December 27th – In Search of the Caribbean Snow Bunting.

The pages that inspired the quest – a “vagrant” Snow Bunting was recorded on Cat Island in the Bahamas.

I like going to sea. Maybe, in a previous life, I had been a mariner. But my wife Marg has a tendency toward sea sickness so, if we are going to go to sea then it has to be on a ship and in areas where sea sickness won’t be likely. Cruising in the Caribbean in December meets these requirements. The seas tend to be calm and the ships (huge ships!) are fitted with gear to keep them stable should heavier seas materialize.

Fort Lauderdale is a bustling cruise port. When we pulled out of the harbour we were just one of 5 ships leaving at the same time. Our ship, the Eurodamm, is exactly like the smaller, blue-hulled ship in the foreground – it holds well over 2,000 passengers.

But…’s also Snow Bunting banding season in southern Ontario. I hate missing out on Snow Buntings! But then, fortunately, I noticed in the Princeton guide, Birds of the West Indies, that Snow Buntings had been noted in the Bahamas (once….on Cat Island). What an opportunity to combine two of my favourite things! I looked around for grants to support my Snow Bunting research but they just weren’t forthcoming. Generally people thought it was simply an exercise of tilting at windmills. I’d have to support my own search.

There were 4 ships ahead of us when we pulled out of Fort Lauderdale (you can just see one in front of the blue-hulled vessel).

When you think of Caribbean cruises you think of endless tourquoise seas, exotic pristine beaches with palms waving in the Trade Winds. They have actually become just a huge business enterprise with brilliant packaging. Fort Lauderdale is one of the main cruise hubs for the Caribbean. The docks were busy, like bee hives. Five cruises set out within half an hour of each other! Two of the vessels (ours included) would hold just over 2,000 tourists (under capacity) and the other 3 had the capacity to carry over 5,000. [We talked to a woman on one of the other ships that was docked beside us on Grand Cayman Island and she said that her ship, if fully loaded, would carry over 11,000 people including guests and staff!!]

This vessel, the Allure of the Seas, was carrying over 11,000 people including tourists and crew. It was one of 3 of about the same size that we ran into regularly in various ports.

This must have an enormous impact on the islands that they touch at. At Grand Cayman there were 4 big cruise ships anchored offshore. Most of the tourists would be going ashore and any staff that had shore leave. So in this case I would suspect that well over 15,000 people got off their vessels. At each docking area a huge industry has sprung up to service and sell stuff to these folks. You are inundated with shops that sell everything from funky T-shirts to diamond rings and everything in-between. And because of the number of potential customers there are a large number of stores to cater to them – most selling the same stuff so the keen shopper can hunt out bargains.

Marg making an ID….it wasn’t a Snow Bunting.

It’s difficult to walk to the point where you run out of shops. So most birding is done in an “urban” environment. Of course, there’s always experiential tours you can sign up for. I tried a couple. Not only do they add significantly to the cost of the cruise but they tend to be highly regimented – there just wasn’t time to saunter along a trail to look for birds. You had a time limit and, in some cases, you were hustled along so you wouldn’t miss the next ruin. Yikes. So birding on land was tough slogging.

Young Magnificent Frigatebird.

Having spent a good number of weeks over the past few years doing seabird counts in the North Atlantic I was thinking that I might see some great seabirds while the ship was steaming between destinations. But…no. These are tropical waters (defined as having a surface temperature of 24 degrees or higher) and nutrient-poor. So there isn’t the food available in the ecosystem like there is in the North Atlantic. During 2 full days of steaming I didn’t see a single seabird. The only seabirds I did encounter were Magnificent Frigatebirds – but these were always over the conjunction of beach and ocean, never offshore. And, frankly, voyagers aren’t really encouraged to just watch the beauty of the sea. There are activities all day long you can get involved in if so inclined…..I wasn’t.

And I never found a Snow Bunting.

So that left me with mainly eating and drinking. I must say that the food was….spectacular! I’m paying for it now. Another New Year’s resolution that I’ll never keep.


Beautiful pink water lily in Jamaica.

Hunting for Caribbean Snow Buntings is hot work and one must be careful to stay hydrated. It is better to drink the beer than the river water I was told.

Greater Antillean Grackles were commonplace.

One of several species of Iguana we encountered among the islands.

An arboreal iguana. These must be a real threat to nesting birds.

Another iguana – at an archaeological site in Cozumel.

This Green Heron was nonplussed by the tourists wandering along “his” beach; walkers could pass within 5 meters without seeming to disturb it.

Yellow Warbler on Grand Cayman.

Ruddy Turnstones were the commonest birds we encountered on Grand Cayman Island.

Yellow-throated Warbler; saw one on a small Bahama island and another along the beach in Cozumel.

Tropical Kingbird – common in Cozumel.

One of the many alligators we saw in the Everglades (a side tour to eat up time until going to the airport).

Giant Soft Shell Turtle in the Everglades.


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