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Wildlife Camera » Hot birding on Bonaire

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Hot birding on Bonaire

18 May 2007


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iguana bonaire

“My eyesight is not so good lately — it might be a plover,” said our birdwatching guide.

The tour bus had stopped beside a saltpan lagoon in the hot noon sun and several pairs of binoculars were focussed on a plain little bird puddling about at the edge of the water.

The way she said it, “plover” rhymed with Dover, and her guess was a bit wide of the mark: I’d know a turnstone anywhere, even in the Dutch Antilles.

Luckily, to save face, some staccato shrieks among the cactus on the other side of the bus announced the arrival of a flock of parakeets. Everyone knows a parakeet, and these were superstar mini-parrots, with golden flame-coloured heads, streamlined green bodies and long tails.

The two dozen cruise passengers on the bus were giving little squeals of delight. At last, some tropical birds.

We had bought this four-hour outing into the bush of Bonaire as a birdwatching excursion. It was Christmas Eve, and so far the entire event had been a bit of a pantomime.

A very charming but admittedly half-blind American lady and her gallant but non-ornithologist driver, Amado, were trying to show us some of this Caribbean island’s 180 species. They were not having much success.

Three flamingoes paddling beside the edge of a salt pond and a splodge of pink on the edge of a distant islet, shimmering in the heat, were the closest we could get to Bonaire’s 20,000 flamingoes.

A tattered bunch of black-and-orange feathers, picked up from the roadway by Amado was the closest we came to another star bird of the island, the troupial.

The “aaahs” and sounds of distress which greeted the retrieval of this dead bird from the tarmac was so intense that for a moment I thought we had run over a child. Cruise-ship birders are an emotional breed.

And the shortage of watchable birds was so desperate that I found myself writing a long note about a house sparrow chirping on a bar-room roof in the one-time slave village of Rincon.

Bonaire is famous for the quality of its dive sites — the 15,000 inhabitants welcome more than 80,000 divers every year to waters which are rated among the top three or four in the world. The island is less than 50 miles offshore from Venezuela and also has a rich birdlife despite its semi-desert landscape. They even host a birdwatching Olympics here every fall, logging waders and warblers in abundance.

It should have been the perfect “soft safari”, with the P&O superliner Aurora as base camp and the opportunity to spot hummingbirds, endemic parrots and vast numbers of flamingoes. But the advertised tour guide — an enthusiastic American — was off the island, so we found ourselves wandering the back-roads, the partially-sighted leading the clueless.

Between us we had one local birdbook (in Dutch) and no expertise. We got one hummingbird, a couple of ospreys and a pleasant burst of song from a tropical mockingbird in a tree outside the shopping mall in Kralendijk, the cutely colourful toytown which is Bonaire’s capital city, but apart from that, not a lot.

Each of us had paid £30 for the outing and it did not seem like good value. As one disgruntled would-be birdwatcher said when we got back to the ship:”One hundred and eighty species? I think I saw seven, maybe eight… and a lizard.”

The lizard — a huge iguana (above) on the rooftop of a village house — was the best spot of the tour. More than 3ft long and bursting with outrage at being photographed from the bus, he swayed and blustered at us, flashing his distended throat.

But he did not make up for the lack of birds. If it had not been for the parrots, I think most of us would have asked for our money back. They did save the day.

Apart from the Caribbean parakeets on the cactus, we also had a brief and dramatic sighting of the much larger Rothschild’s Amazon parrot, a flock of which arrived suddenly overhead as we were all clustered around the bus at a viewpoint, from which there was nothing much to view apart from donkeys and another saltpan.

The yellow-and-green parrots — about 30 of them — were as startled as we were, and squawked into reverse, swerving away with the brisk little strokes of their wings which make them so like mechanical toys.

So although we had a poor birdspotting day, Bonaire was curiously memorable. It has oddball industries — mainly salt and religious broadcasting. The islanders speak Dutch and Pimiento, and with the folk of Aruba and Curacao share a little corner of an old empire, the “ABC islands” of the Dutch Antilles.

Everything is rather homely and low-key, dominated by sun and scuba divers. But Bonaire  has the plus points of being safe and healthy. As a cruise excursion, it seems to stick in the mind after a long series of more famous ports has faded away.

And you never know when the birds might turn up. The next “plovers” we spotted — those far-travelled turnstones from the high Arctic — were happily running about among the feet of a stunningly noisy steel band on Kralendijk’s quayside.

The heat, the music, the blue sea…  everyone flies to the Caribbean in winter, if they can. - Willy Newlands (copyright)


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