SEARCHING FOR ONE OF THE GEMS OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CAYMAN BRAC PARROT

(originally published in Parrots magazine, July 2007)

By John Geary

There it was again … we’d definitely heard parrot squawks emanating from within the thick forest of the Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve, not too far from where we stood. The question was, would be able to see them?

Then a quick flash of blue wings answered the question. A pair of Cayman Brac parrots zoomed across the road from the south side to the north. A few minutes later, they zipped back at a point a little further west.

My guide, Patricia Bradley, an experienced ornithologist and author of the book Birds of the Cayman Islands, had told me earlier that morning as we drove into the reserve that the parrots seemed to be starting their breeding cycle a little earlier than normal this year, so it might be difficult to see them.

But it took less than an hour for us to sight the first pair, as we stood at a pullout along Major Donald Drive, a paved road that bisects the reserve.

No matter how many times it happens, I never tire of seeing parrots in the wild, flying free in their natural environment. It’s even more special when the bird happens to be a very rare species, or in this case, sub-species.

Like its larger cousin the Grand Cayman parrot Amazona leucocephala caymanensis, the Cayman Brac parrot, Amazona leucocephala hesterna, is very rare. Both species are threatened in the wild, and the Brac parrot is only found on one island. The last census taken in 1997 found about 400 Brac parrots left in the wild. They are only found on Cayman Brac, and one of the best places to see them is in the reserve.

Established in 1991 by the Cayman Islands National Trust, the reserve started out as a 100-acre parcel of land on the island’s bluff area, acquired with the aid of the Nature Conservancy. In 1994, the Trust was able to add an additional 80 acres of land.

The two land parcels were separated by a section of non-reserve land however, and during the next several years, the Trust worked to close this gap. In 1998, the organization acquired an additional 17 acres for the reserve, another tenth of an acre in 1999, and in 2006, the Trust acquired the necessary funds to purchase the remaining strip of land - 84.5 acres - that separated the two sections, finally joining them together and bringing the total area to 281.6 acres.

“Since the hurricane (Ivan, in 2004) we realized things were getting critical here, as more and more land was being bought,” says Bradley. “We put on a big push, held a huge fundraiser, to get the additional land to join the two sections.

“Now it’s a good sized area of fine forest.”

The Brac parrot needs every little bit of land available for its continued survival. Compared with the larger Grand Cayman parrot, it is shyer, more reclusive and less able to adapt to life around people.

“It is much more sensitive to human disturbance from a nesting point of view,” says Bradley. “All parrots would prefer to nest in forests on their own, but the other (Grand Cayman parrot) will nest around people if they leave it alone.

“A small copse in a garden could have nesting parrots with the Grand Cayman, but we don’t have that with the Cayman Brac parrot – it’s extremely sensitive about its nesting.”

They certainly were shy the morning we were there. After seeing that first pair, we heard a few more scattered squawks in the bushes around us, but we were not able to locate or see any others for the next several minutes. I decided to head off on the South Bight Trail with Keino Daley, a local guide-in-training, to see if we could improve our luck, and maybe even have an opportunity to photograph one of the rare birds. Bradley stayed out by the road while we hiked into the forest.

I had experienced pretty good luck walking along the Mastic Trail three days before on Grand Cayman, and was able to shoot several images of Grand Cayman parrots perched in trees along the trail, so I hoped the same scenario would unfold this time.

No such luck. We spent about 45 minutes on the trail and did see plenty of songbirds like thick-billed vireos, bananaquits and elaenia, but no parrots. We also saw quite a mix of different plants, ranging from silver thatch palm trees to orchids and even several cacti.

If you want to, you can follow the Bight Road right to the cliffs on the southern edge of the bluff. Signs and information boards mark strategic points, and a brochure is available to help guide visitors.

Of course, it turned out if we had stayed at the road, or in other words, followed the advice of naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who said, “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns,” we would have seen several parrots. Bradley reported that there was even one bird perched quite nicely in the open on a red birch tree branch.

Although it’s not a true birch, red birch (known locally as a “tourist tree” – it’s red and peeling) is one of the favourite trees for Brac parrots to hang out in - they eat the flowers and fruit of the tree. They also eat the fruits from fig trees and the flowers from Exothera trees, as well as the fruits of sea grapes (Cocoloba uvifera), as well as the fruits and flowers of many other trees.

