Archive for November 2017

Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland: 17/11/2017   1 comment

Like many people I have to admit that I had never heard of the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel until I read Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Margaret and I paid a visit to the Chapel in April 2010. We had a planned trip to Portugal cancelled at the last-minute due to the infamous Icelandic ash cloud, so we set off in the car on an impromptu trip visiting old friends and tourist sites all across northern England and southern Scotland and Rosslyn Chapel was one of many historic sites we stopped at.

Unfortunately then the Chapel was undergoing a much-needed renovation and Margaret said ‘we must come back when all this scaffolding comes down’ – so this year we did.

Dan Brown falsely claims that the names Roslin/Rosslyn originate because the Chapel sits on the ancient Paris Meridian, a French alternative to The Greenwich Meridian (which it doesn’t), which he names ‘the Rose Line’ and then (again falsely) associates it with the Rosicrucians and the supposed bloodline of Mary Magdalene.

The Chapel is situated on a rise above the town of Roslin. Behind is a wooded gully and even in mid-November many of the trees were still sporting their autumnal colours.


This is what the exterior of the Chapel looked like when we visited in 2010, there was also scaffolding inside the Chapel.


Here is an elevated view (taken from Wikipedia) of the chapel during the restoration process.


This is what the Rosslyn Chapel looks like today. Much of my information on the history of the chapel has been taken from Wikipedia or


The Rosslyn Chapel was commissioned in 1446 by William St Clair (the family now know as Sinclair). It is thought that it might have been planned as part of a much larger building, but work ceased after William’s death in 1484. The endowments for Rosslyn Chapel were seized as the effects of the Reformation began (this was the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries). The Chapel’s provost and prebendaries were forced to resign as a result and in 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, it being described as a ‘house and monument of idolatrie’. After the altars were destroyed, the Chapel ceased to be used as a house of prayer and subsequently fell into disrepair.


In 1630 (another!) William St Clair was pronounced Grand Master of the Masons in Scotland. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s troops sack Rosslyn Castle. The Chapel was spared, although it was used for stabling the troop’s horses. In the same year, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn died at the Battle of Dunbar. He is believed to be the last knight buried in full armour in the vault below the Chapel, said to be the family custom. The chapel falls into serious disrepair for 150 years until limited restoration occurred in 1736. Between 1780 and 1850 visits by the likes of Robbie Burns, Dorothy Wordsworth and Queen Victoria brought the chapel to the nation’s attention as a place of romantic association and mystery, something that was enhanced by the enigmatic nature of the carvings. In the 1950s a major restoration was carried out but cladding the stonework with a concrete like material (which gave the interior its current grey colouration) but it sealed the moisture in and the chapel continued to deteriorate badly. It’s inclusion in the 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the 2006 film brought worldwide attention and visitor numbers increased ten-fold. This along with a £4.9m lottery grant has allowed a full-scale restoration.


Photography inside the Chapel is no longer allowed. This and the following photos have been taken from the internet either from the Rosslyn Chapel website or via Wikipedia. Those photos that were credited were taken by either ‘Guinnog’, J McInnis, Joe Ellis, Jeremy Atherton or ‘the Lothians’. Although this photo makes it look quite spacious the chapel is quite small inside ….


…. but is very high. Of course the stained glass windows are a later addition.


A wide angle view of the fantastically ornate roof.


The chapel is covered in ornate carvings, many of which would have had deep meaning at the time when the chapel was built. Of note are the many ‘Green Men’, about 100 carvings of a pagan symbol of fertility and regrowth that seems curiously out-of-place in a Christian place of worship.


This image of the fallen angel Lucifer bound by ropes is said to be a motif of the Masons. Both the Masons and Knight’s Templar are said to have historic associations with Rosslyn. Legends associated with the chapel include that it is the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist or that of the Holy Grail.


The chapel was commissioned in 1446, building started in 1456 and ended in 1484, so how then were maize and aloe vera (North American plants that supposedly couldn’t have been discovered by Europeans until after Columbus’ voyage in 1492) depicted in the carvings? I don’t believe any of the superstitions associated with Rosslyn but I do believe that Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in the New World!


Many embossed carvings are to be found, some depicting scenes from the Bible, others life after death and still others whose meaning is greatly debated by both scholars and by those with a ‘mystical orientation’.


…. these include the 213 cubes carved into buttresses and architraves that have a variable number of dots on them. Some have interpreted this as a secret code, others as a musical score.


