Our Disney adventures were over but we were excited about the next phase. Adam, Tommy and I had taken a cruise on the Sinfonia as a birding trip a couple of years back but we had never really been on a cruise for cruising’s sake. Grandpa Brian had booked us on the Oasis of the Seas, which was part of the Royal Caribbean fleet, the largest cruising company in the world. The Oasis itself was reputed to be the largest cruise liner in the world, dwarfing ships such as the QE2.
I had loved the cruise on the Sinfonia but there were plenty of birds to see and the sedentary nature of sea watching was agreeable to me, but I wasn’t quite convinced that sitting on my bum for seven days on a big ship was up my alley. I was concerned that boredom would set in after a day and I’d have ants in my pants, itching to do something a little more exciting.
I needn’t have worried as it was just about the best week’s holiday I can ever remember. It did help that my trip pre-planning involved making contact with local bird guides on the islands (more about the birds later) but even in the absence of that I still would have loved every minute. After the chaos of Disney I was actually happy to sit in our very spacious cabin and tap away at my computer and enjoy a bit of piece and quiet.
The kids also figured out the lie of the land very quickly and they were able to roam about independently, without needing our attention at every moment.
The Oasis has a number of different routes and we were signed up on the route that travels south east from Port Canaveral. We left the port late in the afternoon and we headed towards the Bahamas. Our itinerary included stops at Nassau on the island of New Providence, Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas and then finally, Philipsburg on Sint Maarten. We would be at sea for seven nights and we would have to squeeze in all the activities we could.
We were moderately prepared for what to expect as I had scoured YouTube for some footage of the ship. It was a magnificent vessel with everything that opened and closed available on board – surfing waves, multiple swimming pools, countless bars (Jeanie vowed to try them all), outdoor movie theatres and entertainment areas, indoor theatres and ice rinks, a casino, basketball courts, tennis courts, putt putt courses and many, many restaurants.
We also got to know the running track and fully-fledged gym on deck five as you cannot eat what we ate and not do any exercise.
The only downside was that it housed 6,000 passengers and at times it felt like they were all standing on deck with me but over the duration of the cruise I found ways to avoid the masses.
Another one of the surprise elements for me was the levels of entertainment made available to guests at every minute of the day. Ordinarily I would have pooh-poohed the thought of an ice show or a diving show or an acrobatic show, but Jeanie booked for every one and we were all dragged off kicking and screaming, but would have to acknowledge at the end of each that we were so pleased she had forced us. The skills and talents of the performers were world class and it felt like being on a night on the town on Broadway or the West End (I am a cultural philistine so that may be a stretch but I think you know what I mean).
We would also spend the latter part of each evening walking along what was called the Royal Promenade and pop our heads into bars and pubs where there would be music and dance quizzes on the go. We even ended up at the Dazzles nightclub at midnight one night, listening to heavy rock from a rock band of eastern Europeans. Their renditions of Guns ‘n Roses, AC/DC and Van Halen were absolutely flawless. Even Jeanie admitted that Sweet Child of Mine may be the greatest rock song ever written.
I know you may fear that I might have turned into a cruise ship vegetable, but one of the other aspects was the birding we managed to do as well. Once we were sent the itinerary of the trip, I googled the various islands we would stop on and made contact with local bird guides that offer regular guiding services to cruise ship passengers. I had no idea it was a thing, but it really is.
My target species research was heavily tested as I had to delve into parts of the world I had never heard of. Ebird was fortunately alive and well in hotspots all over the Caribbean and so my target list was appropriately populated for each of the stops. I only really managed to make contact with guides in Nassau and Sint Maarten but I think that was enough and it also allowed us to take advantage of a cruise excursion of snorkelling on St Thomas.
The species list for islands like New Providence (where Nassau is) and Sint Maarten are not extensive but there are certainly a few special birds and I knew exactly what they were by the time we docked on each of those islands.
