rare white morph of the Great Blue Heron on Bonaire’s southern lee coast. I sat up and took note–before he had completed his sentence, I promised myself I would find and observe this rare bird for myself.
Birding to Bonaire’s southern lee coastline.
And so, I set off to do just that. Whenever I found some time to go birdwatching, I set my compass southward. As I got past Cargill, along the coast road, I slowed down to a crawl. I’m sure the divers, eager to get to their dives sites, were not happy with me! But they passed, and I continued with my search.
As I slowly drove along the coast, carefully watching for oncoming traffic, or unhappy shore divers behind me, my head slowly swiveled left to right, and back left again in a continuous loop. I was watching for any dot of white.
You’ll see many big, white birds!
Now, it should be noted that Bonaire has a number of big, white birds, so just because I saw a flash of white in the distance, it didn’t necessarily mean I had found “Big Bird,” as I had by now affectionately dubbed my quarry.
Note the bill and legs and feet to identify your bird.
At first glance, all these big, white birds look alike! One really must study them to tell them apart. A way to quickly ascertain which bird you are viewing is to note the bill (beak) and legs and feet. Note the size, shape, and color of the bill and the color of the legs and feet, and you are on your way to identifying your feathered friend.
The Snowy Egret.
For example, on Bonaire, we often can see the Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret can be discerned by its black bill and startling yellow feet on black legs. However, during breeding season, they tend to try to confuse us birders, with their feet turning bright red!
The Reddish Egret in the white morph.
Then we have the Reddish Egret, which one would think should be reddish. And some are. However, they also come in white, and they can be distinguished by their pink-and-black two-toned bill and rather bad hair days, along with dusky blue legs.
The Cattle Egret, and other big, white birds.
If that is not enough to confuse the newbie birder looking to find Big Bird, one might also stumble upon the Cattle Egret, which occasionally visits Bonaire as well. So it’s easy to understand that finding Big Bird can become quite an obsession! Along the way, I came upon nearly every other type of big, white bird that lives on Bonaire. (For those who wish to learn more about identifying big, white birds, the Cornell Lab is a great resource.)
The Great Blue Heron in the white morph.
So, what’s the big deal about the white version (“morph” is a better word) of the Great Blue Heron? The big deal is that they are very rare. Further, they are also hardly ever sighted in the southern Caribbean. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says this about Great Blue Herons in the white morph:
“The largest heron in North America, Great White is very rare outside central and southern Florida (and quite rare elsewhere in its range; confined to the Caribbean). Though they are regular throughout most of the southern half of the state, Florida Bay holds the majority of known Great White Herons, with about 850 breeding pairs. Very few are known to breed anywhere else in the world.”— The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The majestic “Great White Heron” is actually a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias occidentalis). These large, elegant birds are all white and have a massive yellow-orange bill, long neck, pale-pinkish-to-dull-yellow legs and bluish facial skin. They are much larger than Great Egrets which have a slimmer yellow bill, black legs and yellow facial skin. They are very rare in the Caribbean islands, locally common only in Cuba (in addition to south and central Florida). They prefer salt water habitats such as mangroves, shallow tidal areas and coastal ponds and lagoons. They stand still, waiting until their prey comes near, and then strike at it, swallowing it live, or, when large, beating it on the water or shaking it until subdued.
Bonaire also hosts the normal coloration of the Great Blue Heron, and this large bird often can be seen feeding in shallows or marshy areas, especially close to dusk.
Finding Big Bird.
And so I hunted. A week after my search began, Hurricane Matthew brushed by north of Bonaire and the storm surge generated by the weather system rearranged Bonaire’s coastline, taking away sand where it had been, and re-depositing it in areas which previously had none. I feared Big Bird might relocate and seek quieter surroundings somewhere else.
I searched and searched. Five months into my search, I was ready to cease and desist. One Sunday morning, I grabbed my binoculars, spotting scope, and, of course, camera and tripod, and headed out to bird. As usual, my car was on auto-pilot to the south. It was a great session, with many migratory birds making appearances. I had been out for several hours, and decided it was time to turn back for home. “I will just go to Willemstoren Lighthouse, and then turn back,” I told myself.
It was high noon, and very warm, and the birds became scarce, as if they, too, were seeking cooler temperatures. I passed Willemstoren and was getting ready to turn around and head for home, when I spotted a flash of white in the distance! Dare I hope? I grabbed binoculars and jumped out of the car, but the flash of white was still so far away as to be hardly discernible. I grabbed the spotting scope and plopped it onto the tripod and tried again–still too far, this big white bird was just a smudge of white.
But as I watched, the flash of white took flight and flew toward me! It landed about half way between its first location and where I was standing. Now I could see it! It was Big Bird! Hardly containing my excitement, I swiftly set up the camera, but even with a super zoom, the white morph of the Great Blue Heron–my quarry for many months–was still too far away to photograph.
I HAD to get an image, if only to prove I found it! Lady Luck was with me that day, because Big Bird took flight one more time, and flew directly to me. I held my breath…….it flew past and landed on the other side of road, just in front of the rough eastern coastline. It seemed to settle in, and so I set up my camera, and, finally, after a five-month search, my Mission Impossible became Mission Possible!
Most visitors to Bonaire do not take the time to study the birds they see while driving around the island for their diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, or kiting activities. But it is easy to incorporate birdwatching into your vacation! Just keep your eyes open as you drive, and you’ll be amazed at the diversity of birds you will see. As bird watching is a tourism sector without negative environmental impact, Bonaire’s tourism officials hope to realize an increase in birding tourism for the future.
(Source: Bonaire Insider reporter, BirdsCaribbean, Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
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Susan Davis has been living on Bonaire for over 25 years. She is a PADI Master Instructor, and an underwater and topside photographer. She also enjoys writing for The Bonaire Insider tourism news blog.