In Search of Bahamas Oriole

Birding and fishing Andros Island, Bahamas

Bahamas Oriole were right at the end of the drive at Swain’s Cay Lodge on Andros Island, Bahamas.

After 25 years as a professor at Auburn University, I’m taking my first sabbatical semester in the spring of 2018 and going to Melbourne, Australia for four months. The original plan was for my wife, Wendy, to fly down with me and have a vacation in Australia before my work started. But Wendy decided that she was too busy. She still wanted a Christmas-break vacation, however, so she set up a three-day Bahamas trip before my departure to Australia.

I was focused on my Australia trip and paid almost no attention to what she had planned. All I knew is that we were flying to Nassau and then to another less developed island where she had planned: 1 day of fishing; 1 day of birding; 1 day of snorkeling. Fine by me.

It turns out our stay was on Andros Island, the biggest and among the least developed islands in the Bahamas. We were booked into Swain’s Cay Lodge, a quaint little “resort” with rooms for about six or eight parties and a common dining room with one big table. It was comfortable, served great food, and drew other guests who were fun to hang out with.

We arrived Sunday morning, Dec 24 and rushed straight over to meet our guide at a little boat dock at 10am. We jumped into the boat and off we went for a day of fishing. This is a blog about birding, not fishing, so I won’t go into details about the fishing except to say that it was constant fast action and a ton of fun. Instead of deep sea or bone fishing, we just went “reef fishing” baiting our hooks with conch and pulling in big fish as fast as we could cast.

We boated all over the shallow reef waters that surround the island and saw amazingly few birds—literally less than 10 individual birds in 8 hours on the water. Don’t come to the Bahamas for marine birds—there are very very few and they are the same birds that exist in far greater abundance in Florida. But the fishing was fantastic.

The next day was Christmas day, so most people on the islands, including guides, were not working. No problem for us, because nobody was leading bird tours except me anyway. Swain’s Cay Lodge has a nice park setting with a beautiful little tidal pond ringed by mangroves at its entrance. From Google Maps I could see that there was some sort of access road cutting due west for a couple of miles through the forested western part of the island, and this road started about a quarter mile south and across the street from the lodge. Our fishing guide confirmed that it was a public track to the water tower and that it went through primary forest and should be great for birds. As a bonus, the road started at a school (closed for Christmas) which had lots of big trees and forest edge.

Bahamas Mockingbird that is a near Bahamas endemic that was easy to find around Swain's Cay Lodge on Andros Island. It was interesting Bahamas Mockingbirds, and Northern Mockingbirds co-existed on Andros Island.

We set out just as the sun crept over the horizon and the birding was great. On the hotel grounds before we had barely walked five steps we had Bahama Woodstar, our first Bahamas endemic. In the school yard, we found a beautiful male Greater Antillean Bullfinch right next two Yellow-faced Grassquits, Indigo Buntings, and Painted Buntings. Wintering North American birds were everywhere: Palm Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warblers, and Cape May Warblers were the most abundant, but I also saw Magnolia Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-throated Green, and Yellow-throated Warblers. It was my first chance to be at a place in the winter with so many wintering N. American birds.

We saw many wintering North American birds on Andros Island, Bahamas. One of my favorites was Painted Bunting.

As I was marveling at all the migrants, the Caribbean specialties continued to pour in. A Red-legged Thrust posed for me. Thick-billed Vireos, Cuban Pewees, and LaSagra’s Flycatchers were all common and we saw each of those species many times. A beautiful Loggerhead Kingbird posed for us and White-crowned Pigeons repeated burst from the trees over the trail and flew off. When we got to a thicket, a bit of pishing brought in Bahamas endemic number two: Bahamas Yellowthroat. Sparking green Cuban Emeralds perched on the power lines above the road, and Mangrove Cuckoos croaked from the thickets. The habitat looked great for Key West Quail Dove, but I knew that would be a hard bird to run into and we didn't detect one.

I found Red-legged Thrush on the school grounds across the street from Swain's Cay Resort, Bahamas.

Bahamas Yellowthroat was one of three Bahamas endemics that we found on Andros Island, Bahamas.

Cuban Pewees were common and easy to see.

Like White-eyed Vireos, Thick-billed Vireos hid in the thickets but they were noisy and active and there were lots of them.

Around 1030 as it started to get hot, Wendy decided to head back to the resort and let me keep birding for a while. I was staying out mostly in search of the “must see” bird of Andros Island: Bahamas Oriole. Recent censuses suggest that there are only about 300 of these birds left in the world and they are now entirely restricted to Andros Island, having been extirpated from other Bahamas Islands. I really wanted to see it but I had no specific locations for the species. I just knew it occurred on Andros Island.

A Mangrove Cuckoo put on a show while I was waiting for Bahamas Orioles to show up.

About 10 min after she took off, Wendy called me on my cell phone. (Remarkably, despite its very remote location, Andros Island has a great cell phone signal everywhere—even out in a boat fishing.) She had a pair of Bahamas Orioles (as well as Smooth-billed Anis) at the entrance to our lodge. She was too far away for me to race right over, so I birded my way down to where she told me the orioles had been. The location of her sighting was a Sea Grape shrub with lots of fruit and lots of birds coming to eat the fruit. I’m generally a very impatient birder, but this time I decided to be patient. I knew the orioles were around and I knew I’d see and hear them when they came back, so I just enjoyed the parade of birds eating the fruit. There was a female Great Antillean Bullfinch, a beautiful male Western Spindalis, a summer tanager, and maybe a half dozen Bannanaquits in the tree. Something in a nearby shade tree caught my eye and I raised my binoculars to a Mangrove Cuckoo. It was quite tame and let me walk right over to photograph it.

Western Spindalis of the black-backed Bahamas race were feeding on Sea Grapes with other birds.

While I was photographing the cuckoo, I heard an oriole chatter and moved back to the Sea Grape bush. There were the Bahamas Orioles, a male and female picking the darkest, ripest fruit to eat. They were literally right across the street from the driveway to Swain’s Cay Resort and then the male flew over and sang from a tree on the Swain’s Cay Resort property. Ms Cheryl who owns and runs the resort was thrilled a few minutes later when I told her she had orioles actually on her property.

Sea Grapes drew a pair of Bahamas Orioles repeatedly to the same spot near Swain's Cay Resort.

All of these fantastic birds came in a 4-hour walk from our room at Swain’s Cay Resort. With good cell service, I was able to pull up ebird lists for this trip and for all of my birding on the Bahamas and having an ebird list really helped with birding. My only book was The Birds of the West Indies with many birds that never occur in the Bahamas. Ebird narrowed down the list of birds that I considered likely as I studied many unfamiliar species.

We missed Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Great Lizard Cuckoo, and Bahamas Swallow. Given that I only heard 3 and saw zero Brown Thrashers on two recent Christmas bird counts in AL, it is hardly surprising we missed Pearly-eyed Thrasher in one morning of birding the Bahamas. Like Brown Thrashers, I image they are quiet this time of year.

I don’t know what the deal is with Bahamas Swallow. We were at mud flats, grassy fields, and shoreline for three days on Andros Island. I also looked for them around Nassau as we went to and from the states. There were no Bahamas Swallows around. Oh well, if that species ever turns up again in Florida, I’ll go get it there.

It was a great Christmas trip. For an easy relaxing way to get some great Caribbean birds, I highly recommend Swain’s Cay Lodge.