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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Birding the Turks and Caicos Islands, January 31, 2003,
While Cecil County, and the rest of the east coast, fell into the deep freeze of late January, my wife, Crystal, and I took a quick trip to the Turks and Caicos archipelago (TCI). We left a fifteen-degree Philadelphia at seven in the morning and by noon we were sipping rum punch and Turks Head Ale in the eighty-degree Caribbean sun! We planned this excursion not so much for birding but for a nice chance to get away with our respective families. I had never been anywhere farther then the Outer Banks with my mom, dad, and brother so this was really a bonding trip. My father-in-law and his wife came along and truly helped to round out this long distance family outing.
From Monday to Friday we would call the small subtropical island of Providenciales (Provo) home. The Allegro Resort in Grace Bay would prove to be a relaxing abode that we thoroughly enjoyed. They offered a large unique pool, nightly entertainment, a tempting casino, a full PADI dive shop, and tasty cuisine, though we would have liked more local seafood. The beach at Grace Bay, Provo is reported to be one of the finest in the Caribbean with powder white sand and turquoise water that lapped gently at the shore. The beach would also provide us with a few unexpected birds to fill our checklist that I'll get into later.
Birding the island of Provo would prove be more of an ordeal then I had originally planned. In the winter Grace Bay is on the windward side of the island. Consequently, it was very windy three of the five days that we were there. Our first day, Monday, was one of those blustery, albeit warm, days. As you know wind is not a birders best friend and this, accompanied with the desire to test the local brews, would limit our species count for Monday. In fact only four species were tallied during casual observations around The Allegro Resort that day. Our first identifiable bird came a good two hours after we had arrived as an American Kestrel (the white-bellied Hispanolan race) perched atop one of the spires on the roof of the resort above the pool. This species would prove to be one of the most conspicuous birds on the island, as I tallied sixteen of them on Wednesday alone. Our next bird came in a flock. Six Cattle Egrets flew in and perched in the Australian Pines that grew around the resort gardens. Our last bird that we would see before the sun set on Monday would be a lone Laughing Gull that flew above the gentle breaking waves along Grace Bay.
Our first birding surprise came that evening when Crystal and her father were walking through the garden that was out side of our room-side patio. They rushed in and told me they had seen a large gray bird right in front of the sliding door. I peeked out and did not immediately see the bird. I surmised that is was a night heron given the late hour but I would not be satisfied until I saw the creature. Two hours past and I had to take one last look outside. I opened the door and as the warm salty air greeted me so did a relatively large wader. I flushed the bird to the south and it came to rest practically right on my parent's patio. I quickly called them and told them to carefully go to their door. They did and we met in the courtyard where we had an intimate encounter with an extremely tolerant Yellow-crowned Night Heron -very cool indeed!
Tuesday (day two) and I was ready for some serious birding or at least an attempt at some. I awoke at 5:30AM, thinking it was 6:30 (our clock was set incorrectly). I wanted to get out before dawn. I figured that if the early bird catches the worm, then perhaps the early worm could 'catch' some birds. (o.k., no more corny jokes -I promise!). The early hour also brought a reassuring sign, as no wind was blowing. I made my way inland and quickly found a path that led through a chunk of real estate that consisted mainly of sand, limestone (coral), cacti, small trees, shrubs, and various flowering vines. I was sure to find birds here. Another reason for getting up so early was to catch a glimpse of the Antillean Night Hawk but this species would prove to be elusive during my island stay. Bats, however, seemed to be everywhere. As the sun began to brighten the eastern sky from shades of merlot to indigo I began to hear numerous chips. At last I had found birds! The first to appear was Bananaquit. Soon after the Common Ground Dove began to live up to its name, as this species would be seen seemingly around every bend. Next I heard what I thought was a Blue Jay. Now, I knew Blue Jay was a highly unlikely vagrant to be seen on Provo, if not an impossibility. But I was sure I was hearing Blue Jay occasionally mixed in with other recognizable bird songs. I glanced up and quickly found the culprit a Northern Mockingbird was serenading me on my early morning stroll. I found its repertoire puzzling, as I did not expect to find a North American migrant mockingbird in Provo -Miami is 600 miles away! But sure enough there it was singing away. I heard Carolina Wren, Blue Jay, American Robin, and various warblers. Speaking of warblers my next two birds were familiar enough, for I had just spent November chasing them around Turkey Point. Freshly molted Yellow-rumped Warbler and Palm Warbler made nice appearances for me. My final bird of my early walk proved to be my first "lifer" of the trip. Bahaman Woodstar, the only hummingbird native to Provo made for a quick view as it hovered in front of a bright Hibiscus blossom. I would like to take this time to make an author's note; while traversing two miles of sand and limestone, I strongly recommend against the choice of flip-flops as footwear.