Perhaps the most spectacular carvings are to be found on the so-called Apprentice Pillar. The following is taken from Wikipedia: ‘One of the more notable architectural features of the Chapel is the “Apprentice Pillar. Originally called the “Prince’s Pillar” (in the 1778 document An Account of the Chapel of Roslin) the name morphed over time due to a legend dating from the 18th century, involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice mason. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason travelled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column by himself. In a fit of jealous anger, the master mason took his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. The legend concludes that as punishment for his crime, the master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice’s pillar. On the architrave joining the pillar there is an inscription, Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all”. The author Henning Klovekorn has proposed that the pillar is representative of one of the roots of the Nordic Yggdrasil tree, prominent in Germanic and Norse mythology. He compares the dragons at the base of the pillar to the dragons found eating away at the base of the Yggdrasil root and, pointing out that at the top of the pillar is carved tree foliage, argues that the Nordic/Viking association is plausible considering the many auxiliary references in the chapel to Celtic and Norse mythology. There are those who claim the Holy Grail is buried under the Apprentice’s Pillar! Of course I don’t believe any of these fairy tales but its fun relating them!


As I said before, although not know so widely before the publication of The Da Vinci Code, the chapel has always been a source of mysticism and wonder, as a drawing from ‘Heath’s Picturesque Manual’ from 1835 shows. Here on the left the Mason’s Pillar and the far superior Apprentice’s Pillar can be seen.


Near the chapel is Rosslyn Castle once the home of the Saint Clair family.


The castle dates from the late 14th or early 15th century and so predates the chapel. The castle suffered from a domestic fire and attacks in the ‘War of Rough Wooing’ in 1544, and by Cromwell’s troops in the Civil War.


The castle once contained a scriptorium containing many valuable documents some of which (including the earliest example of Scots prose) are in the National Library of Scotland. In a fire in 1452 valuable documents were said to have been lowered from the castle by a rope. Questions of the nature and current whereabouts of these documents adds to the mystery surrounding the Rosslyn (Roslin) area.

Needing to be in Aberdeen that evening we had to leave by late morning. We crossed the Firth of Forth and did some birding/sightseeing along the Fife coast. This and more will be the subject of the next post.



Martin Mere, Lancashire: 16th November 2017.   Leave a comment

We recently have spent some time in Scotland, the main purpose of our visit has been to visit Margaret’s brother and sister-in-law who lives in Aberdeen.

To break the long drive north we spent a few hours at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere in Lancashire.


Like many WWT reserves Martin Mere has an extensive collection of captive wildfowl, but interesting as they can be time was at a premium, so we concentrated solely on the lagoons where the wild birds are found.


Martin Mere has a large wintering population of Shelducks.


These are quite independent of the Shelduck population that winters in nearby Morecambe Bay.


There were good numbers of other duck species, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and (above) Pintail.


Wigeon were also present in good numbers and could be seen grazing along the margins of the mere.


Martin Mere is a famous site for the Whooper Swans that fly to the UK from Iceland for the winter. Around a thousand roost here, but only a few were seen close to the hides ….


…. but many more were on a lagoon in the distance.


Even more impressive were the flocks of Pink-footed Geese that winter here.


About 25,000 were present in the area in mid November but larger numbers occur in October.


When Pink-feet first arrive from Iceland and Greenland they stop off at Martin Mere to refuel, some stay for the winter but around 70,000 continuing on to Norfolk. Other populations winter in Scotland. The reverse migration occurs in spring. We have noticed these movements between Lancashire and Norfolk whilst birding in Derbyshire.


The site of thousands of geese in the air was spectacular.


A view that I couldn’t resist photographing over and over again.


Pink-feet are quite rare in southern Britain, indeed the one that made it to the lakes near Ringwood, just over the border from Dorset became a bit of a local celebrity.


In mid afternoon the wildfowl are fed just in front of the main hide.  At the time we were some distance away and took this photo from another hide ….


…. however we had the sun behind us, the photographers in the pictures might have been close but the light for them would have been dreadful.


As the afternoon wore on more Whooper Swans flew in from the surrounding fields to roost ….


….accompanied by even larger number of Pink-feet. Martin Mere is also famous for hosting a spectacular Starling murmuration but time was pressing, we still had a three-hour drive to reach our B&B near Edinburg so that had to be left for another time.

Trinidad part 3: Grande Riviere: June 20th-22nd 2017   Leave a comment

This post covers our final destination on the Lesser Antilles and Trinidad tour, the area around the small town of Grande Riviere on the north-east coast of Trinidad.


As I described in the last post in late in the afternoon when we arrived at our lodge at Grande Riviere we found there was no electricity due to the previous nights cyclone and therefore no aircon and little water supply. Power was restored about lunchtime the following day.


There was just enough time before it got dark to admire the sunset ….


…. as the lodge was situated right next to the beach and you had a great view from the balcony.


Apart from a few Frigatebirds, vultures and a single Osprey there wasn’t much to see on the beach during the day although that would change big time when we ventured out first thing in the morning or at night.


