A bird’s-eye view of bird watching

Why do scientists think humming birds hum? Because they can’t remember the words!  

Did this joke make you chuckle? If not, your kids may find it funny, as well as others on the National Trust’s informative bird watching activity guide, which also includes how to make a recycled bird feeder and interesting bird facts (did you know that the chicken is the most common species of bird found in the world?). Hopefully it will entice you to take one of the Trust’s guided nature tours, too. 

It’s all part of the Trust’s “Families in the Wild” program, designed to encourage families in Grand Cayman to spend more time together while enjoying the great outdoors, according to Karie Bounds, education program coordinator. “Every month we pull together an activity which highlights a unique aspect of Cayman’s environment, heritage and culture. Some of our activities have gotten families into our forests, onto kayaks, exploring mangroves and even looking up at stars,” says Bounds.  

Bird watching was May’s theme in honor of the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival. Stuart Mailer, field officer at the National Trust, conducts frequent private tours for groups of visiting “birders” (the name reserved for serious-minded bird watchers), as well as regular nature tours on the Mastic Trail where birding is an important component. You can also find a unique selection of bird books and bird identification cards at the Trust office, including a local guide, “A Photographic Guide to the Birds of the Cayman Islands,” by Patricia Bradley, a local ornithologist, and photographed by Yves-Jacques Rey Millet. 

Although Rey Millet has been photographing birds since he was 14, he does not consider himself a competitive bird watcher; capturing their image is more thrilling to him than making lists.  

He compares bird watching to finding a hidden treasure.  

“During summer months, endemic birds and a few summer visitors breed in Cayman and you can search for nests and observe nesting and feeding behavior. When you are out in the field with your binoculars, it feels like a treasure hunt to discover a beautiful or rare bird…The thrill for me is the excitement of having seen a rare bird and being able to get that perfect photo of it. It’s a lovely feeling,” he says. 

Mailer says, “Even at a very casual level, birding provides a focus for an outdoor walk, much the same as beachcombing does for strollers along the shore. At a more advanced level, recording extreme rarities and even first-ever recordings is a real thrill. Cayman has so few enthusiastic birders, and weather patterns are changing, so the chance of extremely rare sightings is very real.”  

Mailer has personally recorded seven first-ever birds in the Cayman Islands within the last three years.  

Not surprisingly, there hasn’t been a big demand for bird watching tours among children.  

“In my experience, children under the age of about 8 have difficulty using binoculars, but one of the quickest ways to get older children keen on birding is to get them set up with a ‘life list,’ which is a list of all the birds they have seen and identified. A free online resource, eBird, has a checklist of the most likely species to be seen in Cayman: it can also show rarities, provides a convenient way to store your birding records, and provide you with email alerts of unusual bird sightings on the island, including location maps,” he says.  

For inspiration and a spot of humor, check out the 2011 comedy film “The Big Year,” starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as competitive birders who will stop at nothing to increase their lists and out-maneuver one another on their quest to find the elusive, rare bird. 

Local birds and sites 

Bird watchers in Cayman don’t have to create life-long lists or travel far to take part in this activity. In fact, you can bird watch at any of the following National Trust protected sites: Barkers National Park in West Bay, Governor Gore’s Bird Sanctuary in Spotts, Meagre Bay Pond in Bodden Town, Colliers Pond in East End, Mastic Trail and the Botanic Park in Frank Sound. Anyone can sign up for Mailer’s nature tours, whether you are a Trust member or not (memberships are $45 for the year for a family of two adults and children under age 18).  

Unique subspecies 

Cayman has 17 unique subspecies of birds that are exclusive to the country (this means that you will never see them anywhere else on earth), with 13 of those inhabiting Grand Cayman, and the remaining four in the Sister Islands. During each of his tours along the Mastic Trail, Mailer usually sees or hears 10 or more of the 13 subspecies of birds, and he has recorded all 13 on several occasions. These include the Cayman Parrot, the Caribbean Dove, the West Indian Woodpecker, and the Greater Antillean Grackle, to name a few. The Grackle is more commonly known as the Ching Ching bird, which has been known to swoop down if it feels you are too close to its babies during their nesting period (March to July). According to the Department of Environment’s website, the best way to protect yourself is to do the “Ching Ching finger wiggle.” Since the birds usually go for the highest point on your head, you can scare them off by putting your hand on top of your head like a rooster comb and wiggling your fingers.  

