Having travelled the Bahamas from Grand Bahama and the Abacos south to Great Inagua I had never given myself the opportunity to hang out in the Biminis. Visions of several new birds for my West Indies list paraded through my mind until I finally told myself that I was going.
Timing a visit to these islands(http://www.geographia.com/bahamas/bsbiin01.htm
) made famous by Ernest Hemingway, Big Game Fishing, and the ultimate scene from the movie Silence of the Lambs, was an important consideration. Summer months in the Biminis are overloaded with all manner of fishing tournaments making hotel rooms (if you can get one) expensive. March is another fishing tournament month confounded by spring breakers drinking themselves senseless on not-so-cheap Kalik beer.
Fall migration seemed logical for "good" birds. P. William Pigeon visited Bimini for a day in September in the early 1990s and found four species of Vireo and twelve species of Warbler. Chris Haney, David Lee, and I had extremely good luck on Grand Bahama over Thanksgiving in 1995, and I bet that a similar time in the Biminis would produce good birds. I settled on Thanksgiving 2003 for an exploratory jaunt to this "foreign" land 60 miles east of the frenzied pace of Fort Lauderdale.
November 25 -
Unless you own a sailboat, or a yacht, or are friends with someone who does, the simplest option for getting to the Biminis from South Florida is the twice-daily flight on Chalks Ocean Airways (www.flychalks.com
), the 'world's oldest airline'. They fly twice daily (for $59.00 each way plus taxes) from Fort Lauderdale to North Bimini in an ancient but highly cool 17-passenger Grumman Mallard. Jimmy Buffett in his song about Jamaican mistakes says that "landing on the water's about my favorite thrill". When you do a 150 mile per hour belly flop into Bimini Harbour you'll understand Jimmy's thrill. The flight from Fort Lauderdale to North Bimini is 25 minutes which, ultimately, is too short a time to be in an amphibious plane. But, you can always come back. An alternative for flying to Bimini is to charter a plane from Fort Lauderdale to take you to the South Bimini airport. There are now two carriers each flying one nonstop daily from Nassau to South Bimini. The negative side of that service is having to go to Nassau.
The immigration officer at the airport was confused when I told him my purpose on Bimini was bird watching. He insisted that I needed a permit (what a nightmare that is in the Bahamas!). I finally convinced him after dumping the contents of my day pack on his inspection table that I had nothing with me to capture or collect a bird. He looked askance at me, reluctantly stamped my passport, and gave me one of those looks your mother gave you when you came home trying to hide the beer on your breath that was intended to mean "you better be telling the truth".
Late afternoon arrival on North Bimini left little time to look for birds before sunset. We arrived at low tide and the exposed sand bars in the harbour teemed with Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron
and the requisite Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns
and Laughing Gull.
Walking from the airport to 'downtown' Alice Town, I checked the pond just north of Chalks mentioned in White's Bahama Bird Finding Guide. He suggests looking for Common Nighthawks over this pond in spring. Given the closed-in feeling provided by the giant Causarina trees around the pond's edge, I can't imagine a Common Nighthawk ever finding the pond. A White Ibis
, my first ever in the Bahamas, had found it, and the sighting made a pronounced tick on my Bahamas list.
I crashed at the nearby (everything on North Bimini is nearby) Sea Crest Hotel (http://www.seacrestbimini.com/
) (Phone reservations only at (242) 347 3071) A single room here is $95 per night. The hotel has no restaurant. My arrival was on a Tuesday and I learned much to my chagrin that none of the restaurants or the hole's in the wall dives were open for dinner on Tuesday night. The Bimini Blue Water Resort (email: firstname.lastname@example.org
has the Anchorage Guest Rooms and a Restaurant but the restaurant was closed. So was the restaurant at the Bimini Big Game Club (http://www.biminibiggame.com/
) Its restaurant is open only on weekends this time of year.
- I was up before dawn and checking out nearby vegetation, From the hotel I walked a block west to Radio Beach, then walked north past the Anchorage and then back east a block to 'main' street and turned right (south) to Captain Bob's restaurant. In that 20 minutes of searching among land birds, I saw 8 Palm Warblers
and too many Eurasian Collared Doves
to want to count. That was it!
A water-taxi service operates on an unscheduled basis between North and South Bimini. It leaves from the very conspicuous municipal dock by the pink customs building. The crossing took maybe three minutes and deposited me in "downtown" South Bimini. The pace of life on North Bimini is best described as "comatose"; its even more laid back on South Bimini.
Walking away from the ferry landing, I was surprised by the dearth of bird voices. Other than the ever-present Palm Warblers
, there were very few songbirds. A patch of coppice by 'Big Willie's Three-In-One Store' produced a singing Thick-billed Vireo
. It also produced two (the only two) Yellow-rumped Warblers
for the trip. Following directions in White's book, I stayed straight where the asphalt road swings left (east) to the South Bimini airport (no sign), and walked the dirt road south past the expanding Bimini Sands Resort (http://www.biminibeachclub.com/index2.htm
). Again, this stretch of coppice was ghostly quiet.
