The White-breasted Thrasher is found on the dry forests in St. Lucia Photo: Keith Clarkson
These 10 stunningly beautiful Caribbean islands form the eastern border between the placid Caribbean Sea and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Each tropical island gem is separated by turquoise seas and boasts rich wetlands, vast open grasslands, dynamic coastlines and lush tropical rainforests. These diverse habitats are home to a lengthy list of highly threatened single-island endemics and near endemics along with a host of indigenous regional specialities.
Starting in Antigua (the northernmost of these islands), we’ll travel south along the island chain in search of often critically-endangered single-island and regional endemics like the Whistling Warbler in St. Vincent; the majestic Imperial Amazon in Dominica; the dazzling Purple-throated Carib and the bemusing Gray Trembler on St. Lucia; the flame-breasted Montserrat Oriole on the “Other Emerald Isle”; and - rarest of them all - the gentle, unassuming Grenada Dove, still found quietly walking the pathways in the only area of suitable habitat remaining on the “Spice Isle” of Grenada.
We’ll also have encounters with whales, dolphins, marine turtles and several pelagic bird species while crossing the crystal-clear waters between islands, and we’ll do all this while travelling to some of the most sought-after holiday destinations on the planet. In addition, the region has long remained off the birding map, hence leading to numerous species splits only now being researched and/or proposed. As a result, this promises to be a very exciting trip.
Day 1: Our epic birding adventure through the enchanting islands of the Lesser Antilles begins on the popular tourist destination of Antigua. A stunning gem in the region’s crown, the island of Antigua is a land of myriad crystal-clear bays and coves, and her residents boast of their being able to go to a different beach every day of the year and still not be able to visit them all.
Upon arrival in the early afternoon you’ll be collected by pre-arranged transport and taken to the night’s lodging. After checking in, we’ll have a brief orientation and then take a stroll to a nearby wetland, picking up a number of indigenous regional species along the way, including Antillean Crested Hummingbird – one of 4 target species of hummingbird we’ll target on this trip – Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, and Carib Grackle. Once at the wetland, we’ll do some leisurely birding, focusing on a number of overwintering waders, waterfowl, and herons. As the sun starts to dip below the horizon there is even a chance for an encounter with small flocks of West-Indian Whistling-Duck.
After returning to the hotel there will be a bit of time for a stroll along the beach or swim in the pool before tucking into a buffet dinner, with live entertainment, featuring steel pans and cultural dance. Night in Halcyon Cove, Antigua.
Day 2: After a buffet breakfast enjoyed with a view of White-crowned Pigeons feeding in the crowns of swaying palm trees, we’ll head to Antigua’s main port, where we’ll embark on a day trip to the smaller sister of this twin-island state, Barbuda. We’ll board our vessel and soon be jetting across some of the most beautiful waters in the Caribbean Sea.
Arriving on Barbuda, one can immediately see the stark contrast between the heavily developed and well-established tourist destination of Antigua and this little-visited island, where vast stretches of undisturbed beaches, sheltered coves, and dry coastal forests support a very different cast of characters to that previously encountered on our trip.
Our main target here will be the diminutive Barbuda Warbler. This charming warbler is perfectly at home in the dry scrublands of one of the Lesser Antilles’ driest islands and shares the habitat with species such as Common Ground, Eared, and White-winged Doves; Black-faced Grassquit; Lesser Antillean Iguanas; and, bizarrely, herds of feral donkeys.
Barbuda is also home to the largest Magnificent Frigatebird colony in the Caribbean. These giants are most commonly seen soaring high above the waves, carefully scanning the waters for food floating on or close to the surface. It will be a wonderful treat to board a dinghy that will take us across a shallow lagoon, teeming with marine life as evidenced by the hundreds of jellyfish of every shape and size floating beneath us and clearly visible from our boat. We’ll spend some time in the presence of these incredible frigatebirds, observing their behavior and watching as squadrons of adults manipulate their impressive seven-to-eight-foot wingspan to return to their perches with food for their young.