Since we had no luck on the south side of the road, we decided to try the north side. It was certainly an easier stroll, as an 800-foot boardwalk took us through the forest, along the western edge of the reserve. The trail features some interpretive signs, so if you choose to walk it on your own, without a guide, you can learn about the birds and the ecosystem during your stroll.

The trail continues past the end of the boardwalk, and goes all the way to the north coast of the island; however, it is very rugged, due to the limestone outcroppings. We decided to walk back to the road, and at that point, started to think about lunch.

On the way back to the road, we heard two more parrots squawking as they flew by us, very close overhead in the canopy. We got a fix on where they landed, but try as we might, we could not locate them. Of course, once they landed, they went completely silent, demonstrating why these birds are sometimes referred to as “stealth parrots.”

That ability to move like an avian ninja is a great survival skill for the parrots, but it certainly felt frustrating for someone like myself, trying to get some decent photographs of them. We knew they were there, probably looking right at us, but we couldn’t see the parrots for the trees.

There is a good chance they were near their nest site, which would give them added incentive to remain silent. They prefer to nest in dead cedar trees with a pre-made cavity that is at least four feet deep. However, these trees are disappearing from the island and while the parrots can adapt to other trees for nesting, the lack of their favoured nest species is another potential impediment to the continued health of the population.

Add to that, the ever-increasing development going on all around the reserve on privately-owned land and you can see the Brac parrot certainly has its arms - or rather, wings - full, trying to maintain a healthy population.

To use an old cliché in reverse, the parrots are not out of the woods yet – and that’s just the way that those who care about the birds would like to keep it, postponing that occurrence indefinitely.

The site is designated as a Bird Life International Important Bird Area (IBA), meaning if the government signs up for the program, which it has, it is bound to legally protect the species.

 “It is their responsibility to maintain enough habitat to for the birds,” says Bradley.

What else can be done to help save the remaining birds?

“The National Trust is always looking for donations, because we need to buy more land,” says Bradley.

Of course, it goes without saying, visiting the reserve to see the birds also helps save them in many direct and indirect ways. People tend to place more value on something they can see and experience as opposed to something they can only read about.

The trails in the reserve allow people to enjoy the parrots without disturbing them or their breeding habitat while watching them and taking photos. In doing so, they help contribute to the local economy through nature tourism, which provides that value so crucial to the future welfare of the parrots.

Future scientific study may provide even greater reason for saving the Cayman Brac parrot. Bradley says there are indications the Brac parrot may be an entirely separate species. That would make it a rare endemic, increasing further our need to protect it. However, scientists are still working to determine if it is indeed a different species.

Even if it proves not to be a different species, though, it is a part of the island’s heritage. And the reserve helps keep it a living heritage.

“It is one of the most beautiful things to see on the island, and it represents the forest, all the things that go with the forest, the biodiversity,” Bradley says.

“And this forest has the most biodiverse habitat in the Cayman Islands.”

TO SEE THE PARROTS:

To arrange for a guided visit, a good place to start is Nature Cayman, 

www.naturecayman.com .

Phone: (345) 948-2222

They can help you book a guide (currently provided free of charge through the district commissioner’s office.)

You can also do self-guided tours, obtaining brochure-maps either through Nature Cayman, the National Trust, or Cayman Tourism.

There are several ecotour companies that specialize in bird tours that will take you to see the parrot reserve. Cayman Tourism can put you in touch with them.

While in the Cayman Islands, you may also want to visit the Mastic Trail on Grand Cayman Islands, always a good place to see the Grand Cayman parrot. The Trust can supply you with a guide. You can also book a guided tour through Silver Thatch (see below) or other ecotour companies.

Other useful websites to help you plan your parrot expedition:

Phone: (345) 949-0121

Cayman Tourism http://www.caymanislands.ky/ . (This website has separate sister sites for the UK, Canada and the US.)

Sister Islands Tourism Association http://www.sisterislands.com/index.html

Silver Thatch Excursions (Earthfoot Nature Walks & Birding)

Phone: 345-925-7401