It’s a simple equation: Great Birds + Great Birders = Magical Caribbean Birding!
The human element in birding is just as important as the avian element!
Every once in a while, the philosophical elements of the universe convene together for a second, a few moments, or even a few hours. This is when magical Caribbean birding happens!
But it’s not just at the whim of the universe, of course! For magic to happen, it requires great birds, as can be found during migration seasons, but it also requires great birders, the ones who come together with a common passion and are open to whatever the universe presents. This is the very special combination necessary for magic.
Saturday, September 18, 2021, 6:15 AM.
I arrived at one of my favorite birding spots for a sunrise hike and discovered three other of Bonaire’s most active birders there already, all having the same idea. We started our hike together, excited and open to new discoveries that might await us during Bonaire’s fall migration.
The morning started off on a promising note. Within several minutes, our little group of birders had observed a Solitary Sandpiper, a Purple Gallinule, a Least Grebe, a Glossy Ibis, all noted as rare on eBird. We even heard and observed two male Grasshopper Sparrows, the rare local subspecies caribaeus, singing their hearts out to entice their mates!
All in all, we observed 52 species on our morning hike!
The Blue-black Grassquit.
As we stopped to chat towards the end of our hike, suddenly Peter-Paul Schets said, “Hey, hey, hey!” From birding with Peter-Paul in the past, I knew this was his code for “pay attention” as he had found something really exciting!
And indeed it was! Across the pond from us, we espied the very rare Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina) perched on a thorn tree!
Peter-Paul tells us,
“When I noticed this bird, which I immediately realized was a Blue-black Grassquit, I warned my fellow birders who were standing beside me, and then I was able to take just one picture when the bird flew up. It continued to fly up beside the small pond and perched for a few seconds in the bushes beside the pond where all four of us could see it fairly well, but after a few seconds, it flew over the bank of the dam to the west and was out of sight.”
Although Black-faced Grassquits (locally called Mofi) are common sightings on Bonaire, the Blue-black Grassquit hasn’t been observed and recorded on Bonaire since 1976, when sightings were reported in both March and July. Our sighting last week was only the third observation ever reported on Bonaire! This tiny bird truly made our day!
Saturday, September 18, 2021, 9:00 AM.
But the morning was still young, so all four of us decided to pile into one car and head out toward the east coast of Bonaire. With fall migration in full swing, the possibility existed to find the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
The reclusive Barn Owl.
As we walked along the eastern coastline, we were thrilled to see a Barn Owl peering out at us–another great sighting as our magical Caribbean birding continued!
The much sought-after Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
I had been hoping to find a Buff-breasted Sandpiper for a few years already. They are only on Bonaire for a short time, historically only during October and November in fall migration, on their way to South America where they will spend the winter. This sandpiper is another migration marvel, traveling twice a year between the Arctic tundra, where it breeds, to its wintering grounds, which can be as far south as Argentina.
Per eBird, historical sightings on Bonaire list two observations in 1970, two observations in 1984, one by Peter-Paul in 2016 of 45 birds, and one additional observation by Peter-Paul in 2018.
So, it would be pure luck if we found the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but since hope springs eternal, we went to look for what would be a life bird for two of us.
Lia Avis was the first to say, “Whoa! What’s that?” She had discerned the very first Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the day! Since this species is not shy and doesn’t appear to mind a closer inspection, we were able to walk within about 10 meters/30 feet of the first sandpiper. What a beautiful bird!
The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is an elegant sandpiper, buff-colored on its breast and chest, as its name implies. It has a large eye and a rather plain face, with a short bill and yellow legs.
Our four-some found a total of three on Saturday, and I found a total of five on Sunday! I wonder how many more will appear?
American Golden Plovers.
But our luck continued to hold on this very magical Caribbean birding day, as we detected three American Golden Plovers in the vicinity–another migrant flying in from the frigid northern climes.
This slender, long-winged plover is usually found in relatively dry habitats. The birds we observed still were displaying much of their summer, breeding plumage, with a black belly and face, and white on the sides of the neck. They were quite animated as they foraged in the open field.
Saturday, September 18, 2021, 12:00 PM.
A Dickcissel and a flock of Bobolinks!
Although three of us decided to call it a morning, Peter-Paul was not to be deterred by the lure of lunch. He went back to our first morning location but decided to take a different trail. He messaged us to let us all know we had quit too soon, as he recorded a small flock of Bobolinks and the rare Dickcissel!
Sunday, September 19, 2021, 6:15 AM.
The Upland Sandpiper–Lifer #3!
After such a fabulous day birding on Saturday, it would be hard to find anything else that could top it. But Sunday morning, I found myself back at the original place where we had birded on Saturday. I had my fingers and toes crossed that maybe…….just maybe…….I would find another migrant that would be a lifer for me.
I wasn’t on location for even 30 minutes, when my phone buzzed. It was Peter-Paul, who was at the same location but on the side where he had found the Dickcissel and the Bobolinks on Saturday. He told me he was looking at an Upland Sandpiper, the first he has ever observed in the month of September, as historical sightings were only in October and November.
I beat it over to the other side, and, lo and behold, there it was in the distance–the Upland Sandpiper! My third lifer of the weekend!
The birds, the people, and the magic! These make Caribbean birding!
What a weekend of birding! Our intrepid four-some found a total of 79 species, including a number of rare to very rare birds. But it wasn’t just the birds, it was the camaraderie and shared passion for birding that brought us all together for this magical weekend of Caribbean birding.
World Migratory Bird Day and October Big Day are coming!
You, too, can create your own magic! World Migratory Bird Day is October 9, 2021, which also shares the day with October Big Day. It’s the perfect time to make your own birding magic, even if it’s not Caribbean birding!
Find some great birds, share your passion with great birders, and make the magic happen!
(Images courtesy of the author and Peter-Paul Schets)
About the author:
Susan has been living on Bonaire for over 30 years. She is a certified bird guide, as well as a topside and underwater photographer. She is a 2016 graduate of the Caribbean Birding Trail Interpretive Guide Course conducted by BirdsCaribbean.
Reach out to Susan
Contact Susan via email, Facebook Messenger, give Susan a call, or simply use the online form below.
If you have any questions in regard to your birding tour on Bonaire, feel free to contact Susan to get answers. She is always happy to elaborate on routes or best times for a tour based upon your own personal preferences. Tours can be tailored to your own interests, whether that be birds, photography, or both!
It is also recommended that you do some homework about Bonaire's birds before you visit. By knowing a little bit about the birds which might be encountered on tour, your enjoyment will be heightened! Be sure to check out these resources for Bonaire Birding. Reading the Bonaire Bird Blog will also accustom you to the birds that habitually are encountered on Bonaire.
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