Driving around the island, one cannot help but be struck by the spectacular and unspoiled natural beauty of Barbuda. The water is a glistening turquoise blue, and the colors of the sands effortlessly blend between brilliant whites and varying shades of pink. With some of the most untouched beaches in the Caribbean literally on either side of us, what better way to spend the rest of the day than to head to a charming “Robinson Crusoe-esque” beach bar to enjoy an absolutely delicious meal of mahi mahi, chicken, or lobster and to follow it up with a relaxing swim or snorkel in shallow waters and a stroll along an idyllic white-sand beach known to be frequented by Royal and Least Terns. NOTE: Participants can bring (or rent) snorkels and masks on this Caribbean trip as there will be opportunities to snorkel on most of the islands.
This truly is a case of “Birding in Paradise.” On our return leg across the seas to Antigua, we may have the opportunity for dolphin and whale encounters. Night in Halcyon Cove, Antigua.
Day 3: This morning we’ll take a 30-minute flight to Dominica, an island regarded by many as the “Nature Lover’s Caribbean Island.” With innumerable waterfalls and rivers coursing through her vast tracts of primary rainforest, Dominica offers a snapshot into what many of the more developed islands of the region would have resembled in years gone by.
Upon arrival we’ll pause at a popular roadside stand to sample a selection of homemade tamarind and golden apple juices before we begin our drive high into the Northern Forest Reserve. We don’t have to travel far before the calls of an array of wondrous Lesser Antillean species give us cause to pull off the dusty track to investigate. We’ll be met with a veritable barrage of sightings of near endemics and birds indigenous to the region. Lesser Antillean Pewee and Zenaida Dove will provide excellent views by perching conspicuously in sparsely leafed mango trees; Brown Tremblers (one of an entire genus confined to the Lesser Antilles) will, without hesitation, lift their wings, cock their heads, and start to tremble. Pairs of delicate Plumbeous Warblers will greet us as they move along the creeping vines dangling tantalizingly close to our heads. As our van climbs ever higher along the track, we’ll scan the roadside for the albiventris subspecies of the near-endemic Eastern Red-legged Thrush. We’ll also see two members of the Mimid family: the largely common Tropical Mockingbird (subspecies antillarum, endemic to the Lesser Antilles) and the less often seen Scaly-breasted Thrasher.
Later today we’ll travel further down the coast into the Carib Territory. It comprises eight villages that represent the last remaining stronghold of a people who once traveled and eventually settled throughout the Lesser Antilles and who still follow many of the customs and practices of their ancestors. This visit will give us insight into the lives of many of the Lesser Antilles’ original inhabitants and will allow us to sample their culture and arts and enjoy a traditional Carib meal in one of the villages before making the short drive to our coastal accommodation. Night in Mero, Dominica.
Day 4: We’ll wake to the aroma of rich Dominican coffee as we set off before dawn to give ourselves the best opportunity to see one of the rarest species not only in the region but on the entire planet: the majestic Imperial Amazon. Overlooking deep forested valleys with the distant sound of thunderous rivers coursing far below us, we’ll scan the towering emergent trees for the undisputed avian monarch of this land. Its more gregarious cousin, the Red-necked Parrot, provides more frequent entertainment, as small flocks awaken to flutter from one fruiting tree to another. Meanwhile, the trapline habits of the near-endemic Blue-headed Hummingbird will ensure that we regularly turn our attention to small groves of Costus spictatus. Fifty-five species of butterfly - including regional endemics such as Dominican and Godman’s Hairstreaks, Godman’s Leaf, and St. Lucia Mestra - have been recorded on Dominica. These, along with the more wide-ranging Caribbean Buckeye and Cassius Blue, will ensure that we won’t ignore sunlit areas of forest floor during our time in the forest.
