Last weekend, the Global Big Day saw local birders including Christine Rose-Smyth, Stuart Mailer, Geddes Hislop and Peter Davey in the eastern districts trying to identify and record as many species of birds as possible.
They joined more than 15,000 others around the world in submitting records to the Cornell Lab’s eBird international database, which brought in a record global 6,184 bird species recorded in one day.
The group from Cayman scored a coup, and wound up placing second in the West Indies region for the number of species recorded.
The successful day for local birders was thanks to their skills and also to the fact that, as the National Trust notes on its website, the Cayman Islands is home to a wide range of resident, migratory and visiting birds.
“Cayman is particularly fascinating for the study of wildlife, as species long resident on one island can evolve slightly differently from their mainland counterparts, and develop characteristics not seen anywhere else,” the Trust points out.
Birds have long been a source of interest and study in the Cayman Islands, with the first studies of birds found in Cayman published by C.B.C. Cory in 1886, which described only birds found in Grand Cayman at the time.
The Trust notes that numerous visits by ornithologists were made in the ensuing years.
Patricia Bradley, who came to live in Grand Cayman in 1982, began to put together comparative monthly records of bird sightings on all three islands. She published a highly regarded field guide, “Birds of the Cayman Islands,” now in its second edition, with pictures by Ms. Bradley and Yves-Jacques Rey-Millet.
The guide describes the Cayman Islands’ biogeography and gives details of the history of bird settlement and migration.
More recently, international experts have also visited Cayman to study its bird life, some under the auspices of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands’ Visiting Scientists Programme.
In 1994, Nedra Klein from the American Museum of Natural History arrived to conduct a study of local tanagers, warblers and bananaquits, and in 1997, Betty Ann Schreiber helped conduct the survey on the Booby Pond on Little Cayman.
The Trust organizes birding activities conducted by local ornithologists and avid bird enthusiasts. Frequently, visiting birders and others who want to go birding head to the Botanic Park. “There are 14 endemic species in Cayman and all but one, since it is only found on the Brac, can be seen at the park,” said the Trust’s field officer Stuart Mailer.
“The Caribbean dove is very elusive, but in an hour or two you can see the vast majority of the 13 species, or even all,” he continued, adding that most of the 13 birds are only found on Grand Cayman, and not on the Sister Islands. One of those is the Cayman bullfinch, Melopyrrha taylori which is now only found in East End, Bodden Town and North Side, its range having shrunk as a result of habitat loss. The bullfinch population was very hard hit by Hurricane Ivan, but appears much healthier now, and they are a common sight on the north end of the Mastic Trail.
Mr. Mailer noted a birding group that comes to Cayman a few times of year called Carefree Birding likes to meet at the Botanic park as well.
“The group travels on cruises to various spots and organizes birding outings at each port of call,” explained Mr. Mailer.
“They wound up coming here purely by chance, since their first visit in 2009 was due to an unscheduled stop, as they were supposed to be in Belize. Afterward, the Cayman stop was voted their favorite, and now they come several times a year.”
They and other birders use the Cornell eBird databank, where birders can record their sightings. The recorded data is used for research and the site provides extensive birding information.
The Trust suggests novice birders do not need much to get started – in fact, only a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to assist in identifying the birds spotted, and that early in the morning or late in the afternoon are the preferred times to look for birds. It’s always possible a birder may come across a bird never spotted before in Cayman.
An excellent local resource helpful for getting to know Cayman’s birds is the “Cayman Islands Virtual Bird Guide,” a joint effort by the Department of Environment, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Patricia Bradley, author of “Birds of the Cayman Islands,” and Herbert Raffaele, author of “Birds of the West Indies,” courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Winged Ambassadors Program.
The simple-to-navigate site has images and brief descriptions of the birds found in the Cayman Islands, making it a convenient and handy resource for bird knowledge, and is found at www.doe.ky/terrestrial/virtual-bird-guide.