LESSER ANTILLES & TRINIDAD BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Lesser Antilles: Day 1 Our tour begins in the afternoon at Antigua, where we will stay for two nights. There are some lagoons and saltpans on Antigua which hold some good birds. Most notable among these is the rare, localized and endangered West Indian Whistling Duck, but other interesting species include White-cheeked Pintail and Wilson’s Plover. In addition we may well see Great, Snowy and Western Cattle Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Common Gallinule, American Coot, Black-necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, and Sandwich and Least Terns. White-crowned Pigeons reach the southern limits of their range on Antigua and we should see some during our explorations.
Lesser Antilles: Day 2 A short ferry ride will take us to the low-lying island of Barbuda, some 45 kilometres to the north of Antigua. Ornithologically, the prime interest here is the attractive endemic Barbuda Warbler, and as the species is quite common it will not take us long to find some. As the only ferry home is in the late afternoon, a relaxing day enjoying this pleasant island is in prospect, and in true Caribbean style we can linger over a long lunch complete with fresh-caught fish and of course cold beer! Some widespread Lesser Antillean birds can be seen on the island and, in addition to Lesser Antillean Bullfinch and Green-throated Carib (endemic and near-endemic to the Lesser Antilles respectively), we should see Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Zenaida Dove (another Caribbean speciality), Grey Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Mangrove Warbler, Bananaquit, Black-faced Grassquit and Carib Grackle.
Lesser Antilles: Day 3 We will take a short flight to the small volcanic island of Montserrat for an overnight stay. The island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in November 1493 during his second voyage to the New World. He named it after the Santa María de Montserrate monastery near Barcelona as the island’s peaks reminded him of the mountains behind the monastery. Montserrat, which usually successfully avoids imposing itself on the world’s stage, briefly hit the international headlines in 1995 when the Soufrière Hills Volcano erupted violently after 400 years of dormancy, later (in 1997) destroying Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth. The eruptions rendered a large part of the island uninhabitable, with large areas lying under a dense blanket of volcanic ash. Nowadays only about a third of the island is inhabited, although much more than this remains undamaged by volcanic activity (an environmental bonus for the avifauna, if not for the island’s human inhabitants!), but life goes on and the infrastructure has been largely reorganized. Many of the island’s inhabitants have left to seek a new life on other Caribbean islands, but for those that remain the slow, rural pace of the island seems largely unchanged.
Our prime target in this forgotten corner of the Lesser Antilles is, of course, the endemic Montserrat Oriole, which is still found in good numbers in the remaining forests. We will visit the Centre Hills in the north of the island to search for this striking black-and-yellow species, which is not too difficult to find. Other specialities we are likely to come across include three more Lesser Antillean endemics: Purple-throated Carib, the secretive Forest Thrush and the strange Brown Trembler (an aberrant thrasher that flutters its wings and trembles all over as it moves through the forest; the form inhabiting these northern islands may be specifically distinct). Two Lesser Antillean near-endemics are also likely: the near-endemic Bridled Quail-Dove is not uncommon on the island and we should also see our first Antillean Crested Hummingbirds. Other species restricted to the Caribbean, or virtually so, include Scaly-naped Pigeon and the restricted-range Pearly-eyed Thrasher, while more widespread species include Brown Booby, American Kestrel, Common Ground-Dove and Mangrove Cuckoo.
Lesser Antilles: Day 4 We will return to Antigua this morning and then take a flight southwards to the island of Dominica for a three nights stay near its tiny capital, Roseau.
Lesser Antilles: Days 5-6 Dominica (pronounced Domineeka), discovered by Columbus one Sunday in November 1493 (hence its name), deservedly styles itself the ‘Nature Island of the Caribbean’, for it is unusual in having preserved large tracts of its native forest. This beautiful island is known for mountain and rainforest scenery unsurpassed in the Lesser Antilles and the island has a rich fauna both above and below water, making it a popular haunt of scuba divers as well as those interested in terrestrial natural history.
