Every autumn, many people decide to avoid the cold of winter and choose to migrate for a week or so to the Bahamas. They are not alone, because every September millions of small birds escape the approaching cold by doing exactly the same thing!
The Bahamas is a group of about seven hundred islands that start just seventy kilometres east from the coast of Florida and continue in a south-easterly direction for about 800 km. The trade winds blow almost continually and give the islands a warm, agreeable climate that varies little year round. The most refreshing time is between September through May, when the temperature ranges between 19-28°C. The rest of the year is a bit warmer with temperatures between 24-31°C.
Not surprisingly the islands are very popular with birdwatchers. Most of these are attracted by the chance of seeing wintering migrants, but just over one hundred species are present in the summer too so a visit at any time of the year will have its rewards. For me, the main reason for visiting was the chance to see two birds that are found nowhere else in the world – the Bahama Yellowthroat and Bahama Swallow. Both are found on Grand Bahama Island and Nassau.
Grand Bahama Island
Soft sandy beaches with crystal-clear waters bordered by manicured gardens is probably how most people imagine Grand Bahama to look. To some extent that is actually what most holidaymakers will see, but if you are prepared to join a guided excursion you will discover that the island is mainly covered with pine forests.
This is one of the most northerly of the island chain and is a great place to watch birds. In addition to the two Bahamas endemic species there are several other birds that have restricted ranges. These include the Bahama Woodstar – a tiny hummingbird that can be seen buzzing around flowering shrubs at the Garden of the Groves, a popular tourist attraction complete with artificial streams and waterfalls. Another species to occur here is a relatively large hummingbird called the Cuban Emerald. As its name suggests this is not exclusive to The Bahamas but is easy to see here.
Other special birds that are difficult to find in neighbouring Caribbean islands include Bahama Mockingbird, Olive-capped Warbler, Northern Stripe-headed Tanager, Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush and Greater Antillean Bullfinch. All of these can be found here.
Many birds arrive in autumn from the North America and these include Grey Catbird, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush. Added to these are some stunning warblers with great names including Magnolia, Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Prairie, Palm, Black-and-White and Worm-eating Warblers.
During my visit I focused on the Lucayan National Park which is south of the Grand Bahama Highway some 24km east of Freeport. This is one of the best places to locate the Bahama YeIlowthroat, which is a difficult species to find unless it is singing. A boardwalk through the marshes to Gold Rock Beach particularly impressed me. Here, among the mangroves, I was very fortunate to see the Key West Quail-Dove.
The capital of Grand Bahama Island is Freetown, so named as it was the first place where slaves were freed in 1834. Visitors interested in the town’s history might want to visit the Hermitage; considered to be the oldest building on the island. In 1901 it was built as a Baptist Church and was later used as a Trappist hermitage.
Alternatively, if you want to be more active you might make a visit in October to McLean’s Town. Thousands of people flock to this sleepy settlement to see who will be crowned “Best Conch Cracker” at the Annual Conch Cracking Championship & Festival, held on Hero’s Day (formerly Discovery or Columbus Day).
Other great activities on Grand Bahama include an excursion from Port Lucaya to see dolphins at close range, or a day’s bone-fishing – rather similar to salt water fly fishing. For those seeking a quiet time might want to take a half-day trip to Paradise Cove for sea kayaking and snorkelling. At the end of the day there is always the chance to enjoy a barbecue on the beach or a fish fry at Smiths Point (every Wednesday).
Two-thirds of the population of The Bahamas live in Nassau so it is more developed than Grand Bahama. However there are still plenty of birdwatching opportunities. The grounds of the Bahamas National Trust, known as “The Retreat”, are a great place to look for birds. Species to be seen here are Cuban Grassquit, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Zenaida Dove and Thick-billed Vireo. Similarly the Botanical Gardens supports many birds – particularly the wintering warblers.
Much of the island is taken up by two large expanses of water – Lake Cunningham and Lake Killarney. These are attractive to waterfowl in winter and their marshy edges are used by migrating wading birds in spring and autumn. Typical birds include Least Grebe, Osprey, Blue-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Belted Kingfisher and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. The surrounding woodland and scrub supports White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated and Pine Warblers and Red-winged Blackbird.
Parliament Square in downtown Nassau is the traditional centre of the Bahamian government where you can find picturesque pastel buildings erected in the early 1800s including the Houses of Parliament. Further downtown stands Fort Charlotte, built in 1788 complete with moat, open battlements and dungeons.
Many people choose to visit Coral Island with its 30 metre tower and commanding view of Nassau. You can also descend into its underwater observatory to watch the fish. Cable Beach, with its luxury hotels, casinos and beachfront, got its name in 1907 from the laying here of transatlantic telephone cables linking what was an isolated Bahamas to the rest of the world. But these days, the world comes to The Bahamas to see what it has been missing.
There are so many other things to do on Nassau. For example you can take a powerboat ride to the Exuma Cays or go diving in the coral. If you don’t want all that action then try a gentle half-hour tour of Nassau by horse and cart.
Nassau and Freeport are served by international flights from across North America. Nassau has direct flights from London five times a week. Other major European and South American cities are connected via Miami. There are cruises and ferries to the Bahamas daily, but a new service is the Bahamas Florida Express called the Cat. This will take up to 900 passengers between Fort Lauderdale and Grand Bahama every day in less than two hours.
More about Keith
Keith Betton is an avid world birder, having visited 90 countries and seen nearly 7000 species along the way. He is active in bird conservation, and it Chairman of the African Bird Club and County Bird Recorder for Hampshire. He is also a trustee of the British Trust for Ornithology. Professionally he is a public relations consultant, advising travel companies and tourist boards. He is also used by companies as a public speaker, trainer, writer and broadcaster.