Bonaire is a favorite of birdwatchers. Over 210 species of birds can be seen on the island, many of them clustered around Goto Lake, Pekelmeer, Cai and Dos Pos. Spotting each species depends to some extent on migration patterns and the weather (in the dry season, for example, normally shy birds approach towns in search of water). Bonaire's birds can be classified into three categories: sea birds, shore birds, and land birds. The flamingo, Bonaire's national symbol, is technically a shore bird, but its beauty, rarity, and unique presence on the island places the bird in a class by itself.
The Flamingo: Anything but a Diva
There are only four places in the world where large numbers of Caribbean Flamingos breed -- Bonaire is one of them. You can see allusions in the walls of the pink-painted airport, in the endless flamingo T-shirts, and in the array of flamingo kitch for sale on the streets of Kralendjik, but the birds themselves appear to be entirely absent, carefully hidden on some Bonairean backstage.
This wariness seems to be unnatural: if nature ever dressed a diva, the flamingo is it. The pink cotton candy feathers, the graceful, wavy neck, and the long sinewy legs all seems to cry "look at beautiful me," but in reality flamingos prefer anything but a spotlight. In fact, the birds are so sensitive to noise and intrusion that the slightest disturbance will cause them to quickly flee. They will never come close to people.
There are two places to see Bonaire's flamingos. One is at the Pekelmeer Sanctuary to the south, where the birds flock around the salt ponds; the other at Lake Gotomeer, in Washington Slagbaai National Park in the north. At both places, it is important to keep your distance and not disturb the birds. Bonaireans are as protective of their flamingos as they are of their reefs. The best way to get a great photograph is to bring a telephoto lens. On a good day, you can see them gather by the hundreds in a chaotic, undulating pink cloud. The pinkness of their feathers actually comes from the carotene found in their diet of brine shrimp, brine fly pupae, small clams, and other micro-delectables.
Flamingos are social animals, and a minimum of 15 to 20 animals is required before they'll begin to breed. They mate for life, and what actually causes them to nest and breed is still something of a mystery (though several studies suggest that a good rainfall is highly influential). Once a pair does mate, both the male and the female share equally in the tasks of building a nest, sitting on their single egg for about a month, and feeding the chick. After about three months, the chick will be able make the 90 kilometer flight to Venezuela, a trip the flamingos make when food on Bonaire becomes scarce.
The magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) is the most common sea bird spotted off shore. It is notable for its wing span, the largest in relation to body weight of any bird. It is also known as the man o' war bird, and the comparison to warships is a particularly apt one--with its superior size and flight capabilities, the frigate bird harasses less agile flyers like pelicans, egrets, and cormorants until they drop their catch. The male frigate is notable in having an all black head and body. They do not breed on Bonaire so males with a red throat sac, are seldom seen.
One of the birds it often steals from is the brown booby (Sulal eucogaster). These large sea birds are mainly brown, with white breasts and bellies. They have long, pointed wings and a torpedo-shaped body and can often be seen perched off shore or flying over water. They are excellent divers and can also swim underwater in pursuit of fish.
Other sea birds are the olivaceous cormorant (Phalacrocorax olivaceus) and the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), both of which can be spotted perched on piers or rocks near the water. The cormorant has a black body, a long, thin neck, and a slender, yellowish bill slightly hooked at the tip. It swims with its body low in the water, diving for food. The pelican is brown-grey, with yellowish-white on the head. Magnificent divers, they often swoop down from impressive heights, plunging into the water like cannonballs.
Bonaire is home to five different species of herons, and they are among the most common wading birds on the island. The largest is the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), which reaches heights of 125 cm (50 inches). It is usually found near water in mangroves, ponds, salt pans, or on rocks off the seashore. They have blue-grey backs and white heads, with a black plume running from the beak over the eye. The other herons of the island are the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea), the tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) and the striated heron (Butorides striatus).
Egrets are another common wading bird. The snowy egret (Egretta thula) usually congregates in groups of four or five, feeding in ponds or perched near water. It is all white, except for its black bill and legs and bright yellow feet (it is nicknamed "Golden Slippers"). The reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) has two color phases: a white phase and a dark phase (with slate-grey feathers and cinnamon-brown head and neck). It's worth trying to catch a glimpse of reddish egrets feeding: they stagger through the shallows with their wings outstretched, balancing precariously while they stab the water, anxiously on the hunt. The great white egret (Egretta alba) is often seen with other waders near mangroves or hunched on branches over water. It is entirely white, except for a yellow bill and black legs.
Many of Bonaire's smaller shore birds are called "peeps," a general term for all those species which are impossible to identify in winter or non-breeding plumage. Peeps are small (about 13-18 cm or 5-6 inches), and include such species as the semi-palmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), the snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) and the semi-palmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla).
Other birds commonly seen on the shore include the short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus), which probes in mud or shallow water with its straight, long bill, and the whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), distinguished by its very long, curved bill. Gulls and terns can also be seen circling above the coasts or perched on rocks. The laughing gull (Larus atricilla), so called for its distinctive loud cry, is a year-round resident on Bonaire. The least tern (Sterna albifrons) is abundant in the spring and summer, while the royal tern (Sterna maxima) is seen year-round. The common tern (Sterna birundo) is seen only in the summer.
Two tropical birds found only on Bonaire are the Caribbean parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) and the yellow-shouldered parrot (Amazona barbadensis, subspecies rothschildi). While both birds have bright green plumage, it's easy to tell them apart by the color of the head: the parakeet has a yellowish-orange face, while that of the parrot is yellow (and a smaller proportion of the face is colored). Parakeets are also more numerous; they can be seen anywhere on the island where there is vegetation. The best places to see parrots are in the cactus fields of the north and in fruit-bearing trees (especially mangoes). The parrot is endangered with an island population of only 700-800. Bonaire is a critical breeding ground for the survival of this species.
Only skilled and patient birdwatchers will catch glimpses of the island's notoriously shy pigeons. The red-necked pigeon (Columba squamosa), so named for its purple-red head and neck, usually hides in rock crevices or high in trees. The bare-eyed pigeon (Columba corensis), one of the largest on the island, can sometimes be spotted in trees or scrub foliage. It is silvery-grey, with a bare patch of bluish skin around the eye. Notable is the white stripe on the wing.
Bonaire is also home to several birds of prey, the most common of which is the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Mostly dark, it has a white head and is easily distinguished by the prominent dark stripe which runs across the head through the eye. Osprey scan the water from above, then suddenly drop to the surface and snatch their prey with their formidable talons. The crested caracara (Polyborus plancus), which looks like a hawk with a vulture's beak, is frequently seen atop cacti, or eating carrion.
Bonaire's two species of hummingbirds appear erratically. The ruby-topaz hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus) is the larger species. The male has an iridescent, brilliant red crown and an orange-gold throat, while the female has a dark bronze-green back. The male common emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus) is such a deep green that it can sometimes appear black. The female has a green back and head, with a white stripe over the eye.
The tropical mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) sings incessantly, often mimicking other birds. It is ubiquitous, happy anywhere where there's a hint of shade. The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), Bonaire's most common bird, can be seen everywhere on the island.
Below is a small sampling of land birds that belong to the warbler family and are represented by as many as 34 very colorful species seen in the vivid breeding plumage of the spring male. They come through Bonaire on their migration to their nesting grounds in the United States, and Canada.
(Specials thanks to Jerry Ligon for his contributions.)