Tour 1: Every Endemic in the Lesser Antilles (with optional extension to Trinidad) - February 22nd - March 9th 2018
Oistins - the bustling fishing village of the south coast of the island is the location for our meet and greet dinner. Colourful beach huts are filled with bubbly locals beckoning us over to join them for the best meal in town, but we negotiate the lively avenues until we find ourselves at The Bajan Birder's favourite seafood spot - De Red Snapper. On offer is everything from fried flying fish to grilled lobster and as we tuck into this wide selection of fresh seafood (delicious alternatives available for those who aren't fond of fish), we get to know everyone who'll be setting out on this epic adventure through the islands. Every Lesser Antillean island has its beer of choice, and here on our first island, it's Banks - the best in my books… but of course I'm slightly biased. We take it easy on this first night, and just order a bucket!
Early the next morning we make for a mangrove wetland home to one of the greatest concentrations of flora and fauna on the island. Clearly visible from the air, this is the last expanse of forested land on the south coast and as we enter this bastion of resistance to development we are greeted by a drop in air temperature, and the calls of several target bird species. As the reserve is closed to the public we have our choice of where to begin, and select a prime viewing site on the aptly titled Leaf Deck.
Gazing out across the brackish waters, the rising sun reflected in the tannin-rich waters, the dorsal fins of massive Atlantic Tarpon begin to breach the surface and Red-eared Sliders seek out their favoured basking sites on the long tendril-like roots of Red Mangroves. It is early enough that Snowy and Little Egrets have not left their roosts and (evidenced by 3 individuals perched low over the water) even those nocturnal specialists the Black-crowned Night Herons have not yet retreated in response to the sun's advance. Belted Kingfishers rattle and fly across our eyeline and golden-eyed Carib Grackles (surely soon to be split to Barbados Grackles) chip and chatter from overhanging branches.
An unexpected drizzle sees us make our way to the shelter of the gazebos, but as it eases, the bird song intensifies tenfold, and within it we hear the unmistakeable eloquent song of the endemic subspecies of Yellow Warbler. Known locally as the Golden Warbler, a brilliant yellow male, perched at the top of a prominent Fiddlewood, puffs out his thickly rufous striped breast and proclaims this territory his. In response, a lovely, soft, yellow female peers from under a Bismarck Palm and flits up to the Fiddlewood to investigate; it is breeding season after all.
Our comfortable and relaxed stroll along the immaculately maintained boardwalk and pathways of the reserve allow for brilliant views of Black-whiskered Vireo, Caribbean Elaenia and Scaly-naped Pigeon as well as a spectacular display by a pair of Antillean-crested Hummingbirds cavorting in a Yellow Poui tree. Their crests dance in the high winds and with binoculars trained on them, we are rewarded when the sunlight on occasion catches the emerald green and blue sapphire crest of the male.
A delightful start to the trip.
Under a still dark and starry night sky, we board our vehicles and begin the slow and steady ascent to the uppermost heights of this heavily forested and still blissfully rural island.
Under expert navigation from our local guide “Dr.Birdy” and his son Ewan, the SUVs carefully negotiate the winding roads that take us deep into one of the last remaining primary forests in the Caribbean - the Morne Diablotin Forest Reserve.
Still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Maria, along the roadside the glinting of galvanize roofs reflect the beams of our vans – however, sadly all of these roofs are now lying at the side of the road - having been ripped from their houses not 6 months earlier. Although we are safe in the knowledge that outside of the hurricane season there is no chance of our being caught up in one of these systems, it is impossible to not feel an enormous amount of sympathy for a people who have gone through hell on earth.
As we wind still further passed the small holdings of yam and dasheen, the first light of dawn begins to illuminate the impressive mountain range that surrounds us. We are in the land of the Jaco and the Sisserou - two of the four impressive Amazonas we'll target on this trip through the islands.
Disembarking from the vehicles, we haven't travelled twenty feet before a wide eyed and curious Brown Trembler flits to within four feet of our heads and, tail stiffly held erect, wings drooped and held loosely at his sides, begins his impressive quivering territorial display. He is soon joined by a Plumbeous Warbler, his melodic call a precursor to his arrival.
We move deeper into the forest, a machete on hand to clear any limbs fallen across the established path. The massive buttress roots of Gommier Trees plunge deep into the earth around us, their huge crowns sprawling above our heads. In centuries past one of these massive giants would have been felled by the local Carib people to make a canoe, its long straight trunk providing the perfect vessel to see them across the ocean.
We make our way through the forest, until eventually we come upon the viewpoint we've been seeking - the Syndicate Lookout Point. A winding river courses below us and the steep hillsides are thick with a forest punctuated by towering emergents, standing like sentinels overseeing all that transpires in this expansive wilderness. Within half an hour we hear our first target - the trill call of the Jaco! Bob catches sight of three parrots as they course across the blue sky, unseasonably high winds further accelerating their flight. The flash of yellow in the tail and red in the wings confirming that what we heard earlier had indeed been the Jaco (Red-necked Parrot). With one Amazona spotted, we settle in to watch the forest for the other, the larger and darker Imperial Parrot, each of us selecting our own prime viewing site.
Although the guys opt to stay grounded….
Jade prefers to scan the trees from a slightly loftier viewpoint.
Despite staying for a coupe of hours, the Imperials remain elusive, so we decide a change of location is in order, and move on.
Perched on the edge of the forest is a charming wood lodge styled Visitor Centre, (sadly abandoned after the hurricane, but largely undamaged - sheltered by the forest). Here in a low hanging Tree Orchid we see our first Lesser Antillean Bullfinch - a plucky jet-black male flitting from branch to branch flashing his impressive rufous throat.
Leading away from the Visitor Centre is a well-paved road bordered on both sides by a mixture of open grassland, citrus trees and native woodland. This "edge" habitat is frequented by a host of regional delights. Our first sighting proves to be one of the most dazzling, as a Purple-throated Carib female plunges her impressive deeply curved bill rapidly into a Lobster Heliconia. Shortly thereafter a shrill squeal announces the presence of the first of two regional endemics - the Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, followed closely behind by the minuscule Lesser Antillean Peewee (a welcome sight as Birdy confirms it’s the first he's seen since the hurricane). Gazing up at the surrounding mountains four Broad-winged Hawks begin to soar on thermals, and then a fifth raptor....but as it drifts closer, no...it’s a Jaco! Stiff winged and riding the thermals like a hawk, this magnificently plumaged parrot drifts closer, eventually perching in the bare crown of a nearby tree, where it provides us with stunning views while it dexterously preens for over half an hour.
As fading light begins to signal the end of our day on Dominica, a faint and distinctly metallic call can be heard echoing across the mountain range…and it's getting closer! Suddenly and ever so fleetingly a pair come into view, framed by the highest and darkest mountain in the range and drifting ghost-like into and out of low wispy clouds – it is the rarest of parrots and undisputed monarchs of this land - the magnificent Sisserou. With their dark plumage and massive, imposing size, and a wingspan capable of negotiating the howling winds and heights of their range they are so obviously suited to this dark mystical realm. Theirs is a land which still remains largely inaccessible to man...and long may it remain that way.
Picked up at the airport by our excellent partners Wildlife Ambassadors we make straight for Des Cartiers Rainforest. Upon entry into this protected forest we immediately hear the high pitched whistle of the Rufous-throated Solitaire. Incredibly it is not long before we see a pair of these ethereal birds, their graceful movements into and out of the shadows of the forest more akin to those of fairies than birds; slender bodies and lengthy tails only serving to further accentuate their every twist and twist.
As we follow the well-worn stone trail further into the forest, other delights begin to be heard and seen. That infamous raider of passerine nests, the Pearly-eyed Thrasher, shrieks and darts above our heads, it's brilliantly gleaming cream eyes no doubt seeking out the eggs and nestlings of the numerous St.Lucia Orioles and Antillean Euphonias that also frequent this forest.
On our way to the lookout, the forestry officer who accompanies us through Des Cartiers lets us in on a secret; standing beneath a giant emergent our upward gaze follows a massive branch, laden with epiphytes and dangling sphagnum moss, to a deep cavity set in the trunk. She's in there he says with a gleaming smile - a female St.Lucia Parrot! As it is late February he expects that she is on eggs. We linger for a while to see if the male is perched outside guarding, but not wishing to overstay our welcome, continue on our way after he does not show in a few minutes.