Invasive vegetation (a.k.a. Causarina) had been removed (and hopefully fully killed) from the edge of a large mangrove wetland across the road from the Bimini Sands. Vegetation removal produced exquisite views of the wetland but here, across from the Bimini Sands there was not one bird on the wetland! An Osprey
perched in a mangrove and scanned the wetland for an unsuspecting fish. Other than that, there was nobody home.
Continuing south I passed through more good coppice habitat that held the occasional Palm Warbler
and at a couple places a Common Yellowthroat
. In this stretch of coppice I saw the only Western Spindalis (Stripe-headed Tanager
) of the trip.
White describes a road to the right (west) where the power lines diverge from the main road. There is also a totally out of place stop sign here. Walking along the edge of the fields here I found two Bahama Mockingbird
, several Northern Mockingbird
, three or four Indigo Buntings, one Painted Bunting, and the only Zenaida Dove of the trip.
Returning to the main road I turned right (south) and followed the road to its end at the ocean. At another conspicuous intersection the road leads to the left (northeast). Just beyond this intersection (to the south) is an inconspicuous sign for the Shark Lab. No self-respecting Jimmy Buffett fan will be able to pass up a visit.
Walking northeast on the road passing through the mangroves, I heard one Clapper Rail
, saw several Northern Mockingbirds,
and one Belted Kingfisher
. Occasionally a Palm Warbler
would hop out onto the road and tail-bob before disappearing. A Northern Waterthrush
called infrequently from the mangroves. Just before the intersection with the main (paved) east-west road leading to the airport, I saw a very large raptor in flapping flight over a wetland. I disregarded my initial thought about the bird's identity, and continued to the main road.
Turning right I walked through what White described as "the best coppice remaining" in the Biminis. It certainly is nice Jamaican Dogwood-dominated coppice, but it held so few birds. About the only excitement in the a little over a mile walk to the airport was a North American race Yellow-throated Warbler
and another Bahama Mockingbird.
Returning slowly from the airport I saw much the same for birds until just past (west of) the intersection with the mangrove wetland road (there is a large shed for some wayward marine supply company here). Along the main road, by an old building on the right, were 39 Smooth-billed Anis
squawking and whistling and being normal Ani's. All was well as I watched them until a very dark Merlin
darted in from the east at about the same instant that a Sharp-shinned Hawk
appeared from the west. Pandemonium reigned and the Anis beat it for cover. The only reason I can think that neither raptor scored was they were probably both young inexperienced birds. Yet if neither of them can grab an Ani sticking out like a sore thumb in a leafless tree, you have to wonder how they survived this late into the year.
Continuing west, I stopped by the Sough Bimini dump but only Palm Warblers
put on a show. Returning to the main road I walked to the intersection with the dirt road south to the Bimini Sands. I turned right and planned to walk to the ferry. Big Willie's store was open; it was 11:30, and I was extremely thirsty from walking all morning. The sign outside the liquor store said "Stop the Bus and Have a Cold One" which I did.
Seeing binoculars around my neck the store clerk asked if I was a birdwatcher. Saying I was he said "did you see the Bald Eagle?" I asked "WHAT eagle?" and was told that one had been seen on the island for the last week or so.
This revelation shed some interesting light on the large raptor seen earlier in the morning. Gulping down the ice-cold Kalik, I walked back to the intersection with the mangrove wetland road by the old shed, turned right, and walked to where I had seen the bird earlier. I waited. I worked on my tan and fed mosquitoes for about an hour when finally the bird appeared, flying toward me from the east. Not having worried too much about the age-specific plumage of Bald Eagles
for some years, I wasn't sure about the age. However, my best guess is it was a second-winter bird. It was most likely the Florida subspecies that has been experiencing exceptional reproductive success in recent years. I watched the eagle as it flew around scaring the hell out of everything wearing feathers or scales, and then it disappeared back to the east.
I returned to North Bimini in early afternoon. I walked further north to the end of the road checking power lines for non-existent Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and checking roof tops and towers for equally non-existent Fish Crows. I saw some men cleaning Conch and while talking with them saw the single Ruddy Turnstone
and the single Spotted Sandpiper
of the trip.
Walking back along the west side of the island (Kings Highway) produced a single Prairie Warbler
in someone's yard, and three female Magnificent Frigatebirds
over the ocean. That was it. I hung out on Radio Beach watching successfully for my first Bahamas Green Flash in 18 years then went to the Anchorage for dinner.
