Aruba, 26th March - 3rd April 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)

Comments

by Steve Mlodinow



During March 2003, Casey Beachell and I traveled to Aruba for a continuing education conference and some birding. Eddie Massiah, of Barbados fame, had suggested that Aruba might have some good birding. He was right. Both the conference and the birding on that trip were excellent. We added five species to Aruba's list. It also seemed the most hospitable place on Earth - a veritable Eden. Nevertheless, it took us 24 hours from hotel to home on the return, and we were not certain that we'd return.

But summer 2003 rolled around, and I reviewed continuing ed opportunities for winter 2003-4. A tasty conference was being offered in Aruba - Hot Topics in Primary Care Medicine. We couldn't resist, and so we returned to the Friendly Island. Our first visit was in the midst of a two year drought, but the rains began again during fall 2003. We could see the difference as our plane circled the airport. The island was green. The effects this had on our birding were unclear, other than local breeding success was clearly enhanced. For directions to places we birded, see our previous trip report available from me or at surfbirds.com.

Tierra del Sol Golf Course (TDSGC)

Water levels were higher than last year, but there was still plenty of shorebird habitat. Overall, shorebird numbers were below those of last year, perhaps because other options existed this year. Last year, there was precious little mudflat elsewhere on Aruba. Breeding success of local species was great. There were several broods of Pied-billed Grebes. Last year, we saw no young White-cheeked Pintail. This year, we had 6+ broods. Baby Common Moorhens were everywhere, and we saw at least a couple young Caribbean Coots. Last year, we had a fair group of recently fledged Snowy Egrets at the breeding area. This year, the freshly fledged birds were present, plus there were quite a few older juvs (legs still green; some with darkish lores). The biggest news, however, was a pair of nesting Southern Lapwings. We didn't press the birds to find nest or young, but they were aggressive in their defense, swooping close to our bobbing heads. We also had a single Southern Lapwing elsewhere on the golf course, and it is possible that more than two birds are present here. Duck diversity did not match last year's, but this is not unexpected as last year was a dandy throughout the Caribbean. We did find a male Green-winged Teal, Aruba's 2nd record after the five we found at Tierra del Sol last year. An American Coot provided Aruba's 3rd record. Minor rarities included Glossy Ibis, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Solitary Sandpiper. Also, this year we had singing Crested Bobwhite and Brown-crested Flycatchers. No Little Egret this year. The best time to visit is early in am or late in pm (sunrise and sunset are both around 6:45, and birding light extends from about 6:30 am to 7 pm). The local folks were quite friendly, and a couple residents, Walter and Marion, were very friendly. They'd had a flamingo at Tierra del Sol just a day or two before our arrival.

California Lighthouse to High Rise Resorts

The wrecks off Malmok had sunk farther, and their value for seabirds has decreased. Some of the rocks just south of the lighthouse (on the island's west side) were good for roosting terns, mostly Cayenne/Sandwich, but with a few Royals salted in. We also had American Oystercatchers in this area. The saltpans just east of the road from Malmok to the High Rise Hotels had water this year. There weren't many birds, but a few egrets could be found along with a few shorebirds. Our only Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers were here.

Moomba Beach

I ventured out seabirding with Peter Molina out of Moomba Beach. We covered a lot of ground, reaching a seamount almost out of sight of Aruba (the surrounding water was about 1000 feet deep; the mount reaching 250 feet). The boat trip was birdless. But the small marina is a good roost site for terns and gulls, and here we had a basic ad Franklin's Gull (Aruba's 2nd) plus three early Common Terns.