One thing is certain however, the parrots are here.
Arriving at an established lookout we prop on the rail and gaze down to a river coursing through the valley hundreds of feet below. We aren't there more than a few minutes before the telltale clack cleeack clack of the national bird of St.Lucia is heard echoing across the valley. Suddenly here they come, each wingbeat viewed against a backdrop of dark green forest providing us with excellent views of the contrast in their rich blue primaries and brilliantly red speculums. Undoubtedly this is one of the most striking of all Amazonas. We spend the rest of a glorious day here, watching as pairs and small flocks continually make their way along well-travelled flight routes between feeding trees.
After returning to the blissful FoxGrove Inn, we relax before dinner, some of us even choosing to have a dip in the pool.
The following day sees us set out at dawn to the best location on the island for the White-breasted Thrasher. An initial stroll up the grassy path surprisingly yields no thrashers, but thankfully two other target species do reveal themselves from amongst the mix of scrubby Acasia and Tamarind Trees that line the path. The first to investigate we intruders is the big boy of the finch world, the Lesser Antillean Saltator - largest of all finches. He dashes boldly out, but stays only briefly, perhaps realizing there is no threat and flits away back into the forest.
Slightly further down the trail rustling amongst the leaf litter draws our attention to a charming pair of St.Lucia Black Finch on the hunt for a little breakfast. As they creep closer, the gleaming black of the male is a stark contrast to the soft cinnamon brown of his mate, but perhaps the most striking feature of all is those elegant pink legs dancing amongst the crisp brown leaves – a pair of fashionistas indeed.
It is not until the end of the path that we are rewarded with views of our main target bird, a species that has come perilously close to extinction. Not ten feet away, moving through the understory of the woodland are the unmistakeable forms of White-breasted Thrashers. Glistening white bellies of two adults easily distinguish them from their juvenile offspring and confirm that as is the case with many thrashers, these birds are foraging in a small family group.
Emerging from the forest, it’s time for a picnic breakfast of sandwiches and bananas enjoyed overlooking the beautiful coastal village of Dennery. Here we relax and take in the view of Magnificent Frigatebirds craftily following fishing boats for scraps, the boats themselves making their way back in from a nightime harvest of their own.
Breakfast over, it's not long before we are making our own way down to the coast - after all its whale watching time!! After negotiating the traffic of Castries, both by car and for two of us by foot (an urgent lavatory call requiring a dash into a busy mall between red lights) we board a privately chartered cruiser, destined for the deep waters a couple of miles off of the island . As we are enjoying the sight of Brown Boobies coasting over the waves and Royal Terns pursuing Flying Fish (in mid air!), the Captain suddenly shouts to us from the deck above ….WHALE! We scamper to the port side and where a minute before there was only deep blue sea, there is now the unmistakeable silhouette of a Short-finned Pilot Whale. The Captain doesn't seem in a hurry to get a bit closer to them...when questioned, he says ....just watch. Slowly the lone silhouette is joined by others cautiously breaking the smooth plain of the surface. They're heading our way! We stare in awe as the entire pod has soon joined us at the side of the boat. Naturally curious, these intelligent creatures begin to bob their heads out of the water peering at us as much as we are staring at them - a truly magical moment where I for one felt as though I truly connected with the whales. Before we have to move on we count all of the members of this 22 strong pod, led by a MASSIVE male, well over 18 feet! What an experience.
The following day we make for Martinique, not by plane, but back out onto those glistening Caribbean waters aboard a sleek gleaming catamaran. With Captain Ron at the helm, we pull out of the luxurious Rodney Bay marina at dawn. Once in deeper waters Flying Fish suddenly begin leaping and traveling upwards of 20 meters out of the water in front of us. As we sit on the netting between the twin-hull, we're offered great views of these delightful little ocean wanderers. The more we watch, the more we begin to understand the reason for these fishes frantic flight. Out of nowhere large pods of Atlantic Spotted and Common Dolphins begin leaping alongside us, in full hunt mode. Seeming to relish the chase, they leap and then glide effortlessly beneath the boat in gleeful pursuit of prey. Nature is in full swing beneath the waves.
Pulling into Fort de France Martinique, a lively scene greets us with street vendors offering up a range of local dishes and taxi drivers hustling tourists for a quick fare around the city to see the sights. We engage two of the taxi men to take us to a well known sight for Martinique Oriole, but despite 5 hours in the field, we only hear/ get fleeting glimpses of the birds.
Back on the catamaran and as the sun begins to set, the city comes alive. Rollerbladers (wheels illuminated red and pink in the dark of night) whisk along the boardwalk, vendors hawk their produce, and in the nearby park, a group of locals is engaging in a closely contested game of boules.
We enjoy a delicious meal aboard the catamaran, before heading out to soak in some of the culture and architecture of this beautiful city, a social beverage in hand of course.
Today we jet off from Martinique to her fellow French Territory of Guadeloupe. What a difference in countries. Guadeloupe is wild, rugged, and nine shades of verdant green. After leaving the airport we venture into the region of Basse Terre, stopping at a small bakery tucked away in an avenue in Pont de Pitre where we select from an impressive selection of baguettes and pastries and store in the van for a picnic later.
On the trail of the Guadeloupe Woodpecker we venture into the positively primeval and incredibly lush forests of Basse Terre. Almost immediately we hear a distant but firm drumming. It's here. Using a tape to call the bird in, we are soon enjoying excellent views of a breeding pair. This is a curious woodpecker with a honking bill, and stiff, long, woodcreeper-like tail feathers, but it is its overall dull black feathers and deeply maroon breast that make it most unlike any other woodpecker I have ever seen - certainly not the most glamorous of woodpeckers, but it has a certain ... Ok, as we are in Guadeloupe I'll say it - "Je ne sais quoi"
The woodpecker is the endemic and is fabulous to see, but our next sighting quite simply takes our breath away. From within a shrouded, sheltered copse of trees, overhanging a serene mountain lake, comes the soft coo of a quail dove. This isn’t the call of the Ruddy, but the far less common and regionally indigenous Bridled Quail Dove! Stealthily creeping along the forest floor we peer cautiously around, under and through overhanging branches, and as those of us in front slowly pull back a curtain of sphagnum moss, reveal the bird perched not twelve feet away. It clearly can see us, but as is the quail dove modus operandi, prefers to stay in situ relying on camouflage; camouflage that thankfully did not work this time. What a privilege to be able to connect with this gentle and unassuming bird - the epitome of peace and tranquillity.
As the heat of the day increases, we enjoy a picnic in a secluded part of the forest, where despite the thundering of cascading waterfalls in the background, the unmistakeable call of an American Redstart can clearly be heard. Spisshing lures it within sight.
There is one species on Guadeloupe which can prove especially difficult without local knowledge, and this is the Forest Thrush. Driving along a deserted lane in a quiet forest after lunch, our local guide Anthony suddenly stops the lead car when a suspected Forest Thrush is seen along the road. Getting binoculars on it quickly is essential, for this bird does not tend to linger, and once back in the dense surrounding forest, it is lost. Thankfully we all get terrific looks of the diagnostic orange eye ring, and heavily chevroned chest - these falling short of the belly and hence confirming it as the local race of Forest Thrush.
With clear running streams filled with crayfish, large emergents festooned with epiphytes and an abundance of indigenous species from Lesser Antillean Pewees and Brown Tremblers to Lesser Antillean Bullfinches, this becomes the perfect spot to while away the afternoon and enjoy some leisurely birding.
Our stay on Guadeloupe is in a stunning neo-colonial styled mansion perched high on a ridgeline overlooking the countryside and coastline. Dinner is creole cooking at its best, enjoyed at a beachside restaurant.
The next day while jetting across the deep blue Atlantic waters between Guadeloupe and Montserrat, our eccentric and slightly odd French captain suddenly yelps “baleine” “baleine” and swings the speed boat around to starboard. His trained eye has spotted the fin of a False Killer Whale! At this time of year these waters teem with marine mammals and two of these magnificent creatures spend some time with us before a pod of Frasers Dolphins arrives and seems to drive them off.
