Cayman Parrot

................ Striped-headed Tanager ............... (Western Spindalis)

Bats on Caman Brac

The Cayman Islands

April 2003

by Carole Leigh

The Plan

After camping on the Dry Tortugas in April 2002, I was eager to visit another island. The lure of tropical shores, new birds and warm seas full of colourful fish was irresistible.

I had planned to travel alone while Peter stayed behind with our beloved old dog Billy (don’t feel sorry for him, I was to reciprocate while he went off to Sun City in South Africa!). As I don’t drive, the easy logistics of small islands suit me best. Being somewhat self-reliant, I enjoy a challenge, I rarely do as I am told and tend to snarl at anyone who is daft enough to attempt to organise me, I keep to my own agenda. Therefore, an organised tour was not an option, as I have no intention of allowing someone else to choose the itinerary.

As a photographer, I work at a much slower pace than birders, often spending hours (days and sometimes even weeks) on a single species. My priorities are creative - a list is of little importance to me. Consequently, I travel alone or with Peter, because like me, he takes his time and is eccentric enough to crawl with a camera through mud, slime or water for an obscure wader.

Personal safety was an issue and although the karate (‘fighting’ as Peter calls it) lessons I had been taking gave me enough confidence to know I might be able to escape a mugger, there was no point in inviting trouble. So I decided that the Cayman Islands would be an ideal location due to the almost non existent crime rate, warm climate, beautiful scenery, marine wildlife and a few new birds to keep my cameras happy.

After researching the Caymans, I decided to visit all three islands, with a week on Cayman Brac (including a day trip to Little Cayman) and a week on Grand Cayman. This would give me time to photograph most of the specialities and still be able to spend a few hours snorkelling.

A companion was added, when after a few glasses of wine (I must learn to stop at two!), I invited a lady farmer I met at our local gym. She has a casual interest in birds but agreed to entertain herself while I was birding.

Sadly circumstances changed during September, when our dear old dog (and my best friend) Billy passed away, consequently, Peter decided to join us. It would be wonderful to travel with Peter again after years of travelling alone, yet both of us would have gladly sacrificed this if we could have kept our beloved old friend a little longer.

The Preparation

Having tried the travel agents, I found that the Cayman Islands have a major drawback - they are expensive. I managed to halve the price of the flights by checking out different airlines and agents (American Airlines were good value, with lots of leg room) and found good accommodation via Internet, eventually managing to book all three islands and all flights for considerably less than the cheapest available package to one.

THE CAYMAN ISLANDS

The Cayman Islands lie south of Cuba and north west of Jamaica. The warm, clear waters around the islands are teeming with tropical fish and for this reason they attract scores of scuba divers and a few game fishermen.

The islands are the peaks of a marine mountain range and on the southern side, beyond the reef, the crystal waters plummet into the abyss known as the Cayman Trench. At over six thousand feet, this is one of the deepest marine trenches in the world.

For a few hundred pounds you can book a trip in a deep-water submersible into the void. I understand this craft only takes a couple of people, which it is why it is so expensive. However, I know of nowhere else in the world where a tourist can travel to these great depths. Due to the cost and suffering slightly from claustrophobia, I declined this opportunity. I’m no coward, but I felt it would be folly to risk rising panic, it would be hard to control my fear and unfair on the other passenger. A cheaper option is to take another sub, which dives to a depth of one hundred feet costing a hundred pounds or so. This is a larger craft, not so cramped and a good alternative. Sadly I also missed this opportunity – oh well, good reason to return!

The Trip

We were delayed at Heathrow, which led to a missed connection at Miami (immigration is a very slow process there and short connections are almost sure to be missed). , lied assuring us that, if the connection was missed, the worst that could happen was a delay of one night in Miami and we would be on a flight to Cayman Brac the following day. This was a deliberate lie, as the next connecting flight was four days later.

With an extraordinary stroke of luck - divine intervention – a Church Group, who had privately chartered a flight to Cayman Brac, took pity on us and let us fly with them, thankfully, we arrived at our accommodation on Cayman Brac - La Esperanza at 1.00am.

A Warning

When booking we had expressed concern over a tight connection schedule in Miami, but Astbury Travel, in Exeter, Devon, who booked the flights deliberately misled us. They assured us that if we missed our connection in Miami, there would not be too much of a problem, as a failed connection would result in our transfer on to the Cayman Brac flight on the next day. This was a lie, as the next the next flight to Cayman Brac was not on the next day as they claimed but was, in fact, scheduled four days later!

They dismissed our complaints on our return and refused even to apologise for their false advice, therefore, this a company I would recommend anyone to avoid at all costs, once they have your money, they are not interested in you, no matter what goes wrong.

CAYMAN BRAC

On our eventual arrival at the Esperanza at 1.30am, it became evident that no one knew of our reservation and the owners were away for a few days. Fortunately, I had all the paperwork. The taxi driver and a few half cut locals from the bar woke the caretaker, who broke into our chalet to let us in (luckily the side door just lifted off it’s hinges!) – he had not been told of our booking and no keys had been left! He was apologetic, but after all that had happened that day, we were past caring, we would have slept anywhere, a hammock under a tree would have sufficed! Funny thing is we passed our bad luck on to the taxi driver. In the morning we woke to find that his taxi had broken down and was still parked outside our accommodation!

We woke the next morning to a calm, tropical dawn with the birds announcing the light. In fact the gardens of La Esperanza was one of the best birding sites we found, this was a very good start. Vitelline Warblers and Red-legged Thrushes were amongst the first birds we encountered.