A White-tiped Dove was seen near the lodge but our main ornithological interest lay ….


…. in the hills behind the town.


Our main reason for coming to Grande Riviere was to see Trinidad’s other endemic bird, Trinidad Piping Guan.


A large garden above the town held a small group of these impressive cracids and we all had excellent views.


Other birds seen in the area included Fork-tailed Flycatcher, this bird has a shorter tail than most, either the feathers are old and have broken off or are new and are still growing!


Skulking deep in cover we located this White-bellied Antbird.


Overhead was a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, which isn’t a shrike at all but a vireo.


It looks like a kiskidee but has a stonking bill, the appropriately name Boat-billed Flycatcher.


The largely diurnal Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, which has a range that extends from Arizona and Texas all the way south to Argentina.


Short-tailed Swifts shot by overhead ….


…. and skywatching revealed the presence of the lovely White Hawk ….


…. and several Common Black Hawks.


They must have been displaying or driving off an intruder as one would often sweep low with its undercarriage down but yet made no attempt to land.


Whilst we were watching all these birds up the hill our local man Kenny returned to the lodge and tried to locate where the rare and elusive Lilac-tailed Parrotlets were coming to roost. After a while he returned with a smile on his face and we all bundled into the minibus and got back in time to see these gorgeous little parrots. They were high up in a tree and photography was difficult but you can see the lilac tail on one of the four birds illustrated. A great find Kenny. Along with the two endemics plus Tufted Coquette and Green-throated Mango this meant I had five life birds on Trinidad – plus one very good mammal.


However good the birds were I’m afraid they were overshadowed by a reptile, and what a reptile, the fourth largest in the world (and the only one in the top ten largest reptiles that isn’t a crocodilian). On both morning at Grande Riviere we left the accommodation just before dawn ….


…. and searched the beach for evidence of these giants.


It didn’t take long, along with a group of students from the USA we soon located the last of the previous night’s Leatherback Turtle females crawling back to the sea after laying eggs in the sand.


Although sometimes the crawl was a bit erratic.


They seemed completely oblivious to us, although I think this young lady might be approaching a bit too close.


As I said above they are considered the fourth largest reptile in the world after Saltwater, Nile and Orinoco Crocodiles. Males are considerably bigger than females weighing as much as 650kg (heavier ones have been claimed but not verified). Females (of course all the adult individuals we saw were females) may be about half that weight. Although nesting occurs or has occurred in the Caribbean/Central America, Africa and the Far East the majority of important nesting sites are now in the Caribbean, indeed the largest nesting site in the world in Malaysia has been totally destroyed because all the eggs were harvested for food.


The beach was covered in Black Vultures looking for late emerging hatchlings and unearthed eggs.


Although it may seem like the vultures are digging up the eggs the majority of eggs on the surface are due to turtles accidentally uncovering previously laid eggs as they dig pits in which to deposit their own.


Whilst we were watching the adults, hatchlings from earlier layings were erupting out of the sand at our feet,


It was strange to see a patch of sand suddenly quiver and and then see tiny turtles appear ….


…. and immediately head off to the sea.


Many fall prey to the Black Vultures and the local dogs ….


…. but at least this little fella made it ….


…. but then of course it had to navigate the pounding surf and the Frigatebirds. Its estimated that less than one in a thousand hatchlings will reach maturity.


You were not allowed (quite understandably) to wander the beach at night looking for laying turtles. However for a small fee a ranger equipped with a red torch would take groups out to see these leviathans laying. They appeared to be completely unaware of us and seemed to be in a trance.


The pit is dug with the hind flippers and then the female lays a clutch of about 100 eggs.


The best time for the hatchlings to emerge is at night when predators aren’t present, but there is one major disadvantage to this. The hatchlings have evolved to head towards the any light source as the sea is usually brighter than the land at night. This doesn’t account however for man-made light pollution, clearly not a problem when turtles first evolved in the Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago. On our second night (but not our first as we had no electricity then) we were suddenly aware that the dining area was being invaded by hatchlings. Several children present and the staff collected three boxes of hatchlings which were then taken to the sea by one of the rangers. At least this boxful will avoid the vultures and the dogs.


One afternoon we visited a headstarting’ facility. Here Leatherback and Green Turtle hatchlings (above) are raised in tanks until they are a few months old when they are far less vulnerable to predators and then released in the sea.


A member of staff gave us a close up view of a Green Turtle (this species breeds earlier in the year than Leatherbacks and the adults had already departed the beaches). Great as this program is you cannot get away from the key problem. Turtles and predators have co-existed for over 100 million years, its the lack of secure breeding sites for them, free from those who collect eggs for food and free from light pollution that is the underlying problem. And I know that by visiting these areas and staying at the beach side lodge I’m adding to the light pollution problem but at least the locals have a reason to protect the turtle beach if it brings in tourist’s money.