We will head up the western coast to the Northern Forest Reserve, situated on the flanks of Morne Diablotin, at 4747ft (1447m) both the island’s highest peak and the highest mountain in the Lesser Antilles. Here, below dramatic peaks clothed in forest, we will walk to the edge of a deep ravine and wait at dawn at a small watchpoint that gives a good view over the area. The endemic Red-necked Amazon is easy to see as the birds leave their roosts on the higher ridges and descend to feed in the forest trees or in nearby plantations. We should soon obtain excellent views of these noisy birds in the canopy or squawking madly as they flight overhead. Imperial Amazon, the island’s other endemic species, is much less numerous and we may have to be very patient before observing this large and impressive Amazona perched in a tree or making its way across the valley. Indeed, this is one of the toughest Lesser Antillean endemics, so we have allowed plenty of time for the pursuit.
As well as spending time parrot watching (or rather, ‘parrot waiting’), we will explore the adjacent rainforest, which is excellent for birds and a beautiful place to stroll on the excellent trail system. Here amongst the huge trees and beautiful tree-ferns we have another good chance for the shy Forest Thrush, whilst other Lesser Antillean endemics include Lesser Antillean Swift, Blue-headed Hummingbird (otherwise only found on Martinique), the endearing Lesser Antillean Pewee, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Brown Trembler (of one of the southern forms) and Plumbeous Warbler (shared only with Guadeloupe). The Lesser Antilles form of the Antillean Euphonia (a very distinctive form with a ‘feminized’ male plumage) surely merits specific status. There is also a distinctive endemic form of the House Wren, one of four we will see on the tour, all of which have been proposed as distinct species.
Caribbean endemics include Caribbean Elaenia, Rufous-throated Solitaire with its hauntingly beautiful refrain, and the stunning Red-legged Thrush. Although not a Caribbean endemic, we shall be keeping a close eye on the skies for Black Swift, a summer visitor here from its unknown winter quarters (presumed to be in South America) and probably easier to observe in Dominica than anywhere else in its peculiar breeding range that extends very patchily from California to the Lesser Antilles.
Other species of wider distribution include Broad-winged Hawk, Ruddy Quail-Dove and, with a bit of luck, the huge Ringed Kingfisher. On the way back to Roseau, where Eurasian Collared Doves have colonized the town (just another step towards world domination by this unstoppable species), we will make a stop or two along the coast where we should find Roseate Tern, Caribbean Martin and Tropical Mockingbird.
On one afternoon we will make a pelagic trip off Roseau, primarily for cetaceans as seabirds are few and far between in these parts (although we should see Bridled and Sooty Terns, and Brown Noddy). We have a fair chance of coming across a large pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales and we may also encounter the huge Sperm Whale, numbers of which spend almost the entire year in Dominican waters. Getting up close to whales is always a fantastic experience, and the very clear water means that one can often see most of the animal rather than just a piece of its back.
Lesser Antilles: Day 7 After a further morning on Dominica to look for anything we might have missed, we will take a flight to Guadeloupe for an overnight stay, arriving in time for some initial exploration. Guadeloupe, to most visitor’s amazement, is a fully-fledged department of France, sending a deputy to the French parliament, so is therefore treated as part of the European Union, with all that this implies for development funds. For this reason Guadeloupe and its sister Martinique have a level of economic activity unmatched by any other islands in the Lesser Antilles and indeed most of the Caribbean. The expressways, prosperous-looking towns, modern factories, gleaming airport, new cars and fancily-dressed locals give the impression one is visiting some strange Franco-African version of the Côte d’Azur rather than a Caribbean island!
