New Bird Records for Bonaire 2016-2017

The island of Bonaire has achieved worldwide recognition for its rich and diverse marine life, but the island is rapidly gaining momentum as a birdwatchers paradise. Recent estimates put Bonaire’s bird population at more than 210 species, with a great variety of terrestrial and sea bird species. While some species reside year-round on Bonaire, many are migratory species that stop on the island on route to or from North and South America.

The island acts as a sanctuary for many rare or endangered bird species, such as the Yellow-shouldered amazon (Amazona barbadensis), known locally as the “Lora”. Birdlife International has identified six International Bird Areas (IBAs) on Bonaire: Washington-Slagbaai National Park, Dos Pos, Washikemba-Fontein-Onima, Klein Bonaire, Lac Bay and Pekelmeer Saltworks (see table 1). IBAs are areas recognized as globally important for the conservation of bird populations according to a number of set criteria. Bonaire’s IBAs provide vital breeding and foraging grounds to species with a high conservation priority. Dos Pos, in the north of Bonaire, is an especially important breeding and roosting site for the yellow-shouldered amazon, along with Washikemba-Fontein-Onima. Gotomeer and Pekelmeer provide vital breeding grounds for the Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), Bonaire’s flagship bird. Globally and regionally important numbers of tern also nest at Pekelmeer (Common tern (Sterna hirundo), Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis), Least tern (Sterna antillarum)). Klein Bonaire is also an important breeding site for terns, notably least terns. Lac Bay supports many shorebird species, including seven species of heron.

Over the past two years - from January 2016 to the end of 2017 – at least eight bird species have been recorded for the first time on Bonaire. One other species awaits final identification. The record of a 10th species could not be validated due to a lack of footage. This article describes these first records. The discovery of new bird species for the island is extremely exciting and shows that there is still much to discover about Bonaire’s biodiversity.

1. Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus)

On January 6th 2016 Peter-Paul Schets (hereafter: PPS) took pictures of a first year Lesser black-backed gull. The bird was resting on a small raft at Plaza Hotel, close to the beach, amidst a number of Laughing gulls, Royal terns and Brown pelicans. This species had been recorded several times on Aruba but so far never on Curaçao and Bonaire. PPS saw the same bird that week on two more days, on different places. Later it became evident Bonaire resident Sipke Stapert had photographed this bird already in December 2015 at Pekelmeer (see Birds of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao by J.V. Wells and A. Childs Wells, 2017).

The Lesser black-backed gull breeds in Europe but can be found in North America year-round, with some going as far south as the Caribbean. It nests in colonies on the ground or occasionally on cliff ledges and even on the rooftops of buildings. Its diet is omnivorous and includes fish, eggs, rodents, berries, seaweed and insects (Kaufman, 1996). As its name suggests, this medium-sized gull has a dark grey back, as well as distinct yellow legs and a yellow bill with a red spot. Lesser black-backed gulls can be found in a number of coastal habitats including estuaries, harbours and lagoons (Wildscreen Arkive, 2018).

2. Pied water-tyrant (Fluvicola pica)

While birding after a working day on January 8th 2016, PPS found a Pied water-tyrant at Sewage plant. This was the first record of this species for the ABC-islands. A snippet in BioNews (January 2016) was dedicated to this record. This bird was seen by various birders until the end of March 2016. Most often it was feeding in one of the dead trees in the biggest pond of Sewage plant.
Quite surprising, on January 14th 2017 visiting birder Marco Tijs recorded a Pied water-tyrant at exactly the same spot. His pictures show a bird with a brown back, indicating a female. Again several birders saw this species during the first months of 2017, all at the same pond of Sewage plant. The last record made was on May 8th 2017 by Herman Sieben (HS). Intriguingly, photos made by PPS on April 23rd 2017 clearly show a male Pied water-tyrant, which means more than one bird was spotted.

The Pied water-tyrant is a common resident bird in northern South America and occurs on Trinidad as well. This small flycatcher species inhabits marshy wetlands and mangrove swamps where it feeds on insects (Neotropical Birds Online). Nests are built by both the male and female on tree branches near or over water. Adults are white with a contrasting black nape, back, wings and tail. Females often have brown mixed with the black (Farnsworth & Langham, 2018).