So I’ll end this saga with a couple of Caribbean sunset shots. It had been a great trip, almost every life bird seen and a great mammal (Silky Anteater) and a great (literally) reptile too. We asked if for this part of the trip we could vote for Leatherback Turtle in the ‘bird of the Trinidad’ competition. The leader agreed and it won hands down.


We had some additional birding the following morning then it was a drive to the airport and the flight home. The trip around the Lesser Antilles and Trinidad was a bit whistle-stop tour, but it was very, very worthwhile. There are still a few birds I haven’t seen in the Caribbean, I missed quite a few on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the 90s and I’ve never been to the Bahamas so I expect I’ll be back one day.





Trinidad part 2 The Caroni Swamp, Yerette’s hummingbirds and a cyclone: 19th – 20th June 2017   Leave a comment

I had intended to do just two posts on Trinidad, but as always there were too many I photos that I wanted to share. So this second post covers our final hours based at Asa Wright and a place we stopped at on route to Grande Riviere on the north coast.




No wildlife holiday to Trinidad would be complete without a visit to the Caroni Swamp and its stunning Scarlet Ibis roost. So we headed back west and then south of the capital, Port of Spain ….


…. and took an afternoon cruise down the creeks and channels of the swamp.


By far the best sighting was this diminutive Silky Anteater which was curled up in the mangroves like a furry football. I now have seen all four species of anteater, another one off the bucket list.


Eventually we emerged from the mangroves into the main lagoon.


We saw a few waders like this Hudsonian Whimbrel. UK birders have only about six weeks left to enjoy having this Nearctic form of Whimbrel on their lists because as of 1/1/18 the BOU will adopt the IOC checklist as a basis for the British List and Hudsonian Whimbrel and Eurasian Whimbrel will be relumped.


Along the edge of the mangroves was a large collection of egrets and herons.


Those we could get close to were revealed as Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons ….


…. with the occasional Yellow-crowned Night Heron.


However just as the first Scarlet Ibises were starting to fly over it turned ominously dark. We had heard that bad weather, well a cyclone actually, was on its way but hadn’t expected it to arrive until after dark.


What we had hoped for was this …. (photo by ‘One more shot Rog’)  see 


…. what we got was this!


It was now raining very hard and we had no option but to head back, arriving back at the bus completely soaked (in spite of ‘waterproofs).


Through the night the wind howled and the rain was torrential, beating down on the metal roofs of our rooms with great intensity. The following morning the lodge was wreathed in cloud and it was still raining hard. Several dead nestlings were seen on the paths washed out of their nests ….


…. but the baby Spectacled Thrushes outside reception had survived! (photo taken before the storm).


One of the large trees outside the verandah had its top broken off ….


…. and Black Mastiff Bats were found taking shelter inside the building.


We thought that this presumed (it was hard to know when it was soaking wet) Copper-rumped Hummingbird was dead, as it hung motionless upside down for a long time but a researcher rescued it and fed it sugar-water from a dropper and it soon perked up and flew off.


Then the bad news; our bus was at the bottom of the mountain and couldn’t get to us because of fallen trees, mind you there are worst places in the world to be trapped than Asa Wright.


After about three and a half hours of hanging about two 4x4s belonging to the lodge appeared. The road had been cleared enough for them to get down the hillside but not for the larger bus to get up. It was a case of creeping under the fallen trees rather than going around them.


Reunited with our minibus we headed off through flooded roads ….


…. to a place called Yerette, a private garden turned into a hummingbird spectacular.


Keith, its above you!


We could wander around the garden looking at the various feeders. I counted 37 and I’m sure I missed some.


Although not in focus, I quite like this image of an incoming Black-breasted Mango.


We saw eleven species of hummer at Yerette, including this Little Hermit ….


…. Long-billed Starthroat ….


…. Blue-chinned Sapphire ….


…  a female Amythyst Woodstar


…. and yet another male Black-throated Mango. There was also a single Green-throated Mango around which was lifer for me, it looked much the same but was slightly bulkier with a green throat.


But the best hummer of the bunch was this Ruby Topaz.


As with all hummers Ruby Topaz’s colour changed in intensity with the direction the bird was facing.


See what I mean! In many species all of the iridescent colours, so carefully illustrated in a field guide, can’t ever be seen at once.


We were now well behind schedule so we headed off for the north-eastern point of the island, from here we headed back west along the north shore (there is no short cut across the mountains). Although the way was clear the road would have been impassible due to flooding if we had left Asa Wright on time as there was a lot of mud on the road, especially when we crossed the streams. The flooding had been less severe in forested areas as forest uplands hold back the water and let it flow gently to the lowlands and in these areas the streams were already running clear. In deforested areas it runs off the hills like the proverbial water off a duck’s back and is full of mud and debris. Deforesters in northern England and near the Somerset Levels please take note.