On day one as we docked at Nassau, Adam and I had our cameras and bins ready to go, twenty minutes before the gangplank was lowered to avoid the masses. Such is the efficiency of a big ship like the Oasis that we could’ve have been a lot more casual as we were off in a blink of an eye and quick scan of our “seapasses”.
On New Providence we were meeting Carolyn Wardle, an English lady that had settled on the island forty years previously and was a stalwart of Bahamian birding, being an author on a book of Bahama birds, as well as being the lead co-ordinator for the annual Christmas count that had taken place the day before. Carolyn had directed me to the statue of Queen Elizabeth as our meeting point in downtown Nassau and within five minutes of docking we were jumping into her car.
Carolyn had my target list which she critically analysed and shortened it by removing “hallelujah” species and we were off. Carolyn is a tough, no nonsense lady and sped along the busy roads hooting at slower drivers and gesticulating wildly out the window – we had places to go and birds to see and a ship that wouldn’t wait lest we don’t make it all the way around to each of our spots. She also spent a lot of time lamenting the state of Nassau. Over the years the concrete had overtaken the beautiful greenery and it was now a dearth of life in comparison to years gone by. It was not a hopeful way to start but with so much concrete the good thing is that the green areas are so much more appealing for the remaining birds.
We started our journey with a few waders and shorebirds along the shoreline. We ticked a few decent species including a few lifers for Tommy and Adam.
We then cut away from the coast for our first target species, an imported species from Australasia called a Pied Imperial Pigeon. As much as it was an import it was happily countable for our lists and it was an impressively plumaged creature. It was at our first stop that we also nailed the second of our pigeon targets – White-crowned Pigeon – this one not an import and an equally impressive bird.
We were doing well and we had only just begun. The next stop was arguably our birding highlight of the entire holiday. We stopped at a little retreat in the centre of Nassau. Carolyn and the Bahamians refer to it as a retreat but it was more like a botanical garden to me – under either name it was a wonderful green lung surrounded by the concrete body of the town.
We parked the car and bizarrely targeted yet another Columbidae species. It would make it three in a row. This time the much more secretive and cryptically coloured Caribbean Dove, oddly yet another introduced species on the island. Carolyn hunted that one down too and that paved the way for a run of lifers for us.
The warblers were abundant in the gardens and we saw nine species of wood warbler in the retreat – a quite astonishing haul at the unseasonal time of year. In chronological order we ticked Cape May Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler and American Redstart (not all photographed).
Added to this cast of beautifully coloured warblers we also saw Red-legged Thrush, Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird, Mangrove Cuckoo, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, La Sagra’s Flycatcher and Cuban Peewee. It was the most exciting period of lifers I have had in quite some time and given the relaxed conditions in which we saw them we were free to take as many pics as we wanted. It was also the major benefit of securing Carolyn as our guide on a private tour.
There is one bird that I have not yet mentioned from the retreat, leaving the best for last. It had to be an endemic, for sure, and it was the first hummingbird that Tommy and Adam ever clapped eyes on. The endemic Bahama Woodstar, a diminutive, wonderfully plumaged hummer, with a gorget of deep purple iridescence reflecting every time it turned and faced us from its perch. It is only one of six birds endemic to the Bahamas and, in fact, the only one that occurs on New Providence. It was a pity we didn’t have a chance at any of the others but, if I had to have chosen just one of the six, I am sure I would have picked the woodstar every time. Fortunately it was a pretty common bird in the gardens and we would leave with plenty of pics in hand.
Time had ticked on rapidly at the retreat leaving us just enough time for two more brief stops. The first was at the slam dunk site for Cuban Grassquit. We stopped in the grounds of a church next door to a gift shop (the Ebird hotspot is called “the Gift Shop”) and there were about 30 Cuban Grassquits at the feeders in the grounds of the shop.