The second half of my Tuesday would take my wife, her father, and I on a SCUBA trip aboard the Dive Provo Conquest. I thought that this would give us good chance to spy some of the pelagic birds that inhabit the Caicos Banks. We traveled from South Provo to West Caicos Island (about one hour), however we were only able to conjure up Cattle Egret, Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, and Brown Pelican. Upon ending our SCUBA trip and swimming with Caribbean Reef Sharks, Stingrays, and Spotted Eagle Rays we were greeted to one more species of avifauna though it wasn't a bird. Flying Fish sailed along with us as we cruised back towards the dock of South Provo.
Day three and it was becoming apparent that our five-day vacation would soon be over and I had not really seen to many birds. I decided that if I was going to observe anything interesting I was going to have to rent a car and brave the British-style left hand driving that I was avoiding. I left the resort and made my way to the rental facility across the street. I was expecting a range of cars to pick from-you know the normal full size sedans, Jeeps, and sporty convertibles you find at any state side Hertz, Avis, or Budget rental services. Boy was I in for a wake-up call. It seems that the people at Ports of Call, Provo specialized in your more economical vehicular modes of travel. Sure they offered motorized scooters, not suitable for scopes, binoculars, books, etc., and nice new Suzuki Motorcycles, again not suitable -though cool, but their cars left a little to be desired. The only "Jeeps" they offered were apparently 20 year-old rejects from China (make unknown) that cost well over one hundred bucks a day. So it looks like my only other choice would be the compact Daihatsu. Don't get me wrong the car had character. It's size was somewhere between that of a large dog house and big wheel-barrow, it's three cylinder engine sounded like a 1945 Evinrude that was badly in need of a tune-up, and I'd swear that my motorcycle had wider tires. Not ever being one to complain, I took it in stride and after paying all the international driving taxes, insurance and other fees I left the shop eighty-five dollars poorer. The steering wheel was on the "right" side of the car (that's right not "correct"). Thinking ahead of time that this would pose problems for my American-minded driving practices, I was surprised at how natural and easy it was to flow with the traffic of this British colonial island. In fact the only trouble I had was when trying to signal for a turn I would often find my windshield wipers undulating across my field of view. -Now that's enough about the car, let's find us some birds.
My "big morning", as I was calling it, began at dawn on Wednesday. I headed east to the Provo Golf Course. I had researched before we left and found that the golf course was a premier spot on the island to bird, so I was anxious to get there. The golf course was easy to find and the friendly staff was nice enough to welcome me and even point out where I might want to look for certain species. The Provo Golf Course is beautifully maintained with many different habitats for birds. There were fresh water ponds, saltwater marshes, dense brush, short and tall grassy fields and thick stands of Coconut Palms and Australian Pines. The golf course produced twenty-six species for me including five lifers. The first birds found were the usual Northern Mockingbirds and Bananquits that seemed to follow me everywhere. A female Black-throated Green Warbler then made a receptive appearance. I then stumbled across a water hazard, as they (ponds) are called on a golf course. The pond, though died blue, was teeming with minnows and birds. This like most of the ponds at the golf course produced Green Heron, white and blue phase Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Cattle Egret, Snowy Egret, Blue-winged Teal, Short-billed Dowitcher, Spotted Sandpiper, and Common Moorhen. My next birds were a flock of Killdeer that flew in to forage on the fairways. American Kestrels were also noted in the nearby palms. Kestrels seemed to be quite conspicuous through out the island as they were noted most everywhere I went via Daihatsu. In fact my raptor count for the day would come to include sixteen kestrels in just 5 hours of birding!