Bubali

The waterbirding at Bubali remained mediocre. Lots of reeds, a few herons, many roosting Neotropic Cormorants, few ducks, scattered distant shorebirds. The sewage ponds themselves have a nice collection of White-cheeked Pintail and Blue-winged Teal first thing in the morning. The passerine birding, however, remained excellent. The Bubali marshes are surrounded by four roads that circumscribe a square. The sewage ponds are at the southeast corner of this square. At the southwest corner, there is a gravel area to park. There is a gravel road heading north, and a trail heading east. The trail heading east was quite good (yielding Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Louisiana Waterthrush). Another good spot was by the Butterfly Farm (itself well-worth a visit, but beware, the new age music tapes played here include songs of White-throated Sparrow, Veery, and Mourning Warbler. Had me quite agitated for a bit). We had Blackpoll Warbler, Ovenbird, and Northern Parula here. Interestingly, the Blackpoll was in heavy molt, implying that it had wintered on the island. In total, we had 5 Common Yellowthroats (only 3 previous island records). We also had 2 American Redstarts, a Tropical Kingbird, a Gray Kingbird, and a Solitary Sandpiper at Bubali. Yellow Warbler numbers were again excellent, and the number of immatures seemed up. We had a couple birds with long primary projections, one a dead-ringer for an adult male Northern Yellow Warbler, and it would not surprise me if several of the birds we saw were indeed Northern Yellows (which should not be unexpected).

Spanish Lagoon

Another high point. The we explore this spot, the more impressed we become. Hummingbird numbers were astounding, with 20 Ruby-throated Topaz and 75 Blue-tailed Emeralds (remember, this stretch is only about a km long). It was not uncommon to see skirmishes involving 4 or 5 hums dashing wildly about. The crazed songs of Bare-eyed Pigeons fill the early morning air. Gray Kingbirds and Brown-crested Flycatchers were on territory and conspicuous. Again, this was our only location for Black-whiskered Vireo. Crested Bobwhites were singing loudly, and we saw several at the abandoned aloe farm (cunucu aloe) about half way down the lagoon. Last year this farm looked desiccated and deceased. This year, many of the aloe were in bloom, and the spot was full of doves, Black-faced Grassquits. It would be a good spot to find a seed-eating vagrant.

The mangroves yielded a Magnolia Warbler (first Aruba record; in heavy molt and had probably wintered locally), two Northern Parula, Aruba's 2nd Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and an Elaenia (identification pending; probably a Lesser or Caribbean). Again, pishing was a key to success. The mudflat at the lagoon's east side, devoid of birds last year, intermittently had many birds this year, including flocks of Brown Pelicans and egrets. Our only Little Blue Herons were here and we had an imm Roseate Spoonbill here as well (Voous listed only 5 records for the ABC islands).

Pos Chiquito/Savaneta

The mangroves along the beaches here were reasonably birdy, though nothing compared to Spanish Lagoon. Careful searching revealed a Northern Parula and a Black-and-white Warbler. Offshore, we had a Brown Booby and American Oystercatchers. The saltpans at Savaneta actually had water and a reasonable sprinkling of shorebirds and herons.

Ceroe Colorado

At the island's south tip, we saw little here last year (other than South America). This year, a rocky spit at Baby Beach (popular beach spot) was full of roosting terns, including 200 Cayenne Terns and 19 Roseate Terns. About 100 feet from the beach, in some short dry grass, Casey found a dead Black Noddy. Interestingly, Aruba's first Black Noddy was found dead at this location during March a number of years prior. Offshore, a procession of "sea terns" flew to and fro in flocks of 10-40. Mostly, these looked like Sooties, supposedly the rarer of the Sooty/Bridled pair. I could identify at least 30 Sooties with certainty. A couple noddies, presumably Brown, flew past as well. I could identify only one Bridled. The total number of Sooty/Bridled was in the hundreds.

An impressive rocky cape lies just northeast of Baby Beach and can be reached by driving northeast from the beach parking area. The road looks iffy in a couple spots, but our car handled the area well at slow speed. Feeding terns offshore were quite evident, but almost impossible to identify. Views were really quite awesome.

Cayenne/Sandwich Terns

I had the chance to preview an article soon to appear in North American Birds by Floyd Hayes. It peaked my interest in these taxa. At the island's north end, away from breeding areas, we tallied 77 Cayenne Terns, 7 Sandwich Terns, and 26 birds with intermediate bill patterns. None of the Cayennes were in basic plumage, a few of the intermediates were, and 5 of the Sandwich Terns were in basic. At the island's south end, near the breeding colony, we saw about 500 Cayenne type terns. Of the ~200 close enough to evaluate, about 160 were Cayenne and the other 40 had intermediate bill types. No Sandwich Terns were present. Only one or two of the intermediates were in basic plumage.