An astonishing number of species of whale and dolphin have been sighted in Dominica’s waters, and this afternoon we’ll join an experienced captain and crew on a quest for ocean giants. Huge pods of Short-finned Pilot Whales are the most commonly seen, while other larger species such as Humpback and False Killer Whales have also been spotted. There is even a strong possibility of an encounter with Dominica’s resident population of Sperm Whale. Dominica is the only country whose waters are home to mothers and calves year-round! In addition to these behemoths, a large number of dolphins are also drawn to the deep ocean chasms that surround this volcanic island, and several species including Fraser’s, Spotted, and Spinner Dolphins can regularly be seen in large pods off of Dominica’s stunning western coastline. In addition to our quest for marine mammals, we’ll take advantage of our time out on the water to scan the seas for pelagic birds; everything from Cory’s Shearwater to Wilson’s Storm Petrel will be on the radar, as will several species of gull and tern. Night in Mero, Dominica.
Day 5: We’ll follow our time on Dominica with a visit to the French Overseas Territory of Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe is a remarkable island for its forests provide glimpses of some of the more secretive species rarely seen on other islands, such as Bridled Quail Doves walking at our feet. In addition, the movements of the Guadeloupe Woodpecker are somewhat unconventional with birds often seen dangling upside down directly overhead while clinging to slender swinging branches and plucking ants from clusters of berries. Odd? Yes. But they certainly provide a fabulous show!
The lush forests of Guadeloupe also represent a favored over-wintering site for a variety of North American warblers, and we will almost certainly encounter such species as American Redstart, Prothonotary, Chestnut-sided, and Blackpoll Warblers among others during our birding here. Our cottages, surrounded by swaying palms and flowering bougainvillea, will offer the perfect post-birding relaxation spot, and we’ll dine this evening on a wonderful blend of French cuisine and Carib-creole delicacies. Night in Vernou, Guadeloupe.
Day 6: Montserrat is widely known as the Second Emerald Isle, and one can circumnavigate it on foot and never leave the lush expanse of dense primary forest that dominates this largely unspoiled island. A volcanic eruption in 1995 rendered half of the island uninhabitable, covered it in magma, and caused a significant proportion of the population to emigrate, but what remains is quite simply stunning. The volcano itself still smolders and is constantly monitored by volcanologists who have declared the sparsely populated portion of the island safe for residents and visitors alike. This is also the half of the island where we’ll find our target bird species. The striking Montserrat Oriole will be our number one goal, and we’ll walk the paths of this ancient forest, dominated by huge emergents and long swinging lianas, until we come to reliable stands of giant heliconias, our best site for seeing orioles. We’ll be on the island during nesting season, so it is highly likely that such stands will reveal both the olive-green female and the fiery-breasted male.
Although Montserrat is home to this single-island endemic, it is also the best island for honing in on Pearly-eyed Thrasher, which can prove difficult to find on other islands. However, on Montserrat it can be approached relatively closely both within and on the outskirts of the forest. Another target and one which will require far more patience is the secretive Forest Thrush. The Forest Thrush is a Lesser Antillean endemic, and the subspecies dorotheae is endemic here on Montserrat.
We’ll continue our walk through this picturesque habitat, where it is clear that the forest floor can be just as alive as the trees above. Leaves rustle everywhere; Montserrat’s Anolis species of lizard scuttles across the ground and clambers up tree trunks; the non-venomous and exceptionally rare Montserrat Racer warms itself in patches of sunlight; and unbelievably tiny Dwarf Geckos no bigger than the tip of your thumb study us with big googly eyes as they peek out from beneath the fallen leaves on the path before us.
Back at our local lunch spot, we’ll sit back, relax, and celebrate the day’s birding with a hearty meal and wash it down with a local speciality - Bush Rum! No sugar cane is used in this one - only select local herbs and plants gathered from the forest. Night in Parish of Saint Peter, Montserrat.
Day 7: This morning, we’ll fly to St. Vincent with its black-sand beaches and vast sprawling wilderness. At the recently built international airport, we’ll be collected by prearranged transport and head into the lush primary rainforests of the towering La Soufrière volcano. These forests contain the best sites to see the critically endangered Whistling Warbler - one of four single-island endemic species of warbler in the region - along with a wonderful selection of near endemics and indigenous regional species such as Grenada Flycatcher, Lesser Antilles Thrush, the stunning Purple-throated Carib, and all-black Bananaquit - one of five distinct subspecies of Bananaquit found in the region. We’ll end our walk at a dry riverbed above which circle Common Black Hawk, as well as Broad-winged Hawk - subspecies antillarum, a near endemic known only to St. Vincent and Grenada. It may be necessary to guard our snack of freshly picked fruit and plantain chips from inquisitive sapphire-headed St. Vincent Anoles.