Lesser Antilles: Day 8 We will head off early this morning to a small river valley where, for a short time after dawn, the usually uncommon and secretive Bridled Quail-Dove is as bold as brass, even walking by the roadside and allowing a close approach! Nearby we will explore the tropical forest in search of Guadeloupe’s sole endemic, the Guadeloupe Woodpecker. These blackish woodpeckers are noisy birds, so we should have little trouble finding one. In the afternoon we will take a flight to Martinique for a two nights stay at Tartane, a small village on the Presqu’île la Caravelle. As with Guadeloupe, the obvious prosperity of this distant part of the European Union seems staggering after impoverished Dominica.
Lesser Antilles: Day 9 There are two species of bird which are restricted to the islands of Martinique and St Lucia, Grey Trembler and White-breasted Thrasher, but both are far easier to see on Martinique. This morning we will explore the Château Dubuc area of the Presqu’île la Caravelle, a low but hilly peninsula on the west coast of the island where the dry forest is home to a good population of the handsome White-breasted Thrasher, as well as the striking Martinique Oriole (endemic to Martinique) and Lesser Antillean Saltator (endemic to the Lesser Antilles in general). Another species likely to be seen here is Bare-eyed Thrush. Afterwards we will head up into the hills to look for Grey Trembler. We also have another opportunity to find the attractive Ble-headed Hummingbird, the unobtrusive Lesser Antillean Euphonia and the scarce Martinique Oriole.
Lesser Antilles: Day 10 After some final birding on Martinique we will take a short flight south to St Lucia for a two nights stay.
Lesser Antilles: Day 11 St Lucia (pronounced St Loosha) is not only one of the most scenic islands in the Lesser Antilles, epitomized by its spectacular conical volcanic peaks rising abruptly from the sea (Gros Piton and Petit Piton), but also the richest island for birds, holding no less than four endemic species and a series of additional Lesser Antillean endemics. We will spend much of our time in the Edmund Forest Reserve in south-central St Lucia where we will be looking in particular for the five St Lucia endemics: St Lucia Amazon, St Lucia Warbler, St Lucia Black Finch and St Lucia Oriole. [St Lucia once had an additional endemic species, the ground-loving Semper’s Warbler, but with no confirmed sightings since 1961 this is now thought to be extinct (largely as a result of predation by introduced mongooses).] The distinctive St Lucia form of the Lesser Antillean Pewee may also merit specific status. St Lucia also holds an endemic form of the House Wren and many other Caribbean birds can be found in the island’s beautiful forests. At dusk we will search for the isolated local form of the Rufous Nightjar, although this can be difficult to find.
Lesser Antilles: Day 12 After spending a last morning on St Lucia we will take a late afternoon flight to St Vincent for a two nights stay.
Lesser Antilles: Day 13 The mountainous island of St Vincent still possesses extensive forests which we will explore in search of the island’s two endemic species and several other specialities. Most of our time will be devoted to the beautiful forests of the Vermont Forest Reserve in the south-central part of the island. Here we should see noisy St Vincent Amazons and the delightful (and noisy) little Whistling Warbler, as well as Grenada Flycatcher and Lesser Antillean Tanager (both species otherwise found only on Grenada and, in the case of the former, the Grenadines). Yet again there is an endemic form of the House Wren. More widespread species we should encounter include Common Black-Hawk, Eared Dove, Smooth-billed Ani and Cocoa Thrush, plus the strange-looking black morph of the Bananaquit (which predominates here and on Grenada). Along the rocky coastline we can expect to see the graceful White-tailed Tropicbird and perhaps Red-footed Booby.
Lesser Antilles: Day 14 We will take a short morning flight to Barbados for an overnight stay. Here we will be looking for the Barbados Bullfinch. This interesting form, restricted to Barbados, only exhibits a brown, female-type plumage. We will also have a good chance of finding the highly distinctive Lesser Antillean form of the Western Barn Owl, which is considered a form of the Ashy-faced Owl by some.