As we approach Montserrat, the imposing Soufriere volcano looms ever closer. Thrust out of the sea like a giant wedge, the thick steam erupting from the gaping vent and the sweeping lava flows aptly illustrate the devastation and raw power which this infamous peak has in the not too distant past reigned down on the settlements of this region.
In complete contrast to the dark and foreboding Soufriere, the west coast of Montserrat is fringed with steep white cliffs, amongst which Red-billed Tropicbirds wheel and cavort on the airways, their magnificent white lanceolate tails billowing in the wind. As we make our way steadily into Port, Brown Pelicans take advantage of the crystal clear water to plunge head first into schools of fish.
Indeed, fish seem to be the order of the day, playing a significant role in delaying our arrival as fishermen slowly (very slowly) move a huge shoal of needle-nosed fish carefully from the small dock of the Port to a van. Eventually we are on solid ground, and after a strangely detailed customs inquisition, we are met by Scriber, our local contact and pre-arranged transport and make for the protected primary forests of this island - forests quite unlike any other we see on the trip.
Still a British Territory, international conservation groups such as RSPB are heavily involved in the protection of the natural resources of this island, and in the preservation of her many unique species. Number one on our list of priorities is the Montserrat Oriole.
This forest is dense, with enormous trees erupting out of the rich fertile black volcanic soil. High in the canopy above, "Bracka" (nickname of one of our local guides - everyone on Montserrat has a nickname, and it's this that they're commonly referred by) pauses...he's heard an oriole call. We creep forward and position ourselves under the limbs of a superb Balata Tree. As Bracka mimics the call, the bird (a juvenile) gets closer and closer until eventually it's a mere 6 feet or so above our heads. Success, we've seen the endemic bird species for the island. But we want more, we want to see an adult male. As we are here in the height of the breeding season we concentrate our search on stands of Heliconias, in which could very likely be nesting orioles.
Our search is yielding plenty of females frantically stripping and gathering brown leaves and affixing them to the underneath of the broad, dark green leafed Heliconias ....but where are the males? We need to keep going.
Finally Shane spots him, not in a Heliconia, but perched high atop a towering Cecropia, it's bare branches permitting him an unimpaired view of his impressive territory below. He is absolutely stunning, a brilliantly black glossy back and hood shimmering in the tropical sun, perfectly contrasted by a rich burnt-orange breast. Here stands Icterus, the fire bird, reigning over his volcanic island. The nomenclature is so perfectly fitting. What a sight!
As we continue our walk through this picturesque land, it’s clear that the forest floor can be just as alive as the trees above. Leaves rustle everywhere, Montserrat’s Anolis species of lizard scuttle across the ground and clamber up tree trunks, Bracka grabs an endemic Montserrat Racer so we can see it up close, and Scriber somehow sees and catches a Dwarf Gecko curled up on a shrivelled brown leaf on the path before us. No bigger than the tip of your thumb this little marvel studies us with googly eyes before being once again placed under his "giant" leaf shelter.
Although some of us head back to the hotel to enjoy a complimentary rum punch, others continue birding under the trees and are rewarded with stunning views of Forest Thrush – it’s heavily chevroned chest confirming it as the local race. That’s two Forest Thrush races on two islands – excellent.
A stunning sunset enjoyed on the balcony of our hotel brings the curtain down on a brilliant day, on a truly magical island.
Antigua & Barbuda
The tourist mecca of Antigua with its 365 beaches is a hive of activity in March, and as we pull into the Port, two huge cruise ships are offloading passengers - flooding like ants out of a nest and seeking prey (AKA duty free shopping). Somehow I don’t think any of the thousand or so people that pass us notice the great view of a White-crowned Pigeon perched in a tree overhanging the very boardwalk they’re walking on.
We soon see a sleek white vessel, with 750 horses in tow pulling up alongside one of the ships. Here is our privately chartered vessel to take us away from the shops and towards a place that none of these tourists will likely ever see.
It is a picturesque Caribbean day, typical of this time of year, and the sea is perfectly flat and a sparkling turquoise blue – a perfect day to get out on the water.
So without further delay, we board our boat, bound for Barbuda.
With the panicked news reports coming out of this island during Hurricane Irma still fresh in our minds, it is no surprise that the first sight that greets us as Barbuda’s shoreline becomes visible, is the weather-battered remains of a once thriving hotel. With the roof off and the walls caved in, we are left in no doubt as to the raw power that ravaged this small, flat island. Again, as was the case when we visited Dominica, we are grateful that we are not travelling these islands during hurricane season.
Pulling up to the small dock in the town of Codrington, we see a large tent with Samaritan Aid emblazoned on the side. Food aid is still being distributed here some 6 months after the hurricane. But the good news is that there are people here who the food can be distributed to. 250 people have now returned to live on the island and are doing their best to rebuild their homes. Perhaps surprised to see visitors, we are greeted with smiles and handshakes and we pass the time chatting with friendly locals until a slightly battered blue van arrives complete with driver (and his son) to take us to the best sites for the endemic warbler.
As we slowly negotiate the heavily potholed and dusty roads, we are somewhat surprised to see a small herd of five donkeys casually trotting towards us! It seems a bit bizarre, however when asked, the driver simply shrugs and says Pets. Apparently the donkey is a popular household pet on the island, and thankfully a large number have survived the hurricane.
The scrubby windswept and ravaged vegetation that is scattered throughout the land is prime warbler habitat, and we excitedly begin our search - walking and spisshing, walking and spisshing. A large iguana, a Mangrove Cuckoo, Kentropyx lizards....no luck yet. The sun is extremely hot, easily the hottest island of the trip, and we are just about to break for a snack and water, when from behind a secondary school where ten children are perched atop a broken wall eating their lunch, we hear a warbler's melodic song - instantly adding cheer to this land of dust and devastation. High in a Neem Tree looking down on us, a beautiful male Barbuda Warbler is singing his heart out; his brilliant yellow breast strangely out of place in this otherwise brown, beige and desolate land. It is incredible to think that this minuscule, delicate 3" songbird bore witness to the most powerful devastation Mother Nature can wield...and survived! His song is the cue for another to begin to sing, and another, and soon there are four of these critically endangered dazzling gems calling all around us. What a privilege to still be able to enjoy his call - a call that could so easily have been silenced.
On the way back to the dock, after negotiating our way around a few more quadrupeds...namely sheep and goats eking out an existence on scraps of vegetation, we arrive back at the boat where a delicious meal of BBQ chicken, rice, grilled vegetables and salad is waiting for us. We wash this down with several glasses of rum punch and finish off with slices of banana bread – all enjoyed with a backdrop of a shimmering sea.
After lunch it’s time to kick back relax and enjoy the smooth ride back to Antigua. We are almost back to Port, in fact the cruise liners are well in view, when a MASSIVE black shape breaches the water on our starboard side. WHALE!!!! the Captain shouts! He wheels the boat around and aligns our bow with the tail of the animal. The clear hump on the back is diagnostic and it's evident that we are in the company of a migrating Humpback. Incredibly a much smaller fin then breaches the surface…she has a calf with her. A large number of Humpbacks give birth in the warmth and safety of Caribbean waters, and evidently this has been the case for this mum. What is more staggering is that they aren't alone, for no sooner had we taken a breath and begun to fathom what was before us, than another (much larger) dark form begins to make its way up, up, up towards the surface. We lean over in anticipation and are met with a huge spout of spray shooting into the air as an enormous male, once and a half the breadth of the female and calf, empties his gargantuan lungs and prepares to once again fill them with fresh oxygen. As soon as the spray has settled, he sinks back under the surface, but not to return to the depths, instead he turns on his side and waves a car sized fin up and down, as if waving to us. This was an experience none on board will ever forget. What a privilege. We stay in their company for some 15 minutes, before they swim off toward the horizon.
Arrival at the stunning Beachcombers Hotel sees us jump out of the van and start combing the grounds for island specialties; all black Bananaquit - check, Yellow-bellied Elaenia - check, Grenada Flycatcher - check. We meander through colourful gardens awash with tropical flowers, gardens where Antillean-crested Hummingbirds mill around Antillean Heath, Spectacled Thrush pluck berries from fruiting Christmas Palms and those brilliant blue-headed Anoles dart across the path in front of our feet.