We had thought it would be difficult to find Red-legged Thrush, as they are not present on Little or Grand Cayman, but a pair were resident in our garden.

Alongside our chalet was a lane, which proved to be excellent for birds. Caribbean birds respond well to ‘pishing’ (hissing through the teeth) and we were soon rewarded with Vitelline Warbler, Thick-billed Vireo, Bananaquits. Loggerhead Kingbirds and various warblers and passerines within very close range. Caribbean Eleanias respond particularly well and would often come to within a few feet. The morning continued to improve and we couldn’t smile wide enough as White–tailed Tropic Birds flew overhead to the sea. Our garden was obviously a birding hotspot, alive with passerines while across the road huge Frigate Birds cruised the breeze over the shore.

When it got too hot for birding, we snorkelled amongst an array of tropical marine fish via a shallow channel cut into the ironstone beach. Sea urchins with long poisonous spines made it interesting, they clung to every irregularity in the rock. Stupidly, I was so engrossed in the fish that I stayed too long in the water and, an hour and a half later, was severely sunburned. Three days later the skin between my calf and heel had blistered away! Be warned, cover up when you snorkel in the tropics, you can’t feel yourself burning while you are in the water. The locals say that they can always tell a novice by the sunburned back. We couldn’t find a pharmacy and the Doctors at the hospital charge $175 per consultation. Fortunately, Aloe Vera grows in abundance on the island, the sap proved to be an excellent treatment for burns.

Cayman Brac is a lovely place – far from the madding crowd, with colourful characters amongst the friendly locals, who entertained us with stories about the one that got away (fishing), pirates, buried treasure, parrots, why it is illegal to eat sea beef (a kind of common shellfish) and why the men will risk their lives climbing the razor sharp rocks of the cliff to take one of the Booby eggs from the nest, leaving the other to hatch – perhaps not ethical but highly entertaining. Enough to say that the “women don’t talk but know it goes on”, something to do with aphrodisiacs, volume when whisked and possible similar effects on men!

One local, a big laughing Rastaman, invited us to go night fishing on his boat, wanting nothing more than our company in return. Game fishing usually very expensive but he offered to take us for free, but the wind rose during the next three days making the trip impossible.

A local invited us join him and his friends for a smoke! Although we appreciated the friendship and innocence of the offer, we declined. Anywhere else, I would have been wary of a hidden agenda, but Cayman Brac doesn’t have a problem with theft or violence. All the islanders know each other and a criminal would soon be discovered. The church going matriarchs of the community even frown on swimwear away from the beach and topless sunbathing would lead to arrest. There was a feeling of peace and safety on Brac and Little Cayman that I have never felt anywhere else - it really is enchanting, a time warp of decency and calm. A traffic jam is a car and a bicycle! However, despite the warmth and generosity of the local people, the terrain and weather can be unforgiving.

Brac is 12-13 miles long and little more than a mile wide. The topography of Brac gradually rises from the west, the central bluff reaching around 140 feet before falling sheer into the sea in the east. The west end of the island is taken up with the airport, a mangrove swamp and the Westerly Ponds. Here you will also find the island’s small, quiet tourist resort with its dive lodges and sandy beaches. There are a few shops but you really don’t come to Brac for the shopping and that’s just the way I like it. As the bluff rises towards the east, the dolomite and limestone rocks become jagged and irregular, they are razor sharp, making it dangerous to walk away from the path, as a fall will undoubtedly cause injury.

The temperatures on the islands are high during the spring and summer months and a good sunscreen is vital. The mosquitoes can be voracious in the rural areas and none of the mosquito repellent we took with us worked, but I believe a better one is available locally.

The Caymans are exposed to tropical storms and hurricanes. During these, the islanders flee to shelters on the top of the bluff as huge waves pound the shore and the winds tear at the trees and buildings. A terrible hurricane in the 1930s devastated the island. The islanders fled to the caves, some didn’t make it and many lives were lost. Even now, evidence of this is found in a cave on the west side of the bluff with the tragic little grave of a baby girl, Rebecca Bodden, who was buried where she died of exposure, as she sheltered from the storm with her family.

The caves in the bluff are home to the bats, which can be seen clinging to the roof. The islanders have installed wooden steps to the mouth of some of the caves. I’ll bet this has saved a life or two during the storms.

Fringing the bluff, except in the eastern extremity, is lower land where most of the habitation is found. Good roads serve the lower areas while another crosses the bluff half way along the island’s length. There are a few minor roads and tracks across the top of the bluff but there are signs that there will be development there soon. Regrettably one area that has been chosen for this is next to the cliff where the remaining Brown Boobies nest, a species that is disappearing rapidly from the Caymans. Bird ‘experts’ theorised on the rapid decline of the Boobies, wondering if this was due to the men taking the eggs or claiming that the cats of the island were taking their toll. But the old Cayman Islanders will tell you that the men have always taken one of the eggs (Boobies only raise one chick but lay two eggs), leaving the other in the nest, but there has been no change in the cat population and, until relatively recently, the seabird colonies remained stable. However, the Peregrine population has increased and the parent Boobies have been found lying dead on the nest with their chests ripped out. Several times we saw a Peregrine hunting along the cliff - I think we have our culprit!

