St Lucia (Caribbean Lesser Antilles) - October, 2004
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After an enjoyable holiday in Antigua two years ago, we decided to follow up in the Caribbean with 2 weeks in St. Lucia. The former provided some good, generally common endemics, where I was able to walk into the forested hills from the hotel. St. Lucia is a few islands further South in the Caribbean islands chain, and the scenery and geography are quite different to that of Antigua. In size, it is a little larger, but the main difference is that the whole of the island is mountainous, and almost all covered in thick forest, which includes a fairly sizable rain forest in the South. October was chosen by default, following the departure of both children to University in September, and work commitments in late October. The main downside of this is that it falls towards the end of the hurricane season, and this was a significant threat, since Hurricane Ivan had severely damaged Grenada (only a couple of islands further down the chain again) a few weeks before we were due to depart. We were fortunate, although part of the reason for the lush vegetation on St Lucia is the amount of rainfall it receives (we had our fair share), and it is likely to occur at any time of the year.
As with most of the islands in the Lesser Antilles group, the number of species which can be seen is limited, although the islands do offer an interesting range of species restricted yet common here (such as Carib Grackle, Tremblers, Antillean Crested Hummingbird & 2 Caribs, Zenaida Dove, and 2 localised Thrashers). In addition, St Lucia is probably the best island in this area for the Holy Grail in birding – true endemics. St Lucia Parrot, Oriole, and Pewee are only found here, and all can be seen relatively easily in the rainforest. In addition, apart from on St Lucia, Adelaide’s (superspecies) Warbler is only found on Barbuda / Puerto Rico, and Grey Trembler & White-breasted Thrasher on Martinique (the latter is very rare, and a birding guide is probably needed to see them).
Choice of hotel was the St James’ Club at Morgan Bay, which is only a mile or two North of the capital, Castries. Almost all of the major hotels on the island are situated in the North-west, which is about 1½ hours from the southerly situated international airport – a vestige of the building by the USA in the second world war. We chose the St. James due to a reasonable price, and the fact that it lies in 22 acres of land, and this surrounded by trees. This means that even sitting by the pool or beach can be interesting for birds, most of which are the common lowland and / or dry forest species, although I did see all 3 species of Hummingbird in the grounds, as well as Scaly-breasted Thrasher and Lesser Antillean Saltator (all multiple sightings while sipping on a rum punch next to the adults only swimming pool).
To get more from the birds of the island, at least one visit to the rain forest must be made. Car hire is readily available, although I am not sure how expensive this proves to be, or the quality of the cars. To rent a car, either an international driving permit must be produced, or an additional license must be bought from the rental company. I decided not to hire a car, since I am not convinced that the entrances to the rain forest walks can be easily found – signposts are almost a myth, and roads are poor, although I did see signs to a couple of the major walks in the South-east on the return to the airport. Instead, the Virgin rep at the resort arranged a trip via the Forestry Department (permission is always needed from these for any foray into the rain forest), and she also sorted out the taxi to and from the walk. I had intended to do a rain forest walk per se, and spot any birds as I went along, but these normally require a minimum number of people (often 10+), but she happened to speak directly to a birder, and they arranged a morning trip just for me, specifically to see St Lucia Parrots. Price was US$30 for the guide, and US$80 for the taxi, who waited at the site for me (a chap called Winston, who has covered this route many times).
Practical points for the trip are that sunrise and sunset are both just before 6 o’clock. The currency on the island is the East Caribbean Dollar (EC$), but it is a reflection of the modern age that they readily accept the US$, which has a fixed rate of around US$1 = EC$2.7.I found a decent pair of walking shoes to be useful, since the year round rainfall can make some of the tracks a little on the soft side.
For identification, Raffaele’s “Guide to the Birds of the West Indies” seems to be the best, if not a little on the large size (Princeton Press). It covers all of the Caribbean (apart from Trinidad & Tobago), with a reasonably accurate distribution table at the back of the book.
Sites on the island are found in Wheatley & Brewer’s “Where to Watch Birds in Central America and the Caribbean” (Princeton Press).
The Hotel - St James’ Club, Morgan Bay
Set in 22 acres of land, and situated on the beach, the hotel is in itself an enjoyable area to see birds. The immediate area outside of the hotel grounds was not worked, but seems to be fairly busy, with a main road alongside, and a reasonable amount of habitation.
The hotel grounds are well manicured, but there are a good variety of trees and flowering shrubs throughout. Caribbean Grackle, Zenaida Dove, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Bananaquit, Grey Kingbird, and Tropical Mockingbird are very common throughout, and can even be seen pilfering within the restaurants and from the room balconies.
There is a choice of two swimming pools – a larger one situated right next to the main bar, which we kept our distance from, and a smaller adults only pool at the top of the resort. This was an excellent spot – no kids, fairly quiet, and the raised deck directly overlooked the surrounding woods, with some trees within the perimeter fence also of value. From one sun lounger I saw all three species of Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Green Heron, American Kestrel, and Lesser Antillean Saltator.