After our hotel garden birding session, the late afternoon is ours to relax and enjoy, and some of us head to the hotel's black sand beach and enjoy a swim in the calm waters of the western coast, while others sit out on their verandas surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus and get stuck in to a good book. Dinner in the stunningly decorated hotel restaurant is filled with excited conversation as we discuss what's to come tomorrow.
The following morning sees us set off at 4:30am in order to be at the little known Jennings Forest in time for a spectacle we've all been waiting for since the plane touched down in St.Vincent.
Negotiating the winding roads upwards, deeper and deeper into the interior of the island, we turn off onto a little used farm road. For miles, bananas and coffee line the fields on either side of us, until eventually we break clear of the agricultural areas and into secondary forest. After climbing further still, we leave the vehicle to walk the final passage towards a high ridgeline overlooking a heavily forested gorge. The views are spectacular from all sides, with towering emergents lining the western slope, a river running to the south, and to the east, the early light of dawn beginning to bathe the waters of the Caribbean Sea.
This dawning of the light is the cue for the parrots to begin to stir. They first appear in ones and twos, calling and flying directly over our heads and then offering some stunning views as they drop down from their roosts to crisscross the dark green of the forest with the brilliant blues and oranges of their wings. What a sight! More and more birds are heading our way. There are soon over 50 either perched in fruiting trees, or in the skies above us. And then something even more extraordinary happens. A male begins to gently pluck individual fruit from a tree and offer them to a female. She graciously accepts them and then offers herself to him for copulation. We can't believe what we are watching ...two parrots from one of the rarest species on the planet creating new life (and Steve gets it on video)!.
After our incredible time spent with the parrots, we make for La Soufriere volcano, and a step back in time. Upon exiting the van, one is overcome by an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquillity emanating from this ancient forest. Grenada Flycatchers make forays from their favoured perches in pursuit of flying beetles, and a large assemblage of St.Vincent Anoles, their sapphire blue heads and tails shimmering in the morning sun, greet us at the start of the path leading us into elfin woodland and the home of the secretive Whistling Warbler.
The path is lined with endemic Begonias and Ficus, with large windows cut in the foliage offering stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean, just visible beyond the distant slope of the volcano.
A Ruddy Quail Dove, startled by our quiet approach, flutters off the path to settle a few feet deeper into the forest and a softly coloured Cocoa Thrush flits onto a branch protruding from the steep sided gorge that lines our route. Deeper in the gorge, a fruiting tree has attracted a host of birds, and our vantage point above them, offers us a different perspective on some previously seen species and a very exciting new one. Vireos, Bananaquits, thrashers and bullfinches all feed voraciously on the swollen berries of the "fig", however it is a flickering movement high in the canopy that catches my attention. Lesser Antillean Tanagers! With the sun brilliantly illuminating their ochre covered plumage they flit into and out of clusters of fruit, their masked faces reminiscent of bandits making a quick getaway - their prize secured.
Feeling peckish after our adventurous morning, we find a clearing beside a dry river bed, bedecked with large boulders, and here we tuck into a selection of fruit gathered fresh from the trail, along with plantain chips and conkie (a local delicacy of coconut, sweet potato and cinnamon, wrapped in a banana leaf). Overhead a pair of Common Black Hawk soar on the thermals of the midday tropical sun, a Peregrine whizzes by and flushes a Scaly-naped Pigeon - only to see it duck back into the forest before being hit, and all around us Lesser Antillean Swifts wheel and dip. And then from deep within the forest we hear the sweetest whistle of the entire trip – that of the Whistling Warbler. With a focal point for our search established, we make our way along a divergent path in the trees, and are soon treated to brilliant, yet fleeting, glimpses of one of the most challenging birds of our travels through the islands.
We encounter the only rain on the entire trip upon arrival into Grenada. The plan this afternoon is to spend some time in the company of the critically endangered Grenada Dove, however after arriving at Mt. Hartman Estate we soon realize that the downpour is going to make this impossible today. Fortunately, knowing that this could be one of the most difficult birds to see on the trip, Birding the Islands has planned the itinerary so that we have the afternoon on one day, and the entire morning of another to look for the bird.
We awake to a beautiful morning, and the calls of Smooth-billed Anis, Grenada Flycatchers and those ever-presents in the Antilles - the Grey Kingbirds filling the morning air. Now this looks more promising for dove-spotting! From the entrance to the reserve we maintain radio silence, absolutely no speaking, for this dove is renowned for being as elusive and skittish as they come. The rain actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise, for it softens the leaves and twigs underfoot and makes our travel through the dry scrubby habitat less obvious. Finding a large clearing underneath the Acasia we settle in and hunker down - this is going to be a waiting game. Incredibly though, within 15 minutes of waiting, Keith whispers "dovvvve". We cannot believe our eyes, as strolling down the very path we have been traveling is an elegant male Grenada Dove. This just does not happen… but it is happening. Catching sight of us he casually changes course and saunters into the scrubby undergrowth. But there is no panic in his movements, he simply moves off track, and then amazingly, perhaps realizing we are not a threat, makes his way back to the path. There is just enough sunlight filtering through the compound leaves of the trees overhead to dapple the path, and as he walks through, the beams perfectly highlight the soft purple iridescence of his neck. What a gem.
We all get stunning views of a bird many do not even know exists, far less have ever seen.
The reserve also has a very functional observation tower which we use to great effect. Climbing the stairs with the calls of the local race of House Wren echoing all around us, we are soon looking out over the very forest we were walking through a few moments ago. A shrill cry from low over the modest Visitor Centre attracts our attention. Furiously beating oddly shaped wings, a striking male Hook-billed Kite swoops towards us. It had obviously just lifted off and is soon joined by its mate. As the warmth of the sun increases, the kites gain altitude until they are directly overhead! Phenomenal birding, and all before 9am!
Time to head back to the hotel for a swim in the ocean and a tasty lunch.
In the afternoon we head to Trinidad!
As soon as we exit the Piarco International Airport, we have our binoculars at the ready and as the van leaves the outskirts of Port of Spain and winds its way deeper into the islands extensive Northern Range, bound for the birders paradise of Asa wright Nature Centre, we have several opportunities to use them; White-winged Swallow, Short-tailed Hawk, Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-chinned Spinetail – some fine "van birding" indeed.
Upon arrival at Asa Wright, we make straight for the famed veranda, where despite the heat of the tropical afternoon, the hummingbirds, honeycreepers and tanagers are putting on quite the show. White-chested Emeralds and Blue-chinned Sapphires hover inches from our eyes and sip from the well-stocked feeders, before being chased off by the bullies of the group - the imposing White-necked Jacobins, brilliant white tails fully flared and primaries extended for maximum intimidation factor. Below us a dazzling Long-billed Starthroat flits its head frantically from left to right, each turn allowing us fabulous views of that electric pink throat, before darting off to feed from one of myriad tropical flowers. Electric Green as well as Purple Honeycreepers have their choice of tropical fruit, and Violaceous Euphonias practically sparkle in the blazing sun. Crested Oropendolas, their comical bulbous nests swinging from nearby Cecropias cackle and croak, and tanagers of every imaginable colour feed on the fruiting trees that border the veranda. These usual suspects are however interrupted when Steve spots a Trinidad Euphonia making for the canopy of a nearby tree.
What a welcome to the island we are given.
Having spent a couple of fabulous hours in the company of some of the wonders of the reserve, we make for the driveway to see what other wonders lay in store for us. Twee twoo Twee twoo, the call is everywhere as Cocoa Thrush seemingly reclaim their territories before settling in to roost. This constant call is interrupted by two high pitched "clacks" which cause us to flick our heads skyward just in time to see a pair of Lilac-tailed Parrotlets deftly slipping into the canopy of a towering Mahogany.
Early morning (very early morning) on the next day sees three of our group set off on a two hour journey to the north east coast in order to catch sight of one of the rarest birds on the island - the endemic Trinidad Piping Guan. Incredibly they are not only treated to views of one or two of these large black and white birds, but are able to spend the morning in the company of six guans. As if this wasn't enough, they also get stunning looks at one of the most glamorous of hummingbird species on the island, the magnificent Ruby Topaz! What with this and the daily visits of Tufted Coquettes to the Vervenas at Asa Wright, we truly are spoiled for choice when it comes to hummingbirds.
Not to be outdone, those of us who stay behind are treated to a bold Great Antshrike plucking beetles from the wall of the security hut, before we set off on a delightful orientation walk. Passing under a spectacular Bee Orchid, we enter the realm of the Bearded Bellbird, it's otherworldly metallic call boldly proclaiming this land to be his. It's superb wattled neck flickering with every clank. White-breasted Thrush, White-flanked Antwren, lekking Golden-headed Manakins and their White-bearded cousins dance in the sun. Golden Tegus and other ground lizards dart around our feet, skuttling out of the way as we interrupt their basking in the morning sun.
At Asa Wright, nature is well and truly all around us.
The afternoon hours are ours to enjoy as we please. A delicious lunch, followed by a stroll around the grounds for some; perched on the verandah scanning the skies for raptors and the forest stretched out before us for woodpeckers and toucans; or finally taking a dip in one of the several natural spring fed pools in the company of Blue-Morpho Butterflies - the choice is yours.
Early the next morning following a customary incredibly tasty buffet breakfast we head down Jacaranda trail for an encounter with Oilbirds. They just don't belong do they. Isolated from the rest of the bird world in a family of their own, living in caves and using echolocation to negotiate their nocturnal feeding forays, this is easily one of the strangest birds we connect with on the trip. The cave at Asa Wright is one of the most accessible sites to see this species in the world and we are rewarded with sensational views.
The late afternoon sees us make our way for Caroni Swamp for the spectacle of Trinidad. Pausing at the side of the road near to the University of the West Indies for a spot of shorebird spotting, we get terrific looks at Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt, Least and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Southern Lapwing and Black-necked Stilts. In the fields bordering the stream we get an incredibly close view of the impressive Red-breasted Blackbird. It is then a further 20 minutes from the university until we arrive in the 40sq.miles that is Caroni Swamp.
As the boatman is busy preparing our flat bottomed boat for our private excursion along the waterways , we are treated to unparalleled views of Masked Cardinals flitting from branch to branch, their brilliantly coiffured red heads easily spotted amongst the pale green leaves of the mangroves that line the road into the swamp. High above, a Rufous-browed Peppershrike calls loudly, but louder still is Bob's shout of caiman! At which point the rest of us dart over to see a lumbering seven foot Spectacled Caiman raised high on its haunches making its way out of the shade and out onto an exposed mudflat.
The boatman is now happy that his vessel is ready for boarding, and as the single engine sputters to life, we ease away from the pier and make for the depths of the mangrove swamp. What would you like to see today he asks? Steve jokes that he hasn't seen a Boat-billed Heron in forever. Might be tricky but I'll see what I can do. We all smile to ourselves thinking - yeah sure
As we glide along further, he asks: want to see a Tropical Screech Owl? Umm, yes! He manoeuvres his craft backwards and forwards until he provides us the perfect angle to view this darling little owl nestled against the trunk of a Red Mangrove. Cooks Tree Boa? he asks..., absolutely, and there it is curled up on a limb directly over our heads. Maybe we will see a Boat-billed Heron after all.
Suddenly he cuts the engine and allows the boat to drift into a quiet cove....Common Potoo, beak held proudly skyward dozing in the afternoon sun. And then the grand prize amongst these secretive and oft elusive mangrove inhabitants; the promised Boat-billed Heron But incredibly, not one, but two! An adult and an immature, barely visible above our heads, both awaiting the dimming of the light, and an opportunity to dine on the plethora of creatures lying in the depths of the mud soaked banks of the mangrove. Simply…Wow!
Drifting along the channels that slice through the mangroves we eventually break out into a massive lake, and right on cue, perfectly framed by a backdrop of the towering mountains of the Northern Range, come the ibis. Flocks of 50-200 birds, their brilliantly shimmering red plumage seemingly ablaze in the late afternoon light, seek the shelter of their roosts before the setting of the sun. What colour, perfectly contrasting with the dark green of the mangrove - this is a spectacle to warm the cockles of any heart. Nature, in all its glorious splendour.
On our final day we have one more endemic to find. We've got them all so far - Imperial Parrot, Barbuda Warbler, St.Vincent Parrot, Grenada Dove, even the troublesome Martinique Oriole was heard by all and seen by some. However the Trinidad Motmot, remains to be found, and we fly out later this same day. Walking along the main drive into Asa Wright, where two had been seen the previous day, we hear the strange "gloomp gloomp" call and trace it to a grove of bamboo up a muddy incline, deeply set amongst Banana Trees and heliconias . High in the Mountain Immortelle above, Orange-winged Parrots clamber and squabble over the flame coloured flowers, and Euphonias twitter, but still the "gloomp gloomp" of the motmot echoes from within the bamboo. We have scanned the boughs for over 1/2 hour, before the rising sun reveals a bare limb out in the open, and on it is perched a bird that seems to have appeared from absolutely nowhere (although was probably sitting before our eyes the whole time, shrouded in the low light of early morning) - a brilliant Trinidad Motmot. Turquoise emblazoned head, thick decurved beak, and that tail, what a tail.
Final day, final endemic on the islands.
That’s it, we’ve connected with them all – a whopping 44 of 45 endemic, regional and local race target species seen, and the 45th heard. A hugely successful trip!
As we are making our way down from the heliconia grove a pair of Channel-billed Toucans, for me the epitome of wild South America, fly in and perch in the bare branches of a lone forest giant. Those brilliant colours - that Caribbean Sea-blue eyering, the sunset orange breast band, and the gleaming tropical sun-yellow chest - all the colours of our trip on one bird. Truly fabulous. They peer inquisitively down at us, before flying off over the expanse of rainforest and settling into another ancient tree nestled deep in the rainforest. Safe there, protected, wild, and it’s there that we’ll look for them on our next birding trip to the spectacular islands of the Caribbean.
February 2018 Every Endemic in The Lesser Antilles bird list (endemics, including local races, along with regional indigenous species are in bold)
Pied-billed Grebe, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, Brown Booby, Brown Pelican, Anhinga, Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropic Cormorant, Cocoi Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricoloured Heron, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Striated Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Scarlet Ibis, White-cheeked Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Trinidad Piping-Guan, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Hook-billed Kite (Grenada local race), Common Black Hawk (St.Vincent local race), Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, American Kestrel (subspecies caribaearum), Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-headed Caracara, Crested Caracara, Common Moorhen, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Wattled Jacana, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Rock Dove, Scaled Pigeon, Scaly-naped Pigeon, White-crowned Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Zenaida Dove, Eared Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Grenada Dove, Bridled Quail-Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Gray-fronted Dove, Lilac-tailed Parrotlet, Blue-headed Parrot, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Orange-winged Parrot, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Red-necked Parrot, St.Lucia Parrot, Imperial Parrot, St. Vincent Parrot, Great Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, White-flanked Antwren, Silvered Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Forest Elaenia, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Tropical Screech-Owl, Short-tailed Nighthawk, Common Potoo, Oilbird, Band-rumped Swift, Short-tailed Swift, Grey-rumped Swift, Lesser Antillean Swift, White-necked Jacobin, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Green Hermit, Little Hermit, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Green-throated Mango, Black-throated Mango, Tufted Coquette, Long-billed Starthroat, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Purple-throated Carib, Green-throated Carib, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Blue-headed Hummingbird, Green-backed Trogon, Guianan Trogon, Collared Trogon, Trinidad Motmot, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Channel-billed Toucan, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker, Caribbean Elaenia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Forest Elaenia, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Euler’s Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Streaked Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, Lesser Antillean Pewee, St.Lucia Pewee, Grenada Flycatcher, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Grey Kingbird, Bearded Bellbird, White-bearded Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Caribbean Martin, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, White-winged Swallow, House Wren, House Wren (St.Lucia local race), House Wren (St. Vincent local race), House Wren (Grenada race), Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Cocoa Thrush, Spectacled Thrush, Red-legged Thrush, Forest Thrush (Montserrat local race), Forest Thrush (Dominica local race), White-necked Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, White-breasted Thrasher, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Brown Trembler, Grey Trembler, Black-whiskered Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow (Mangrove) Warbler, Yellow (Golden) Warbler, Whistling Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Bananaquit, Lesser Antillean Tanager, Antillean Euphonia, Violaceous Euphonia, Trinidad Euphonia, Masked Cardinal, White-shouldered Tanager, White-lined Tanager, Silver-beaked Tanager, Blue-grey Tanager, Palm Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Purple Honeycreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Lesser Antillean Saltator, Blue-black Grassquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Barbados Bullfinch, St.Lucia Black Finch, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Crested Oropendola, Carib Grackle, Shiny Cowbird, St.Lucia Oriole, Martinique Oriole
February 2018 Every Endemic in The Lesser Antilles mammal list
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Long-finned Pilot Whale
False Killer Whale
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
Jamaican Fruit Bat
Antillean Fruit Bat
Greater Bulldog Bat
Pallas’s Long-tongued Bat
February 2018 Every Endemic in The Lesser Antilles reptile list
Cook’s Tree Boa
Antiguan Bank Bush Anole
Barbuda Bank Tree Anole
Grenada Tree Anole
St. Vincent Tree Anole
St. Vincent Bush Anole
Tropical House Gecko
Antigua Bank Whiptail
Tour 2: The Perfect Combo November 19th - 29th 2017
You get the feeling it's going to be a great birding trip when the first day kicks off with an endemic chick rescue!
Making our way to breakfast a few of us heard the plaintive cries of a young Barbados Bullfinch on the stairwell. Distinguished from their Lesser Antillean counterparts by both genders being a soft neutral brown with russet wing bars, this little bird had not long fledged, but somehow managed to find itself trapped in the stairwell. Fortunately we return him to the safety of a bougainvillea hedge before he is trodden on and within minutes the parents are making up for lost time by frantically flying back and forth, beaks laden with grub, attempting to satiate a seemingly insatiable appetite.
After a leisurely breakfast on the seaside verandah, enjoyed while overlooking the turquoise waters and white sandy beaches for which the southern coastline is so renowned, we make our way to Chancery Lane Marsh. Here John has quite the introduction to Bajan wildlife when a large male Green Vervet (monkey) ascends a rocky limestone outcrop and leaps to within a metre or so of his feet. This turns out to be a scout, and shortly thereafter the whole troop becomes visible, popping their olive green heads out from amongst the button mangroves that thrive here in the southernmost tip of the island. The marsh stretches as far as the sand dunes lining the beach to the south and below us are a number of species taking advantage of the great weather and prime feeding conditions. Tricoloured Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Caribbean Coot, and a host of migrant waterfowl are dotted amongst the wetland below us. From our lofty viewpoint we follow well worn paths down through the grassland to the east of the marsh where we enjoy an entertaining display by a cohort of male Grassland Yellow Finch and meet the plucky Black-faced Grassquit.
We later take the scenic east coast road that snakes it's way along the rugged Atlantic coastline of the island to a sheltered lily pond and reliable site for Masked Duck. Local knowledge pays off as we are rewarded with incredibly close views of two males - their brilliant blue beaks gleaming in the tropical sun.
At only 21 miles long, even with regular stops, it doesn't take long to travel the length of the island and before we know it we are standing at it's northernmost tip - a haven for migrant shorebirds, and regular flight route of Caribbean Martens. Here, perched atop the highest cliffs on the island and gazing out across the deep blue waters of the Atlantic, we enjoy a delicious picnic of roti and bajan conkies washed down with coconut water straight from the shell. Now this is what life in the tropics is all about!
We begin the day in a mangrove wetland home to one of the greatest concentrations of flora and fauna on the island. After entering the Graeme Hall Nature Reserve at daybreak we make for the ornate Leaf Deck from which we are granted fabulous views of the 34 acre wetland . Gazing out across the brackish waters of the main lake, the rising sun reflected in it's tannin-rich waters, the dorsal fins of massive Atlantic Tarpon begin to breach the surface and Red-eared Sliders seek out their favoured perches on the long tendril like roots of Red Mangroves. It is early enough that Snowy and Little Egrets have not left their roosts and even those nocturnal specialists the Black-crowned Night Herons have not yet retreated in response to the sun's advance.
Although now sadly closed to the public, as a former employee, myself and my group are granted exclusive access to the impressive boardwalk winding its way through the reserve and we make use of this opportunity by getting unrivalled views of a host of forest dwelling species, from Scaly-naped Pigeons and Zenaida Doves to Bananaquits and Green-throated Caribs. Overhanging Flamboyant Tree limbs support the dainty figures of Caribbean Elaenias and Black-whiskered Vireos and observation blinds offer perfect cover from which to watch skulking herons. In the beautifully flowering White Wood Trees so common on the island, the terse sharp call of Carib Grackles (surely soon to be split to the Barbados Grackle due to the striking variation in sexual dimorphism in these birds, compared to those on other Lesser Antillean islands) and trill song of Gray Kingbirds greet the coming dawn, while a sole male Golden Warbler announces his interest in a nearby female through melodious song. Hours while away here in this perfect patch of paradise and the birding is easy, relaxed and rewarding.
For those in the group who are interested in exploring underneath as well as above the waves, a snorkelling trip to the Folkstone Underwater Reserve follows, where we have the opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in that glorious Caribbean Sea and get acquainted with inhabitants of one of the most famous coral reefs on the island.
I'm writing this entry as the gentle lapping of the hotel pool drifts up to my balcony overlooking the dense forested mountains of St.Lucia's interior . There is a thoroughly pleasant ocean breeze sweeping over the nearby hillsides and ever so softly the sweet sounds of '60s calypso waft upward from the coastal village of Dennery perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
We are in St. Lucia and this truly is an idyllic island for nature enthusiasts. Towns and settlements are very much concentrated along the flat coastal areas while the interior is defined by mountainous terrain impractical for large scale development. Such a topographical deterrent has been instrumental in preserving the extensive pristine habitat essential for the multitude of bird species that thrive here. Our first day birding here has been absolutely superb.
At 8:30 in the morning we had caught a Liat flight from Barbados and jetted across the Caribbean Sea until the dark green silhouette of volcanic St.Lucia came into view. The birding began with a visit to a favored haunt of all three indigenous hummingbird species . The first to greet us - the imposing (in hummingbird standards) Purple-throated Carib. Initially seen perched at eye level on a bare guava branch, this dominant male was a constant ball of nervous energy, incessantly swinging his head from side to side (the sunlight dancing from one side of his opal throat to the other) as he scanned his preferred feeding flowers for signs of would-be invaders. Keeping limbered up with the odd wing stretch he would shoot off in the blink of an eye were any rival to intrude on his patch. He reluctantly shares this territory with the two other species of hummingbird that call this charming and peaceful island Home, and as we strolled through a landscape dotted with an array of tropical flowers and fruits the chatter and buzz of several hummers constantly surrounds us.
From this secret site in the north east we'd driven a short distance through groves of bananas bursting with crop to the spectacular Bay of Anse Louvet, an ideal location to begin to explore the many wonders of St.Lucia's dry forest. Once here a flash of yellow signaled the arrival of our first endemic - the adorable and intricately patterned St.Lucia Warbler. Gazing down upon us with a soul searching stare exacerbated by immaculately framed eyes, he was quickly joined by the equally dainty and almost mouse-like St.Lucia Peewee, before both were chased off by the arrival of the comparatively heavy-set and burly Scaly-breasted Thrasher.
The subtle "chuck chuck chuck" of the St.Lucia Wren beckoned us further still along this unassuming path, stretching through a forest positively teeming with regional wonders. Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Grey Trembler, St.Lucia Black Finch and a family of five extremely rare White-breasted Thrasher all being seen here for the first time.
Birding here allowed us the opportunity to occasionally gaze out through the cecropias towards the stunning coastline, our vista further enhanced by the flitting of flambeau butterflies - delicate flames of the forest dancing at mid story amongst the trees. Before we left, calls higher up were the signal for binoculars to train on the canopy, and resulted in our first sighting of the dazzling Antillean Euphonia.
Driving along the winding roads and motorways of the north of the island on our way to our next destination we had stopped for a refreshing Piton lager at a kabawé (local bar) where we met Papa - busy making coconut oil, and reminiscing about the good ol days when St.Lucia housed 28 million coconut trees, and business was booming, but after corn oil became "d nex bess new ting" his is a trade now left in the hands of a few determined small farmers. Papa is quite a character. Like many of the inhabitants of these deeply rural communities he is still tied to the land, having repressed the urge to dash for the bright lights of Castries. During our time on island we meet others like Papa, whose charming life stories are refreshingly representative of the Caribbean of yesteryear.
Back at the Foxgrove Inn and after a delicious dinner of trigger fish prepared to perfection by the brilliant head chef (a local st.lucian who honed his skills in Paris) we reveled in sitting back, relaxing and recounting the highlights of the days birding over a cocktail (or two).
We hear them first, that telltale cackle of parrots the world over, echoing across the Mont Gimie valley. Then we see them - flying in from the direction of the nearby Des Cartiers Rainforest, a pair of glorious st.lucian parrots, the sun glinting off of their vibrant red, blue and yellow secondaries. We had parked ourselves directly opposite a golden apple tree frequented by parrots in the area, and true enough, this pair didn't disappoint. The female perched in the uppermost branches of the tree and the male opted for a thick branch below. Almost immediately they begin to feed, their beaks slicing into the succulent flesh of the ripening golden apples, our scope offering a detailed window into their everyday lives. We beckon two farmers who had just arrived over to have a look. Not always a friend to farmers (as the multitude of singly bitten golden apples littering the base of the tree would indicate) these men nonetheless slowly make their way over, and as the first one lowers his eye to the scope his beaming smile is that of a man who, while reliant on these fruits for a living, can apparently not help but be impressed by the incredible beauty of the aptly named Amazona versicolor.
By mid morning we enter the Des Cartiers rainforest itself, a habitat defined by giant tree ferns, royal palms heavy with fruit and towering emergents with gargantuan buttress roots. We make our way up a gentle incline to a lofty viewpoint where we are soon treated to our second sighting of the island's national bird. On this occasion there are three Amazonas (probably two parents and their sole offspring) screeching and flapping in that heavy laborious way of all parrots, dutifully following the linear route of the river snaking its way along the valley floor below. The flashing of their wings light up the dark verdant greens of the forest - a fantastic sight.
Suddenly, darkening clouds signal the arrival of the only rain we encounter on the entire trip. It is a sharp, heavy downpour of about fifteen minutes, but as we shelter in an observation hide, far from being an inconvenience, it is instead a moment to savor and cherish. Here deep within primary rainforest the life giving rain that nourishes such a variety of species is a wonderful spectacle to experience, and the effect it has on the forest birds is equally remarkable. Purple-throated Caribs and Bananaquits begin a comical dance in the tree canopies - ruffling and fluttering their bodies up against the compound leaves of mimosa trees and letting the water that has gathered there wash over their tiny bodies. The rain stops just as suddenly as it began, and with it, the as yet unseen St.Lucia Oriole and Rufous-throated Solitaire make an appearance from deep within the tree cover into the emerging sunshine where they erupt into song. Lesser Antillean Swifts also arrive in the skies overhead and begin to stoop and wheel in mid air in search of the host of insects that have taken flight after the rains. Life is truly all around us here in St.Lucia.
Along the breathtaking west coast of the island we stop for lunch at a popular eatery where pickled octopus is the special of the day. While taking a stroll down to the beach to scan the waters for Brown Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and a host of terns and gulls, we are somewhat surprised to see the impressive outline of neighboring Martinique rising from a band of low lying cloud gathered on the horizon. Birding the Islands will be heading here by catamaran in February 2018 and April 2019 as part of our Every Endemic in the Lesser Antilles trip. Click here to learn more about this trip.
Flying into Trinidad, one is greeted by vast swathes of mangroves and the extensive channels of water connecting them. As we fly in low over the tree tops we beam from ear to ear at the sight of Trinidad's national bird, the stunning Scarlet Ibis, serenely flying over the Caroni Swamp below. What a magnificent sight. There are surely few reds in nature more vibrant than that of the ibis.
We arrive at our accommodation for the next 4 days, the internationally renowned Asa Wright Nature Centre and immediately make our way to the verandah of the main lodge, a setting for what is surely one of the most incredible birding experiences in the Western Hemisphere. On the verandah with it's stunning backdrop of hundreds of acres of lush, rich tropical rain forest we are instantly surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds feeding on lantana sage, viburnum and numerous feeders dangling at eye level from the roof of the lodge. There is a furious buzzing of wings as the diminutive but courageous Black-throated Mango whizzes passed my ear to see off three White-chested Emeralds who according to the affable lady tending the bar have encroached on his favourite feeder. While busy watching two intricately patterned Green Hermits (the giants in this collection of miniature hummers) do battle amidst a dense patch of heliconias beneath us, a call goes up that gets everyone's attention - Long-billed Starthroat! We all rush to the east side of the deck to catch a glimpse of this infrequent visitor to the verandah. A star attraction indeed. And yet still they come, White-necked Jacobins resembling the ornate pendulum of a cuckoo clock swaying from side to side directly in front of our noses, their colours perfectly highlighted in the tropical sun. The deepest blue, most emerald of greens and that beautifully patterned white neck - incredible. Blue-throated Sapphires and Copper-rumps, so close you can see their minuscule white-socked feet gripping the feeders, are joined by dazzling Purple Honeycreepers, Yellow Orioles and Bay-headed Tanagers. By this point we've been out here for two hours, but no one wants to leave. We are fully captivated by the array of sights and sounds all around us, and are unanimous in our decision to stay put and soak it in.
Raucous calls signal the arrival of a flock of Crested Oropendolas swooping in to survey proceedings, their magnificent blue eye rings glinting in the sun. Looking a little further afield to a massive emergent laden with epiphytes and said by locals to represent the beginning of the forest, an Olive-green Woodpecker determinedly hammers it's beak against the trunk , not feeding we soon realize , but instead chiselling out a hole for this year's young . A flash of copper below gets my attention - it's the glinting scales of a massive Tegu lizard slowly sauntering out of the hibiscus hedge and into the blazing sun. As I'm shaking my head in disbelief trying to fathom the scale of life all around us, a gong sounds - lunch time, everybody to the buffet table!
The rest of the daylight is spent exploring the Centre's easily navigable trails where White-lined Tanager, Cocoa Thrush, Bare-eyed Robin, White-bearded Manakin and a host of other fabulous species are seen.
17:30 signals a shift in personnel as members of the night watch begin to build in number and those active during the day slowly fade back into the forest. Scores of Pallas's Long-tongued Bats now take to the feeders, gripping them as the hummingbirds do and slurping to their hearts content. House Geckos become more active , darting out from behind large leaves to grab unsuspecting moths, and frogs sing...and how they sing. Every imaginable peep, whistle, boom and grunt can be heard emanating from the deep dark beyond.
After a delicious buffet dinner with an extensive selection of lamb, chicken, steak, array of locally grown vegetables and rice and sweet potato, finished off with pineapple yoghurt, cheesecake and brownies we gather at 8 for a night walk led by a knowledgeable guide based at the Centre . She leads us down the well tarmacked winding driveway entrance to Asa Wright bordered on both sides by the forest. Whip Scorpions, giant stick insects, a Velvet Worm, a sleeping Owl Butterfly, and a roosting Green Honeycreeper are all highlights, but the star of the show is a slumbering Great Antshrike. Everyone is thrilled.
We begin the day by heading to the upper level of the car park to scan the Vervain Verbena for the one hummingbird that had proved elusive on the verandah, but the one that everyone wants to see on Trinidad - the Tufted Coquette. Small species after small species are sighted, identified, enjoyed, but ultimately abandoned. Then, the merest whisper of a pale tail band. "Was that it?" "I don't know, that bunch of flowers is blocking the rest of it, but wait...it's moving!" Eventually it flits out from behind the shrub, turns on a profile and myself along with Jane and Don, a lovely couple from the UK who my group and I spent many a delightful evening with swapping birding tales out on the verandah, get a chance to see those fabulous black spotted orange sideburns . Yesss! Successsss! A male Tufted Coquette! He continues feeding by effortlessly whizzing from one flower to another. This is a very small bird that from a distance could easily be mistaken for a moth or bumble bee. Small, but utterly magnificent. Indeed so magnificent that within minutes he's won the affection of a female, who together provide Jane, Don and I with our first sighting of an "on the wing mating". They zip by our feet at high speed perfectly matching the others wing beats, resembling in that split second a couple of daredevil para-gliders, before disappearing up and over a crest. What a privilege.