Westerly Ponds and Vicinity

We found various herons, ducks and shorebirds at the Westerly Ponds, but during our visit the Caribbean Whistling Ducks were absent. Peregrines occasionally shot through, panicking the birds into a frenzy. Loggerhead and Grey Kingbirds perched on the wires with White-crowned Pigeons and White-winged Doves. Comical Smooth-billed Anis paraded through the grass and crashed into the trees. Calling like curlews they announced their presence as they landed clumsily, almost falling off the branches. We saw one do a complete rotation of the branch before it was able to steady itself.

As evening fell and the mosquitoes started to bite, good numbers of Antillean Nighthawks hunted for insects above the ponds. From their calls, we could tell that a few Common Nighthawks were with them, possibly passage migrants on their way to Florida. Least and Royal Terns flew past the divers boats out to sea and a few Brown Pelicans roosted in the mangroves on the lake.

Heading east along the north road, good numbers of Vitelline Warblers shared the roadside trees with the migrant passerines. Continuing along the coast we passed little settlements where the ‘Men of War’ (Magnificent Frigatebirds) patrolled the coasts as Ruddy Turnstones scurried along the shore.

Spot Bay

At the far north eastern end of the island is an area known as Spot Bay. There are still White-tailed Tropic Birds breeding on the cliffs above the settlement. During the early hours of the morning we saw them passing back and forwards from their nests to the sea. The locals fondly call them Bosun Birds but despair of their stupidity, because when a Peregrine hunts along the cliffs, the ‘Bosun Birds’ chase until the Peregrine turns and takes one. Now only a couple of dozen birds remain. Amongst other threats, Peregrines have taken a terrible toll of these birds, which once came in thousands. Cats are also blamed but they would have to be able to fly to reach the nesting holes in the sheer cliffs, I doubt that they are guilty as claimed.

The Parrot Reserve & the Top of the Bluff

Heading south across the intersecting road on the bluff took us towards the Parrot Reserve and hopefully, the rare Cayman Brac Parrot. This is one of the most endangered Parrots in the world, with only around 50 individuals reported in the wild they are now protected by law. The trouble is with the Parrot Reserve, is that no one has told the Parrots about it. After the odd fleeting glimpse or distant call, it was the end of the week before we finally got close, well outside the parrot reserve.

An elderly islander told us a story about how, many decades ago, the young men used to catch the parrots as pets. The theory was that if a lad climbed the trees in his clothes the parrots would flee, after all, what do you put on a scarecrow? – Clothes. So by climbing the tree naked, the hopeful captor would fool the parrot, which would sit puzzled, curiously trying to work out what was going on. The naked boy would quickly slip a noose over its neck and catch himself a parrot. During his teens, the storyteller thought he’d try this and climbed the tree naked while his friend remained below as a lookout. But he was caught in the act by a local tomboy, she spotted his clothes and his pal who sat chuckling at the bottom of the tree. To the naked boy’s alarm and annoyance, she was delighted at his embarrassment and laughed so loud that the birds fled, leaving him without his dignity, his clothes or a parrot. He was at the mercy of the prattling tongue of the mischievous teenage girl and in mortal fear of what his strict, churchgoing mother would do if she found out!

The Southern Side of the Island

For anyone interested in snorkelling, the quiet, sandy beaches on the south west side of the island are relatively free from sea urchins, with Parrot fish, Angel Fish, Southern Stingray and Barracuda found amongst others too numerous to list. Rarities amongst them included a High Hat and a Red Sea-horse. Swimming in these warm waters was a joy, although we needed to check frequently for boats and swimming past the reef was out of the question as the currents can be treacherous.

Little Cayman

The paradise island of Little Cayman can be reached via a seven-minute flight from Brac on Island Air’s small Cessna aircraft. The flight is a delight with breathtaking views of the islands and the reef. The grass airstrip now boasts a small brick building as an office and a shelter for its fire engine. The departure lounge consists of a couple of benches outside on the veranda – lovely!

Unlike Brac, the island is flat and is mainly mangrove swamp with palm fringed, clean white sandy beaches. Only 10 miles long by 1 mile wide, this peaceful island is home to an endemic Iguana and has the largest breeding colony of Red–footed Boobies in the Caribbean.

If you enjoy tranquillity Little Cayman is the place to go. The locals are friendly and hospitable and the island is beautiful. The only tourists here seemed to be a few divers who spend almost the whole day at sea. There is only one café open to the public on the island, but the food is good and fairly priced. There is a supermarket, a church, a good road, a few dive lodges and private houses. Walking east from the airport, we reached the Booby Pond, a large lake with breeding Red-footed Boobies, Magnificent Frigate Birds, migrant and resident waders and a few ducks, coot etc. This is the only place on the Caymans where Red-footed Boobies are to be found and they are still in good numbers. Grateful of the shaded veranda of the National Trust Visitor Centre, (closed while we were there) which overlooks the lake, we spent an hour or two watching the Boobies come and go. Their colour ranged from black and white to brown, but with the heat haze and the distance, they were difficult to photograph and we only had a few hours, not enough time to find a closer vantage point.

The iguanas on Little Cayman are accustomed to people. A couple loiter near the café waiting for food from benevolent diners. While I knelt on the veranda eating a biscuit, one of them climbed on to my lap to steal it and, much to my amusement, it won the tussle. I was a little taken aback at being mugged by a three and a half foot iguana! Charmed by his cheek, he ingratiated himself to me even further by allowing me to stroke his head, but lost my admiration minutes later when he launched himself in a flash towards a Bananaquit which had fallen, stunned from flying into a window - he ate the poor bird!

