Lesser Antilles and Trinidad part 1: Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat; 2nd – 5th June 2017   Leave a comment

 

The islands of the Caribbean hold a multitude of birds, many of them endemic. The islands fall into two main groups, the Greater Antilles (the four large islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico) and the Lesser Antilles, a chain of 30+ islands that stretch southwards from Puerto Rico towards the Venezuelan cost. For the purpose of this blog and birding in general, the islands off the Venezuelan coast and Trinidad and Tobago are not considered part of the Lesser Antilles. Map of the Caribbean from Google Maps.

 

The Lesser Antilles comprise of eight nation states and seven overseas dependencies. Our tour took us all the islands that had endemic birds namely (in order of arrival) Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent, Barbados and Grenada. We also visited Trinidad. This post deals with Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat. Barbuda is the unmarked island just north of the A of Antigua. Map of the Lesser Antilles from Google Maps.

 

After a long flight from the UK I landed at St John’s on the island of Antigua on a rather cloudy afternoon and met the rest of the tour group at the airport.

 

Although we were tired after the long flight, after dropping the bags off at our hotel we headed out to a nearby beach.

 

It wasn’t the beach we came to see but a lagoon just inland. Access was via this dirt track, there must have been a sewage works near the start as the smell was awful. However we were soon away from that and came across some good birds like this Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

 

As you would expect from a freshwater lagoon, there were many Black-necked Stilts. This is the New World equivalent of our familiar Black-winged Stilt and some authorities treat them as conspecific.

 

All stilts noisily defend their nests against potential intruders, indeed their piping call is a familiar sound at wetlands over much of the world’s temperate and tropical regions.

 

There were several species of tern on the lagoon, by far the commonest was Least Tern.

 

Least Tern is the New World equivalent of our Little Tern. Although very similar in plumage it differs vocally. A Least Tern visited a Little Tern colony in Sussex for several years in the 90s but it was several years before it was conclusively identified by which time it was less reliable. I twitched it but dipped.

 

There were several species of wildfowl on the lake, most notable were a few West Indian Whistling Ducks but they remained in cover at the back of the lagoon. These White-cheeked (or Bahama) Pintails were more co-operative.

 

Brown Pelicans were common on the lagoon and along the shore.

 

Magnificent Frigatebirds were seen on all eleven islands that we visited and were common on Antigua.

 

After a much-needed sleep we set off by boat the next day to Barbuda. The islands of Antigua and Barbuda were British colonies but achieved independence as a single country in 1968.

 

Barbuda is a small low-lying island of about 160 sq km, about a third the size of Antigua, largely covered with scrub vegetation. Tragically three months after our visit the island was flattened by Hurricane Irma and all inhabitants were evacuated to Antigua. After disembarking we headed on foot to a nearby wooded area

 

We soon started seeing birds like the widespread American Kestrel ….

 

…. and the tiny Antillean Crested Hummingbird, a species that occurs in Puerto Rico as well as the Lesser Antilles and one we saw on every island except Antigua.

 

White-crowned Pigeon is a bird of the northern Caribbean, occurring from the Florida Keys south to Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat.

 

There are twenty-eight species named Elaenia, mot of them nondescript and hard to identify. Caribbean Elaenia occurs in Puerto Rico and islands off Central America as well as the Lesser Antilles.

 

 

The semi-concealed erectile white crest is typical of many species of Elaenia.

 

The common and ubiquitous Lesser Antillean Bullfinch was seen on all the Lesser Antillean islands except Grenada (more about that later). This was my first life bird of the trip, being seen in the car park of the airport at Antigua on arrival.

 

The female is much drabber (again more about this later).

 

Lesser Antillean Flycatcher belongs in a genus known as Myiarchus With their lemon yellow bellies and grey breasts and brown upper parts members of this genus are most distinctive even if it is hard to tell one from another. Rather than using the non-specific name ‘flycatcher’ I wish they would all have the english name of Myiarchus. With over 430 species of tyrant flycatcher in the New World, then anything that makes a genus easier to remember is to be welcomed. We were only to see this species on Barbuda and Dominica.

 

Black-whiskered Vireo is widespread in the Caribbean especially in low-lying coastal regions. Its distinctive voice forms the backdrop to a lot of Caribbean birding.