Sitting on the beach could also provide plenty of interest. A few waders braved the crowds (Turnstone, Semipalmated plover, and Spotted Sandpiper), and were usually best early morning. Most numerous herons were Cattle Egrets, particularly before sunset when they would fly by in good numbers going to roost. A handful of Little Blue Herons also went to roost at this time, usually flying much lower over the water than the Cattle Egrets. Further out to sea, Brown Boobies were often seen plying to and fro, and occasional Brown Noddies were a little further out. Two raptors (of the 3 on the island) were also from the beach – occasional Osprey over, and a female American Kestrel occasionally hunted the area (successfully) for small lizards.
Millet Forest Trail
The tour companies at the hotels do run some trips into the rain forest but I found these didn't quite offer what I wanted, as some were for just three quarters of an hour, with others a full day including Jeep ride. One company did offer a tour called rain forest wonder which was a 3/4 to three hours walk in the rainforest, but as usual, this needed a minimum of a certain number of people to run.
However, the Virgin representatives managed to book a Forestry Guide and the taxi to one of the areas where St Lucia parrots were fairly easy to find. So, at 5 am in the morning, I was picked up by a driver called Winston, who was going to drive me there and back for 200 East Caribbean dollars. The drive took about 1 hour, and it was light when we arrived at the reserve entrance. I was met there by Charmaine, who was to be the guide, and Davidson who assisted in cutting down some of the plants on the path. We walked what was only a short way, after being dropped off on a rough track by Winston. Apparently, this area actually belongs to the father of Charmaine, and amongst the rainforest itself, which is fairly open in this area, they do have a banana plantation and mango trees, which fruit earlier in the season. When we had walked about 400 metres, we were overlooked by the forest clad Peak, which had parrots flying around it even before we stopped. Rather than this being the rainforest walk, it was more of a rainforest watch, which suited, because Winston cleared a small area for the telescope and the plan was to sit and watch for the birds that appeared.
It is likely that the forestry are rightly proud of their St Lucia parrots, and this is the main quarry at this particular spot. The best time to see them them in the mango fruiting season when they come down very close and are quite easy to approach. However, views of these birds are flying around the peaks were good enough for such a rare bird. We stood in the same spot and watched for birds for about three hours. Predictably, Bullfinches and Bananaquits were very common here but as time progressed, many more species not only showed but were quite close. In the trees surrounding the spot we have chosen, we had good views of the surrounding forested hills which, because it was a rain forest, were a wonderful verdant green and almost totally covered with trees. We were also fortunate that, despite being in a rain forest, the weather held out and was bright and sunny for all of the stay, with just a few clouds appearing overhead. It made for much easier bird watching.
Early on Adelaide's Warblers started to appear as well as frequent Lesser Antillean Saltators. Frustratingly, many birds were seen further up the hillside flying in and out and were likely to include both Pearly-eyed Thrashers and Tremblers, but could not be seen well enough to identify positively. Lesser Antillean Saltators were much more obliging closer in, and fed on the fruited trees in our surrounds. Hummingbirds were very common, here particularly the two Caribs, but also Antillean Crested as well. Later on in the morning swifts appeared overhead, most numerous were the buzzing Lesser Antillean Swifts, but higher up were also Black Swifts and these showed flight comparison very well. Scaly-naped Pigeons also appeared on fly pasts. Towards the end of our stay here, a pair of St Lucia Orioles were quite close by and added to the two I had seen as soon as we had arrived at 6 o'clock next to the headquarters. Many other birds were heard and either not identified or seen in many cases, and these included what apparently were Trembler and even Euphonia above us.
At just before 9:30, we walked back past the workers in the banana plantations the few hundred metres to the taxi again. Winston drove us the short distance back to the office, and I spent another half to three-quarters of an hour here looking into the trees (or garden as Charmaine called it) with the hope of looking for Pearly-eyed Thrasher. None were here but two or three Tremblers were present. Good views were had of these, but with no comparison it was difficult at the time to identify which of the two Tremblers they were. Initial thoughts were Grey Trembler, since they seemed to lack the Rufous tinge that would be present on Brown Trembler. It was surprising that Charmaine thought there was only one Trembler on the island, and pointed to a poster in the office which showed that Trembler was outlined as a single species. Also while here, some very close views of St Lucia Oriole, and yet more good views of both Carib hummingbirds and single Caribbean Elaenia in canopy.
Whale watching trip
I was surprised to find out that there was a good chance of seeing cetaceans at this time of year – the estimate is around a 75% chance of seeing them. We arranged a trip through the Virgin rep (a little pricey at US$60 each), but this included transport to the dock, a full morning trip, and all drinks. If we had done the trip a little later in the holiday, we would probably have caught the local bus into Castries (EC$1.5 each way) and walked to Capt Mikes boat and paid directly. Suffice to say that the trip was a huge success – 4 Sperm Whales were seen within metres of the boat, and we were surrounded by a school of Spotted & Common Dolphins later on. Flying Fish were also seen.
An additional birding benefit of this trip is that the boat goes far enough out into the Caribbean Sea to pass feeding seabirds. Most of these are Brown Boobies, with lesser numbers of Brown Noddies, but a Booby which passed over the boat was a juvenile, and the amount of white on it indicated a probable second whale species.