The Lesser Antilles aboard the Sea Cloud Feb 10—18, 2016
Posted by David Ascanio
Once again, a sea with pastel blue or green colors, an incredible and rich history, outstanding cuisine, and the beautiful and breathtaking Sea Cloud, combined with exquisite birds resulted in a memorable journey across six of the Lesser Antilles to see all of the endemic parrots, tremblers, hummingbirds, orioles, and bullfinches that these islands offer.
Our treasure wasn’t gold, nor sugar. It was every one of the endemic or the restricted distribution birds. It seemed as if every island offered a unique challenge to finding these treasures. Barbados was the easy task. In Dominica and Martinique we practiced patience. In Guadeloupe we built a successful group dynamic, while St. Lucia and St. Vincent challenged us with trails. Each day offered a unique experience, as if each of the Lesser Antilles had a distinctive personality.
We started in British-flavored Barbados. A visit to the Graeme Hall Reserve allowed views of one of the few populations of Little Egret in the Americas. We also saw our first target species, the Barbados Bullfinch, one that’s so common that you can see it wandering around the swimming pool area of the hotel.
After a full day sailing north, we made it to Dominica. There, an early departure from the port of Cabrits found us in the right place to search for the most threatened Psittacid in the Caribbean, the Imperial Parrot. Although an unexpected rain delayed the morning bird activity, the day eventually warmed up, and birds started moving around. Divided into groups, we visited the Syndicate Forest and explored the trails and the edges of the access road. In the forest we dedicated time at the viewpoint, a small clearing in the forest that overlooks a deep creek and usually allows views of parrots in flight. Despite much time spent, at noon we had only nailed the commoner Red-necked Parrot, but the more difficult Imperial Parrot remained as heard only. But, birders don’t give up, and even less so when we’re talking about parrots. Thus, many of us decided to stay there and asked Victor to bring picnic lunches when he came back from the ship in the afternoon. They say that good luck is about being in the right place at the right time, with continuous effort. We practiced this and were rewarded with great scope views of the Imperial Parrot. What an experience! Anyone who happened to be in the viewpoint or near the trail got to see it! Once the pressure of finding the parrot was off, we dedicated the afternoon to finding other target species including Blue-headed Hummingbird, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Mangrove Cuckoo, and the ubiquitous House Wren, one that has a distinctive repertoire, plus distinctive plumage and forest habitat preference. Its voice is very different from the North and South America populations, which makes it a good candidate for a future split.
A successful visit to Dominica was followed by a half-day visit to a European nation in the Americas: the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, two overseas departments of France. In Guadeloupe we visited the Point a Pitre National Park. Here, the rain delayed our morning activity again, but I can assure you that it actually played to our side. Bridled Quail-Dove was active (we saw 5 individuals!), and the endemic Guadeloupe Woodpecker was scoped perched in a fairly open branch from the picnic area. And, thanks to Mike, several of us saw a Forest Thrush sunning on an open branch as well!
Once we nailed the endemic birds of Guadeloupe, we headed south to the windward islands of Martinique, St Lucia, and St. Vincent. Another early morning departure took us to the Atlantic side of Martinique, in the Caravelle Peninsula. Here, Martinique Oriole proved to be one of the most difficult birds of the trip and, despite our search, only a few of us saw it briefly on a portion of the trail located at one side of the ruins. Despite hours spent at the fig tree, the oriole never gave a concession. But, we also came to this peninsula to look for one of the most threatened species in the Lesser Antilles, the White-breasted Thrasher. Unlike the oriole, everyone saw this bird well! We enjoyed not only seeing it, but also admiring his foraging behavior as he tossed leaves to hunt for arthropods.
Our next destination was the island-nation of St. Lucia. Assisted by an incredible team of local birders, we were able to see secretive birds such as the St. Lucia Black Finch (seen at a very close distance by everyone) and commoner species such as the St. Lucia Pewee (considered by some a separate species from the Lesser Antilles Pewee), the local form of Bananaquit (with a dotted wing bar), and the inspiring Rufous-throated Solitaire. Some of us walked along a spectacular trail filled with ferns, orchids, and enormous trees. Being exposed to such richness gave Peter the opportunity to identify several plants and share his incredible botanical knowledge of the Caribbean.
Back to the ship, we sailed south, to the last location of our unforgettable trip, the island-nation of St. Vincent. Here, we were given two birding options. The most intrepid had to negotiate a steep trail, starting with flashlights, to reach a viewpoint area at the crack of dawn to enjoy views of St. Vincent Parrots perched and in flight alike. But, there was a second reason for doing this. One of the most difficult-to-see birds of this trip was the unique and endemic Whistling Warbler, whose taxonomic position is still in debate. As we were enjoying the parrots at the outlook, it started raining and, as you may guess, it played again in our favor because the warbler became very active. After playback, one individual approached close to us, and we enjoyed views of not one, not two, but three different individuals! Happy about seeing the two most wanted species of the island, we walked down the trail since there were more birds to look for. Our efforts paid off again; right at the trail’s exit we came across the Lesser Antilles Tanager. A clean sweep! Victor and Barry were able to show the parrot for those that wanted to reach the park in daytime. All groups met at the Botanical Garden where views of the Grenada Flycatcher rounded-up a successful birding cruise.
I have to tell you that this voyage will stick with me for many years. There are various reasons: first, because we saw all of the possible-to-see endemic birds and specialties that occur in the Lesser Antilles; second, because we sailed aboard the Sea Cloud; and third, because we learned about birds and also about plants and history alike, but most important, because of all of you! Thank you very much for joining us. We look forward to seeing you on another birding adventure.
Photo album link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidascanio/albums/72157664273395320