One of the best places to see the Cayman Parrot is at the Botanic Park, according to Mailer. He has led many birding expeditions there and has never failed to spot the colorful birds. He says another good spot to find them is the southern end of the Mastic Trail.  

“The parrots can be raucous and easy to detect, but they can also be very quiet, so it is important to listen for their quiet chuckling chatter, or the sound of pieces of fruit falling to the ground if they are feeding.”  

(Bird) call of the wild 

Mailer gets a thrill from seeing all birds, but identifying them by their calls is another thing altogether.  

“Once you know them by sight, it is challenging and rewarding to learn their calls as well,” says Mailer, who knows the regular calls of all of Cayman’s native birds, although he is occasionally puzzled by an unfamiliar call which sometimes turns out to be a baby bird asking its parents for food.  

“Our migratory warblers are more of a challenge, as many do not sing away from their breeding grounds in North America. If you are interested in learning their songs, you can find soundtracks on line, and there are mobile device apps which will bring up photos, soundtracks and other information about these birds.” 

Although one can mimic calls to attract birds, Mailers says he is not the most talented at it.  

“Playbacks – recording the bird and then playing back the calls to attract them – is a somewhat controversial technique as it stresses the bird into thinking they have a rival. It certainly should only be used very sparingly. Another technique is ‘phishing,’ where you make swishing noises similar to calling a cat. Some birds are often drawn to this noise. It is theorized that it is similar to the alarm calls that birds make when a predator is sighted and is a signal for other birds to gather to ‘mob’ the intruder.” 

No need to ruffle their feathers, after all. When it comes to Cayman’s local birds, he says they are mostly very curious and are attracted simply by talking quietly and calmly to them in English.  

“I have had a La Sagra’s Flycatcher actually land on my outstretched finger using this technique,” he says.  

Mailer’s nature tours are conducted on weekday mornings and occasional weekends along the Mastic Trail, with groups limited to 10. For dedicated birding tours he often meets at Governor Gore’s Bird Sanctuary and then takes the group by minibus to several good birding spots. To inquire about bird watching or other Families
in the Wild activities, visit the Trust Office and Visitor Centre at Dart Park on South Church Street, call 749-1121, or www.nationaltrust.org.ky.  

Bird Watching Tips 

Most bird watching enthusiasts say the best time to spot birds is in the morning when they are searching for food (high protein worms make excellent meals for baby chicks), but you also have a good chance of sightings in late afternoons. You should listen intently to the bird calls. No matter how much of an eagle eye you may have, you will often not see birds but rather, hear their movements in trees. That’s when you bring out the binoculars. And don’t forget to make a list of the ones you see.  

Apart from binoculars, Rey Millet says it’s important to have mosquito repellent, and perhaps the field guide for the country where you intend to go birding, for identification purposes.  

“First you listen for sound, then search for the bird and watch out for movement in the foliage and follow through with your binoculars. We do keep records for each time we are out in the field, stating the date, time, location and number of birds per species we have seen that day, followed by notes of observation,” he says. “It is quite interesting to keep records as you can compare the bird sightings during the following years. Also, observation about the weather is useful as there is a certain wind and atmospheric conditions that brings in the migrants during migratory season. Getting a good photo is much more difficult than just spotting the bird.”  

His advice for budding bird photographers: “Start your bird photo career with large birds first, like herons, pelicans, frigate birds, etc., and remember that practice makes perfect.” 

  • Cayman’s 17 Subspecies of Birds 
  • Caribbean Dove – Grand Cayman 
  • Cayman Parrot (2 species) – Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac 
  • West Indian Woodpecker – Grand Cayman 
  • Northern Flicker – Grand Cayman 
  • Caribbean Elaenia – all three islands 
  • Loggerhead Kingbird – Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac 
  • Red-legged Thrush – Cayman Brac 
  • Thick-billed Vireo – all three islands 
  • Bananaquit – all three islands 
  • Yucatan Vileo – Grand Cayman 
  • Vitelline Warbler (2 species) – Grand Cayman, Little Cayman 
  • Western Spindalis (previously Striped-headed Tanger) – Grand Cayman 
  • Bullfinch – Grand Cayman 
  • Greater Antillean Grackle (aka Ching Ching) – Grand Cayman, Little Cayman 

One of the best places to see the Cayman Parrot is at the Botanic Park. – Photo: Yves-Jacques Rey Millet


The Caribbean Dove. – Photo: Stuart Mailer