Cooper Island

Bare-necked Birding

Story by Susan Zaluski

Bare-naked birding, as you may be relieved (or disappointed) to find out, has nothing to do with clothing. Instead, bare-naked birding refers to bird watching without the aid of binoculars or other ocular equipment, using your eyes and ears as your only instruments. Bird-watching with your naked eye can be a rewarding and an entirely pleasant way to immerse yourself in the BVI's natural world. Even unaided, our senses can be an amazing tool for wildlife watching and sometimes without binoculars, people focus more attentively on birdlife. And if you're new to bird-watching, it's unlikely that you packed a pair of binoculars in your suitcase, giving you no excuses not to "go naked".


While it's sometimes hard for visitors to take their eyes off of the BVI's enticing waters, the territory has a great deal worth exploring beyond the beach. So whether it be a vigorous hike through Sage Mountain National Park or Gorda Peak or just a leisurely stroll along the coast or quiet reflection near a garden, the BVI's landscape can be just as captivating as its seascape. Some of the most obvious -- and pleasant wildlife that you will encounter here are our land birds, several of which can only be found on the Caribbean's islands. Since mornings and late afternoons are often the best time of day for bird-watching, you can often even look for the BVI's birds while relaxing over a cup of morning coffee or late afternoon happy hour cocktail.


Nearly 200 different migratory and resident seabirds, wetland birds and land birds have been recorded for the British Virgin Islands. Birds play an important role in our ecosystems and island economies, acting as nature's garbage men, pest control servicemen, farmers, fish-finders and tourist attractors. Of the many benefits to people, some birds help to control pests and waste. For example, a single barn swallow can consume up to 850 mosquitoes in a single day, while other birds clean up everything from carcasses to breadcumbs, keeping these islands free of organic litter. The Virgin Islands' doves, pigeons and finches help to spread the seeds of many plants, while many of our birds also help to enrich soils. Birds such as hummingbirds and bananaquits help to pollinate flowers (along with bats and insects), and some of the Virgin Islands' flowers would not produce seeds and fruits without them. Birds can also help connect people to nature, and observing birds with just your naked eye can be an entirely rewarding experience, allowing you to immerse yourself in a bird's world of surviving, foraging, preening and caring for their young.


Meeting the BVI's Land Birds


It is not surprising that along with the other Virgin Islands, Tortola, Spanish for "Turtle Dove", is home to several species of the columbid family of birds, which contains pigeons and doves. The Zenaida Dove, which is the national bird of the BVI, forages for seeds, grains and the occasional insect on the ground and is commonly seen near the water. Other dove species include the Common Ground Dove, and the shy, secretive Bridled Quail Dove. A much rarer species, the Bridled Quail Dove prefers forested habitats, such as Sage Mountain National Park. This species, with its distinctive white eye-stripe, will typically freeze upon human contact, but usually commences moving about the forest understory after a few minutes – but look closely, as these birds "freezing" behaviour makes them easy to miss. Other Columbid members include the larger Scaly-naped Pigeon, with its red-neck, which can be easily startled and will flutter noisily about the tree canopy. Along with the occasional White-crowned Pigeon, the mournful cooing call of doves and pigeons permeate the BVI's forests and scrublands.


One of the most loveable of BVI birds is the little Bananaquit, a member of the passerine family of birds, which has black upperparts and brilliant yellow underparts that help earn its nickname "yellow breast" among many locals. Bananaquits have a slender curved beak designed for taking nectar from flowers and can often be seen bustling about in areas near human settlement. Also known as "sugar birds" many residents, hotels or restaurants put out small bowls of granular sugar which attract these birds, which are known to become quite tame. Other colorful and charismatic species that can be observed in cultivated areas include the BVI's two species of hummingbirds: the Green-throated Carib and the Antillean Crested Hummingbird. Both of the BVI's hummingbird species are only found in the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The Antillean Crested is one of the few hummingbird species with a crest on its head, and is one of the smallest of the world's 340 species of hummingbirds. North America has nearly fifty species of warblers, many of which migrate through the Caribbean during spring and fall months. Of the numerous warbler species that have been recorded for the Territory, the vibrant canary-coloured Yellow Warbler is a common permanent resident of the BVI's coasts, enjoying dry scrub and shade trees near the water.


One interesting and obvious, albeit widely regarded as "obnoxious" bird is the Pearly-eyed Thrasher, typically known simply as "Thrushy". Pearly eyed-Thrashers are often regarded as the villains of the bird world and are aggressive and opportunistic feeders, sometimes known to predate other birds' nests and are cursed by farmers and gardeners for thiefin' mangos and other fruits. Still, these birds are interesting to observe and hard to miss. Other conspicuous birds include the Gray Kingbird, a flycatcher that is often seen perched on electrical wires along the roadsides. Wires are also an excellent spot to catch a glimpse of the small, but fierce American Kestrel, one of the most common raptor species found in the BVI, which also include Red-tailed Hawks and Peregrine Falcons. The BVI was once home to the Puerto Rican Screech Owl, a diminutive species now thought to be locally extinct on many of these islands (although it is still found in Puerto Rico).
Slow and deliberate in their movement while in tree tops, the Mangrove Cuckoo, which likes dry scrub forests emits a strange, raspy call. Another related perching bird, the Smooth-billed Ani, sometimes known as the "Black Witch", also has an unmistakable call of "ooo-leek!" These birds are gregarious and several pairs will build nests communally in areas under human cultivation, where they forage for termites, large insects, frogs, lizards, and even the ticks off of the backs of livestock animals. They have an upright posture and a parrot-like bill.


In addition to the small Caribbean Elaenia, other restricted-range birds that can only be found in the Caribbean's Lesser Antillean islands include the Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, a stout finch that likes a wide array of habitats including mangroves, dry forests, gardens and rainforest. The mostly black male is particularly striking, with bright red throat and lores (the area between the eyes and the bill). Females have grayish to reddish plummage, and this species' short bill is adapted to take the husk off seeds. With a breeding range that extends from the Antilles through the Bahamas and Florida Keys, the Antillean Nighthawk has been known to nest on Anegada, where it lays two eggs directly on the bare ground. The birds can usually be seen foraging near dawn or dusk (and sometimes by full moon), when it uses its voluminous mouth to catch flying insects on the wing. While these birds are present during spring and summer months when they breed, it remains unknown where these birds winter.


Learning More and Get Involved


Bird-watching is a great leisure pastime. In 2014, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society, in cooperation with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, the BVI Department of Conservation & Fisheries, and two international organizations, Birds Caribbean and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published an identification guide for land birds entitled Land Birds of the U.S. and British Virgin islands. A plasticized identification card that retails in gift shops and bookstores for $5-7, the guide was intended to introduce 47 of the most common land bird species found in the Virgin Islands and to serve as a tool to aid new bird-watchers.
The BVI also participates in the annual National Audubon Society's "Christmas Bird Count."
Please contact the BVI National Parks Trust at planining@bvinpt.org if you would like to volunteer for this important census of the BVI's bird population. Go to the website www.birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count to learn more about the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.