Lesser Antilles: Day 15 This morning we will catch a short flight to Grenada for an overnight stay at the capital, St George’s. Grenada (pronounced Grenayda) is the most southerly of the Lesser Antilles and, as with all the larger islands, is largely rugged and mountainous. Our major target species here is the highly endangered endemic Grenada Dove, now restricted to a few areas in the low-lying southwest of the island and perhaps reduced to fewer than 70 individuals. We will concentrate on the Mount Hartman Estate, 1200 acres (485 hectares) of dry scrub forest that now supports about 75% of the surviving Grenada Doves. With persistence, we have an excellent chance of seeing the species during our stay. Other new birds should include the endemic local form of the House Wren, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-bellied Seedeater and Shiny Cowbird.
Lesser Antilles: Day 16 After some final birding on Grenada, the Lesser Antilles section of our tour ends in the early afternoon at Grenada airport.
Trinidad: Day 1 From Grenada, those continuing from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad will take a flight to Port of Spain. From the airport we will transfer to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where we will be staying for the next three nights.
Trinidad: Days 2-3 The Asa Wright Nature Centre is idyllically situated at about 1300ft (400m) in the Arima Valley amidst the lower montane rainforest of the Northern Range. The Centre was formerly a cocoa, coffee and citrus plantation, owned by an eccentric Icelander, Mrs Asa Wright, and her English husband, but since 1967 it has operated under a non-profit trust set up to preserve its wildlife in perpetuity. A favourite place for naturalists from all over the world, it has frequently provided facilities for television wildlife features, including some top BBC productions. Surrounded by primary forest, and criss-crossed by well-kept trails, the Centre’s grounds of 400 acres (160 hectares) include the now largely abandoned cultivated areas, as well as rainforest, and are bisected by the Arima River and several mountain torrents.
The star attraction at Asa Wright is undoubtedly the feeding station, which must surely rank as one of the best of any tropical lodge anywhere. Indeed, this one remarkable feature alone would be enough to propel Asa Wright into the top league of great wildlife spots, even without its many other attractions. Not only are there hummingbird feeders here in abundance, but also a series of bird tables where bread, fruit and other foods are put out in order to lure in an extraordinary diversity of birds, mammals and even reptiles. Many colourful birds can be seen at close quarters from the Centre’s wide veranda overlooking the gardens, where photographers will delight at the opportunity to shoot away at the hummingbirds and honeycreepers only a very short distance away at the various feeders. Regular visitors to the feeders (or the nearby flower banks) include a spectacular collection of hummingbirds, including Rufous-breasted, Green and Little Hermits, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, the miniscule Tufted Coquette, Blue-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, Copper-rumped Hummingbird and Long-billed Starthroat, plus Ruddy Ground-Dove, Grey-fronted Dove, Bananaquit, Green and Purple Honeycreepers, Blue-grey, Palm, Silver-beaked and White-lined Tanagers, and Crested Oropendola (there is an adjacent colony with enormous, stocking-like hanging nests which is sometimes attended by parasitic Giant Cowbirds). Even Red-rumped Agoutis are frequently seen scavenging tit-bits below the bird-feeders, where another regular visitor is the metre-long carnivorous Golden Tegu lizard.
In the grounds of Asa Wright we are likely to encounter the gorgeous endemic Trinidad Motmot, as well as Little Tinamou (only likely to be heard), Scaled Pigeon, Blue-headed Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, the diurnal Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the beautiful Amazonian Violaceous Trogon, the impressive Channel-billed Toucan, Golden-olive, Chestnut, Lineated and Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Great and Barred Antshrikes, Forest Elaenia, Tropical Kingbird, Streaked and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Pewee, Southern House and Rufous-breasted Wrens, White-necked Thrush, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Violaceous Euphonia, Turquoise Tanager and Greyish Saltator. Within the more enclosed forested sections we will look for the leks of White-bearded and Golden-headed Manakins (enjoying the amazing antics of the White-bearded as it whirrs and buzzes amongst the undergrowth like an animated fire-cracker and the bewildering flight-display of the Golden-headed underneath the canopy) and scour the canopy and mid-level vegetation for the bizarrely-adorned Bearded Bellbird. With luck we will come across one of the rarer and more elusive species, such as a Grey-throated Leaftosser. Overhead we should see Grey-headed Kite, the superb White Hawk (and perhaps the magnificent Ornate Hawk-Eagle) and Chestnut-collared, Grey-rumped and Band-rumped Swifts.
