Latin-Caribbean Travel

On Great Inagua Island, flamingos are many and magnificent

Inagua National Park in the Bahamas has the world’s largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos. Fun fact: Adult flamingos’ diet of brine shrimp is what turns them pink.
Inagua National Park in the Bahamas has the world’s largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos. Fun fact: Adult flamingos’ diet of brine shrimp is what turns them pink. THE WASHINGTON POST

The four-wheel drive Ford pickup lurches around a curve in the rock-and-rubble road and pitches to a stop on top of the dike. Below us, about 200 feet away, a dozen flamingos stand frozen in place like lawn ornaments in the shallows of a windblown saltwater lagoon.

Every bird is facing into the breeze, poised to take flight. Overhead, a line of flamingos stretching more than 100 feet flies toward the far shore, the trailing edges of each magnificent bird’s hot-pink wings etched in black.

A half-mile away, on the other side of the lagoon, a thin pink smear extends across the full arc of the horizon.

“There are thousands there. Maybe 5,000. Maybe more,” says Henry Nixon, senior warden of Inagua National Park and protector of the 60,000 flamingos and more than 130 other bird species that live on remote Great Inagua island in the Bahamas.

But even this flamingo-filled panorama pales in comparison with the scene just before the females lay their eggs in early spring, when scattered groups of flamingos gather to form a single mega-flock.

Responding to some inner cue, the world’s largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos rises as one to fill the sky. If conditions are exactly right, Nixon says, sunlight reflected off the backs of tens of thousands of flamingos turns the underside of low-hanging clouds pink.

I’ve come to Great Inagua for a week to bird-watch, fish and explore this salt-encrusted island 400 miles southeast of Nassau and 55 miles north of the eastern tip of Cuba.

In our eight days on the island, it’s easy to find exotic birds and obliging fish. It’s harder to find a restaurant, a place to stay or something to do after a day of birding or fishing.

Only about 800 people live on Great Inagua, the third-largest island in the Bahamas. There are no luxury hotels, no casinos, no place to rent jet skis or get a Shiatsu massage.

Meals, when you can find them, are, well, surprising. One morning, I breakfast on warmed tuna fish and hot buttery grits — the only food on offer in the dining room of the Main House in Matthew Town, one of a half-dozen places on the island that offer rooms to tourists. (Quite tasty, actually.)

Despite the barriers, hundreds of hardy travelers come here every year in late winter and early spring to see the quirky head-bobbing, strutting and wing-flicking courtship rituals of the flamingo. A handful of other visitors come to fish or dive or just for a taste of the old Bahamas. Most visitors fly into the island’s only airport, outside Matthew Town, or come by sailboat.

Outside the park, Great Inagua is a virtual domain of Morton Salt, the island’s largest employer. Morton harvests a million tons of salt annually from huge evaporative saltwater reservoirs called “pans” that border the park.

Brine shrimp thrive in the salt pans. These tiny crustaceans are a favored food of the flamingo and the source of the bird’s distinctive reddish-pink coloration.

At the beginning of the last century, the West Indian flamingo was virtually extinct throughout its range, hunted nearly to the vanishing point for food or for its feathers.

In the early 1950s, Nixon’s father and uncle, both professional hunters, took Robert Porter Allen, the Audubon Society’s director of research, deep into the island’s harsh interior. Chasing a rumor, Allen had come to Great Inagua to find one of the world’s last breeding colonies of West Indian flamingos.

The party found “a few hundred scraggly birds,” Nixon tells us. Allen hired the brothers to watch over the flock. “The hunters had become the protectors.”

Through the efforts of the Audubon Society and other conservationists, the Bahamian government created Inagua National Park in 1965. The Nixons were retained as wardens.

Today this 183,740-acre wildlife sanctuary covers more than half the island. But flamingos aren’t the only feathery attractions on Great Inagua.

“Sanderlings, sandpipers, snowy plovers,” Nixon quietly ticks off the names of a profusion of shorebirds that stand in the shallows or hunt at water’s edge on a 50-foot stretch of shoreline below a rocky road that runs along the top of a dike.

“Pintail duck,” Nixon says moments later as a bird flushes from the water’s edge. “Gull-billed terns.” He points to a small flock of feeding birds sporting black head caps, white underbodies and severely forked tails.

We keep driving, and birds keep appearing: elegant terns with their black crests and orange beaks, reddish egrets — both red and white-faced species are found here — and tri-color herons.

A few hundred yards farther, however, we encounter the first of several scenes of unnerving desolation. Years ago, this pond had been a scrub forest of oak and silver buttonwood trees. Then an adjacent salt pan overflowed and covered the land with toxic brine.

Today, sharp-edged gray chunks of rotted limestone sit in the mud on a barren shore. Black, limbless tree trunks jut from the toxic water, the skeletal remains of the trees that once grew here. This killing field extends several square miles along the road.

A word about birding on Great Inagua. On any given day, you'll see hundreds, probably thousands of flamingos. But don’t expect to walk among them, particularly during the spring breeding season.

Blame the wild boars, the descendants of the pigs that came with French soldiers who built a garrison on the island in 1749, when the French, British, Dutch and Spanish were seeking dominance in the New World. The French stay was brief — the troops fled when the British dispatched warships to claim the island as their own. The boars, however, remained and flourished.

When Nixon, who’s now 56, was growing up, flamingos nested along the roadways. But the boars developed a taste for flamingo eggs and newly hatched chicks. “They can wipe out a rookery in a single night,” Nixon says. “But wild boars avoid water. So the flamingos now nest in the middle of the lakes,” far from marauding boars and inquisitive tourists.