Finally, of note, we had a Cayenne Tern with a bright orange bill - similar to that of a Royal. The size and crest shape eliminated Elegant Tern.

Lodgings and Dining

Once again we stayed at the wondrous Bucuti Beach Resort, where your whim is their desire. Sounds overstated? Not really. The hotel itself is not obviously beyond the realm of normal. The rooms are bright and nice, the grounds pretty, the beach beautiful. But the staff is fabulous. Friendly and helpful beyond belief. I've never been at a place where everyone from managers to concierge to the maids were so pleasant, helpful, and good at their jobs. Extremely attentative without being intrusive. The courtyard area is spacious and is filled with Carib Grackles, Eared Doves, iguanas, blausana lizards, Bananaquits and the such. Plus, one day, as Casey painted on our back deck, Aruba's first Caribbean Martin circled overhead. Try to beat that!

Okay, enough raving about that. For morning eats, Delushi Bagels is just a 30 second drive from the Bucuti Beach. Most mornings they open at 6am, though Saturdays are iffy and Sundays are later. The bagels are good, and the lox is fabulous. Good bacon, egg, and cheese bagel sandwiches are available as well. Also nearby, on the other side of the Alahambra Casino, is a Dunkin Donuts that opens at 6:30. It also has breakfast sandwiches, but be there early. A line forms quickly, and birding light really starts at 6:45 or a bit before.

Le Dome is a good, but expensive, French/Belgium restaurant near Bucuti Beach. The service was superb, the food good - occasionally exceptional - but also somewhat expensive. The Foie Gras was not to be missed. In Oranjestad, we continue to favor Cuba's Cooking. Exceptionally friendly, moderately priced, with good food, fun decor, and lively staff. Try the picadillo and the lobster enchilada - and don't forget the tostones (also known as plantanos), which are wonderfully savory fried plantain. The mojito, a rum drink made with mint leaves, is incredibly refreshing and relaxing. Salt 'n Pepper near the High Rise Hotels was good for lunch. The problem with lunch in general, for those birding, is that it tends to be leisurely and pricey - geared towards the average tourist. Salt 'n Pepper was fairly timely and the prices were reasonable. The food was fairly tasty. Away from the beaten tourist path, in towns such as Noord and Santa Cruz, there are small bakeries and such where one can get good sandwiches and local food for an excellent price. And, uggg, there are also Subways and McDonald's scattered here and there.

Car Rental

We used Budget this tiem. A Toyota Yaris served us quite well (this is a compact) and got us everywhere we needed to go. The ground clearance and trunk size were surprisingly good. Only possible concern was that the rental office was supposed to be open at 6am, when we needed to be at the airport, and it wasn't. I hope my bill is correct.

Highlight Species Notes

Pied-billed Grebe: More prevalent than last year, with far more young present.

Least Grebe: None this year

Neotropic Cormorant: max of 350 at Bubali on 27 Mar; max of 260 at TDSGC on 30 Mar. None elsewhere.

Brown Booby: Only one - on a buoy off Savaneta.

Green Heron: all Greens. Could not find a Striated, though we looked hard.

Reddish Egret: None this year.

Snowy Egret: Still breeding at TDSGC

Little Blue Heron: Missed this one last year. Two ads plus one imm at Spanish Lagoon.

Glossy Ibis: One came in to roost at TDSGC on 27 March. Apparently rare but regular on Aruba.

Roseate Spoonbill: An immature was at Spanish Lagoon 4 April. Voous lists five records, but the most recent was 1960.

White-cheeked Pintail: Numbers similar to last year, with max of 40 or so each at Bubali and TDSGC. Many broods at TDSGC this year, however.

Green-winged Teal: Male at TDSGC on 27 March. Five birds here last year provided first Aruba (and ABC Islands) record.

Peregrine: At least 2 around Spanish Lagoon/Pos Chiquito. The ad at Pos Chiquito appeared to be a Tundra Peregrine.

Crested Caracara: A family group and a couple singles at TDSGC. A couple seen elsewhere on island.

Crested Bobwhite: Several singing on hillsides at Spanish Lagoon, plus several at Aloe farm there.

