Beautiful by Nature is the tourism slogan in the Turks and Caicos Islands; on February 19, my dad and I figured out why. Sure, the beaches are nice, but to really learn about a place you have to go off the tourist radar, out of the gated resorts, to truly discover an island and its birdlife.
And that’s just what we did. Our ferry left Providenciales (Provo) at 6:30 bound for North Caicos, home to, arguably, the best birding on the islands. Arriving at around 7:20, we got our rental car and soon were off. Our ride for the day was a Toyota straight out of Tokyo. There was no english writing in the car whatsoever!
Our ride had character and only added to the legend of the day. Our first stop was a stretch of road good for two sought after TCI specialties: Mangrove Cuckoo and Pearly-eyed Thrasher. Upon arriving, a Cuban Crow flew over, calling. Anyone that has heard a Cuban Crow knows that its call sounds more like that of a Chachalaca than a (American) Crow! A second bird joined it and they circled the hills together. It was a terrific start to the trip!
I began to pish and we got great looks at Bananaquit, my life Thick-billed Vireo and a plethora of wintering warblers including Northern Parula, Cape May and Palm. Soon came the call I had been waiting for. A Mangrove Cuckoo began to call from a ways into the brush and a second bird quickly joined it. Unfortunately, both cuckoos were calling from inaccessible locations, but it was very cool, nonetheless, to hear them.
It was soon time to move on. Along the way to our next stop we passed through the agricultural settlement of Kew, the only way where decent farming can take place on the islands. The soil in Kew is actually composed of some dirt (topsoil), as opposed to the sandy soil found in the remainder of North Caicos and the other islands. This not only allows crops to grow but also mature shade trees, of which there are a few groves in town.
Speaking of trees, our next stop was Wade’s Green, a plantation, whose entrance road is lined with shade trees that support quite a few specialties, including Pearly-eyed Thrasher. However, there was a mile-long entrance road we had to pass before getting there. And what a climb it was!
There were many obstacles such as rocks and trees in our way up the hill. At one point I turned around to get a better view of what was behind us when my dad yelled, “What that in the middle of the road?!” I turned and saw a Key West Quail-Dove foraging in plain sight. Wow! This is one of the most difficult birds to see on these islands, and we were looking at one out in the open! Not to mention that my dad spotted it!
After watching the Quail-Dove we made the last push up the hill and arrived at the trailhead. A frenzy of bird activity was happening right before our eyes. Singing Thick-billed Vireos, foraging Cape May Warblers and Bananaquits were all present. Soon it was time to head up the trail.
As we walked up, a loud burst of wings was heard from inside the brush, but when we looked whatever it was had vanished. Most likely the noise was from a White-crowned Pigeon or some other dove. While walking, I noticed a movement in one of the trees, and was able to get on it. A white eye and brown face. Pearly-eyed Thrasher! The bird came out for a split second, giving us one great look, before vanishing into the trees.
During the rest of the walk, we were able to get on to a few Northern Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, and other wintering passerines before heading out.
During the drive back down the road, the Quail-Dove was in the same spot allowing more great looks and photos.
We left Kew and started on our way towards Middle Caicos, a good 40-minute drive from where we were. Along the way, we stopped along the roadside, at a spot away from the town. Upon leaving the car, we were greeted by singing “Bahama” Yellow Warblers and Thick-billed Vireos. I soon spotted a Zenaida Dove in a small tree nearby. After getting our looks, we moved along down the road, getting fantastic views of Thick-billed Vireos and wintering warblers. As we were returning to the car, a Bahama Woodstar flew in giving some quick views before flying off.
This trip was turning out to be an amazing success and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock yet!
Soon after, we began to notice a change in habitat. The dense copice and scrub had given way to a large stretch of small mangroves. The songs of “Bahama” Yellow Warblers echoed throughout the landscape. American Coots and Tricolored Herons foraged just off the road.
Not long after, we had arrived in Middle Caicos. As I mentioned in my previous post, an endemic subspecies of Greater Antillean Bullfinch occurs on Middle and East Caicos but nowhere else in the Turks and Caicos Islands. This would be my main target here.
In comparison, Middle Caicos is more sparsely populated than North Caicos, with acres and acres of unspoiled land. In all, we saw only 2 people!
After striking out at two different locations for the bullfinch, I decided to look in my book and see if there was any helpful info for trying to find this species. My book described the call as a zeet similar to that of White-throated Sparrow. This helpful tip became invaluable later on.
Once at the third spot, we quickly got on the trail and began looking and listening to the bullfinch. A little ways down the trail, I spotted a Jay-sized bird scratching at the leaf litter, well concealed in the brush. I peaking in and followed the bird which abruptly disappeared. My dad began to “ahem” me and as I lifted my head the bird flew to a nearby tree. Mangrove Cuckoo! Not a bullfinch, but a huge target. Our confidence was soaring at this point and we were sure we would connect with our target.
A little ways down the trail came the sound we were waiting for. A soft zeet emitted from the brush. We waited and soon a black, finch-sized bird flew across the trail. Bullfinch! Yes!!
Now that we knew they were here, we were hoping we could get a better look at a bullfinch. And get looks we did. As we walked down the trail we started to hear zeets everywhere. We were surrounded by Greater Antillean Bullfinches and didn’t know where to turn! A few fed on seeds, others sat calling, many showing different plumages. As we watch the bullfinches, a Black-faced Grassquit appeared and began singing, followed by a second bird!
After spending some time with the bullfinches, we moved on, heading back towards North Caicos.
After grabbing a bite to eat, we were back on the road, heading for the aptly named Flamingo Pond and its over 1,000 American Flamingos. It didn’t take long to locate a good-sized group and we spent some time enjoying these beautiful birds.
As implied by the photos, the looks weren’t “in the hand” views, but they weren’t half-bad either, especially with a spotting scope. Along with the flamingos, we also saw groups of American Wigeon, American Coots and Northern Shovelers. It was a fantastic location with large numbers of birds.
Afterwords, we headed for Whitby Salina where we struck out on Least Grebe and White-cheeked Pintail. However, we were able to connect with Least Grebe at nearby Cottage Pond.
A drive down Bellefield Landing road didn’t yield a hint of song anywhere. With time running out, we made a second run up to Flamingo Pond for White-cheeked Pintail, missing a usually easy-to-find species. A last stop along a dirt section of Kings Road yielded a singing Bahama Mockingbird, a fantastic way to end the day!
Overall the day was a complete and overwhelming success. We were able to see many of our targets in just eight hard hours of birding. Overall a fantastic day!!