We come to the end of the road, as close as most tourists can get to the rookery on Flamingo Key during the breeding season. It’s nearly a mile from the nursery site in the middle of a now-dry seasonal lake.

There are no newly hatched birds to observe today, even with high-powered binoculars. “The flamingos didn’t nest this year,” Nixon says. “It was too dry.”

The wind has picked up. Fast-moving rain clouds roll in. We drive to a narrow dike road inches above the water. In low spots, saltwater and sea foam flow across the road.

A hundred yards ahead, several dozen flamingos stand in the shallows. Nixon stops the truck. The birds spot us and start ostrich-stepping into the wind, wings flapping, legs bicycling as they struggle to gain lift. (“A flamingo is like an airplane,” Nixon explained earlier. “They have to take off into the wind. If they don’t, they flip over.”)

As awkward as they can be on land, a flamingo in the air is pure pink poetry, its impossibly long neck arched forward and its impossibly long legs extending back, like a javelin in flight, perfectly balanced in the air.

The flamingos bank steeply to the left and catch the wind that carries them far down the flooding roadway.

For four days of our stay, my friend John McCall and I abandon Great Inagua’s birds to annoy the schools of hard-fighting bonefish that cruise the shallow sand flats fringing the island.

One memorable spot is called the Palm Flat, for the lone, spindly palm tree that rises incongruously above the low brush land. It’s on this flat, in a corner where a brilliant white sand beach pockmarked with coral rock curves out to a point, that I catch an eight-pound bonefish that darts out from a school of 30 fish to devour my tiny fly.

On another day, we target baby tarpon in the saltwater reservoirs in the interior of Inagua National Park, with Nixon once again our guide. He takes us on many of the same roads we were on while birding. John lands a pair of acrobatic 12-pound tarpon. I hook three and cast to a dozen but don’t land a fish.

We’re staying at the newly opened Great Inagua Outback Lodge outside Matthew Town, at the end of what may be the worst road in the Bahamas — 14 miles of unimproved roadway generously endowed with axle-scraping boulders, gaping holes, choking dust, rocky inclines and plunging descents. Not to mention mud.

But the pristine sand flats and the schools of friendly bonefish make the spine-wrenching trip worthwhile.

Owner Henry Hugh opened the lodge in the spring of 2013. It consists of a comfortable, air-conditioned two-room main cabin that sleeps up to three, a cozy dining room and bar, and a lovely gazebo, the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise.

Hugh cooks breakfast, sack lunches and dinner for guests, with an able assist from his stepsister, Rosie Burrows. Our meals are uniformly delicious. His conch fritters, made from conch plucked live from the sea just before dinner, are so sweet and tender that I’d venture to say they shame the best offerings in Nassau or the States.

Great Inagua Outback Lodge also offers anglers a do-it-yourself bonefishing adventure with a twist. Hugh gives us the keys to a 1990s-era red Ford Bronco, a cellphone to call him in an emergency and a map on which he has marked the prime bonefish flats. Then he sent us out on our own.

Rain instantly transforms the fine, sandy soil in low-lying areas of Great Inagua into wheel-sucking quicksand. It had rained a few weeks earlier but was sunny and breezy in the days before we arrived. As a result, the surface of the mud wallows has dried, leaving them virtually indistinguishable from the hard-pack roadways.

On two occasions, I bury the Bronco up to its axles in the mud trying to turn around. Hugh has to call Nixon to pull us out with his heavy-duty truck.

Nixon is gracious. But after taking us fishing and birding and pulling our car out of the mud, he has clearly had enough of these visitors from the States.

So I’m surprised to see him at the airport when we’re leaving. I ask him why he’s there.

“I just wanted to make sure you got off the island,” he says.

Going to Great Inagua Island

Getting there: Bahamasair (www.bahamasair.com) makes three flights a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — from Nassau to the Matthew Town Airport with a stop at Mayaguana.

Information: www.theinaguas.com

WHERE TO STAY

The Main House, Kortwright Street; 1-242-339-1267; www.inaguamainhouse.com. Historic hotel offering six comfortable rooms from $60 to $85 a night.

Enrica’s Inn, Taylor and Victoria streets; 1-242-339-2127; www.enricasinn.com. A short walk from the center of town. Three well-appointed cabins for $85-$130 a night.

WHERE TO EAT

The Main House: Serves breakfast and lunch but not dinner. Menu selections are limited and vary by the day. $8 to $15.

The Cozy Corner, William Street; 1-242-339-1440. Serves burgers, chicken fingers and occasional specialty dishes such as wild boar, conch fritters and grouper. A cheeseburger and a cold beer cost less than $15.

WHAT TO DO

Inagua National Park, 1-242-339-1616; www.bahamas.com/node/52146. A birder’s paradise. Senior Park Warden Henry Nixon will take you for a daylong tour of the park and its birds. Cost varies depending on what you want to see and do. We paid $50 each for a five-hour tour.

Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters, 266 Troy Del Way, Williamsville, New York; 716-479-2327; www.ccoflyfishing.com/greatinagua.html. Arranges weeklong angling trips to island native Henry Hugh’s Inagua Outback Lodge for $1,935 per person, which includes meals, lodging and a day of guided fishing.

Morton Salt Factory, 1-242-339-1271. Tours by prior arrangement at the telephone number above or through your hotel operator.

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