Caribbean Coot and Common Moorhen: plenty at Bubali and TDSGC. None elsewhere. One small chick coot. Many immature moorhen, mostly full grown, but still hanging around parents.

American Coot: Only two previous Aruba records. We had an adult and an first winter bird at TDSGC. The first year was on 26 Mar (but not seen thereafter) and the adult was on 30 Mar (but not seen on other dates). I am presuming that differences in frontal shield hold for first year birds.

Southern Lapwing: Last year we had a pair at TDSGC. This year, they were swooped and attacked us, strongly suggesting a nest or young. We had what appeared to be a third bird elsewhere on the GC. The only other Caribbean breeding records are from Trinidad and Tobago.

Collared Plover: none this year.

American Oystercatcher: Apparently uncommon, but we had small groups near the California Lighthouse, Savaneta, and Baby Beach - plus two pursuing each other over TDSGC.

Solitary Sandpiper: Apparently rare in Aruba, but common in Venezuela. Singles at Bubali, Santa Cruz, and TDSGC.

Franklin's Gull: 2nd Aruba record: one basic plumaged bird at Moomba Beach 29 March.

Cayenne/Sandwich Tern: See comments above in text.

Roseate Tern: Breeds on islets off Aruba. 19 on Baby Beach 30 March were apparently early; Voous lists 12 Apr as record early date.

Common Tern: Per Voous, quite rare as early as March, but we had two last year. This year, at least 3 were present from Moomba Beach to Malmok.

Sooty/Bridled Tern: Breed on islets of Aruba. Appeared to be breeding already, with flocks flying both ways past Baby Beach. Estimated 350-500 birds, most of which appeared to be Sooty, contra Voous. However, distance precluded firm identification of most.

Brown Noddy: As above. A few noddies flew past, and these were presumably Browns, but Blacks known from Aruba (see Voous and photo in Olsen and Larsson's Tern book).

Black Noddy: one found dead at Baby Beach 30 March. Voous lists 4 records, the first of which was found dead near Baby Beach on 1 March 1979.

Bare-eyed Pigeon: Common at places with trees, such as Bubali and Spanish Lagoon. Less common, but still present at places such as Arikok and TDSGC.

Eared Dove: Everywhere. At outdoor restaurants, in the trees, flying overhead. Omnipresent. Seen on multiple nests plus juvs wandering around.

White-tipped Dove: Least evident dove/pigeon. Seen at Arikok, Spanish Lagoon, TDSGC. Heard more often than seen.

Caribbean (Brown-throated) Parakeet: endemic race. common everywhere.

Groove-billed Ani: Far more than last time, with flocks in evidence at Bubali and TDSGC.

Burrowing Owl: None seen, though a pair lives at 18th hole of TDSGC.

Ruby-topaz Hummingbird: A real stunner.Some (imm males?) had a dark stripe down a pale front reminiscent of a GB Mango. This plumage is not shown in any guide I have. Many more present this year, with up to 20 in one morning at Spanish Lagoon. Also one at Bubali.

Blue-tailed Emerald: Common, widespread, and confiding.

Northern Scrub-Flycatcher: Likes areas of cactus/mesquite. Most common at Arikok or the draws heading n from Frenchmen's Pass, but still saw several at multiple other locations.

Elaenia: Ahhh, but what species? Excellent question. At the moment, I am unable to answer. May never be. Caribbean Elaenia previously (currently?) inhabit xeric parts of island, but not Spanish Lagoon (30 Mar) where we saw this bird. Voous actually suggested that Caribbean Elaenia might be extirpated from Aruba and that recent Elaenia sightings were of Austral migrant species such as Lesser and Small-billed, both of which have been found on Aruba. Anyway, on this bird, we're favoring Caribbean vs. Lesser, and an upcoming trip to the Field Museum of Natural History may prove illuminating. Or not. We'll see.

Brown-crested Flycatcher: Pairs at Spanish Lagoon and TDSGC.

Tropical Kingbird: One at Bubali on 27 March. Missed this bird last year. Apparently aseasonal, and to be honest, White-throated Kingbird (an Austral migrant unrecorded on the ABC Islands) was not eliminated.

