With some borders still closed and social distancing the new norm around the world, today’s guest author, Peter-Paul Schets, proves that one can still enjoy birding on Bonaire, even though miles away! Here’s his story on how to enjoy long-distance Bonaire birding by monitoring rare bird sightings!
Long-distance Bonaire Birding from 4832 miles away.
Over the past four years, I was in the enviable circumstances that I could visit the Caribbean region three, four, or even five times a year. I love traveling and, apart from my great job, my work trips each time enabled me to spend at least some hours birding on Bonaire. After almost 20 of these trips, Bonaire feels like my second home. I am always looking forward to visiting the island.
So I was rather excited and was ready to leave for the Caribbean in March and again in May of this year. But then we got these COVID-19 problems, with misery, and distress all over the world. Within a short period of time, everything changed and all travel plans were off the table.
But, as an eBird reviewer (I am also a reviewer for Observado), I am fortunate to be sitting in the front row regarding bird records from Bonaire, and, sometimes, I can even be part of the identification process. So let us have a look at what happened on Bonaire, bird-wise, in the first half-year of 2020.
Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup
After the incredibly great months of September and October 2019, this year started rather quietly. Some nice birds stayed for months, like the two sister ducks – the Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup – which were seen until March 2020. Both were present from November 2019, so they spent the whole winter in Bonaire’s waste-water treatment ponds.
Striated Heron, Purple Gallinule, Gull-billed Tern, and Black Vulture
Over the first six months of the year, some very nice birds, such as the Striated Heron, Purple Gallinule, Gull-billed Tern, and even a Black Vulture, were recorded with repeated sightings.
The first record of the Black Vulture on Bonaire was in November 2017, and since then only a few sightings have been recorded. One can wonder if the species is perhaps a visitor from Curacao, where there are more recorded sightings on a regular basis.
In the last week of March, local birder Sipke Stapert found a female Wilson’s Phalarope in breeding plumage in a mixed shorebird grouping of Stilt Sandpipers and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in the solar salt works. Both Steve Schnoll and Susan Davis were able to confirm the sighting as well as get some images. This sighting was an omen of the good things to come in the next months of spring migration.
I personally have seen two of these birds at the very same location in February 2016, but these birds were still in their dull greyish winter plumage. I also observed another (pictured here) in winter plumage in October 2016 at Gotomeer.
This 2020 bird was a female in summer plumage, which, in phalaropes, is more colorful than the male. The female was a very pretty bird. Here you can see the difference between the male and the more colorful female.
Caribbean Martin and Common Swift
And then the month of May began. In my opinion, and with the exception of October, May is the best birding month for the Caribbean region. Sadly, I have never had the opportunity to do any serious birding on Bonaire during the month of May.
In the first week of May, Sipke once again found a great bird. He mentioned his observation on Facebook, saying he had seen some martins together with some swifts near Belnem. Steve, eager to add the Caribean Martin to his life list, went to the spot where he was able to take pictures of a fine male Caribbean Martin. The gender is important, as it is virtually impossible to identify either the female or juvenile birds, as there are several look-alike species of martins.
But much more importantly, Steve’s images also clearly showed a swift! The bird books for the ABC islands only mention two swift species, the Chimney Swift and the Black Swift. Recently on Curaçao and Aruba, other species have been recorded, such as the Chapman Swift, but Steve’s bird clearly was something else: a slender, entirely black swift with sickle-shaped wings and a rather deeply forked tail.
Seeing these images, I thought to myself, “It looks like a Common Swift,” but that one occurs only on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. So, I sent these images onward to several experts and they were unanimous: Common Swift! As far as is known, this bird has only once before recorded in South-America (Suriname, July 2012), but there are several records from North-America. A new one for Bonaire! Congratulations to Steve (and Sipke)!
Yellow-throated Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Red-eyed Vireo
And this was just the beginning. Only a few days later, Steve took pictures of a very rare warbler, the Yellow-throated Warbler, at Bonaire’s waste-water treatment ponds. This was only the third record, and the first images, of this one for the ABC islands. Note this bird is not even listed in the Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (by Wells and Wells) and has never been recorded on Aruba or Curaçao so far.
By the end of the month, Dutch birder Lia submitted a record with images on Observado of a male Baltimore Oriole, another very rare bird for the ABC islands. Lia spotted this bird on May 27 somewhere in the residential community of Bona Bista, a really extraordinary record. Well done!
Another very good one, a Red-eyed Vireo, was photographed on June 9 by Dutch birder Mirjam in Kralendijk. This bird was using a backyard birdbath. The few records of this species are mainly from autumn. Possibly it is not that rare in migration time, but vireos can be a bit hard to see properly, let alone be able to take images. Further, identification can be a challenge due to their similarity with the much more common (and rather variable) Black-whiskered Vireo.
Also on June 9th, Susan was down south by the solar salt works and spotted and photographed an immature tern. She thought this tern was unusual, in that it didn’t appear to be similar to other, more common, immature terns. She asked for assistance with identification, and even the experts were puzzled by this immature tern. After much discussion, the bird was finally identified as an immature Roseate Tern.
Just a few days later, there was another stunning discovery on Bonaire. On June 12, Steve found a small black tern with white wings at the waste-water treatment ponds. There wasn’t any discussion needed to identify this vagrant: a White-winged Tern! Congratulations go to Steve for once more finding another new bird for the ABC islands. This beauty stayed for a week and Susan was also able to capture great images of it. This tern has a wide range in the Old World (Europe, Africa, and Asia) but records in North-America are quite rare. I actually saw several this year near my home in Gouda (The Netherlands), but seeing it on Bonaire is, of course, something very different when the bird is so far from its home range.
Only a week later Steve again had a great find, an adult Masked Booby on the cliffs of Washington Slagbaai National Park, together with more than 100 Brown Boobies. The majority of records in the region of this bird are from cruise ships, seen offshore while at sea. Steve’s great images of this bird resting on the rocks on shore are simply spectacular.
With all these records of rare birds, including two new ones for the ABC islands, the first half of 2020 was really outstanding and I have thoroughly enjoyed my long-distance Bonaire birding from afar. My next report will cover the second half of this year, which I hope to be just as fabulous, or even better, than the first half of 2020.
My suitcase is still packed, and I am ready to hop onto a plane to Bonaire at any time, so I hope to be able to add a few new records myself in the latter half of 2020. Can I find some new birds for Bonaire? Or the ABC islands? Or perhaps beat my record of 92 species in one day? Nah, I simply want to enjoy the island of Bonaire and its great birdlife. I am looking forward to it!
But most importantly in these times: stay safe!
Happy birding and greetings from Gouda in the European Netherlands!
About the Guest Author, Peter-Paul Schets.
Peter-Paul is a Senior Inspector for the Law Enforcement Council. He lives in The Netherlands with his wife and enjoys family visits from his two sons and their families, including three grandchildren.
Peter-Paul has recorded seven new species for Bonaire, and also four new species for Bonaire’s sister island, St. Eustatius.
When not birding on Bonaire vicariously, he is hiking along canals, dikes, waterways, forests, and other great birding habitats in the European Netherlands.
He has contributed many of his bird images to the Bonaire Bird List.
Stay up-to-date with Bonaire’s rare bird sightings.
Everyone can do as Peter-Paul does, and enjoy long-distance Bonaire birding. Stay up-to-date on what rare birds our local birders are seeing by visiting the Bonaire Rare Bird Sightings page. Bookmark it for the future!
(Images courtesy of Steve Schnoll (ReefTraveler.com), Peter-Paul Schets, and Susan Davis.)