After our day in the forest, we’ll head to a local family-owned hotel on the southwestern and only white-sand shoreline of St. Vincent for a swim in calm, clear waters. We’ll dine overlooking the swaying masts of catamarans and yachts moored off Young Island. Night on St. Vincent.
Day 8: We’ll have the privilege of being one of the few groups of people on the planet to observe large numbers of St. Vincent Parrots filling the skies above us. We’ll leave our hotel at 04:30 with packed breakfast in our bags to drive to a little-known site that requires our vehicle to cross the same river seven times at different locations before we find it deep in the heart of the densely forested north. We’ll strategically select our spots atop a high ridge and from there wait for the raucous parrots to emerge from their roosts in the forests around us. The St. Vincent Parrot is a species that was long on the verge of extinction and is still listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of the most-threatened species on the planet, so the opportunity to have incredibly close views of this number of wild birds in their natural habitat will be one of the highlights of the trip. After our wonderful dawn encounter with the parrots, we’ll descend the mountain, pulling over at select sites where the ever-present mangoes and guavas prove an irresistible lure to the recently split St. Vincent Tanager, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Spectacled Thrush, Smooth-billed Ani, and even Yellow-bellied Elaenia, feasting on fruit flies drawn to the ripening fruit.
After the early start, our birding is mostly over for the day by mid-morning, so we’ll return to our hotel to relax by the pool or stroll along the spectacular beaches that line this coast. We’ll have lunch at the beachside restaurant and gaze out across the turquoise waters at Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, and Brown Boobies before making the short 10-minute drive to the airport.
Following a 20-minute mid-afternoon flight, we’ll touch down in spectacular St. Lucia. We’ll drive slowly en route to our hotel, pausing at a reliable site for Black Swift before visiting the quaint seaside village of Dennery. Here we’ll have the opportunity to experience the intense bartering culture engrained in and practiced by generations of local fishermen and their customers, who line the pier in anticipation of the returning boats. From Dennery we’ll make for a large sedge-filled wetland and, having timed our arrival with the setting of the sun, delight in the activities of the Caribaea morph of American Coot and a host of over-wintering waders, waterfowl, and herons - all bathed in a soft orange glow.
Our stay on St. Lucia will be at a locally run Inn, nestled amongst lush hillsides and gardens teeming with tropical flowers. Here we can enjoy a swim in the pool before dinner, taken on the candlelit outdoor balcony with a breathtaking view of glittering Praslin Bay. Night in Mon Repos, St Lucia.
Day 9: We’ll have a leisurely breakfast before making the short drive to see one of the last thriving populations of the threatened near-endemic White-breasted Thrasher, and other inhabitants of this dry Atlantic forest, such as the Lesser Antillean Saltator, curious Mangrove Cuckoo, and endemic St. Lucia Blackfinch.
Following our time here, we’ll drive to a tiny local hillside village where we’ll learn from local Rastafarians of the many uses and local remedies of native flora. We’ll then continue on to a unique ecotone, known to harbor many of the island’s indigenous and endemic species. It is no exaggeration to state that here numerous target species of birds will join the myriad Gulf Fritillaries, Cloudless Sulphurs, and Great Southern Whites flitting all around us. Overhead, we may see Lesser Antillean Swifts effortlessly manipulating the air currents; amongst the trees, colourful St. Lucia Warblers peering underneath leaves in search of caterpillars; overhanging tree limbs representing perfect vantage points for Lesser Antillean Flycatchers and St. Lucia Pewees to launch attacks on winged insects; and an abundance of fruits ripening in the tropical sun that prove an irresistible lure for opportunistic St. Lucia Orioles. Before we head back to our hotel, we’ll travel to a reliable location for an audience with one of the most difficult of endemics to see on the island - the St. Lucia Nightjar! Night Mon Repos, St. Lucia.
