The Lesser Antilles aboard the Sea Cloud Feb 16—24, 2014

Posted by David Ascanio


David Ascanio

David Ascanio, a Venezuelan birder and naturalist, has spent over 35 years guiding birding tours throughout his native country, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, the...

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“Six countries, seven islands, and a wonderful ship to sail the Caribbean”—a perfectly succinct way to describe our recent Lesser Antilles Cruise aboard one of the world’s most beautiful sailing vessels, the Sea Cloud. We traveled for the birds, but also enjoyed the unique cuisine, learned about plants and trees, discussed sugar trade and the making of rum, and learned about back-and-forth battles and the presence of pirates during the Colonial era, as well as other aspects of life in the Caribbean.

As soon as we boarded the Sea Cloud in Antigua we were already pointing at two uncommon seabirds: Lesser and Greater black-backed gulls. After leaving Antigua, Magnificent Frigatebirds accompanied us on our journey, while egrets, pelicans, and terns continued to feed in the waters of the harbor.

Brown Trembler, Guadeloupe

Brown Trembler, Guadeloupe— Photo: David Ascanio

Our second island was the pretty, small, and lush Guadeloupe. After a short drive, we entered Guadeloupe National Park, a deep-green forest, rich in ferns and trees packed with epiphytes. Here, Bridled Quail-Dove was seen by many of us while the endemic Guadeloupe Woodpecker was enjoyed by everyone. Guadeloupe also provided our first contact with many of the Caribbean specialties such as Purple-throated Carib, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Lesser Antillean Saltator, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, and Brown Trembler.

The following island was the rugged Dominica. This is the only island of the Lesser Antilles that hosts two endemic parrot species: one common (Red-necked Parrot), and another almost a ghost (Imperial Parrot). After a couple of efforts we managed to see both parrots and also got amazing views of the endemic Blue-headed Hummingbird and Plumbeous Warbler. Among the Caribbean specialties we enjoyed hummingbird feeders with many Purple-throated Caribs, a single Green-throated Carib, and Antillean Crested Hummingbird. At the forest edge everyone enjoyed the Lesser Antillean Pewee.

White-breasted Thrasher, Martinique

White-breasted Thrasher, Martinique— Photo: David Ascanio

As soon as we disembarked the ship on the island of Martinique, we noticed a contrast: ample highways and lots of traffic! This island, as well as Guadeloupe, is part of the French overseas departments, thus we were technically in the European Union. Here, we drove to the Peninsula Caravelle to look for two of the most difficult birds for the cruise: Martinique Oriole and White-breasted Thrasher. The oriole came after the first attempt and was seen by about half of the group, but then seemed to hide for the rest of the morning. The thrasher was another story. Victor, Barry, Peter, and I were concerned about our chances of everyone seeing this species. Looking for this secretive bird in the understory of moist and dry forest meant walking along a narrow trail with a steep entrance. But bird-watching is about taking chances, isn’t it? Barry and Peter took the first group and walked quite a distance. There they found a family group of thrashers foraging on the ground. Peter rushed back and invited more people to experience this amazing discovery. Accompanied by Victor, more participants reached the area and eventually got superb views of this species. As the day warmed up, we were surprised to find other family groups foraging on the ground closer to the trail entrance, thus eventually everyone got to see this threatened and incredible thrasher. We enjoyed superb views of the adults tossing leaves at the sides of the trail, with young birds looking on. To complement an excellent morning, Peter found a resting Bridled Quail-Dove at the side of the trail and many participants also saw it. Happy and excited, we drove back to the ship for an incredible lunch. In the afternoon we sailed towards another Caribbean gem, St. Lucia.

For a guide, St. Lucia is considered a challenge, and we experienced some difficulties. At the first location, due to a miscommunication among the drivers, the group was divided. There was no time to reunite, as the day was warming up, thus we had to take our chances for finding all the endemic species. Victor was ahead, while Peter, Barry, and I were behind. After unloading the vans we started hearing the parrots, and soon after we had amazing views of various individuals in flight. Minutes later, Victor and his group joined us and we exchanged sightings. That allowed our group to get very close views of St. Lucia Oriole. Once all-together, we walked along the road where we saw a family of Antillean Euphonias on a mistletoe-packed tree.

St. Lucia Oriole

St. Lucia Oriole— Photo: David Ascanio

Yet, there were more endemic and Caribbean specialties to find. Led by our superb team of local guides, we found ourselves along the road of Tobacco Hill where we enjoyed St. Lucia Pewee and Rufous-throated Solitaire. St. Lucia Parrots were also flying across a low pass. But, there was another tricky endemic to find—the St. Lucia Black Finch. To look for it, we walked along the road while pishing frequently. Much of the time we waited patiently or looked for motion inside the forest understory. And, as frequently happens, when we were running out of time with a deadline approaching, a pair of St. Lucia Black Finches sang, but remained well inside the understory. After various attempts everyone saw it, and before it got dark we were happy and celebrating our success in St. Lucia Harbor with views of the astonishing pitons from the ship’s deck.

The morning of February 22nd was enjoyed in a different way. The captain had set Sea Cloud´s majestic sails as we moved south towards St. Vincent. We had superb views of Brown and Red-footed boobies, as well as several Magnificent Frigatebirds. Vequia’s vertical cliffs offered views of Red-billed Tropicbird. In the afternoon we arrived in St. Vincent and immediately boarded the vans to visit the Vermont Forest. As the search for the parrot involved a steep walk, the group was split between those who wanted to wait for the parrots at the forest edge and those who would walk the trail. By the end of the afternoon both groups had seen the parrots well, and with great satisfaction we headed back to the ship for a superb dinner.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby— Photo: David Ascanio

There was still an endemic to find, one that according to the local guides had not been seen since the last hurricane in December 2013: the Whistling Warbler. This is an odd-looking bird, with a distinctive eye ring and a chest band. It is found only on the island of St. Vincent. It usually sings early in the morning and sometimes at dusk. Determining its phylogeny has not been a smooth process, and today there is an agreement (based on 2010, Lovette et al Phylogeny of the Wood Warblers) that the Dendroica warblers and the parulas are indeed its closest living relatives.

Finding a Whistling Warbler is always a challenge, especially if the local guides have not seen it in months. But, as birders, we weren’t going to give up right away. We had breakfast at 4.30 AM and drove to the forest trail at 5:00 AM. We had to use our flashlights for one-half of the trail, thus allowing us to reach one of the known territories at the crack of dawn. We waited, and waited, but there was no sign of the bird. More than a half-hour later one individual sang and came close to us, but not everyone saw it. We tried to find it again, but it was then quite distant. We continued down the trail to find a better location, but it seemed like this individual was way too deep inside a steep valley. There was no way for us to see it there. But again, we were not going to give up easily. On the way back we realized that the deep valley was contiguous to another smaller valley crossed by the trail, thus we decided to give it one last try. It took a few minutes, but finally one individual came to us, perched at midstory, and started singing. What a wonderful moment—and one of the many reasons why bird-watching is such an incomparable passion. After seeing the Whistling Warbler we were ready to return to the ship and sail to our final destination, Barbados.

At dawn on February 24th, the ship was already tied up to Barbados Port and many of us had begun looking for the last endemic of the cruise, the Barbados Bullfinch. Unlike its relatives in the Lesser and the Greater Antilles, this one is more uniform and the throat patch is barely visible. Soon after disembarkation we had wonderful views of this species, thus rounding up a wonderful cruise to the Lesser Antilles.

Thank you very much for joining us aboard the Sea Cloud. I am sure you agree that there’s no better way for bird-watching in the Lesser Antilles.