Zenaida Doves are common on the island, as are Antillean Grackles. The gardens and mangroves along the roadside were good for passerines with plenty of doves, warblers, Bananaquits and Grassquits.

Grand Cayman

George Town and the Tourist Areas

After a week of peace and quiet on Brac and Little Cayman, Grand Cayman was almost a culture shock. You get real traffic jams here and the areas around George Town and Seven Mile Beach (the two main towns on the island) were busy with tourists looking for duty free souvenirs.

George Town is one of the world’s major money markets and with its banks and financial institutions it provides all the up-market shops and attractions for its affluent visitors. This was no attraction for me, although it is a pleasant town, I dislike busy streets and have absolutely no interest in ‘exclusive’ shopping – or any other type of shopping come to that.

The elegant cruise liners offshore were an impressive sight and made a pleasing subject for my camera.

We dropped our companion off at the Turtle Farm (of little appeal to me, I wanted to see them wild) and noted the coaches from the cruise liners packing their passengers into the farm and the local shops to buy Tortuga Rum Cake (a delicious local delicacy) and duty free gifts. Then they were back on the coach to Hell, a small village backing on to a strange rock formation. They took quick look at the rocks, visited the shops and the Post Office to buy a T Shirt and to send the postcard from Hell then returned to their ships or the town

I spoke to a passenger from one of the cruise ships, she said that she was disappointed in the Caymans, that there was very little there for her. I felt that the tourists on the cruises missed the best of the Caymans. How her impressions differed mine, she had allowed herself to be herded to places to spend her money - she hadn’t the time to savour the place or the people. The Cayman Islanders can be wonderful storytellers and I spent a very pleasant 20 minutes, sitting on a doorstep of a hut at Hell, laughing, as a local told a yarn or two. I thought of the reefs and the exquisite botanic park, almost deserted pristine beaches, the cliffs where the Tropic Birds nest, the woods full of birds, the sight of thousands of egrets coming in to roost at Meagre Bay pond and the pleasant evenings listening to the locals joking over a beer. No, luxury liner or not, I’d rather do it my way.

Bodden Town

We found our accommodation via the Internet. The Turtles Nest is a haven of tranquillity located in Bodden Town in the south of the island. In front of the hotel, there is a thriving little town and a busy road, but once through the doors, we walked through to a soft, clean, white, palm fringed, sandy beach to the sea where Frigate Birds soared overhead as a local fisherman cleaned the fish he had caught from his little boat. A coral reef is within easy reach of the beach, and the warm shallow waters were good for snorkelling. The self-catering apartments were spotless and luxurious and the management were helpful, fun and friendly. The Turtles nest was expensive, but you get what you pay for and it turned out to be very good value for money we had no complaints at all.

Meagre Bay

Just east of Bodden Town was the first site we visited, Meagre Bay Pond. A mile or so east of Bodden Town is a broken fence and a gap in the trees surrounding a large and scenic lake. We walked through the broken fence towards the lake where we found a covered viewing platform by the shore. This had once been once a well-built structure, ideally positioned to view the lake, but the path leading down to it was overgrown and the wooden benches and roof were broken and starting to decay. There was obviously once an active birding group on the island, but we got the impression that they had lost some of their impetus or funding. Hopefully they will be able to find volunteers to restore the platform to its former glory before it decays beyond repair.

Warblers and Green Herons skulked in the mangroves while Tri-coloured and Little blue Herons, Snowy and Great white Egrets stalked fish in the shallow water. Shore birds rested on the rocks in the lake as the stilts squabbled and Least Terns hawked overhead. During the day this site was good, but in the evening it was truly impressive as the herons came in their thousands - a snowstorm of egrets, carpeting the margins of the lake, to roost under a spectacular sunset.

On Brac, we had worked hard to photograph the Brac Parrot, they are skittish and a difficult to capture on film. The Grand Cayman Parrot is accustomed to people and a far more obliging bird. We encountered several of them feasting on berries in the Red Birch trees across the road by the lake and near the Botanic Park, giving us exceptional photographic opportunities.

Rum Point

If travelling with a family, this is a good place to go and as our non-birding companion wanted to visit another tourist site, Rum Point was a reasonable compromise. It is on the tip of a peninsular north west of the centre of the island. It has cafés and picnic areas set in the Tamarisk trees on the sandy beach. The snorkelling is good here and the area has a pleasant laid-back atmosphere.

While Pam was swimming and Peter taking scenics, I wandered around with a 400mm lens. I have often forgotten to photograph the common birds generally found around habitation, so I thought that this would give me a chance to take a few images of avian opportunists as they stole and scrounged from the tourist’s plates. Antillean Grackles seemed to be the experts in this regard. I saw one or two stealing the food from their unwilling benefactors’ plates while they were eating! As expected Bananaquits were in abundance and the White-winged Doves seemed exceptionally tame here, taking risks as they stole from the feed bowl of a particularly mean pet Macaw. Nearby were a few wild Grand Cayman Parrots and various passerines, including a Yellow Warbler, which spent at least five minutes fighting its reflection in a car mirror. A couple of Brown Pelicans, a few Frigate Birds and several Royal Terns passed close to the beach.