I continued to bird the golf course and noted more of the previously mentioned birds when I stumbled across a very large pond that presented me numerous species of unexpected waterfowl. American Coot and Caribbean Coot were tallied, (the latter was a lifer). Also noted were Ruddy Duck in crisp fresh breeding plumage, Pied-billed Grebe and two more lifers: Least Grebe and White-cheeked Pintail. I was really happy to see the pintail, as this is a beautiful bird endemic to the islands of the Caribbean. After that, I saw two very recognizable species of duck that my book, A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies (Princeton's), showed to be rare in TCI: Ring-necked Duck and American Widgeon. My next lifer would prove to be the best bird of my trip. As I was scanning distant ducks with my scope I noticed a pink flash in the eyepiece. I zoomed out a little further and a rush of adrenaline filled my body. I was viewing the national symbol of TCI -the Greater Flamingo! I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one, however I was doubtful as every local I interviewed exclaimed that it was rare to see them in January on Provo and that I would have to travel to Middle Caicos or Grand Turk to find them. But sure enough there where two of the most eye-catching wild birds I had ever seen.
It was approaching eight AM and there was still a lot of the island that I wanted to get to so I packed up and headed back to the car adding Common Ground Dove to my golf course list along the way. Later I would return to the golf course to show Crystal the pintails and flamingos. While we were there, I added two more lifers: Yellow-throated Warbler and Cape May Warbler. Back on the road driving east I continued to see American Kestrels and Northern Mockingbirds on the wires. The resort community known as Leeward sits at the most northeastern point of Provo. Across a narrow channel is Little Water Cay where one can find the endemic TCI Rock Iguana. However, it was birds that I was after not reptiles so I set up my scope in the marina to look for birds out in the flats between Provo and the outer cays. Not much was flying around though I did manage to pick out Royal Terns on the nets at the conch farm, a Great Blue Heron working the mangroves on Little Water Cay, and a pair of American Oystercatchers wading in the shallows. My attention then turned to land birds. Other then the bone fisherman at the boat ramp not much was buzzing around the mangroves at Leeward. I did manage to "psshhh" out a curious little Yellow Warbler however.
The conch farm that I mentioned earlier is kind of a tourist Mecca at Provo. So being close to it, I decided to drive over and see what it was all about. Upon nearing the conch farm, it became obvious that not much was happening at the early hour so I cut the drive short and scanned the nearby wharf for birds. There I managed to find a few Palm Warblers, Killdeer, and Black-bellied Plover.
I left Leeward and began my drive west to the Chalk Sound National Reserve. Certainly I would locate plenty of birds there -or so I thought. Upon arriving at Chalk Sound I was disappointed to note only one bird during my visit. An Osprey was busy fishing over the turquoise water of Chalk Sound. Chalk Sound's lack of birds definitely made up for it in stunning scenery. However, the serenity I was experiencing as I viewed the spectacular surroundings was dampened when I realized that I had left my Nikon binoculars on top of my car before I drove away! I returned and found them in the middle of the road, still in one piece, though more then slightly cross-eyed. I surprisingly shrugged it off for I, being the Boy Scout that I am, had an extra pair back The Allegro and I was not going to let anything ruin the mood that Chalk Sound left me with.
I arrived at The Allegro to pick up my father and brother to take them to Smith Reef National Marine Reserve for a snorkeling trip. While waiting for them a Mourning Dove flew down to the pool -looking for handouts no doubt. When my family showed up it seemed that the three of us would now be the six of us, as my mother, wife and brother's girlfriend decided to come along. Cool, I thought, this should be good when they see how tiny the Daihatsu is. I don't know how we did it, but we managed to "shoe-horn" everybody into my sardine can of a car. We must have looked like the Ringling Bothers clowns -all shoved into that little vehicle. A bottomed out, bumpy ride and a few painful laps later we arrived at Smith Reef in Turtle Cove, Provo and quickly saw a shorebird way up the beach. From a distance I thought it was a small sanderling but realized after a much closer inspection that it was indeed a Piping Plover! My family even remarked that it was an interesting bird especially when I told them that they breed at Cape Henlopen and Assateague Island but winter farther south. Princeton's book has Piping Plover as rare in TCI so I certainly felt lucky to be seeing one there.
