Archive for the ‘Magnificent Frigatebird’ Tag

Lesser Antilles part 2: Dominica, 5th – 8th June 2017.   2 comments

This post covers my visit to the island of Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-ee-ka) as part of my tour of the Lesser Antilles.

I had intended to post photos from Dominica, Guadeloupe and Martinique but I had more decent photos of Dominica than I though, so the two French islands will appear in the next post.

 

Compared to Antigua and in particular to the two French islands (which are part of the EU), Dominica is somewhat impoverished, although car ownership seems quite high. It is a mountainous and verdant volcanic island quite unlike Antigua and Barbuda. A former British colony, taken from the French in 1763 and gaining independence in 1978, it gained its name because Christopher Columbus first sailed past it on a Sunday.

 

Our flight from Antigua arrived after dark and we had to cross the island from north-east to south-west to arrive at the island’s capital Roseau, seen here from a boat trip that we took later in the trip.

 

Our hotel was situated on the coast just south of Roseau, it was a long way from the best birding site but decent accommodation is in short supply.

 

Much of our time on the island was spent at or near this viewpoint in Morne Diablotin NP, named after local breeding petrels or diablotins, (their name in turn deriving from their devilish sounding vocalisations). Unfortunately the weather was against us and it rained for much of the time. On the right is our tour leader Mark van Beirs from Belgium. Mark has led more tours than any other Birdquest leader and is capable of leading trips to any part of the world. Indeed I’ve been on no less than 18 tours with him from 1989 onwards. One of the joys of always travelling with the same tour company is that on any given tour there will be several people you already know. Keith, the guy with his back to the camera, was on our Atlantic Odyssey in 2016, although I know Keith from UK birding and we first met in 1980.

 

The main targets were two species of parrot. The smaller Red-necked Parrot was easy to find and perched up on the far side of the valley. However its ‘red-neck’ was harder to see ….

 

…. but can just be seen as a red dot on this photo. Another example of a bird that is named after its least obvious field characteristic.

 

The other species, the larger Imperial Parrot, known locally as the Sisserou, was much harder and it took two morning visits to the view-point before we had tickable flight views. An internet search failed to produce any pics of wild birds but I did find a photo of this captive individual taken by Mikko Pyhala http://www.hbw.com/ibc/u/3849

 

By now the weather on the mountain had turned really bad and we retreated to the visitor centre for shelter.

 

The now familiar Lesser Antillean Bullfinch also sought shelter from the storm.

 

In spite of the weather Keith seems pretty pleased with the outcome.

 

On the return we noticed some Caribbean Martins on wires in this village and stopped for photos, but may have caused a bit of a traffic jam in the process.

 

These chunky hirundines gave excellent views. ….

 

…. but then they exhibited a most bizarre behaviour, stretching out along the wire, presumably drying themselves after the heavy rain. They certainly seemed to be enjoying sunbathing!

 

Around our hotel we found nesting Green Herons. This species is found throughout north and central America but in South America (and Trinidad) it is replaced by the similar Striated Heron.

 

On our second morning we returned to the mountains and in spite of the continuing rain managed flight views of the Imperial Parrot and our first view of Plumbeous Warbler and the Dominica race of House Wren. All of the races of House Wren in the Lesser Antilles deserve to be split as a series of single island endemics as they look and sound different and inhabit forests not human conurbations.

 

We returned to the hotel late morning and in the afternoon took a boat from the adjacent dock.

 

We headed south towards the southernmost tip of the island in search of seabirds and cetaceans.

 

On route we found an American Oystercatcher, a rare migrant from North America and one that even resident birders haven’t seen.

 

Soon we reached Scott’s Head at the most south-westerly tip of Dominica.

 

There were a lot of Magnificent Frigate birds fishing and we soon saw why, a shoal of tuna were pushing small fish up to the surface.

 

Amongst the leaping tuna was a small dark tern (LHS of the photo).

 

It proved to be an American Black Tern. Many in the UK (if not in North America) treat this race of Black Tern as a separate species based on a few morphological differences, but to my knowledge there has been so study of genetics, voice etc and until there is I think they should be considered conspecific.

 

We continued up the west coast until we were level with misty (and wet) Morne Diablotin, the highest point of the island, where we had been birding earlier in the day.

 

Our aim was to find the Sperm Whales that are regularly seen off Dominica and we located two, presumably a mother and well-grown calf. Note the laterally offset blow hole which gives this whale its characteristic blow.

 

They put on a good show before finally diving into the deep underwater trench that lies just offshore.

 

So it was back to the hotel and an early departure the next morning for the airport. I was expecting our flight would take us on to Guadeloupe but no, things weren’t that simple ….

 

…. first we had to fly north, over flying Guadeloupe in the process, spend many hours sitting around in Antigua airport (again) before taking the short hop back to Guadeloupe.

 

No wonder Mark was knackered.

 

Arriving in Guadeloupe was like arriving in France (and technically it was France) French signs, three lane highways and traffic jams. What a shock after the rural simplicity of Dominica.

 

Rather than end this post with a photo of traffic congestion instead let’s enjoy a wonderful sunset from our Dominica hotel at the conclusion of our boat trip.

 

 

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.