The Botanic Park

The following day we took the central road to the Botanic Park. Situated near the centre of the island, this large, diverse and well-maintained garden has a lake and a woodland walk. As such it was an ideal place to familiarise ourselves with the birds and reptiles of the island. On the approach road we found a large blue iguana sunning itself on the gravel. Stopping the car, we approached slowly, pleased that it tolerated our presence as we took photographs. Large, striking and relatively tame, this attractive reptile was around four feet in length and greeny blue grey in colour. We thought it wise to discourage it from the road, so we waited for it to return to the woods before we left.

The modest entrance fee to the park is well worth paying, anyone interested in botany would love the myriad of exotic plants in the extensive grounds. In the car park, we discovered that the surrounding trees were full of passerines. We set up our cameras near the visitor centre, and were rewarded with good photographic opportunities of various warblers, Yucatan Vireo, more Cayman Parrots, Cuban Bullfinch, West Indian Woodpecker, Zenaida Dove, Common Ground Dove, the beautiful Caribbean Dove, and Striped-headed Tanager, one of the best birds of the trip for us.

It was pleasant in the shade of the trees during the intense heat of the day and many of the birds were drawn to a birdbath, which had been set up in the bushes close to the visitor centre. I have often found that birds that are normally shy in other places, are usually tame in parks and gardens where they are accustomed to the presence of people.

Even Common Ground Doves, which generally fly away on approach, were quite happy to pick around on the ground close to us, giving us an opportunity to take a few portraits.

Moving through the park we found plenty of migrants and made slow progress as we worked with our cameras. Harmless grass snakes and anole lizards basked in the sun and the occasional iguana stalked through the leaf litter. There were also one or two contented captive iguanas in a large shady compound.

On our arrival at the lake, we were disappointed to discover that the West Indian Whistling Ducks had left the park and were unlikely to return for some months. They were one of the target species we had missed on Brac and this was one of the few remaining sites where we might find them. I began to doubt that we would ever catch up with them. Our only Sora Rail of the trip was little compensation. However, despite the absence of the Whistling Duck, our visit to the park was a success and we returned two days later to work our way through another batch of film.

Malportas Pond

We learned of another site for West Indian Whistling Duck a little further to the north at Willy Ebanks pig farm and after several failed attempts, we eventually located it. The farm is situated in the north of the island at the edge of a lake known as Malportas Pond. This appears to be their last refuge in the heat of the summer months. The farmhands encourage them with food and were happy to grant us access when we asked permission. We arrived just after the farmer had scattered grain for them. Although wild, the Whistling Ducks tolerated our presence, provided we didn’t approach too closely. There were dozens of them with Blue-winged Teal, Moorhens, American Coot and various doves and pigeons.

Pedro Castle

We had photographed White-tailed Tropic Birds on Cayman Brac but were not confident that the images taken there were adequate and had no intention of going home without a few decent shots of these elegant birds. So we tried a site on Grand Cayman hoping for a second chance. Between Bodden Town and George Town is a historic building known a Pedro Castle. We had heard that there was once a colony of Tropic Birds on the cliffs nearby. So, early one morning, we drove down the road leading south past the Castle where we found a track leading towards the coast.

We parked at the end of the track and continued on foot across the rocky terrain until we reached the cliff. Thankfully, there was still a dozen or more nesting on the cliffs. After 7.30 a.m. they seemed to leave the area, heading out to sea to feed. So for three days, at dawn we spent an hour watching them fly close to the shore. We were rewarded with several opportunities to use the cameras while they displayed in tandem, tails depressed as they croaked softly to each other. Whenever a Frigate Bird flew by they would disappear, returning only when it had passed from view. Looking out to sea, dolphins and a turtle passed by and a shoal of small fish under the cliffs jumped out of the water indicating the presence of a predator. Returning back along the track we passed through a copse where we found a few birds including La Sagra’s Flycatcher, West Indian Woodpecker and, a little further on, in the garden of a grand house, a colony of feral Monk Parakeets.

Farmland in the North East (Summerfield Road)

Our final target was Mangrove Cuckoo. This species had eluded us in Florida where we had only heard them. A favoured method for sighting them is to ‘tape’ them out. However, not knowing the effects this has on breeding birds and having heard opinions from those who insist that such unnecessary disturbance can be detrimental, we chose not to use this method. Instead, we decided to rely on listening, waiting and hoping that we might get lucky. Our opportunity arose while, while exploring in the north east of the island. We took a detour down a dusty track (Summerfield Road) where we found a greater diversity of migrant warblers and passerines than we had found anywhere else in the island, except the Botanic Park. We parked the car near a copse where Peter heard a low rasping call, we listened as it called once more and realised that it could be a Mangrove Cuckoo. We searched extensively up and down the farm track for an hour, when at last, a pair of agitated Mocking Birds alerted us to the presence of a bird in the undergrowth. Luckily for us, the Mocking Birds harassed the Cuckoo until they drove it into view leaving us in no doubt that it was indeed a Mangrove Cuckoo. It sat long enough for us to take a few record shots before fled from its tormentors into the woods and we returned to the car jubilant.