Earlier, at the golf course, one of the grounds crewmen told me to look out for the Cuban Crow, which was on my target list. I did not see it at the golf course. The Cuban Crow, though nondescript much like the American Crow, is the only crow species native to TCI and is well known for it's bizarre cackle of a call. The grounds keeper referred to it as sounding like a "drunk turkey bird". While I did not get a chance to hear it I did manage to see two of them perched on the wires at the gas station. By the way, gas prices in TCI were $2.85 per gallon. Need less to say, I will never complain about gas prices again.
My last full day on Provo would find me awake again at dawn and barrowing my Father-in-laws rent-a-wreck. His car was not much better then mine. Aesthetically, it was easier on the eyes, but the steering column was missing its outer cover exposing wires and linkages. Not to mention that it broke down in the golf course parking lot, leaving me to have to hitch hike back to The Allegro. That morning I made a return trip to the golf course where I was greeted right away with the drunken gobble of the Cuban Crow -it really does sound like a turkey! I was also able to find all of the previous days species adding Yellow warbler and Great Egret to my golf course list. One more observation of note was a pair of American Kestrels in the top of a Royal Palm that were apparently engaged in some sort of mating display. The male would leave the perch and hover over the female all the while singing to her. He would then perch shoulder-to-shoulder with her and repeat the exhibition. This was very entertaining and went on for at least five minutes. The rest of the days birding consisted of beach scanning from The Allegro and one last trip on the Dive Provo Conquest for an afternoon dive in Grace Bay. The beach produced Laughing Gull, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and Brown Pelican. While the short boat ride to our dive sight provided four Ospreys, including an occupied nest at the marina in Turtle Cove, and my last lifer, a Sandwich Tern.
Friday, our final day, I decided not to do any aggressive birding so I slept in. After breakfast Crystal and I went for a four-mile walk up the beach. The lime and turquoise hues of Grace Bay are truly the prettiest and clearest waters that I have ever seen and this made our beach stroll particularly memorable. Birds on the beach were quite a surprise, as I had not expected to see very much. Shorebirds included Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, and Killdeer in front of the Club Med. Gull species consisted of Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Royal Tern, and Sandwich Tern. Cattle Egret, American Kestrel, Brown Pelican, and Morning Dove were also noted on the beach. One final unexpected observation was that of a small sparrow-like bird that we saw "walking" amongst the Sargasso that had washed ashore. It took a little time to I.D., as it was a rather shy bird, but its long bill, upright stance, and drab overall appearance was undeniable that of an American Pipit. My Princeton guidebook has the pipit as uncommon in the Florida Keys, Rare on the Caymans and Jamaica, probable on Cuba and a vagrant in the Bahamas, but there are no records of it in TCI. Being less than 100 miles from the Bahamas and on the closest shoreline of TCI to the Bahamas I was sure that the pipit was possible on TCI. I was pretty excited about seeing it. I kept thinking that perhaps I was the first to observe it in the archipelago -I'm easily amused.
Our final bird for TCI was a singing Bananaquit that serenaded us as we boarded our taxi that would take us to the airport.
Our totals for TCI included forty-six species with ten additions to our life list. One thing that I have learned about birding small islands, whether its St. Lucia, Hawaii, Provo, or Assateague is that islands tend to limit the number of species you can expect to find. Regardless, Provo, TCI is a beautiful semi-arid subtropical island that I would defiantly return to for the diving alone. The colorful avifauna that we saw was really a treat to our wintered North American eyes. Perhaps our next TCI trip will take us to the Middle or South Caicos, as these islands are known wintering grounds for the endangered Kirtland's Warbler. -As if I needed a reason to return to paradise.