Travel Log - Curacao - June 2006
To see my bird tick list, click Here
I had never heard of Curacao until my husband, Pete, and I were asked to go out there on business in June 2006! A quick search on Google revealed it to be one of the five islands that comprise the Dutch - or Netherlands - Antilles. You can see the islands on the map below - just off Venezuela where it says Netherlands Antilles, Curacao is the long island in the middle of the three:
Although we were working in Curacao on business other than photography, I did manage to get in an hour of birdwatching/photography most evenings. We also had 2 days off to to explore the Island and, thanks to my non-birdwatching and non-photographing but very supportive husband, we ended up booked on a one day private escorted trip in a jeep to Christoffel - Curacao's National Park. Boy was that a treat! Bird-wise, we saw everything from Flamingoes to Crested Caracara. Wildlife-wise, the arid Curacao forest and scrubland rustled with the many footsteps of the beautiful but timid lizards and iguana. Everywhere you looked, air plants and bromiliads - sometimes many hundreds of them - were to be seen "stuck" to the trees.
On that note, I highly recommend going "private" - as in doing tours not with a group of people. It didn't cost that much more (I can't remember how much, but I remember being surprised) and you get the full attention of your guide. It's the second time we have done this now and it seems to be worth its weight in photographs - it is entirely up to you when you want the guide to stop so you can take photos - none of those sighs, and you feeling guilty, if you are with a group of people that don't want to take thirty shots of every bird they come across!
I was surprised by just how arid Curacao is compared to say: Tobago or Barbados (I spent a lot of time in these islands as a child) which are far more tropical. However, a surprising amount of flora (and therefore wildlife) does appear to occur in Curacao - and very brightly coloured flora too. Perhaps that's why many of the birds are so brightly coloured - and have such personalities too - they have to compete with all the flower colours in order to attract a mate?
There are no endemic species of birds in Curacao. However, of the 236 species of birds that do dwell there, 40 of the 92 families which occur regularly in South America also occur in Curacao. You should expect to see around 100 species in a two week trip. The link at the bottom will take you to an Excel spreadsheet that you can view or download of birds you might expect to see and my own tick list is at the bottom of this page.
As to my own experiences - I was stunned by the personalities of the species of bird I encountered. Curacao's national bird - the Venezuelan Troupial - is an incredible character: very corvid-like in its behaviour and kind of like a cross between a magpie and a starling. It even looks a bit like a magpie, but has orange on it instead of white! The birds appeared to be the brightest I encountered; both in looks and in intelligence! Evidence of this can be observed in the hotels, cafes and anywhere similar - the birds appear to have learned how to open sugar containers (even when shut - and all manner of different designs of sugar container), nick the sugar sachets, fly off to a safe corner and then rip the sachet up to feast on the sweet contents! I even managed to capture this on film as you will see from my Troupial photographys in the gallery! Quite how they sussed this out in the first place I'd love to know, but they all seem to engage in the activity - and from what I could see, they are the only species that has learned to do this.
My other favourite birds were, predictably, hummingbirds. I saw and photographed two species - the blue-tailed emerald and the ruby-topaz. These are quite remarkable creatures. One of the reasons I was very happy in our Curacao Mariott hotel was because of the sizeable grounds and car park! Funnily enough, my best hummingbird photographs were obtained in that car park - the hummingbirds seemed to particularly favour the pollen from a particular plant that was growing in abundance between the rows of cars.
When I do bird photography, I sit around a bit and atudy the behaviour of the bird first. This is particularly important with tiny and fast-moving birds like hummers because you need to be able to predict where they are going to fly if you want shots of them feeding and not just bits of plant! Anyway, after a while the hummers began to see me as part of their ecosystem and became less afraid of me. This was very useful - getting a bird used to you holding a large white Canon lens before you start brandishing it about trying to get photos is well worth your patience!
In fact, whilst the ruby-topaz hummers were all rather timid, the more abundant blue-tailed hummers seemed to become so used to me that they appeared genuinely inquisitive at times, so let me get really close to them. You will see that some of my photos are taken with a hummer perched just "looking" at me. Even more rewarding were the one or two photographs I obtained when a hummer just dozed off on a twig, allowing me to snap away despite the loud shutter noise of my Canon EOS 20D! Sadly, one of the most moving runs of shots occurred when a particularly tame blue-tailed brought its missus to say hello (it really seemed that way to me at the time!) - I was too excited and couldn't get the shutter speed to cope with my camera shake!