Stingray City

Some time ago, fishermen used to clean their catch in a calm shallow area of the bay in north west of Grand Cayman between Seven Mile Beach and Rum Point. Southern Stingrays took advantage of this by feeding on the waste. One of the islanders soon found that by tempting them with bait, they would swim right up to him and so ‘Stingray City’ was born. It is now one of the island’s most unusual attractions. The water is shallow, around three to four feet deep and the Stingrays have become adapted to people, swimming against their legs and allowing the tourists to stroke them and feed them with squid. We booked a trip on Captain Dexter’s catamaran to visit ‘Stingray City’. Floating in the water, looking down through our masks, it was a bizarre and wonderful experience to have the Stingrays swimming beneath, often touching us. Some of them are around five feet wide. Their devilish faces and sharp spines were a little disconcerting initially, but after few minutes we began to enjoy the privilege of having such strange and graceful creatures at close proximity, evidently enjoying our attention and allowing us to touch them. This was not the only delight that Captain Dexter had in store for us that afternoon. He sailed the boat to a coral reef where we snorkelled, watching in awe as he coaxed a large Green Moray Eel from it’s hole in the reef with bait. There was such a diversity of fish (including barracuda) and corals that Peter and I were reluctant to leave the water as the trip came to an end.

Other Sites

During our visit to Grand Cayman, we neglected to visit the Mastic Tra il. Having read the list and description for this site, I regret this now. However, we had managed to photograph almost all of the birds listed for this site elsewhere. Visitors to this site require stout footwear, as it is tough and uneven in places, passing over the sharp rocks typical of the islands. It is situated near the centre of the island to the west of the central north-south road.

After dropping off our companion at George Town one day, we took the road north to the tip of the western peninsula and an area known as Barker's. This is mangrove swamp, intersected by dykes, bordered on the north by a beach edged with palms and Sea-grape. Travelling along the dykes we found the area very difficult to work, the birds spent most of the time hidden in the shade of the mangroves while we watched from the tracks with no relief from the hot sun. Birds were mainly heard rather than seen, the tracks were uneven and often difficult to drive. We found Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher, Tri-coloured Heron and Yellow Warbler amongst other birds.

We visited a few other sites near the town of Savannah including Governor Gore’s pond, but although these are detailed in the new edition of ‘Birds of the Cayman Islands’, we found them to be fairly overgrown and unproductive.

On the east side of the island is a large lake known as Collier Pond . We could not find a vantage point along its length. The best we could do was to peer through the branches of the trees and bushes that surrounded it, giving us a very limited view. Perhaps there is another viewpoint, but we couldn’t find it.

Conclusion

Crime and hassle in the Cayman Islands are almost unknown, the islands are certainly far safer than England. The only hassle I encountered was a teenage lad asking for a dollar on the last day, but after I reprimanded him, he gave up. He was certainly not a pauper, just a teenager trying his luck and after his encounter with me, I doubt if he’ll be scrounging from tourists again!

The only drawback is the expense, with economy flights ranging from £700 to £1,400 and basic self catering packages starting at just under £1,300pp based on two sharing. Using the Internet for flights and booking accommodation direct and can cut costs considerably, as checking all the agencies (beware, we were misinformed about schedules by Astbury’s, the Exeter travel agency who booked our tickets and this caused major problems).

As they are small islands, the Caymans are relaxing and driving long distances to see everything is unnecessary. We spent plenty of time in the sea and still had time to ‘clean-up’ on the endemics. The species range is limited, but the specialities make it worthwhile.

The Cayman Islands are idyllic (especially Little Cayman) and a good holiday location for someone travelling with a family, non-birding partner, for photographers wanting to take their time on good portraits or for a birder or diver who just needs to unwind.The Caymans are lovely, friendly people, good food, beautiful scenery, tropical fish in the sea, colourful birds in the air – who could ask for more?

Species List

Pied-billed Grebe

Several at the Westerly Ponds and on the marshes on Cayman Brac; 1 Governor Gore's Pond, Grand Cayman on 19/4.

White-tailed Tropicbird

First seen on 7/4 with 2 birds flying over La Esperanza, Cayman Brac. Thereafter seen regularly along cliffs in Spot Bay area. 1 seen flying below the plane whilst flying between Cayman Brac and Little Cayman on 8/4. On Grand Cayman, the small colony at Pedro Castle performed well each morning along the cliff edge, until around 8.15am when they would head out to sea for the day.

Brown Booby

First seen out at sea off the north-east point of the Bluff, Cayman Brac on 7/4. Several pairs, with young of various ages along the Bluff along South Side Road, Cayman Brac - seen on several occasions.

Red-footed Booby

At least 100 birds seen at the Booby Pond, Little Cayman on 8/4 - a mixture of both white and brown morphs and juveniles (with yellow feet).

Brown Pelican

3 came in to roost at the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 12/4. 1 still there, seen from the adjacent airport, on 13/4. 2 along the coast just east of Rum Point on 13/4. All birds seen were immatures.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Non-breeding birds regularly patrolled the shores along Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman. Dozens of breeding pairs in the Red-footed Booby colony on Little Cayman.

Great Blue Heron

1 seen at Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on the morning of 8/4; 1 there on 9/4; 7 there on 11/4;

Great Egret

Cayman Brac - small numbers regularly seen on the marshes and Westerly Ponds. Little Cayman - common on the Booby Pond on 8/4. Grand Cayman - common in creeks and fields around the airport and at Meagre Bay Pond.

Snowy Egret

Cayman Brac - small numbers regularly seen on the marshes and Westerly Ponds. Little Cayman - common on the Booby Pond on 8/4. Grand Cayman - very common at Meagre Bay Pond with hundreds roosting there in the evenings; several at Malportas Pond on Grand Cayman on 14/4.

Little Blue Heron

Common at Meagre Bay Pond on Grand Cayman.

