Back from the Virgin Islands! The family vacation for the summer was on the island of St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We had a rental house right on the water and had a wonderful time. Our own little private cove and beach, wonderful snorkeling right outside the door, and great food. Of course, there was also a wee bit of birding involved! I’d never been to the Caribbean, and although the relatively small island of St. John’s doesn’t have a huge variety of bird species, there were some nice “lifers” I was able to see and photograph.
One of those species is the Pearly Eyed Thrasher. They are a very common and very visible species in the area, but given their geographic range, they were obviously a “new” species for me. It didn’t take long after we arrived for us to see our first Pearly Eyed Thrasher! We flew into St. Thomas and took the ferry over to St. John’s, then driving across the island towards Coral Bay and the location of our beach house. The owner met us and as we were being shown the features of the house, we were greeted by “Captain” (the name my son immediately gave him!), an extremely tame Pearly eyed Thrasher who the owner said “owned” the beach house! Captain certainly did act as if he owned the place! Every time we were on the deck overlooking the ocean, Captain was there, either casually searching for food, or just hanging out on a nearby tree or the deck itself. Captain was certainly curious, often choosing to sit and perch within just a few feet of where we were lounging.
Captain was usually accompanied by “Swabby” (again, the name my son gave him!). “Swabby” was a bit more shy than Captain, and usually was only around if Captain was around. Swabby generally hung out a little further away from us than Captain, but he too was often very close to us.
I knew before we arrived that they were a common species, with one local birder telling me that locals in the Virgin Islands think of Pearly eyed Thrashers in much the same way as we would think of House Sparrows or Common Grackles here. One of the joys of birding, however, is seeing a “new” species. No matter how common a Pearly eyed Thrasher is in the Virgin Islands, they were new to us and were a real joy to have around, particularly as they were so tame and entertaining. Clearly Captain and Swabby were accustomed to guests at the beach house. The owner warned us not to leave any small items out on the deck, as they would be “confiscated” by Captain and Swabby! That certainly was the case for food items too, as Captain and Swabby could be quite bold in begging for food. We refrained from giving them “human food”, but after noticing their love of the petals of a certain flower, we did gather a few on occasion and put them out for Captain and Swabby to enjoy.
3 days after arriving, it was obvious that Swabby had been attacked or had some serious accident. One of his legs was clearly broken and/or dislocated. The leg was useless to Swabby, held at an awful-looking angle. For the first couple of days after the leg was broken, Swabby struggled. He wasn’t around as much, and when he did come near the deck, he struggled to adapt to his new situation. He didn’t seem to have enough strength in the one remaining leg to hold up his body, so whenever he landed somewhere, he typically would lay on his belly. We gathered a few more flowers for Swabby, and thankfully he was still feeding normally. After a couple of days, the leg still was useless and was still held at a horrible angle, but Swabby seemed to be gaining strength in his remaining leg. He was starting to hop around on one leg, and seemed to be able to hold his body up with the one leg.
Of course we’ll never know what happened to Swabby, but there are a couple of “unnatural” predators on the island that could have been the culprit. Mongoose were introduced to the islands many decades ago, a misguided attempt to control runaway rat populations (another introduced species). Mongoose have had a devastating impact on the native wildlife of the Virgin Islands, particularly on ground-nesting birds. Another potential culprit is another introduced species, the iguana. We ran across some extremely large iguanas during our trip, including one gorgeous, bright green iguana in a tree right outside the beach house. My guess is that either a mongoose or an iguana managed to get a hold of Swabby’s leg, and Swabby only escaped after breaking free of whatever predator attacked him.
As we left the Beach House to start the long trek back home, Captain and Swabby of course were present to give us a proper send off! We did put out a bit of left-over bread as we left, which Captain and Swabby immediately devoured. “Common” or not in the Virgin Islands, it was a treat to see a new species. Birders tend to get enamored with adding new species to their life lists, and often forget to appreciate the birds that are commonly seen. Watching their behavior at such close range, interacting with them in the way we did, was a reminder to appreciate the “common” species we have back here in South Dakota.