Thinking about Warmth on a Day without Power

Posted:  Wednesday, November 1, 2017 - 10:00am

Sitting in our cold, dark house without heat or electricity, as many Mainers have been doing following the “Halloween storm of 2017,” we’ve found our minds wandering to memories of warm, sunny places. Some of you know that at the top of those warm, sunny places in our minds are the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. These three small islands (each roughly the land area of Mt. Desert Island) lay just 20-50 miles off the western coast of Venezuela. They have been part of the Dutch sphere for most of the last few hundred years, and though Aruba and Curaçao have declared independence, they also continue to rely on the Netherlands for military protections and for many international issues.

The islands are bathed in almost perpetual sunshine, so temperatures hover in the low 80 degrees most of the time, with near-constant cooling breezes. Rain is pretty infrequent most of the year and even in the so-called rainy season, it typically occurs as showers that only occasionally last more than a few minutes. Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao also have gorgeous white sand beaches, stunning scrub- and cactus-dominated hills, mangrove-lined coasts and inlet bays, blue water lagoons, and coral reefs teeming with brightly colored tropical fish. With all of these allures, it’s perhaps not surprising that many people, especially from the northeastern U.S., love to visit them when the temperatures drop and the snow begins to fall.

After more than 25 years of visiting these islands, we recently published a book, “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” to help others enjoy the birds and nature of the islands as much as we have. It features stunning photographs and artwork of the birds of the islands, and detailed information about the islands’ birding hotspots, and much more. Our friends from the islands have been recently sharing lots of stunning photos of migrant birds, perhaps some of them from Maine, that they have been seeing on the islands. Birds like blackpoll warblers, belted kingfishers, soras, barn swallows, northern waterthrushes, yellow-billed cuckoos, bobolinks, ospreys, and peregrine falcons, all of which occur regularly there in migration or during winter. Our Aruba friends have found some rarer North American migrants there including black-throated blue warbler (one of Maine’s signature breeding species), Tennessee warbler, and rose-breasted grosbeak.

Of course for us northerners, some of the birds that we would be most excited about seeing are ones that resident birders on Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao see every day. There are the troupials, bright-orange and black orioles that are bigger and louder than the Baltimore orioles we are used to here in Maine. Or how about the ruby-topaz hummingbird, two or three times the size of our familiar ruby-throated hummingbird, and with a golden throat and red tail? Brown-throated parakeets fly by, giving their screeching calls as their wings flash emerald green and blue. On Bonaire, birders can search out the much larger yellow-shouldered amazon, a rare parrot found at only a few locations on Earth. Tall, bright pink flamingos stalk the salt pans of Bonaire’s Pekelmeer and salinas on Curaçao and occasionally Aruba as well. Bare-eyed pigeons, the dark skin around their eyes making them look as if they are wearing old-fashioned motorcycle goggles, utter their low, soothing, “who, who but you” songs as they flutter about in mangroves and palm trees that creak in the wind.

Yes, warm islands with both familiar and exotic birds are on our minds as we wait in the darkness for the electricity to come back. Maybe when it does, we will book our next trip to Aruba, Bonaire, or Curaçao!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.”ç