Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 1/5

Illustration by Justin Proctor

Are you tired of really crisp, up-close views of beautiful Caribbean birds? Are you repulsed at the idea of having an extended period of time to view a bird, jot down detailed notes about its breath-taking plumage, and really connect with the moment? Well, I knew it; and I’m happy to say that here at Proctor & Proctor Inc., we can offer you something much more challenging! Let’s start by having a long, long look at the following Rorschach test (pictured left). And if at any time it becomes painful to keep your eyes on the image, just keep looking…

Alright, let’s reflect. Did you see a hamster? If you did, I’m gonna ask you to just kindly walk away now. If rather you saw some intriguing silhouettes of our feathered friends in front of our beloved Yellow Star, you’re sitting pretty. And if you took one quick glance and were able to immediately identify all the different species present, I think we can probably get you a movie deal.

Welcome to Aerial Insectivore 101. Class materials you’ll want to bring along include a good pair of Ray-bans, an imagination, and just a little bit of patience. Now let’s see if we can get you an ‘A’!

The “aerial insectivores” of the avian world are birds that predominantly forage in flight on airborne insects, and are largely represented by five families: potoos (Nyctibiidae), nightjars (Caprimulgidae), swifts (Apodidae), flycatchers (Tyrannidae), and swallows (Hirundinidae). However, even though they belong to the same dietary guild, each one of these families has a unique set of life history traits, which results in sometimes very different types of behavior. The swallows and swifts, in particular, can be a formidable challenge. Their flight is often fast and irregular, and the glimpse that an observer is afforded is usually a quick one, coming at an inopportune time, and more likely than not, set against an unforgiving background (the sun!). That being said, there are ways to offset some of these obstacles, with the most obvious one (to me) involving starting off with some of the easier to see species and working your way up (literally).  Bird watchers, therefore, must implement different strategies for viewing — and ultimately identifying — the array of species in this group.

Within the Greater Antilles, whether you’re heading to the forests of Puerto Rico, the mountains of Hispaniola, the streets of Havana, or the beaches of Jamaica, there are several species of aerial insectivores that you have an excellent chance of getting to know. And whether you’re an expert birdwatcher capable of identifying Empidonax flycatchers from a hundred meters out, or you’re fairly new to the countless ID challenges that the avian world offers, the five species I’m going to highlight in this article are capable of entertaining (and surprising!) birders of all skill levels. I’ve chosen these species in particular because you can get fairly close to them in their natural habitats (well, you might think that White-collared Swifts are a stretch in that case, but I’ll do my best to convince you otherwise later on), which ultimately means that you’ll have an easier time relating to them.

[This post and the following in the series are part of an online article I wrote for BirdsCaribbean, which I will link to in my final post here]

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