We arrived at our lodge at Grande Riviere before dark but we found they had no power due to the storm and that meant no air-con and no water supply either as the pumps wouldn’t work. They managed to cook us a meal which we ate by candlelight and we squeezed just enough water out of the pipes to wash our hands and face. The power came back on at lunchtime the following day.

The next post will cover the birds we saw in this scenic area, including Trinidad’s other endemic and a very close encounter with the world’s fourth largest reptile.



Trinidad part 1: Asa Wright Centre and nearby lowlands: 17th-19th June 2017   2 comments

Following on from my very successful trip to the Lesser Antilles (see earlier posts) most of the group continued on to the island of Trinidad for an optional five-day extension. Three didn’t take this option and one joined for the extension only. The tour didn’t visit Tobago, the island that forms a nation-state with Trinidad, as it only has one bird species that cannot be seen in Trinidad and that can be seen in Venezuela.

Although the island of Trinidad may be considered to be in the Caribbean, it certainly doesn’t have a Caribbean avifauna. In fact it’s avifauna is a watered down version of that found on the adjacent South American mainland (which is not surprising as they were connected during prehistory).

The island of Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 until Spanish governor Don José María Chacón surrendered the island to a British fleet under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797. During the same period, the island of Tobago changed hands among Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonisers more times than any other island in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago were ceded to Britain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens as separate states and unified in 1889. Trinidad and Tobago obtained independence in 1962 and became a republic in 1976 (copied from Wikipedia).

Although I have never been to Trinidad before, I have an emotional connection with the island as Margaret lived here during her yachting days, as did her daughter Janis, and the two granddaughters were either born here or lived here from when they were a babies for a period of up to four years.


The island of Trinidad lies just 11km off the Paria Peninsula of Venezuela (and indeed I could see it from there when I visited northern Venezuela in the 90s). We couldn’t see the South American mainland as our explorations were limited to the central and eastern part of the northern mountain range. The northern mountain ranges of Venezuela are contiguous with the Andes and as they were once joined with Trinidad ….


…. the easternmost point, where Trinidad’s northern range runs into the sea, can be considered the furthermost reach of the mighty Andes.


On arrival we were met by our cheery local guide and driver Kenny. Our drive to the mountains was mainly though large areas of cultivation but fortunately some areas of forest have been protected around our destination ….


…. the world-famous Asa Wright Centre. Like many of these lodges it had a very ‘olde worldly’ feel to it, from the furnishing …..


…. to the old photos on show in the corridor.


Wildlife interest was immediately apparent as a Green Hermit had suspended its nest from the light fittings ….


…. but it was this scenic view and the birds on show from the elevated verandah that grabbed our attention.


Common species included our old friend the Bananaquit (note this race has a shorter bill and lacks the fleshy red gape of the birds we saw in the Lesser Antilles) ….


…. Spectacled Thrush (formerly called Bare-eyed Thrush but renamed to avoid confusion with the African species of the same name) ….


…. the striking male Barred Antthrush ….


…. Violaceous Euphonia ….


…. Green Honeycreeper ….


…. and the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. All these species are widespread in northern South America (at least) but the great thing about Trinidad in general and Aza Wright in particular is the ease with which these birds can be seen and photographed. As such Trinidad makes a wonderful introduction to the Neotropics, clearly I’m not a Neotropical neophyte having visited some 25 times, but I still greatly valued getting such good views of these avian gems.


The many feeders were full of hummingbirds like this White-necked Jacobin, showing off its white neck and tail ….


…. however when they are at rest neither the white neck or white tail are particularly visible.


The star of the show was the diminutive (and very fast) Tufted Coquette. The exquisite male never visited the feeders but shot from flower to flower at such speed that I never got a sharp photo. Picture from Wikipedia Commons taken by Steve Garvie.


In the Lesser Antilles we saw four different subspecies of House Wren that looked and sounded different enough to be elevated to species status, but none posed for photos. The only one that did pose was in Trinidad and that was a bog standard House Wren just like you can see anywhere in the Neotropics.


The Red-rumped Agoutis walked around like they owned the place ….


…. and seemed quite unafraid of people.


We also saw the little Red-tailed Squirrel from the verandah.


Unfortunately it rained regularly, often heavily. As soon as a downpour started all the birds would disappear immediately ….


…. and re-emerge to dry out once it had eased off. Here are three species of common tanagers doing just that – Blue-grey ….


…. Palm ….


…. and a male Silver-beaked.


These White-necked Jacobins lined up on a bush in the rain ….


…. with tails spread, presumably enjoying a shower.


