Extraordinary birds and a world of contrast as we go island hopping in the Lesser Antilles
When I visited some of the Lesser Antilles this summer, I had a fair impression of what I would be in for. I was expecting relatively low diversity of bird life (as is typical of small islands well away from a continent), a few endemics thrown into the mix and some lovely Caribbean island scenery. What I did not realise was the striking contrast between each of the four islands I went to – contrast in landscape, people, culture and birds.
The trip incorporated Antigua and Barbuda, the dual-island state, and the hub for travel to the other islands, Montserrat (a British Overseas Territory) and Dominica (a country not to be confused with the Dominican Republic). The islands share a core of landbirds, such as a kingbird, a peewee, a couple of thrashers, three hummingbirds, a few pigeons and doves, though in differing abundances. But it is the subtle differences which make the region particularly fascinating.
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua is a gorgeous island, rightly beloved of honeymooners and holidaymakers seeking superb coralline beaches, warm seas, sun and relaxation. The island was perfect for getting my eye in to the local bird scene, familiarising myself with the species which would form the staple core for the other islands I was to visit.
Our hotel, the Siboney Beach Club in Dickenson’s Bay, set on the sandy shore on the north of the island, was a wonderful starting point. The garden was packed with birds –Antillean Crested Hummingbird nesting outside my balcony, Green-throated Carib (another hummer), nesting above our dining table; Carib Grackles, Bananaquits and White-crowned Pigeons vying for attention. And a short walk away, there was an abundance of breeding Black-necked Stilts (with small young) and Wilson’s Plovers (with tiny young), and a mangrove colony where we could stand eyeball to eyeball with punk-headed baby Tricoloured Herons, surrounded by nesting Snowy and Great White Egrets and Brown Pelicans.
Having got a taste of the birdlife, the next day we took a catamaran trip out to Great Bird Island, which despite its name, is a small rocky island packing with massive action. We climbed the jagged rocky hill and walked among thousands of nesting Sooty Terns, smaller numbers of Bridled Terns, Brown Noddies and Laughing Gulls, and even had tantalising views of one of my dream birds, Red-billed Tropicbird (though they nest there, we were a little late for their breeding season).
And to cap a perfect bit of birdwatching, after a barbecue on the beach, we snorkelled back to the boat over corals, following parrotfish and cuttlefish – my idea of a slice of paradise.
Barbuda, the smaller sister island of Antigua, is 50 or so miles’ flight to the north and has a completely different feel from Antigua. Equally blessed with superb sandy beaches, including the renowned pink beach, it is flatter (the Highlands peak at 38m) and less lush and has a population of just 1,500 compared to the 80,000 or so on Antigua. There is a less affluent, rather more ramshackle feel to it, though there are also decidedly upmarket areas such as the Lighthouse Bay Resort.
Wherever we went on Antigua, everyone told us we simply must go to Barbuda for the birds. It was not the delightful endemic Barbuda Warbler (a surprisingly common little Dendroica warbler, bright yellow beneath and grey and white above) they were particularly recommending, it was the renowned colony of 5,000 Magnificent Frigatebirds set in the mangroves of the Codrington Lagoon. After a short trip out in a small boat we were in the heart of the colony – completely the wrong time of year for the balloon-blowing contest of the red-pouched males, but just right to enjoy the full-sized chicks, at arm’s length, waiting to be fed on seabird sick by their piratical parents: glorious!
A similar distance to the south from Antigua as Barbuda is to the north, Montserrat could hardly be more different. It is mountainous and lush and richly forested. But the whole island leaves you tinged with a great sadness. Hurricane Hugo was bad enough in 1989, with damage to 90% of all structures, but the eruption of the Souffriere Hills Volcano from 1995, and particularly 1997, was a blow too far.
The volcano caused the direct death of at least 19 people and buried the capital, Plymouth, causing the entire population to flee north. From a population of more than 14,000, only 4,500 are still resident; the southern half of the island is strictly out of bounds and the current population lives wholly in the north where few people lived before the eruptions.
We visited, by boat, the old capital Plymouth, viewing through the sulphurous pall the grey hollow city, buried in dust, mud and boulders. It was a deeply moving and tragic sight, leavened slightly by a rainbow over the island, somehow promising new hope. Pelicans guarded the old town pier and as we sailed along a pair of sea turtles mated near the surface – life goes on.
