A bird in the hand is worth……..not on Bonaire!

Two exceptionally rare bird sightings on Bonaire:  A Wattled Jacana, and the first-ever Blue-and-white Swallow!


Posted July 17, 2021

To find rare birds on Bonaire, it’s necessary to be a part of the local birding network, as then everyone works as a team.  This story exemplifies the importance of teamwork in birding.

An old adage tells us, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” meaning that one “sure thing” is better than two “maybes.”

But Bonaire, always willing to march to a different drummer, disputes that saying!

The backstory.

The story began last week on Thursday evening when my phone pinged.  It was an incoming text from Rob Wellens of Curacao Backyard Birding.  The text said:  “Wattled Jacana observed today on Curacao!  Not seen for many years!”

I immediately texted back, “WOW-WOW-WOW,” because the sighting of a Wattled Jacana is very wow-worthy.  I then jokingly added, “Send it to Bonaire!”

Fast forward 24 hours, and Friday evening my phone pinged again, this time with an incoming message from birding friend, Sietse Nagelkerke:  “My sister and her husband (Jolijn Nagelkerke and Lars Aalsma) found a Wattled Jacana today!  Check it out!”

Wattled Jacana on Bonaire, image by Susan Davis.
Wattled Jacana, image by Steve Schnoll.

My immediate reaction was, “Wow, Rob sent it over!”  I sent him a text, but no, “his” Wattled Jacana was still in Curacao.  So there were two individuals!  I immediately set my alarm for an “early-bird” birding excursion to check out Bonaire’s Wattled Jacana.  This was a very exciting find for Jolijn and Lars, as they were rather newbie birders, although from a very experienced birding family, including brother, Sietse, and their father, Ad Nagelkerke.

About the Wattled Jacana.

The most noticeable feature is the red and wattled shield contrasting with a yellow bill and a black-colored head.  The upper parts can be dark, or chestnut-colored.  Flight feathers are yellow to pale, greenish-yellow with dark tips and a bright yellow carpel spur.  The Wattled Jacana also has very elongated toes and claws, and it can even use these to distribute its weight so as to be able to walk on floating vegetation while it forages.

Prior sightings of the Wattled Jacana on Bonaire.

Primarily found in South and Central America, there is only one prior record of a live bird observed on Bonaire, recorded by the late Jerry Ligon in May 2009.

The hunt for the Wattled Jacana.

I arrived at the designated location just a few minutes after sunrise.  As I was setting up my scope and tripod and camera, fellow local birder and friend, Steve Schnoll arrived.  I tossed him a grin, and said, “I figured I would be seeing you here!”  Steve grinned back, told me bon dia (good morning), and started setting up his camera next to mine.  We would spend the next two hours companionably chatting while we checked out the pond.

We could immediately identify the Wattled Jacana (Jacana jacana)!  It had a chestnut back which just glowed in the warm light of sunrise.  It was foraging along the edges of the small pond, at ease with many other species of birds, including flamingos, Short-billed Dowitchers, gulls and terns, terrestrial birds, stilts and plovers, coots and gallinules.   A Least Grebe and an American Oystercatcher were icing on the cake.  But wait–what was that?  There’s a bird flying low over the pond!  What is it!!!???

Bank Swallow or Blue-and-white Swallow, that is the question!

The bird that was working the pond appeared to be a swallow, which, at this time of year on Bonaire, is unusual.  It wasn’t a Barn Swallow–the most common swallow observed here–so was it a Bank Swallow?  That would be a nice sighting at any time of year but would be of particular interest in the summer months when swallows are no longer passing through on their migrations.

Steve was able to get some images of it in flight.  I suggested we run it through Merlin Bird ID to see what it had to say.  With my voice full of meaning, I reported to Steve it was showing as a Blue-and-white Swallow.  We stared at each other for a moment, with raised eyebrows and burgeoning smiles, as we contemplated that species suggestion.

“Nah,” we decided, “it can’t be!  What would be the chances of two extremely rare birds being seen the same day in the same pond?”  We decided it was a Bank Swallow that somehow couldn’t migrate and was “over-summering” and we returned our focus to the guest of honor, the Wattled Jacana.

It was only a few hours later, in a conversation with Sietse, that I mentioned the Bank Swallow.  He said, “that is no Bank Swallow!  It’s a Blue-and-white Swallow!”

It seems the bird perched when Sietse was there a bit later than Steve and I, and he was able to get some images of it using digiscoping, a way of capturing an image through a spotting scope.  When viewed on its perch, it certainly did appear to be a perfect match for a Blue-and-white Swallow!

The excitement built for Steve, Sietse, and me as we realized the magnitude of what we saw!  A Blue-and-white Swallow has never before been observed or officially recorded on Bonaire, or on Aruba or Curacao as well.  The ABC islands often “share” birds species, but it looked like Bonaire was to have the honor of the first visit from a Blue-and-white Swallow.  However, before we could celebrate, we had to get the sighting confirmed.

We all three went back and found both birds again.  Steve was able to capture more images in flight, which just added to the databank of information we sent to Peter-Paul Schets, the Bonaire bird reviewer for both eBird and Observation.

Luckily, Peter-Paul was able to confirm our sightings of both the Wattled Jacana and the Blue-and-white Swallow.  The swallow brought Bonaire’s species count to 241!

About the Blue-and-white Swallow.

The Blue-and-white Swallow is a small swallow that is named for its appearance.  Steel-blue upper parts are glossy, while its wings and tail are darker with steel-blue margins.  Underparts are white with grayish sides and flanks.  The tail is short and slightly forked.  

Blue-and-white Swallow, image by Sietse Nagelkerke.
Blue-and-white Swallow, image by Steve Schnoll.

The Blue-and-white Swallow that we observed belonged to the subspecies patagonica (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca patagonica), and is an austral migrant from South America.

These austral migrants are species of birds that breed in the more temperate areas of South America but migrate north towards the Amazon region for the southern hemisphere’s winter (summer for Bonaire).  It appears this individual overshot the Amazon region.

The moral of the story is twofold.

First, never, ever settle for a bird in the hand.  ALWAYS seek out the two birds in the bush.  They may be rare birds, just like our Wattled Jacana and Blue-and-white Swallow!

Secondly, always listen to newbie birders.  They might not always know what they are observing, but they bird with “fresh eyes.”  If Jolijn and Lars had not observed and identified the Wattled Jacana and reported it to Sietse, then the visit of the Wattled Jacana might have gone unnoticed, and, subsequently, it’s quite possible that the Blue-and-white Swallow’s first visit to Bonaire and the ABC islands might never have been documented!  Teamwork!

Images courtesy of the author, Sietse Nagelkerke, and Steve Schnoll.

About the author:

Susan is a certified bird guide, living on Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean.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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