Tricoloured Heron

1 on Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4; 4 or 5 there on 11/4; 1 at Barkers, Grand Cayman on 15/4; 200+ roosting at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4;

Cattle Egret

Fairly common on Cayman Brac around the marshes, Westerly Ponds and around cattle on the Bluff. Several on Little Cayman on 8/4. Common in fields around the airport on Grand Cayman.

Green Heron

2 on the Booby Pond, Little Cayman on 8/4; 3+ on Westerly ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4 and 11/4; 2 by the marshes. Cayman Brac on 12/4. Several at Meagre Bay Pond on Grand Cayman; 1 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4. 1 risking the jagged rocks at Hell, Grand Cayman on 15/4; 1 by Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4 and 18/4. 1 seen from the boat out to Sting Ray City on 18/4.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

1 on the Bluff, Cayman Brac on the evening of 8/4; another in a different area of the Bluff on 9/4 and another on 10/4; 1 on the marshes, Cayman Brac on 11/4 and 12/4.

Glossy Ibis

1 at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

West Indian Whistling Duck

50+ at Willie Ebank's Farm by Malportas Pond, Grand Cayman on 14/4.

Blue-winged Teal

Cayman Brac - fairly common on the westerly ponds; several on the Booby Pond, Little Cayman on 8/4; common at Willie Ebank's Farm, Grand Cayman on 14/4.

Osprey

Singles seen on Cayman Brac on 7/4, 10/4

American Kestrel

1 flew over Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Merlin

A female on the Bluff, Cayman Brac on the evening of 8/4 and 10/4; 1 in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 15/4. 1 was at Pedro Castle, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Peregrine Falcon

1 on the north-east point of the Bluff, Cayman Brac on 7/4 and 8/4. 1 over the Bluff on 11/4; 1 hunting waders over the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 11/4 and 12/4.

Sora

1 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4.

Common Moorhen

Fairly commonly seen on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman

American Coot

Up to 1995 only 1 pair had ever bred on the Caymans - it must be colonising as we saw several pairs with young at the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac.

Black-bellied Plover

1 on Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4 and 11/4; 30+ were at Prospect Point, Grand Cayman on 19/4.

Semi-palmated Plover

1 at the western end of Cayman Brac on 12/4; 1 at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

Black-necked Stilt

Very common on the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac; the Booby Pond, Little Cayman and Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman. A pair with a newly hatched chick on Westerly Ponds, Grand Cayman on 11/4. 1 in the jagged rocks at Hell, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

Greater Yellowlegs

2 on the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4; several at Meagre Bay Pond on 15/4.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Several on the Booby Pond, Little Cayman on 8/4; several at Meagre Bay Pond on 13/4 and 15/4.

Solitary Sandpiper

1 on the marshes, Cayman Brac on 12/4.

Willet

2 on the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4; 1 there on 11/4 and 12/4; several at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman 15/4.

Spotted Sandpiper

2 on the Booby Pond, Little Cayman on 8/4; 1 from the boat to Stingray City on 18/4; 1 Prospect Point, Grand Cayman 19/4.

Whimbrel

1 at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

Ruddy Turnstone

A regular flock of up to a dozen frequented the buildings on the sea-front at La Esperanza, Cayman Brac.

Short-billed Dowitcher

10+ on the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4 and a few there on 11/4 and 12/4.

Laughing Gull

1 at Meagre Bay Pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4, 11 were off Pedro Castle, Grand Cayman on 19/4.

Royal Tern

Several at sea off the western end of Cayman Brac on 11/4 and 12/4. Common around the coast of Grand Cayman.

Least Tern

2 or 3 at Meagre Bay pond, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

White-crowned Pigeon

Fairly commonly seen on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman

White-winged Dove

Common on Cayman Brac, apparently increasing and displacing the following species. Both still common on Grand Cayman

Zenaida Dove

First seen on 8/4 on Little Cayman where we had around 6 individuals; 1 on Cayman Brac on 9/4;

Common Ground Dove

Common on all three islands.

Caribbean Dove

This beautiful dove was only seen at the Botanic Park on Grand Cayman on 14/4 and 16/4.

Monk Parakeet

A small colony of this introduced species in the grounds of a mansion at Pedro Castle. Several near Governor Gore's Pond, Grand Cayman on 19/4.

Cuban Parrot (A.l.hesterna)

The Cayman Brac subspecies, now very endangered, first seen on the evening of 7/4 along the road through the parrot reserve with around a dozen birds going to roost. We heard them on most days but seeing them was generally a different matter. We finally caught up with them photographically, on the corner of Songbird Drive on the Bluff on 11/4 where up to 20 birds performed well, right by the roadside.

Cuban Parrot (A.l.caymanensis)

The Grand Cayman subspecies were first seen along the road by Meagre Bay Pond on 13/4. Thereafter proved to be more common and approachable than the Brac species with birds being seen at various locations around the island. Particularly common and obliging on both visits to the Botanic Park on 14/4 and 16/4.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

1 at Barkers, Grand Cayman on 15/4; 1 at Savannah, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Mangrove Cuckoo

1 showed well along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 16/4 with another calling nearby; 3 were seen together briefly in the same area on 17/4. 1 very brief sighting in the same area on 18/4.

Smooth-billed Ani

First seen behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4, thereafter seen commonly, particularly at the west end and on the Bluff. A few on Little Cayman on 8/4. Several seen in various locations on Grand Cayman

Barn Owl

1 heard behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on the evening of 9/4.