3. Dickcissel (Spiza americana)

Just after arrival on Bonaire on October 2nd 2016, PPS went to the LVV fields next to Sewage plant to see if there were any migrating birds. Apart from Fork-tailed flycatchers, Caribbean martins and a Prothonotary warbler he found two Dickcissels. This species, a migrant from North America, had been recorded several times on Aruba and Curaçao but so far never on Bonaire. On October 4th, PPS recorded another three Dickcissels at Sewage plant and six months later (1 April 1st 2017), HS took a picture of one Dickcissel at the same location.

The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird that inhabits grassland habitats where it forages for seeds and insects. While most Dickcissels congregate in huge flocks in migration and on their tropical grassland wintering grounds, some individuals venture far from their normal range (Kaufman, 1996). Both sexes have a grayish head with a white chin and yellow stripe above the eyes (Wildscreen Arkive, 2018). Males are larger than females and have only during breeding season a distinct V-shaped patch on their yellow chest. Throughout the breeding season, males are very territorial and will vigorously defend their nesting and foraging grounds from other males (Wildscreen Arkive, 2018).

4. Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)

The discovery of an Oilbird on the night of January 4th 2017 was spectacular. While having dinner at a restaurant in Kralendijk, Lauren Schmalz and Quirijn Coolen saw it flying to and from a palm tree. It appeared for several consecutive nights in the same garden, feeding on palm nuts. The Bonaire Reporter published an article, including a great picture, on this exciting record.

The Oilbird is a nocturnal bird that lives in the South American mainland and on Trinidad.  This species was only seen once before on the ABC-islands, namely in 1976 on Aruba. It is reddish-orange in color with white-spotted plumage, big eyes and a small but heavily hooked bill (del Risco et al, 2011). Throughout the day, the Oilbird hides in large numbers in dark caves. It uses echolocation to navigate in the dark. It is a frugivore and consumes lipid-rich fruit primarily from the laurel (Lauraceae), torchwood (Burseraceae), and palm (Palmae) plant families (del Risco et al, 2011), and will travel quite far from its cave to forage. Some Oilbirds are known to migrate seasonally away from breeding sites in search for food (del Risco et al, 2011).

5. Greater ani (Crotophaga major)

While birding at Sewage plant on January 13th 2017, Marco Tijs found two Greater ani's, the first for Bonaire. He was able to take pictures and submitted these to These two birds were recorded for several months until mid-May and then again from the middle of August. The last record so far was on October 16th 2017 by HS. This species had already been recorded on Aruba (first in 2005) and on Curaçao (first in 2010).

The Greater ani is widespread in South America, where it inhabits forested habitats close to water, including mangrove swamps (Riehl, 2010). It is a seasonal migrant. It primarily eats terrestrial insects as well as small lizards and frogs. It is also known as the "Black Cuckoo” due to its glossy blue and black color. It has a distinct long tail and massive ridged black bill (Riehl, 2010). During the non-breeding season, up to 150 individuals gather in large communal roosts. The young are raised in communal clutches within nesting groups of 2 to 4 unrelated pairs (Riehl, 2010).

6. Smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani)

In the same month of January 2017 HS recorded several anis (Crotophaga) at Sewage plant which looked slightly different from the resident Groove-billed ani. On January 21st he took pictures of several birds and submitted them to as possible Smooth-billed ani. PPS was on the island in February 2017 and while birding at Sewage plant on February 6th he heard an ani calling like an Earasian curlew. This had to be one of the birds HS had photographed a couple of weeks before. There were without doubt several birds involved, but due to the difficulty in identifying this species on appearance only, it is hard to tell how many. This species was recorded by several birders and the call was recorded by HS. Last observation so far was in May.
As Groove-billed ani is a rather resident bird at Sewage plant, this means all three species of ani were present at Sewage plant during the first five months of 2017.
First record of a Smooth-billed ani on the ABC-islands was only in February 2016 on Aruba.