Gray Kingbird: several at Spanish Lagoon, one at Bubali, one at TDSGC.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher: One at TDSGC 30 March was apparently aseasonal, with most records May-Jan.

Black-whiskered Vireo: several at Spanish Lagoon.

Caribbean Martin: Ad male over Bucuti Beach Resort on Eagle Beach 3 April. Apparently a first Aruba record. Caribbean and Cuban Martin have been found on Curacao and Bonaire previously, 8 Sep-13 Oct and 7-30 May per Voous.

Tropical Mockingbird: common everywhere. sometimes even feeding in outside restaurants. Seen building nests.

Northern Parula: Considered rare by Voous. Hilty (2003) lists only three records for Venezuela. But we had 9 on Aruba last year. This year, we had 6, including 3 at Bubali, 2 at Spanish Lagoon, and one at Pos Chiquito. Clearly this bird is more common here than elsewhere in the southern Caribbean, but why? 3 at Bubali- 27 Mar. 2 at Spanish Lagoon and 1 at Pos Chiquito - 28 Mar.

'Golden' Yellow Warbler: Exceptionally numerous in mangroves and trees bordering Bubali. Also in small number around hotels and in xeric mesquite. The males all had full chestnut caps and very bright yellow underparts with heavy chestnut streaking. The well-defined cap and intense yellow underparts were almost reminiscent of a Wilson's Warbler. The immatures were in varying states of molt and often had gray cheeks or gray on the underparts, the gray being a clear gray color that I've never seen in Northern Yellow Warblers. The females, plumage-wise, seemed indistinguishable from Northern Yellow Warblers. We had a couple birds at Bubali that seemed to have long primary extension and otherwise resemble Northern Yellow Warblers. Given that Northern Yellow Warblers are fairly common to common in Venezuela, it would be a surprise not to find a few on Aruba.

Magnolia Warbler: First ABC Island record, and only one Venezuelan record. A moulting bird was cooperative at Spanish Lagoon 28 March.

Black-throated Blue Warbler: 2nd Aruba record. A male was at Spanish Lagoon 28 March and 2 April.

Blackpoll Warbler: A molting bird at Bubali on 27 March had likely wintered. Though common during fall on Aruba, spring (and winter) records are few.

Black-and-white Warbler: An imm male was in trees behind saltpans at Savaneta on 30 Mar. Only 3 records as of Voous from Aruba. But more than 20 from elsewhere on the ABC Islands, and is probably regular.

American Redstart: 2 at Bubali 27 Mar.

Ovenbird: Vagrant in Aruba according to Voous (1983) and rare in Venezuela per Hilty (2003). One at Bubali 27 March was apparently the 5th for Aruba; the 4th was one we had at Bubali 23 March last year.

Northern Waterthrush: Quite common wherever water and trees occur together.

Louisiana Waterthrush: Finally, after sorting through hundreds of Northern Waterthrushes (OK - dozens), we found one at Bubali 29 March. Voous listed only one record from Aruba, but given status in Venezuela, I suspect this species has been overlooked.

Common Yellowthroat: This was bizarre. None last year, this year five at Bubali on 27 March, 2 of which were ad males. Got video of a male and a female. Only 3 previous Aruba records. Only one Venezuela record.

Hooded Warbler: Vagrant according to Voous (1983) and only 5 records from Venezuela (Hilty 2003). Female at Spanish Lagoon 28 March added to five previous Aruba records, one of which was a female at Spanish Lagoon on 23 March last year.

Bananaquit: Everywhere. Even in restaurants. Multiple birds building nests.

Rufous-collared Sparrow: A bird of xeric scrub. None this year, but we didn't visit appropriate habitat really.

Black-faced Grassquit: Fairly common. A couple here, a couple there in a wide variety of habitats, including a cute pair taking handouts at a restaurant. More numerous than last year.

Carib Grackle: Common around hotels and in better vegetated neighborhoods. Otherwise scarce.

Shiny Cowbird: Seen hither and yon in small groups of up to 5 or 6.

Troupial: Gorgeous. Vocal. Fairly Common. Liked more xeric habitats, such as Arikok, though more widespread.

Yellow Oriole: A few at Spanish Lagoon.

For a daily species summary please e-mail me