There is a great spirit among the people of Montserrat, and there is no better exponent of this spirit than our bird guide, James ‘Scriber’ Daley. His home town of St Patrick, just by Plymouth, was completely wiped out and his family now live in the UK, where he was offered work with the RSPB. But he has chosen to live away from the family and work as a custodian for Montserrat’s birds and in particular the renowned endemic, the Montserrat Oriole.
Subtle differences from Antigua include the prevalence of Scaly-naped Pigeons over White-crowned Pigeons, but what we really wanted to see was the oriole. There is no better person to take you into Montserrat Oriole habitat than Scriber, and it was only a short walk along one of the bird trails of the Centre Hills before we encountered our first family. The males are black with golden rumps and bellies, the females and younger birds more golden green all over. We watched a few groups foraging for insects and with only a couple of hundred in the world, it was a real privilege.
The woods held other near-endemic delights, such as brooding Bridled Quail-dove and my personal favourite, the aptly named Brown Trembler – it’s brown and it trembles its wings like a begging baby bird. We saw several of these relatives of the thrashers, like small, long-billed thrushes, including an obliging bird at its nest in a rotten stump.
Dominica is an island state of more than twice the size of Antigua. The most northern of the Windward Islands, it is mountainous and heavily forested, and like Montserrat has been badly hit by hurricanes, particularly David in 1979, with wrecks still cluttering the shore at Portsmouth in the north. The resemblance ends there though, and there is once again a very different feel about the country from the other islands we visited. The capital Roseau is positively bustling and there is a more independent feel to at least the small part of the 70,000-odd population we encountered.
The forested volcanic hills are home to some sensational endemic birds. King of these is the Sisserou, the Imperial Parrot, and our guide, forest ranger Bertrand ‘Birdy’ Jno Baptiste took us to one of the treasured nest sites, high in a massive tree. But despite a silent vigil for more than five hours, the parents did not return to feed the young and the chick was sadly found dead a few days later. We had to make do with the smaller commoner endemic parrot, the Jaco or Red-necked Amazon.
Just as everyone in Antigua tells you to go to Barbuda for the birds, everyone in Dominica it seems wants to show you where the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films were filmed. And as we took a boat trip along the narrow river channel blocked by one of the Portsmouth wrecks of 1979, it was easy to imagine the gnarled mangroves in the film. There were other things to feast the eye on here: Plumbeous Warbler, the endemic monochrome grey equivalent of the Barbuda Warbler, a Scaly-naped Pigeon on the nest, and Lesser Antillean Flycatchers.
Forest birds are in rich supply, with more Scaly-breasted Thrashers than on the other islands, and where Pearly-eyed Thrashers dominate. Also in contrast with the other islands, there are more Purple-throated Caribs than Green-throated. And, as if to emphasise these subtle changes, Dominica also has its own beautiful endemic hummer, the Blue-headed Hummingbird.
If I were forced to choose, Dominica was perhaps my favourite of these various island destinations. Perhaps it’s the wild, lush rainforest, perhaps it’s the richness of the forest fauna, reflected in the higher number of endemics, or perhaps it was the fact that I was intoxicated by the place one night at our hotel perched on the cliffs above the Caribbean. As I paddled in the pool, both Caribs fed around me, replaced by bats as the sun went down. Night fell and, as I sipped a rum punch, the sea lapping gently on the cliffs, the power failed. The stars came out to play and little fireflies flashed on and off, on and off. Pure Caribbean magic.
Mike would like to thank the tourist boards of the Lesser Antillean destinations for inviting him to visit their countries and territories. The following is a list of of the relevant tourist authorities and places where Mike stayed. For alternative accommodations and organisations offering birdwatching trips to the various islands, consult the tourist boards or check out adverts in this magazine Getting there Antigua and Barbuda Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority: www.antigua-barbuda.com 0207 031 8160 Siboney Beach Club: www.small-hotels-antigua.com Montserrat Montserrat Tourist board: www.visitmontserrat.com www.olvestonhouse.com Dominica www.discoverdominica.com www.tamrindtreedominica.com