November 27 -
I followed much the same pattern as yesterday. An early breakfast at Captain Bob's. A ferry ride to South Bimini followed by a walk along the same route as yesterday. This morning I was able to see the young Bald Eagle
again. The Anis were in the same tree where they laughed themselves silly when attacked by the hapless Merlin and Sharp-shinned Hawk yesterday. A flock of twelve White Ibis
flew over me near the entrance to the South Bimini dump. Not far west of the dump road I heard and then saw a La Sagra's Flycatcher
in the coppice. Returning from South Bimini at about noon, I found an adult Great Black-backed Gull
sitting on one of the pilings of the marina just south of the ferry landing.
After another great Conch sandwich lunch at the Seaside Café I continued my futile checking of all the power lines for non-existent Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. The only real excitement this afternoon was a Black-throated Green Warbler
in someone's yard, and a Northern Parula
in a palm tree by the government office buildings. Watching the ocean I tried my best to make a Northern Gannet out of the frequent Royal Terns that darted by, but with the same success as my Scissor-tailed Flycatcher search.
I parked myself on the shore of Radio Beach just before sunset hoping for a rare repeat of last night's Green Flash. Tonight for the first time in my Green Flash watching history I saw another Flash - the first time I've ever had two of them on back to back nights.
- I was out at sunrise looking in vain for more warblers but with little more success than the last two days. We left Bimini about on time on Chalk's 9:30 a.m return to Fort Lauderdale. The take off was a repeat of the rush of landing here three days ago. There are definite benefits to flying on a seaplane.
Cleared US Customs in Fort Lauderdale where two GS-7 trainee Customs agents did their best to live up to John Ashcroft's total disregard for the Constitution. In the afternoon I caught Northwest's flight to Memphis and then the connecting flight back to Washington National, arriving in a drizzly rain with temperatures in the 40s.
Bimini is most definitely one of the places you want to go to when you want to get away from everything. Absolutely everything. Other than catering to sport fishers and sailors there is very little to do on North Bimini other than chill out. Transportation is by foot, by rented golf cart (numerous outlets including one at the Sea Crest) or the occasional taxi-bus. There really is no pressing need to hire any transportation because so much is within easy walking distance. For instance, its less than two miles from the Chalks seaplane base to the end of the Queens Highway on the north end of the island. One note of change from White's book. I never saw a place on North or South Bimini for renting a bicycle.
The bird life was remarkably unexciting for the Bahamas in winter. Maybe it's a function of their small size and remoteness that contributes to the few wintering warblers I found. Yet, Grand Turk island is smaller and more remote and it drips with wintering warblers. Habitat destruction on North Bimini no doubt contributes to the dearth of wintering birds there, but that comment cannot be made for South Bimini where extensive areas of coppice and mangrove exist. Who knows why? Maybe it would be a good topic for a masters thesis some day.
It might be productive to spend a long weekend here in late August or early September to see what shows up for migrants. Being only 60 miles from the South Florida coast there must be some "good" birds showing up in fall migration. Its just a matter of being there at the right time. Who knows, it could be a bonanza for falling out migrants if the weather systems are right. Jon and Ali Andrew and I were on Grand Bahama in late September 2003 when a stalled front produced lousy weather and great birds for us. Looking back on it I wish now I had been in the Biminis instead of Grand Bahama when the front stalled.
Two or three full days will give you more than enough time to thoroughly search most of both islands for whatever might be lurking out there. I agree with Tony White's comment that if you are going to the Bahamas for the first time you don't want to spend that time in the Biminis. Your chances for Bahamian specialties is way limited here; go to Grand Bahama or the Abacos or Eleuthera for your first Bahamian trip. Leave the Biminis for when you need a new island to search in the hopes of finding a new bird for your country or West Indies list. The fact that I found two Bahamas birds (White Ibis, Bald Eagle) and the eagle for my West Indies list, means that the islands certainly have potential for adding other good birds, and I'll be back at the right time to check them out.
It might be beneficial to visit the islands in July or August if you can talk your way onto a boat going fishing in the Gulf Stream. With the stream only 7 miles off Bimini it would be a short run to deep water where you should have a chance at several good shearwaters or storm-petrels for your West Indies or Bahamas list. And in winter, if you can get off shore, I'll bet there are more than a few Northern Gannet's and maybe a Black-legged Kittiwake lurking just off the reach of land-based binoculars.
Regardless of when you go, be prepared to be totally laid back. Without doubt Bimini is the kind of place that Buffett thought about in the verse in "Margaritaville" where he lamented the need to find his lost shaker of salt. Very likely, searching for a salt shaker could be the most strenuous thing you'll have to do here.
505 Roosevelt Blvd, B106
Falls Church, Virginia 22044
Birds observed in the Biminis, Bahamas - November 25th - 28th, 2003
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
La Sagra's Flycatcher
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler