Antigua (Caribbean Lesser Antilles) - July, 2002
TEXT ONLY VERSION
Antigua is a reasonably small island (100 square miles) in the northern part of the Caribbean Lesser Antilles. It is also relatively dry when compared with other neighbouring islands. Due to this combination of size and distance from the nearest continental land masses of North and South America, the bird life is restricted in number of species. It does host an interesting spectrum, however, and there are a few species which can be even more difficult elsewhere (such as the 2 Quail Doves and Scaly-naped Pigeon). There are many other better birding spots in the Caribbean, and I would thus see the island as a family holiday destination primarily, but with some decent birding available as a side benefit - as this holiday was.
Birding on the island is roughly divided into 4 types - seawatching, the forests, inland waters, and incidentals around the resorts and other inhabited areas. While not exactly overpopulated, most of the island has given way to habitation, leaving the hilly area in the South-west as the most unspoilt. These hills are well forested, with open grazing areas cutting into the valleys between. Wader and waterbird watching can be surprisingly good - there are some well known sites such as the Potsworks Dam in the South-east, but there are many pools and lagoons dotted around (I saw a number, ranging from ponds to open lagoons and mangroves from the coastal road in the South-west). The area covered for birds and the mode (or lack of) transport was mainly governed by the other holiday activities that we had planned as a family. We had intended to hire a car for some time (costing around $50 per day, plus $20 for CDW per day, and a one off payment of $30 for an Antigua license), and use some of that time to visit birding sites. However, I decided that using the local buses was a much more interesting way to see the island (and a lot cheaper), and to concentrate the birding on the immediate area in which we were staying. This proved an excellent choice. Our hotel was the Jolly Harbour Villas, situated in the South-west, and this is the ideal location for birding. It is possible that the majority of the birds potential to the island are actually within walking distance of here, since I covered all the suitable types of habitat without any form of transport:
As far as location is concerned, the South-west of the island is ideal, since it is next to the forested hills, and has a number of open water areas. Other hotels in the immediate vicinity which are just as well located are the Jolly Beach Resort, and Coco Bay Resorts. Jolly Harbour Villas are a mix of rental and timeshare / owned properties within Jolly Harbour Marina, and the whole complex covers an area of around 100 acres. The villas all have a excellent view across small fingers of open seawater, and a more distant view of the harbour if well placed. From the balcony were regular Lesser Antillean Bullfinches, Grey Kingbirds, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Caribbean Martins, Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, various Herons (including a nightly flypast to the nearby roost of many Cattle Egrets), and Terns. The roads linking the villas are well vegetated, and were always alive with Bullfinches, Bananaquits, Black-faced Grassquits, and Zenaida Doves. There are 2 swimming pools, again with surrounding birdlife. The larger BBR pool is in the centre of the resort, and is not nearly as interesting, although there was a regular Antillean Crested Hummingbird, and overflying Frigatebirds, Grey Kingbirds, Caribbean Martins, and a Willet. The second pool is at the far side of the resort, and is more open, being backed up to a golf course, and having views of the adjacent Pearns Point peninsular. The golf course was inundated with Common Ground Doves, Caribbean Martins were regularly over, and the surrounding area was good for overflying seabirds (Pelicans, Frigatebirds, Herons, and a single Royal Tern). The beach, which is near the south finger villas, was good for regular Laughing Gulls, Frigatebirds, White-crowned Pigeons, Brown Pelicans, Herons (including Little Blue & Tricoloured), Least Tern, and a single flypast of West Indian Whistling Ducks. Mention must be made of the Driftwood Beach Bar and Grill, located at the east end of the beach. Not only is some excellent food served here, but there are a regular clientele of Lesser Antillean Bullfinches that visit the tables and drink from the fruit juice dispensers.
Although a small variety of seabirds could be seen from the beach, most were local. The beach is set back from 2 peninsulas, which are likely to push any passing birds too far out to be seen clearly. I made two early morning visits to Reeds Point, which is at the North end of the beach. It does offer a better view for passing birds, although the rather larger Pearns Point would still tend to push birds a little further out. There is a track which goes to the top of Reeds Point, giving a good high position. Despite having a telescope, it seemed that passage was limited to a few Laughing Gulls and Terns (mainly Least and Sandwich) - a Brown Noddy was the only other bird seen away from the land. However, there are 5 small islands off the tip of Pearns Point, and these are excellent for birds. They are almost a mile away from Reeds Points, which indicates that a trip round to Pearns Point would be a lot more productive, but was good nevertheless. The islands seem to be a roost for Frigatebirds and Pelicans, with smaller numbers of Herons (possibly also breeding islands in season?). There are also a reasonable number of terns that can be seen, including around 20 Sooty Terns, and a small number of Brown Noddies.
Ponds and lagoons
It is fairly obvious that to see a reasonable selection of waders on the island, stretches of water and mud would be necessary. When I decided to dispense with the idea of hiring a car, I thought that I would have to concentrate on other habitats. It was therefore a nice surprise when I found some pools adjacent to the hotel on my first walk out. There are 2 pools of interest, both bounding the resorts of Jolly Harbour and Coco Bay. On leaving the Jolly Harbour Marina, a right turn on the main road finds the first, which is a partially dry pond, leaving areas of water and wet mud and plenty of waders, including a good selection of Black-necked Stilts, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, Wilson's Plovers, and a group of Dowitchers on the third visit. In among the resident Moorhen were also small numbers of American Coot, which were a little bit of a surprise. On the other side of the track to the beach from this pool was a larger and deeper lagoon, which meant another mix of birds. The depth meant more chance of fishing Brown Pelicans, but it also seemed more favourable to the group of White-cheeked Pintail and mixed Herons.
Hills and Forests
This is where the more specialised birds tend to hide, and they are an easy walk from the Jolly Harbour complex. On meeting the main road, I turned right (South-west), and then left after 100m on to a track in a clearing which quickly became a narrow path climbing through the trees and into the valley. The view here looked over the grazing clearings of the valley, which cut into the tree covered slopes. I aimed in the direction of the masts of Boggy Peak, which could be seen in the distance, and managed to walk for some way up the slopes. The whole area is good for Grey Kingbirds, Caribbean Elaenias, Common Ground Doves, Carib Grackles, White-crowned Doves, and Broad-winged Hawks. Among the calls of the larger doves, there were also others calling (6+), which matched the description of Ruddy Ground-dove. They are easy to hear, but very difficult to approach, since they call from within the tangle of vegetation. A group of 3 Scaly-naped Pigeons flew over this area, and the finding of a Scaly-breasted Thrashers nest site might indicate the suitable habitat for both species of thrasher. I did see Black-whiskered Vireo here, but was surprised that they were not more evident (although more birds could be heard singing). Other sites such as Christian Valley and Wallings Reservoir have been reported as being good for specialities, but my feeling is that both Quail-doves, both thrashers, and Scaly-naped Pigeon can all be seen with a bit of time and luck in this part of the hills.