We also spent time on the forest trails (admiring the Cupid Lips bushes) as well as birding.


Overhead we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk, a bird that is thought to have evolved to sneak up on its prey by imitating the harmless Turkey Vulture.


One of our goals was seeing a displaying male Bearded Bellbird. The strange ‘growths’ on its throat are wattles which it shakes as it emits its ear-shattering bell-like call.


A couple of species of manakins were lekking as well. In well-defined display grounds we could see calling and dancing White-bearded ….


…. and Golden-crowned Manakins. As with all the species shown (except Tufted Coquette, which was a lifer) I was familiar with them from previous trips, but I have never seen them so well or been able to photograph them before. This, more than seeing a couple of endemics, makes a visit to Trinidad so special.


Other goodies included this Green-backed Trogon (back looks a little blue in this shot) ….


…. a distant Keel-billed Toucan …


…. and of particular importance, the endemic Trinidad Motmot, a recent split from Blue-crowned Motmot.


Also on the Aza Wright property is this cleft in the rock (so it’s not really a cave) where there are a number of nesting Oilbirds.


These bizarre birds, distantly related to Nightjars but in their own family, nest in caves. They are nocturnal frugivores and find their way about at night or in the darkness of a cave by echo-location. Conditions inside the fissure were wet (it was raining heavily outside and it was dripping down from above) and dark, my camera misted up and my photos didn’t amount to much.


Here is an excellent photo of an Oilbird from the Internet Bird Collection by Tony Palliser see here


Away from Asa Wright we visited a number of sites in the lowlands, we had to peer through the fence to see the birds at this water treatment works.


New birds for the trip included this Yellow-headed Blackbird ….


…. a Pied Water Tyrant ….


…. a pair of the amazing Black Skimmers ‘unzipping the pond’ ….


…. and best of all the bizarre Large-billed Tern which has a wing pattern reminiscent of a Sabine’s Gull.


Nearby a Peal Kite surveyed the scene from an overhead wire.


Also in the lowlands we visited an area of Moriche Palms near a disused airfield.


We found plenty of White-winged Swallows ….


…. a few Orange-winged Parrots ….


…. and a Black-crested Antshrike.


But the highlight were this flock of Red-bellied Macaws feeding on figs.


One of the smaller macaws, this species has a wide range from Trinidad in the north to Bolivia in the south. As is so often the case with bird-names the eponymous red-belly isn’t very striking.


So it was back to Asa Wright where a ‘crappy little chappy’ photobombed my shot.


Our visit to the Caroni Swamp a hummingbird mega-fest and the arrival of a cyclone will all be covered in the next post.

Lesser Antilles part 5: Barbados and Grenada: 15th – 17th June 2017   Leave a comment

This is the final part of the Lesser Antilles saga, covering the islands of Barbados and Grenada, although I have still to report on the optional extension to Trinidad.


Contrary to St Vincent, our time in Barbados was marked by sunshine and warm weather, however what little we saw of it looked flat, built up and uninteresting, far from the tropical paradise that is usually portrayed as. Barbados was claimed by Spain in late 1400s but was first European settlement was in the early 17th century by the British. Barbados gained independence in 1966.


We had a really bizarre reason for coming here and a reason that would only appeal to the dedicated world lister. All over the Lesser Antilles the Lesser Antillean Bullfinch is a common and easily seen bird, however on Barbados both sexes show a female-like plumage. Recent research has demonstrated that this form is a full species, so as we were on a endemics clean up we had to go, even though it looked just like the female Lesser Antillean Bullfinches that we had previously seen on every day of the tour! So common were they that we saw one or two just outside the airport, we could have run back inside and got back on the plane before it departed!


But of course we had to stay on the island overnight just in case and we were taken to this hotel by the sea.


It was a perfectly nice hotel but it lacked any form of garden and given that all we had time for was garden birding it seemed to be a strange choice.


Even so, in spite of the lack of cover I was able to photograph several species in our short time there such as these Scaly-naped Pigeons, a species with a wide distribution throughout the Caribbean.


I had been puzzling why the Carib Grackles on Grenada and St Vincent looked like the one we saw in the northernmost island of Antigua and Barbuda but quite unlike the ones in the central Lesser Antilles (see earlier post). The reason is simple, if not immediately obvious, birds from Grenada have been introduced to the northernmost islands (why I cannot imagine).


Another bird that shows some variation throughout its very large Neotropical range is the Bananaquit. Birds here show the red gape that is absent on many other islands and some of the islands we visited have an all dark morph. Bananaquits have often been described as ‘trash birds’ which is surprising as they have been considered to be in a monotypic family, however even that honour has been removed and they are now (as of August 17) lumped in with the Thraupidae tanagers.


It was clear why the Bananaquits were hanging around the breakfast table, they were using their long beaks to winkle grains of sugar out of the sugar bowls.