 

The main reason we had come to Barbuda was to see the beautiful little Barbuda Warbler, which of course is endemic to the island. They seemed quite common and it didn’t take us long to locate some.

 

Fears had been expressed for their continual survival after Hurricane Irma but recent surveys have proved that at least some remain.

 

With our targets under the belt and with the temperature rising we returned to the dock. Today was a festival and there was very loud music playing from a beach party, most of the group kept well away ….

 

…. but I braved the deafening beat and had a wander around.

 

As we returned to the boat there were many Frigatebirds about ….

 

…. we realised why when we saw fisherman landing their catch.

 

A Brown Pelican was feeding on some discarded fish offal but this Frigatebird was hanging around nearby ….

 

….. and it quickly grabbed and stole the fish guts from the pelican’s beak!

 

Soon it was time to return to Antigua and to our hotel.

 

Early following morning we were back at Antigua airport waiting for our flight to Montserrat. One of the tour participants was Joseph del Hoyo editor of the Handbook of Birds of the World series. Joseph is keen on videoing birds and much of his work can be seen on the Internet Bird Collection/HBW Alive at  https://www.hbw.com/ibc Here Joseph is videoing a Carib Grackle that was hanging around our breakfast venue at the airport.

 

Some discarded toast would soon bring the grackle within photo range.

 

Our flight to Montserrat (a UK Overseas Territory) was in this light aircraft.

 

I have to say it was a bit of a squash inside.

 

The board outside Montserrat’s airport illustrated our reason for coming to Montserrat, the endemic Montserrat Oriole. Although we were to see the species, the most views were of females so this was our best view of the a male! When the immigration officer asked my reason for coming to Montserrat I replied ‘I’ve come to see the oriole’, his eyes lit up, they are obviously proud of their national bird.

 

Due to the flight schedule our time on Montserrat was brief. We arrived mid morning and dropped our gear off at our hotel (which had a lovely view from the rooms) and immediately went birding.

 

The so-called ‘oriole walkway’ was our best chance to connect with the island’s special birds and we spent the rest of the day there.

 

It was good quality forest growing on volcanic soil, not the sand of Antigua and Barbuda (which reduces the height of their forest cover to that of low scrub on those islands).

 

The first good bird was Pearly-eyed Thrasher, a mimid, that is a member of the family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, tremblers as well as the thrashers.

 

We had brief views of a Bridled Quail-dove in the gloom of the forest.

 

Eventually we saw our prize, Montserrat Oriole, but only this female perched for photos. I had a brief look at a male but many of the group only saw females.

 

It was nearly dark by the time we were back at the hotel.

 

The following morning it was straight to the airport for the return flight to Antigua. Although I knew that this would be a whistle-stop tour of the islands I was a bit disappointed that we couldn’t see more of Montserrat. In particular I’d have like to see some of the lava flows that formed after the 1995 eruption and whatever remains of the capital Plymouth. Although the southern third of the island is an exclusion zone, apparently there is a public viewpoint that overlooks Plymouth.

 

The eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano in 1995 destroyed much of the southern part of Montserrat and buried Plymouth, the docks and the airport under pyroclastic flows and lava. The whole southern part of the island was evacuated (about two-thirds of the population) mainly to the UK and the economy was destroyed. The new airport was built in 2005 but the island economy has yet to recover. Although the volcano destroyed much of the Montserrat Oriole’s habitat, some remained in the north and it has recently been downgraded from Critically Endangered. Margaret lived on a yacht and sailed though the Caribbean in the mid 90s and has described to me the wonderful experience of passing Montserrat by night and seeing views like this (from www.sciencedaily.com).

 

It was back to Antigua in the small plane ….

 

…. we had time before our onward flight to visit the lagoon once more, go into St John’s for lunch (this is St John’s cathedral) and visit a new site a bit to the south.

 

Getting the lake by the Cocos Hotel took longer than expected so it was a quick scan, a few photos and then on to the airport.

 

There were a few new species like American Coot and Pied-billed Grebe plus a chance to photograph Great Egret ….

 

…. and Tricoloured Heron.

 

So for the third time we said farewell to Antigua and headed off in the late afternoon to Dominica.

 

The next post will cover Dominica and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

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