There are some very strange-looking species of dove/pigeone on the island. The strangest one to me was the "common ground dove" - the tinyest dove I have ever seen! My photographs just don't show its small size properly. Some of those doves aren't much bigger than sparrows and, being so small, look quite ridiculous in their movements - they look just like wind up toys when they move about and did cause us quite a giggle (especially after a pina colada or three)!
Bananaquits are intriguing birds too - they appear to live in the same space as hummingbirds - they love sugar and eat nectar. They have the exact same proboscis-like tongue as a hummer but are slightly larger than sparrow-sized and, unlike hummers, travel around in fairly large flocks. And I have to mention the mockingbirds - these have to be the nosiest birds on the island - whilst rather jittery and nervous, they appear to be quite intrigued by human activities! If you are out of your hotel room and if it is not too busy were you are, pretty soon you will get a mockingbird come over to check you out from a safe distance.
I was rather touched at how keen the islanders (both indigenous and immigrant (many are from the US and Canada)) are on the birds. Many of the houses have feeding stations outside, as do the cafes and restaurants. I was fascinated at one cafe when the owner came out with a bag of granulated suger and poured this into a tray. The next moment, flocks of troupials and bananaquits descended, sqwawking and squabbling whilst they attempted to establish a pecking-order for eating the sugar! In general the islanders are (from what I could see) unusually tolerant of the natural habitat in general - herds of wild goats, wild donkeys (imported by the Spanish a few hundred years ago) and even wild deer roam the island!
As I have said, iguanas are everywhere and so too the indigenous (as I recall) lizard they call the "blaublau" (not sure how this is spelt but I was told its name is because the lizards is coloured in different shades of blue - but there is some green there too!). Blaublau are normally very timid, but in the vicinity of the hotel some had learned to become very tame indeed - even eating out of my hand in a very gentle and sweet way.
At the hotel, there were four locations where iguanas could be easily seen and photographed - especially an area in the car park. However, iguanas are incredibly timid - the slightest movement or ground tremor would send them scuttling away from their sunbathing atop a bush into the darkness of the undergrowth. Apparently they are still a popular item of food because they have an unusual double penis so are thought to be an aphrodisiac, so perhaps this is why they have become so timid?!? On the other hand, there were colonies of iguanas nearer the hotel which had become tamer - because the hotel actually had feeding sessions for the tourists (and iguana wasn't on the menu in the hotel)! This was fascinating and their behaviour contrasted dramatically with the "wild" iguanas - chuck some bread or fruit out and the hedges in which the iguanas live would appear to boil over with iguanas racing each other to the titbits and appearing to look on to the excited human observers with a mixture of grateful suspicion!
It should be noted that, like anywhere, Curacao is not all good - the main town, Willemstad, is a really lovely place with its peculiar and colourful Dutch architecture. It is mostly a wonderful place to hang out, but some parts of it feel uncomfortable (like most cities I guess, except this is a small town). The Dutch are still trying to get on top of the drug problems that beseiged the island for a long time due to its close proximity to Columbia and South America - but not quite on top of it yet. This is why it seems uncomfortable because there were certainly men wandering around that looked very much like drug pushers (they even had the big gold jewellery and designer shirts!). Unlike Holland, there is now zero tolerance on the island for drugs and high security, particularly as concerns drug checks, at the airports so this is apparently helping. The other thing I noticed is that the divide between rich and poor is quite evident in many places on the island. All this meant that I did not feel happy wandering around the island on my own (but that is mainly because I was once robbed at knifepoint in London on the tube, so am more spooky than most people!).
That aside, the majority of people seemed really very friendly and with a great sense of humour. There does appear to be a strange fashion - especially amongst the women - to have one gold tooth which we began to find a bit eerie but then I guess as a fashion statement its no different from those particular gold earings that female chavs wear in the UK! The Marriot hotel was fantatic and with beautiful grounds. We were superbly looked after by very friendly staff - I even made friends with the security guard who was intrugued at my wandering around the car park in search of birds! And of course, the Christoffel park experience - learning which cactii are okay to eat (one of them is really yummy!), doing caving and seeing bats, exploring some of the geology - as well as exploring the wildlife - was something I shall never forget!
So if you are thinking of going, check out my favourite web sites below. It is certainly a place to which I would love to get the chance to return.
Below is a list of the birds I saw whilst I was in Curacao. Sadly this isn't very much, simply because I was on a non-photographic related business trip there and only had a couple of days to really have a good look around. For example, there are quite a few wetland areas and I never got the chance to visit them apart from a brief stop to see the flamingos! Anyway, here's my list...