And guess what, the Barbados Bullfinches were on the scrounge too.


Other guests at breakfast must have wondered why this drab ‘sparrow’ was getting so much attention.


And so having only spent about four daylight hours on the island we returned to Barbados’ open-air airport, with just a canopy protecting the check-in area.


Then it was yet another LIAT flight to our final Lesser Antilles destination, Grenada. Although claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1498 there is no evidence Spanish colonists ever landed there. The island changed hands several times between Britain and France but was ceded to Britain in 1763. Independence was obtained in 1974. Our very pleasant hotel was quite near the airport ….


…. and proved to be a good place to photograph the mainly South American Eared Dove, here an adult ….


….and here an immature.


But it was soon time to head off to a nearby shopping centre for lunch ….


…. and then drive to the Hartman Reserve for our main quest, the endemic Grenada Dove.


From the observation tower we had good views of Broad-winged Hawks ….


…. seeing one being repeatedly mobbed by a Grey Kingbird (this aggressive behaviour is what gave the Kingbirds their name and also the name of the entire family – Tyrant-flycatchers).


Our main quarry remained elusive however, but on our second visit the following morning we all had brief views in a tree and somewhat better views in flight. This photo was taken by Pete Morris of Birdquest on a previous tour. Grenada Dove is endemic to the island and is one of the most critically endangered pigeon/doves of the world, with perhaps as few as 100 individuals remaining mainly due to the the destruction of its xerophytic scrub habitat.


We also had great views of Grenada Flycatcher, which despite its name is found on St Vincent as well. However the light was so much better on Grenada that I have only posted images I took here.


I know light levels can be a bit low in some restaurants but this tour member is taking the matter to extremes!


We had a nice evening meal at the hotel but service was slow, which was a shame as we were all itching to get out for one of the very few owling excursions of the  trip. Our target was this very dark ‘barn owl’ which we saw well even if I didn’t get any photos. This form is currently classified as a subspecies of American Barn Owl, however it looks just like Ashy-faced Owl of Hispaniola and the HBW Illustrated Checklist treats it as such. On Hispaniola Ashy-faced Owl is sympatric with American Barn Owl and so must be a separate species. What is more likely; a) that Ashy-faced Owl evolved in Hispaniola from a barn-owl-like ancestor and then spread down the Lesser Antillean chain only to die out in the northern and central islands or b) that American Barn Owl colonised Grenada and the southern Lesser Antilles from either North or South America and then, in this location only, evolved to look just like Ashy-faced Owl? I’ll go for the former option! Photo from the Internet Bird Collection by Mikko Payhala see here


So that was it, (almost) the end of a lovely tour and goodbye to the Lesser Antilles. However there was still the optional extension to Trinidad which I will report on in the next post.
















Lesser Antilles part 4: St Lucia and St Vincent: 11th – 15th June 2017   Leave a comment

This is the fourth blog post from my island hopping tour of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. I had intended to include the four remaining islands St Lucia, St Vincent, Barbados and Grenada in this post but inevitably there were too many photos so I have just written about the first two of these islands.


The first European power to settle St Lucia were the French who signed a treaty with the local Carib Indians in 1660. From then until 1814 the island changed hands many times between the French and British. In 1979 it was granted independence as a member of the Commonwealth. In the case of St Vincent the Carib Indians and escaped African slaves vigorously opposed European settlement and it was not colonised until 1719, first by the French then by the British. Like St Lucia power switched between these countries several times. Attempts by the British to affiliate St Vincent and the Grenadines with other nearby islands failed, but in October 1979 they became the last Caribbean Island to gain independence.


Apart from our flight to and from Montserrat and between Guadeloupe and Martinique, all the remaining eight ‘internal’ flights on this trip were with the local carrier LIAT. This stands for Leeward Island Air Transport, but it has also been interpreted as ‘Leaves Island Any Time’ or Luggage In Another Terminal’. That said we had no trouble with LIAT at all, they always left on time, sometimes early and never lost a single bag.


We stayed at a lovely hotel in St Lucia right by the harbour.


There was an egret colony in the grounds and I was lucky to get a room on the 1st floor with a grandstand view. I was able to observe the Cattle and Snowy Egrets from the balcony on several occasions, even as here whilst sheltering from heavy downpours.


There were a few Snowy Egrets in the colony ….


…. but by far the majority were Cattle Egrets.


There even appeared to be Cattle and Snowy Egret chicks in the same nest, presumably the older and more mobile Snowy Egret chick had gone ‘walkabout’ from its own nest.


There was a puzzling degree of variation in the Cattle Egrets, some like this one were in bog standard breeding plumage ….


