Drone photo of a West Indian Flamingo survey in the Bahamas. Photo: Mark Klein

International

These Bahama Islands Are a Birder's Paradise

Picturesque Great and Little Inagua Islands host flamingos, an endemic hummingbird, and more than 100 other species.

One of the Caribbean’s greatest conservation success stories began in the early 1950s, when ornithologist and conservation activist Robert Porter Allen followed a rumor to the southernmost island in the Bahamas, where he discovered one of the last breeding colonies of West Indian Flamingos.

“Allen ran into my grandfather and his brother Jimmy, hunting flamingos out in the saltwater lagoons,” says Randolph “Casper” Burrows, who has spent most of his life on Great Inagua Island. “Hunters would wait until they were nesting. They used long sticks and dogs and shotguns, and when they came in the flamingos would panic and trample each other. Then you’d have wild boars coming in later to eat the eggs.”

Nowadays, Burrows specializes in showing visitors the reclusive flamingos in their natural habitat. He’s one of several islanders who participated in Audubon’s Bird-Based Tourism Initiative, an innovative guide-training program that promotes conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean by creating economic opportunities in regions with exceptional bird life and biodiversity.

Great Inagua and Little Inagua islands are what Bahamians call “out islands” or “family islands,” off the beaten path for tourists and most Bahamians. Inagua’s relative isolation and unusual habitats make it an attractive environment for American Flamingos, as well as more than 130 other bird species.

Only about 800 people live on Great Inagua, the third-largest island in the Bahamas. In Matthew Town, the only settlement on either island, there are no casinos or luxury hotels, though a handful of guesthouses offer rooms to visitors. The main industry on the islands is a Morton saltworks, which harvests a million tons of salt from giant evaporative saltwater reservoirs called “pans” that border the park.

The largest of the islands’ three national parks is Inagua National Park, which covers 45 percent of Great Inagua Island. A day in the park with Burrows is a uniquely colorful experience, with white sand and blue waves complemented by abundant pink feathers. 

“We have to be careful because it’s easy to spook the birds,” Burrows says, as he carefully leads visitors to the edge of the scrublands surrounding Lake Windsor. About 200 feet away, several dozen flamingos stand stone-still in the shallows, facing into the breeze and ready to take flight.

Burrows notes that flamingos aren’t born pink; they turn that color when they reach adulthood, due to their steady diet of brine shrimp, which thrive in the salt pans. As filter feeders, the flamingos help to keep the lagoons healthy by keeping brine shrimp and other organisms in check.

Burrows looks up toward a line of 50 or more flamingos, flying toward the opposite side of the lagoon. “If you have low clouds and a really big flock, and the sun is just right, the reflection of the light off the backs of a big flock can turn the bottom of the clouds pink,” he says.

In additional to flamingos, the park hosts the endangered Bahama Parrot, Snowy Plover, and breeding colonies of Reddish Egrets, as well as pelicans, ducks, and hummingbirds found nowhere else in the archipelago. The recently described endemic Inagua Woodstar, a beautifully feathered native hummingbird, is found nowhere else in the world.

American Flamingos. Video: Mark Klein

Burrows has helped his clients discover these birds and many others. But he says that “the bright pink birds” are still his favorite.

“We had 15,000 to 20,000 hatchlings this year, which means the total population may be getting up close to 100,000,” he says. “I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to see them come back strong, in my lifetime. I think we’re looking at a bright future for this bird.”

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If You Go…

Geography tip: The southernmost island in the Bahamas actually consists of two separate islands, Great Inagua and Little Inagua. 

Getting there: Visitors either fly into Matthew Town, which has the only airport, or arrive by private sailboat. The island has only a handful of hotels and resorts.

Where to visit: Inagua, which bills itself as the Birdwatching Capital of the Bahamas, is home to three national parks and reserves, as well as one of three remaining kerosene-burning, hand-cranked lighthouses in the Bahamas. Visitors can also explore beaches and limestone caves, and observe turtles on Little Inagua (a protected habitat for endangered sea turtles).

When to visit: Engage an Audubon-trained guide in late winter and early spring to see the flamingos’ head-bobbing, wing-flicking courtship rituals. A few weeks later, watch the adults feeding and standing guard over their fluffy white chicks.

Make a plan: This suggested Bahamas itinerary brings you to several distinct habitats that collectively provide an excellent representation of the country’s birdlife, including all of the endemics and West Indian specialties in the Bahamas.

Special programs: Led by Audubon's Matt Jefferey, Holbrook Travel's Bahamas Flyway Expedition (December 2018) focuses on Andros, Great Inagua, and the Abaco Islands.

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