Known more for its beaches rather than its birding I must admit that it was the diving part of our trip to the Cayman Islands that had me most excited. However, as those first days unfolded on Grand Cayman I soon realised my mistake in underestimating not only the diversity of birdlife it had to offer but also the accessibility to spotting sites. Alongside wildlife photographer Luke Massey, we both came to realise that the Cayman Islands were in fact the perfect “do it yourself” birding destination.
Our trip began at Grand Cayman’s iconic Mastic Trail – the largest contiguous area of untouched, old growth dry forest remaining on the island – and for six hours we followed the meandering pathway through some of the last remaining examples of the Caribbean’s dry, subtropical, semi deciduous forest. Our progress was slow however, due to the continuous sightings of a magnificent array of birds – Vitelline warbler, Cuban bullfinch, Gray catbird, Grey Kingbird, Zenaida doves, White-crowned pigeons, a seriously inquisitive La Sargas’ flycatcher who followed closely behind us and of course the brightly coloured Grand Cayman parrot who could be heard in the canopy throughout.
On our way home we stopped at a rather impressive house that had it’s own lake, and on this lake were the biggest flock of West Indian whistling ducks! Turns out the groundsman fed them daily, but what a sight to see these incredibly rare, elegant birds in such numbers.
Another wonderful spot for grand Cayman’s epic repertoire of avian creatures is the Queen Elizabeth botanic park. It is a riot of bird life – as soon as we walked in we saw Spindalis, Vitelline warblers, Cuban bullfinch, Grand Cayman parrots, whilst down at the water foraged West Indian Whistling duck, Black necked stilts, Greater yellow legs, Tricolor, Green and Night herons, and we even spotted an agouti! By lunchtime we were ravenous so headed to Rum Point, a well known beauty spot, for lunch and one of their famous mudslides – the most delicious cocktail! Whilst we ate, Ruddy turnstones flitted about the place whilst the Greater antillean grackles flirted loudly.
The final stop of our whirlwind visit to Grand Cayman was to a restaurant called Tukka, where we had been told that in the evenings they fed the kitchen left overs to the frigate birds.
Well the frigate birds certainly knew the score and were congregating by the dozen as we arrived. Soon after our arrival the chef came down to the beach with a bucket of fish guts and a pot of colourful gloves. Luke was set up with gloves and tasty treats and soon the frigate birds were diving in that magnificent aerobatic manner, down to snatch at the slimy mess that Luke held in his outstretched palm, whilst huge tarpon whipped through the lapping waters beneath to hoover up any morsels that got dropped. It was incredible to watch, and yet another awesome experience in what was turning out to be a very surprising destination.
After a morning tidying up shots around Grand Cayman we headed over to the first of the sister Islands, Cayman Brac. On Cayman Brac we had been limited to just one full day and so had to keep to a strict schedule – a hectic morning with the Brown boobies and their braying babies on the Brac’s bluff, whilst White tailed tropicbirds fished out to sea, followed by an afternoon searching and successfully locating the Red legged thrush, with a lucky sighting of the the Cayman Islands second national bird the Cayman Brac parrot (most simply ID’d by it’s white brow, whilst the Grand Cayman parrot has a pale pink brow). It was a whistle-stop day sewn up by watching the sunset over our next destination, just a seven minute flight away, Little Cayman.
Little Cayman was my kind of Caribbean Island! Flying in, the island was teeny weeny, lapped at on all sides by crystal blue waters, and the landing strip was also a road, which was closed when the tiny twin prop came into land. Here the main attraction was the booby pond which sat directly opposite our accommodation – and it wasn’t just any old booby pond, but the Western Hemisphere’s largest Red-footed booby colony.
We spent that first evening on Little Cayman on the viewing deck of the National Trust’s office and watched out across the dry pond as the red-footed boobies tended to their chicks, whilst right next to them magnificent frigate birds did the same. But whilst the boobies went out each day and fished as far as 125km out to sea in search of squid and flying fish, the Frigatebirds did not.
You’ll have all heard stories of pirates in the Caribbean, and in Little Cayman those stories live on, but they aren’t bearded men with eye patches and peg legs aboard ships, no, it’s the frigatebirds who are the pillaging pirates of this island. For when the boobies return from their exhausting day foraging and approach the shore, the frigatebirds strike, attacking the boobies again and again until they throw up their food, which the frigatebirds then greedily gobble down. It’s known as ‘kleptoparisitism’ and it was brutal to watch. Because most of the chicks had now fledged there weren’t as many attacks as there would have been earlier in the season, but we watched one poor booby nearly get drowned beneath the onslaught of ravenous Magnificent frigatebirds. And then after the battle was over, the two birds would retire to their roosts in the Casuarina trees and spend the night side by side. We watched this fascinating behaviour every evening we spent on Little Cayman.
And it wasn’t just the frigatebirds the poor boobies had to be weary of – over on the bluff we had seen a Peregrine falcon buzz the nesting Brown boobies, and then on our second night in Little Cayman we had seen another Peregrine go for a booby that was attempting to roost by the waterside before changing course for the booby pond. Within seconds the whole booby pond erupted and Luke and I both guessed that the perry had probably been successful from the mass hysteria that broke out.
The diving was exceptional as well, and on our final day as we snorkelled at Little Cayman’s idyllic Point of Sands we were able to combine a bit of birding with our underwater explorations, as an Osprey fished above us. The Cayman islands has it all as an all-round holiday destination – birding, amazing scenery, great food, stunning beaches, incredible diving – and all so accessible. The perfect place to take your family to relax in paradise, and fit some great birding in too.
The 13 Endemic sub-species of Grand Cayman
Grand Cayman Parrot, (subspecies of Rose-throated Amazon, or Cuban Parrot)
Greater Antillean Grackle
West Indian Woodpecker
Cuban Bullfinch (may soon be full species).
*Not all occur in the Sister Islands and some are different subspecies than Grand Cayman.
**Cayman Brac has the Red-legged Thrush.
For further information feel free to contact the National Trust for the Cayman Islands or visit www.caymanislands.ky