Hummingbirds had been the order of the early morning, but now it was time to concentrate on the owner of that astonishing metallic call that we'd heard emanating from the depths of the surrounding forest pretty much since we arrived. We follow the call to a majestic nutmeg tree, and there on a branch perched at mid story is the most incredibly attired bird I think I've ever seen. An oversized jet black mouth, subtle but fabulous cinnamon, white and black plumage, but the showpiece - that extravagant beard. The impressive wattles dangle mid-chest and quiver as he produces that remarkable call, announcing his intention to outcompete other males and in so doing lure a female into his territory. The Bearded Bellbird is surely a must-see for every birder.
Having been treated to such an entertaining and close encounter with the bellbird, we moved a little further down the trail and soon heard the high pitched call of yet another target species - the Golden-headed Manakin. No sooner had we heard the call than a magnificent gold streak darted across the trail. Wow! What a bird! It was a splendid male and he soon began to display, hopping from one low hanging branch to another and then back up to his original spot , every move accentuated by that unmistakeable gold head - perfectly defined against his jet black body.
The next morning began as many others do at Asa Wright, with breakfast and a hot beverage enjoyed on the balcony gazing out across the sprawling Arima rainforest. As the hummingbirds, honeycreepers and tanagers made their customary way to the surrounding flowers and fruit trees, a family of six agouti foraged nearby and a dazzling Blue Morpho darted in and out of the hibiscus below.
Then over the morning coffee chatter a cry went out: WHITE HAWK!! Everyone on the balcony rushed to the eastern end of the deck with such urgency that had we been on a ship we would surely have capsized. But our enthusiasm is justly rewarded with stunning views of this beautiful and majestic raptor.
The raucous call of a pair of Orange-winged Parrots interrupts our viewing session and those of us not fixed to a scope use our bins to hone in as these noisy but lovely smaller Amazonas leave their roosts and make their way to a favorite feeding tree.
As it turns out this tree happens to be right above our breakfast tables and we soon all shift en masse to the western side of the balcony where we enjoy the company of these wonderful birds. The always entertaining oropendolas are already gathered in the same tree, but a distinctly smaller bird soon adds to the growing menagerie - a Guianan Trogon! The day just keeps getting better and better and by mid afternoon we actually add two other species of trogon (Collared and Green-backed), a slough of antbirds and wood creepers as well as a stunning male Scaled Pigeon to our list.
The next day we make for Aripo Savannah and Aripo Heights where we have fabulous views of two more raptors - a low flying Grey Hawk buzzing a stand of bamboo, and a pair of Short-tailed Hawks.
The brilliant birding continues and as it so happens, today is the day that I make an astonishing discover: it is impossible for me to watch Green-rumped Parrotlets for longer than 5 minutes and not have my heart melt. I don't often use the word cute when birding, but I can't help myself with this bird. What an utterly adorable little puff ball of a bird, with its soft cream coloured beak, delicate facial features, and small compact body. A perfect parrot in miniature.
While I am staring spellbound at "my" parrotlets, Ken has been scanning a nearby lily pond and soon gives the cry many of us had been hoping for ..."caiman"! A young Spectacled Caiman had emerged from the water and made it's way out onto an exposed bank to bask in the warmth of the tropical sun. With gaping jaws, and subtle movements that allow the sunlight to dance across it's glistening scales it is the star of the show, until, staggering out of my parrotlet/caiman induced stupor, I catch sight of a Masked Cardinal flitting in the branches of a nearby mangrove. Cue even more excitement and much snapping of cameras.
Our final stop today is the Caroni Swamp which we'd seen on our flight into Trinidad and which is one of the most famous wetlands in the Caribbean. We still have some biscuits and coconut bread left over from the four course picnic that Asa Wright had packed for our day trip and we decide to take these, along with the unopened bottle of rum punch, to enjoy while on our boat tour of Caroni.
There is no sight in Trinidad quite like that of the ibis coming in to roost in Caroni. The vivid reds are further enhanced by our being able to see them against the dark green of the mangroves, and as they arrive from every direction they are so often framed against the brilliant blue of the tropical sky. The colours are truly staggering and this spectacle is something that every nature lover will revel in. As we turn and head for home the boatman shows off his exceptional eyes by firstly spotting two sleeping Cooks Tree Boas and secondly by negotiating the channels through the mangroves in the dark. Well, someone has to drive.
On our last full day of the trip, we take the highly anticipated walk down to the oilbird cave . In an effort to control the number of people who have access to the cave, this little trafficked trail must be taken with an Asa Wright guide. Restrictions to access make wildlife bolder and a new sighting at the start of this trail is a Giant Ameiva , an 18" two-toned lizard with a spectacular green/bronzed halved body. In terms of novelties though, this proves to only be the beginning, for on this secluded trail lined with fresh water springs and small waterfalls we see three endemic species. The first is the spectacular Trinidad Mot-Mot. What an impressive bird! The turquoise blue on it's head reminding me instantly of the ocean colour around my home island of Barbados and it's long dangling pendulum of a tail proving to be positively hypnotic. The odd design of the tail is actually a case of self-mutilation as all young in the nest instinctively pluck feathers from just above the base of their tail to create the odd gong at the base. We enjoy spectacular views of this oft-elusive bird a mere 15 feet away.
Our second endemic proves to be a little more foreboding as our knowledgeable guide points to the well hidden lair of a Trinidad Chevron Tarantula...and it's occupied. Continuing on the path we soon arrive at the mouth of the cave. Here perched on the lush ferns overhanging the spring that winds its way into the cave we enjoy brilliant views of the charming little Trinidad Stream Frog . While stooping over to have a better look at this third endemic species of the day, the most unearthly and sinister call erupts from within the cave. My hair stands on end, and all of us bar the guide recoil in fright, whereupon he laughingly explains that this is the call of the Oilbird. We venture in and are soon rewarded with unbelievably close views of the prehistoric-looking species that early explorers referred to as El Diablo! For a cave dweller, the bird itself is huge, with a wingspan of almost four feet and a sharp hooked beak (perfectly designed for plucking palm fruits off the trees at night) that only adds to it's sinister appearance. A remarkable bird, probably the most remarkable I've seen in all my travels (after the Hoatzin).
As we exit the cave mouth and our eyes readjust to the light, a quick glance skywards is rewarded by the sight of a flock of dainty and beautiful Turquoise Tanagers flitting amongst the forest canopy . We are well and truly back to the land of the living!
To wind down this perfect day I take a leisurely walk along the Heliconia Trail, the sound of running water steadily increasing as I near it's lowest point. There, perfectly nestled within four moss covered boulders is a crystal clear natural pool. A series of small waterfalls cascade into it from two different directions, causing intricate swirls to form on the surface of the water. It looks very inviting indeed. Making my way through a stand of glorious flowering heliconia I am soon fully submerged in the refreshing spring water. Gliding across the pool my eyes are drawn skyward to the overhanging palms and bamboo, higher still to the cecropias and mangoes and the tanagers quenching their thirst from the epiphytic plants clinging to their branches. Later I catch a glimpse of an odd shape on a log just above the water line. I am not alone in this little slice of Eden. I'm sharing the pool with a massive goggly-eyed Giant Tree frog. A deep russet orange with those tell-tale long suction capped toes splayed out before him, he allows me to drift ever closer until I am literally inches away, his big beautiful eyes staring deeply and intelligently into mine. His relaxed nature and reluctance to jump away hint at this very much being "his pool", but in this tranquil, utopian setting , perhaps there's room for one more.
We arrive back to Barbados in mid afternoon, the perfect time to visit the very beaches we'd seen an hour earlier from the air.
A rum cocktail at sunset draws the curtain on our Caribbean odyssey , but just before all of our eyes fix on the horizon in the hope of seeing that famous green flash , a final glance into the clear water below is rewarded by the sight of four hawksbill turtles simultaneously coming to the ocean surface for air. If I had not experienced it, I would not have believed it, and the same could be said of our tour; a good perfect setting, a perfect spectacle, a fitting end to Birding the Islands Tour 2: The Perfect Combo