…. others had bright red bills and/or had no chestnut in the plumage at all (even though they were breeding) and the bill colour of the chicks seemed to vary from yellow to black almost at random.


This individual, who had one of the closest nests to my balcony, sported and strangely swollen and elongated bill.


I don’t know if any Black-crowned Night Herons were nesting deep in the colony but one or two could be seen skulking around on the ground at the base of the tree.


A Green Heron quietly stalked its prey from the giant lily pads


Among the lily pads was a pair of Common Gallinules, recently split from the Old World Common Moorhen. Interestingly, here we can see a juvenile from an earlier brood feeding its younger sibling along with one of the parents.


Just outside my room was this large ornamental plant, if you look at the right hand fronds you will see ….


…. an Antillean Crested Hummingbird’s nest with two tiny chicks. Joseph waited in the corridor (and even skipped some outings for endemic birds) in order to get video of the parents coming to the nest.


Most of our time in St Lucia was spent in the interior searching for the four endemic species. There used to be five but Semper’s Warbler has not been seen since for certain since 1961, it was probably driven to extinction by introduced mongooses.


The endemic St Lucia Amazon was seen several times, but only in flight, St Lucia Oriole was seen but not well enough for photos ….


…. but the beautiful St Lucia Warbler put on a great show, We also saw two endemic subspecies that could be split in the future, St Lucia House Wren and St Lucia Pewee


We saw Grey Trembler on Martinique, but not well enough for photos, so it was great to get good views here, the only other island where it occurs.


As we are now in the southern Lesser Antilles there is a greater influence from South America. Examples include this Short-tailed Swift ….


…. and this female Shiny Cowbird.


In the afternoon of our first full day we headed for the southern most point of the island


…. and the lighthouse at Moule de Pique.


Strange barrel cacti grew on the precipitous cliffs.


In spite of the strong wind Keith, Mark and I tried some seawatching and added a few distant Bridled and Sooty Terns to the trip list, but Joseph had the right idea ….


…. he was videoing Red-billed Tropicbirds just below us.


St Lucia was also pretty good for other forms of wildlife, I don’t know the name of this butterfly ….


…. but this is the highly migratory Monarch (migratory in North America at least) which is capable of crossing the Atlantic and which I have seen on Scilly and Portland in the UK.


Bizarre caterpillars and ….


…. bizarre crabs were the order of the day. One of our group (perhaps unadvisedly) picked up a Hermit Crab in its borrowed seashell. It probably climbed out of the shell and scuttled away ‘butt naked’.


Well three endemics had fallen easy enough but the fourth remained a problem. However on our last morning we connected with the St Lucia Black Finch on a trail where forest meets farmland. Views were quite brief, light was poor and so were my photos. Here’s pic of the little fella from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website taken by Marcel Holyoak see


IMG_3642 Grand Pitons

We were staying at the capital Castries in the northwest but on the final afternoon some of us persuaded Mark to drive us down to the viewpoint overlooking the town of Soufriere to see the St Lucia’s most famous landmark, the Grand Pitons.


So it was ‘job done’ for St Lucia with all the endemics ‘under the belt’ ….


…. and time to fly on to St Vincent. Our journey time was quite long as we had to fly all the way west to Barbados before flying back east to St Vincent.


Our hotel in the capital Kingstown was fine ….


… and boasted one of the tallest cheese plants I have ever seen ….


…. but the streets in the town outside lacked a certain sparkle ….


…. and the same could be said for the residential areas.


Mind you the weather didn’t help. It had been dry on Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat and Guadeloupe, cloudy with some rain in Martinique and St Lucia but on St Vincent it rained most of the time.


Nearly all our birding was done on the Vermont trail ….


…. but we had to shelter by the water works building during the worst of the rain.


There was a good forest trail alongside a stream ….


…. with some impressive mature fig trees, but with the poor weather we struggled with the birding. We did see Lesser Antillean Tanager, the local race of House Wren (like all the other island forms of House Wren it deserves to be split) and Grenada Flycatcher (found only here and on Grenada) but the delightful Whistling Warbler was a ‘heard only’. This undoubtedly the disappointment of the trip as it looks a stunner in the field guide.


On the positive side we had good prolonged scope views of a flock of the endangered St Vincent Amazon but as with the other parrots they were too distant for photos so again I have used a pic of a captive individual from the Internet Bird Collection taken by Mikka Pyhala.


One afternoon we birded the Botanical Gardens in Kingstown but again we were thwarted by rain.


A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk called noisily from a nearby tree ….


…. and whilst sheltering from the heaviest rain under this shelter ….


…. we had great views of the endemic race of Antillean Crested Hummingbird.




So that was it for St Vincent. We flew east the following morning to Barbados (we were getting heartily sick of emigration and immigration forms and airport security checks by this stage) which will be the subject of the next post.