Cuban Grassquit is yet another introduced species with an interesting history. In 1973 a plane that was flying from Cuba to Europe had caged Cuban Grassquits and a number of other species locked in the hold. The caged bird trade was clearly more legal then than it is now. The plane experienced engine trouble and had to land, unscheduled, on the airstrip on New Providence. Whilst on the ground in the tropical heat, the birds started suffering and began to perish, so the humane action was carried out and the birds were released at the airstrip from where they flew off for salvation and, to express their appreciation, they settled and bred in fairly high numbers. It’s an attractive little bird but quite possibly has predominantly replaced the indigenous seedeaters on New Providence.
Our final stop was at a small pond area for our final lifer of the day, a White-cheeked Pintail, a Caribbean special. As it turned out we saw hundreds of these on Sint Maarten but it was a new bird at the time and always a little exciting.
As I discovered, there’s always a bit of an edge associated with freelanced excursions when exploring an island stopover aboard a ship like the Oasis, as a late return to the ship is an absolute event. If you are late, well, then you are too late. They certainly would never hold up a ship of 6,000 passengers for one or two errant birders. As we discovered on Sint Maarten it is a far more common occurrence that it is errant heavy drinking revellers that miss the ship.
An added pressure was the spectre of Grandpa Brian sitting back on the ship watching the clock, armed with a fair degree of chastising for irresponsible lack of discipline applied to the birding clock. And, if you’re a birder, you’ll know that birding simply steals the time and runs away with it. We also had the complication that the ship operates strictly on “ship time” and whilst we travelled east we crossed into a different time zone, meaning that we were an hour ahead on the island of Sint Maarten. Definitely the potential for some confusion of exactly when to be back.
With all the risks associated with a late arrival we wrapped up our birding with Carolyn nice and promptly and, thankfully so, as the afternoon traffic in Nassau had thickened, much to Carolyn’s further lament about the island having developed way more than she felt it should have.
It had been an amazing day on the island and a great way to compliment the activities we had had on the ship. Adam and I returned in time to settle Grandpa Brian’s frayed nerves and we regaled the rest of the party about our experience. I am not sure they were all that interested in the birds but they certainly acknowledged that it was a good way to see an island, outside of the formally arranged excursions.
Our next stop was two days later on the island of St Thomas, a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands (and our cellphones kicked into action again). We hadn’t arranged a guided tour on St Thomas as I had promised Tommy an afternoon snorkelling excursion with the Oasis contracted operators.
The birding, as a result, was limited to the approach to the island where Adam and I enjoyed some great photographic moments of the Brown and Masked Boobies as they used the ship’s disturbance of the flying fish to grab a meal alongside. The Brown Booby was a lifer for me and both species were lifers for Adam. I quipped that they were the best boobies I had yet seen on the ship. Best an inappropriate and suitably weak comment comes from the birder, rather than the non-birder.
Adam and I also got a chance to walk a small hill to a radio tower alongside the dock before we set off on our excursion in the hope of seeing one or two extra birds. The first hour of that walk reminded me of our visit to Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve as we saw just as many birds in the first hour – zero. This time it was baking hot and all the birds were under cover. It was not a total bust though as the birds eventually showed themselves – plenty of Bananaquits, a frigatebird or two, an obliging Mangrove Cuckoo and then three lifers in the form of Grey Kingbird, Black-faced Grassquit and the bird of the day, a Green-throated Carib. We would see all these three later on during our Sint Maarten excursion but at least we felt the effort in the heat and humidity had been worth it.
And so we joined the snorkelling excursion which was a cup-filler for Tommy. The snorkelling was sadly very disappointing as the reefs are absolutely destroyed in these touristy island destinations and there seemed to be more focus on the second leg of the excursion, which was a beach party at one of the local beaches, fuelled by a noxious cocktail called a Painkiller, with the main ingredient, not surprisingly, rum.
And then it was another hop, skip and jump overnight to Sint Maarten. Click here for the next phase.