Common Nighthawk

1 heard calling on the evening of 7/4 at the junction of Bight Road and Major Macdonald Drive on Cayman Brac; 1 calling by Peter's Outlook on the Bluff, Cayman Brac on 10/4 (see also next species account).

Antillean Nighthawk

Visible migration of this and the previous species over the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on the evening of 12/4 - easily separated by call, there was a mixed flock of around 40 birds in total.

Chimney Swift

6+ were at Pedro Castle on 17/4 in with a flock of Barn Swallows.

Belted Kingfisher

1 on the sea-front opposite La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4; 1 at Barkers, Grand Cayman on 15/4.

West Indian Woodpecker

2 seen in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4 with another very obliging bird there on 16/4. 1 was just inland of Pedro Castle, Grand Cayman on 17/4; 1 Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Northern Flicker

1 along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Caribbean Elaenia

A very common bird on all three islands. An inquisitive species, responding extremely well to pishing.

La Sagra's Flycatcher

1 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 16/4; 2 were just inland of Pedro Castle, Grand Cayman on 17/4. 1 along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Grey Kingbird

Fairly common on Cayman Brac throughout the week and a few on Little Cayman on 8/4.

Loggerhead Kingbird

Fairly common on Cayman Brac, particularly behind La Esperanza. A pair was nesting by the airport on Grand Cayman. Particularly common and obliging at the Botanic Park on Grand Cayman.

Purple Martin

1 or 2 with a mixed flock of swallows, including Barn Swallows and the following species on Little Cayman on 8/4. One on the Bluff on Cayman Brac.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Several with Barn Swallows on Little Cayman on 8/4; several with the following species at Pedro Castle, Grand Cayman 19/4.

Barn Swallow

Migrating flocks seen on most days on Cayman Brac and on Little Cayman on 8/4. There was passage noted at Pedro Castle on Grand Cayman on 17/4 and 19/4.

Red-legged Thrush

Only found on Cayman Brac; Several seen each day around La Esperanza; 1 in the Parrot Reserve on the Bluff on 10/4; 1 by the corner of Songbird Drive on the Bluff on 11/4.

Gray Catbird

1 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4; 1 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4 .

Northern Mockingbird

The commonest medium sized bird on the islands - found in most inland habitats.

Thick-billed Vireo

1 or 2 seen on most days in the lane behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac. 1 along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 18/4. 3 were along Arlington Road in the centre of Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Black-whiskered Vireo

1 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 12/4; 5 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4. 1 seen at SummerfieldRoad, Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Yucatan Vireo

1 in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4; 2 or 3 there on 16/4, several along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 174 and 18/4.

Parula Warbler

A male and female were seen at Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Yellow Warbler

1 attacking its own reflection in a car wing mirror at Rum Point, Grand Cayman on 13/4. Several at Barkers, Grand Cayman on 15/4. Several were seen at Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 16/4 and 17/4, including one of the red-capped subspecies. 1 of the red-capped sub-species at Meagre Bay pond.

Magnolia Warbler

A male at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4; a male and female there on 16/4; a female at Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Cape May Warbler

A female on Little Cayman on 8/4; a male on Cayman Brac behind La Esperanza on 9/4. 1 on the Bluff by Songbird Drive on 11/4.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

A female in the lane behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4 and a male there on 10/4 and 12/4.

Black-throated Green Warbler

1 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4.

Prairie Warbler

2 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4; 1 there on 9/4.

Vitelline Warbler

Cayman Brac subspecies D.v.crawfordi common in the lane behind La Esperanza; 1 Spot Bay 10/4; 1 on the Bluff, Cayman Brac on 10/4. Grand Cayman subspecies D.v.vitellina quite common in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4 and 16/4. Several along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4.

Palm Warbler

Several behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4, 9/4 and 10/4; several on Little Cayman on 8/4; 1 at the airport on Cayman Brac on 13/4; 1 at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4.

Black and White Warbler

1 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 12/4; 2 in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 14/4; 1 at Summerfield Road Grand Cayman on 16/4 and 17/4.

American Redstart

1 female behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 7/4, 9/4 and 10/4; with a male there on 9/4; a female at Spot Bay on 10/4. A female at the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 16/4; a female at Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4..

Ovenbird

1 in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman on 16/4.

Common Yellowthroat

1 behind La Esperanza, Cayman Brac on 12/4; 2 females together along Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 17/4 with a male there on 18/4.

Bananaquit

The commonest small bird on all three islands - subspecies C.F sharpei endemic to the Caymans. One unfortunate individual was eaten by a Rock Iguana after flying into a window on Little Cayman.

Stripe-headed Tanager

This stunning bird was quite common in the Botanic Park, Grand Cayman and in woodland habitat in the centre of the island. 2 or 3 were in scrub in Summerfield Road in the east of Grand Cayman on 16/4. A pair were at Arlington Road in the centre of Grand Cayman on 18/4.

Indigo Bunting

1 on Little Cayman on 8/4; 1 near the Westerly Ponds, Cayman Brac on 9/4; 1 Summerfield Road, Grand Cayman on 16/4 and 17/4.

Cuban Bullfinch

Common on Grand Cayman particularly in the Botanic Park.

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Common on all three islands in gardens, open grassy fields and scrub.

Greater Antillean Grackle

The Little Cayman subspecies, Q.n.bangsi, commonly seen on 8/4. The Grand Cayman supspecies, Q.n,caymanensis, very commonly seen, particularly in open fields and scrub. Common around the beach cafes at Rum Point, Grand Cayman.