A real highlight will be a visit to the Oilbird cave, where perhaps a hundred individuals of this unique species, the sole member of the family, spend their days in the semi-gloom. We should be able to get wonderful close-up views of these strange nocturnal creatures, a fruit-eating species resembling an enormous nightjar.
We will also explore the main ridge of Trinidad’s Northern Range at about 600m altitude and the northern slopes en route to the village of Blanchisseuse on Trinidad’s north coast. We will stop at intervals to look for such species as Black and Turkey Vultures, Collared Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, the ground-dwelling, bantam-like Black-faced Antthrush, Pale-breasted and Stripe-breasted Spinetails, Grey-breasted Martin, Tropical Parula, Golden-crowned Warbler, Blue Dacnis, Bay-headed and Speckled Tanagers, and Blue-black Grassquit. With a bit of luck we will see the uncommon Lilac-crowned Parrotlet, Sooty Grassquit (which sometimes occurs in small open areas at the roadside) and Tooth-billed (or Southern Hepatic) Tanager.
No birding visit to Trinidad would be complete without a visit to the freshwater marshes and brackish mangroves of the Caroni Swamp and its environs. At a small sewage treatment plant en route we shall look for Least Grebe, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pied Water-Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant and Yellow-hooded Blackbird. After we reach the edge of the swamp we will boarding a flat-bottomed boat for our trip into the interior. Amongst the mangroves we can expect to find Large-billed Tern, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Yellow Oriole, Bicolored Conebill, Red-capped Cardinal and Spectacled Caiman. We will very likely come across a Common Potoo roosting high in the mangroves and looking very much like a strange broken off branch, and with luck we will encounter Straight-billed Woodcreeper. The highlight of the trip will undoubtedly be the evening arrival of hundreds of Scarlet Ibis at their mangrove roosts and we will enjoy watching the flocks undulating past, the birds an impossibly deep scarlet colour that must be unique in the avian world!
In addition, we will visit a marshy and scrubby area where we will search for Black-crested Antshrike as well as Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Savanna Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Southern Lapwing, Sulphury Flycatcher and, if we are in luck, Pinnated Bittern. As dusk approaches, we will wait for the incoming flocks of Red-bellied Macaws and Orange-winged and Yellow-crowned Parrots arriving at their roost in the Royal Palms.
We will also visit another set of hummingbird feeders where the exquisite Ruby Topaz and the scarce Green-throated Mango occur alongside the now familiar species from Asa Wright.
Trinidad: Days 4-5 During the last part of our time in Trinidad we will visit a remote part of the Northern Range near the settlement of Grand Riviere, where we spend two nights.
Our main reason for visiting the area is to see the endemic Trinidad Piping-Guan (now treated as a species distinct from Common or Blue-throated Piping-Guan). This rare and endangered species still occurs in small numbers in this area and we have a high chance of encountering this attractive and interesting bird. Indeed, we may well obtain spectacular views as the birds sun themselves in the treetops in the early morning.
Other species we should see in this habitat include Grey Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Short-tailed Swift, Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, White-flanked Antwren, Silvered and White-bellied Antbirds, Boat-billed and Yellow-olive Flycatchers, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Black-tailed Tityra, White-winged Swallow, the extraordinary Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-rumped Cacique and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. We also have another chance for the attractive Lilac-tailed Parrotlet. After dark we may well find Mottled Owl and Pauraque.
At this season huge Leatherback Turtles lay their eggs on the beach near our hotel, so we may well have the chance to see these leviathans.
Trinidad: Day 6 After some final birding on Trinidad we will drive back to Port of Spain, where our tour ends in the early afternoon.