The Smooth-billed ani is widespread in central and South America and also occurs in southern Florida and on several islands in the Caribbean, including the Greater Antilles. Smooth-billed anis inhabit a variety of brushy or semi-open habitats in the lowlands, mainly in humid scrub and forest clearings (Kaufman, 1996). They forage on the ground and in trees and shrubs for insects, lizards, frogs and some fruit (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). Smooth-billed anis are glossy black in color and have a distinctive high-arched, keel shaped bill (Neotropical Birds Online). They are very social animals and are often seen in small groups. They typically nest communally, with several females laying their eggs into one nest. As many as 36 eggs may be found in a single nest (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). 

7. Prairie warbler (Setophaga discolor)

Sewage plant produced another new species for Bonaire on October 14th 2017, namely a Prairie warbler. This species had so far never been found on Bonaire, but has been recorded several times on Aruba and once on Curaçao. PPS found this bird while searching for warblers. The bird was rather restless and mostly moved behind branches and leaves, so it was not possible to take its picture. PPS found it back at the same spot exactly one week later and this time was successful in taking some pictures, although poor, of this male Prairie warbler.

The Prairie warbler breeds in loose colonies in eastern North America and many winter in the West Indies during the nonbreeding season. Despite its name, the small warbler inhabits scrubby fields and forests (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). It feeds on insects such as caterpillars and beetles, spiders, small invertebrates as well as some berries. Female Prairie Warblers often consume the eggshells after their young hatch (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). The Prairie warbler is currently listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species but it is declining throughout most of range due habitat loss and cowbird parasitism (IUCN Red List, 2016).

8. Black vulture (Coragyps atratus)

On November 4th 2017 Martijn Hickmann, who works for a diving company on Bonaire, recorded the first Black vulture for this island at Sorobon, near Fisherman's pier. He saw it flying as well as perched on several occasions during a period of several weeks. In this period, Hennie de Rijke took some pictures of this bird while it was foraging at a landfill at Lagun. After circa two weeks, it was no longer seen (pers. comm. Martijn Hickmann). In December 2017 a Black vulture was again spotted on Bonaire by Elsmarie Beukenboom at Dos Pos and Lagun. From November 2016 onwards two Black vultures have been regularly spotted on Curaçao. It is possible that the Black vulture spotted on Bonaire came from Curaçao.

The Black vulture is widespread in northern, central and southern America, notably on disturbed, agricultural and open areas (Neotropical Birds Online). Adults have a black plumage with white patches under the wingtips, a strongly hooked bill and a small bare grayish head (Neotropical Birds Online). Juveniles, as spotted on Bonaire, have a predominantly brown plumage. It roosts in trees and structures like transmission towers, but soars above open areas and roads looking for food (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). Black vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion of all sizes and often follow the lead of Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) as this species of vulture has a much better developed sense of smell (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015). Black vultures do occasionally catch and kill their own food, including small fish, young livestock, skunks and opposums and also eggs of other birds, sea turtles and lizards (Kaufman, 1996). They are also known to pick through dumpsters.


Cory's/Scopoli's shearwater (Calonectris borealis/diomedea)

Less than two weeks after finding the first Black vulture for Bonaire, Martijn Hickmann recorded a seabird in bad condition at Lac. The bird was floating on the waters of Lac and was hardly able to fly. The next day, November 18th 2017, Martijn and a colleague caught the bird and brought it to Elly Albers who runs a bird hospital on Bonaire. Unfortunately the bird died a few days later. Experts examined pictures of it but are not certain about its identity: probably a Cory's shearwater but Scopoli's cannot be excluded (formerly these birds were considered as one species). Elly put the corpse in a freezer; future analysis of it will hopefully lead to its final ID.

American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

On December 12th 2016 visiting birder Arjan Ovaa recorded a bird at Sewage plant which he identified as American bittern. He saw the bird only for a few minutes in the middle of the day and could not relocate it that evening. His description of the bird suggests that the bird was an  American bittern but unfortunately he was unable to take a photograph of it to validate his description. If he was in fact right, this would have been a first for the ABC-islands.
American bittern is a bird from Northern America. Its relative from South America, Pinnated bittern (B. pinnatus), has so far been observed on the ABC-islands only once, in 1972 on Aruba.

Records and pictures of these new birds species for Bonaire can be checked at

Peter-Paul Schets

This news-item was published by DCNA in BioNews 11-2018.


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