Day 10: This morning we’ll take a packed breakfast and prearranged transport to the island’s showpiece natural attraction: the sprawling Des Cartiers Rainforest. Des Cartiers is dominated by numerous trees endemic to the region including the majestic and aromatic Lansan along with gargantuan tree ferns, tiny bromeliads, and orchids. We’ll spend a wonderful morning here, walking the well-maintained trails and identifying the wondrous diversity of flora all around us. Our forest walk culminates at an observation area where we’ll be afforded excellent views of the island’s national bird and most colorful of all Amazonas: the magnificent St. Lucia Parrot. At this site we will also be in the presence of a number of other deep forest dwellers. With luck, the haunting ethereal song of the Rufous-throated Solitaire and the high-pitched note of the Lesser Antillean Euphonia will be intermingled with appearances by Grey Tremblers and Caribbean Elaenias.
From the forest we’ll make for the scenic and spectacular west coast where we’ll eat lunch at what is surely the restaurant with the best view on the island of the majestic twin spires of Les Pitons before winding our way down into historic Soufrière. Here, isolated groves of drought-tolerant trees line the small secondary roads of this coastal habitat, and we’ll target one of six subspecies of Antillean House Wren endemic to individual islands in the Lesser Antilles. On St. Lucia it is Troglodytes aedon mesoleucus. We’ll finish the day atop one of the island’s highest peaks where we hope to be treated to the spectacular aerial acrobatics of a colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds. Night in Mon Repos, St. Lucia.
Day 11: With our packed breakfast on board with us, we’ll journey today by boat to the stunning and heavily forested French Overseas Territory of Martinique. By this stage in our travels along the island chain, any prior belief that a visit to one Lesser Antillean island is akin to visiting another is likely to have vanished. The stark differences in topography, culture, industry and development along with the varied socio-economic differences in populations ensure that a visit to the islands of the Lesser Antilles is very much an exploration of 10 very individual and unique islands.
The small bistros and cafes that line the main courtyard of the thriving capital city of Fort-de-France and the feverish games of boules played on well-manicured pitches are unlike anything we will have seen on previous islands and are testimony to the island’s French influence.
Martinique is the oldest of the islands in the Lesser Antilles, and it therefore makes sense that it is here that we’ll encounter the nominate of three of those species that have filtered out to other islands over millennia. But the island also boasts a stunning single-island endemic in Icterus bonana, the Martinique Oriole. While in some truly spectacular primary forest, we’ll also be looking for Black-whiskered Vireo and Blue-headed Hummingbirds - in case this delightful near-endemic hummer has proven elusive in Dominica - as well as targeting the striking Rufous-hooded Golden Warbler and Ruddy Quail Dove. Night in Fort-de-France, Martinique.
Day 12: Today we’ll make for Grenada, the southernmost we’ll visit. From the air, this small and densely populated island might seem an odd destination on a birding trip. However, by virtue of our visiting one of the last remaining vestiges of suitable habitat in the south of the island, we’ll be provided with the opportunity to see the rarest species of the entire trip: the Grenada Dove. Latest counts estimate the surviving number of Grenada Doves to be as low as 140 individual birds. However, by drawing on experience and knowledge amassed over numerous previous trips, we should be treated to a sight few people have experienced. After visiting the last stronghold of this delicate, unassuming dove, we’ll explore the dry woodland that represents its natural habitat. Here we’ll also be treated to views of the “Spice Isle’s” other inhabitants, including the Rufous-breasted Hermit, an endemic subspecies of Green-throated Carib (chlorolaemus), and the recently split Grenada Tanager. We’ll finish the day by climbing a well-positioned observation tower to scan the skies for the local race of Hook-billed Kite. Our lodgings for the night will be a vibrantly colored and newly refurbished resort. Night in Morne Rouge, Grenada.
Day 13: We’ll enjoy a Caribbean-themed buffet breakfast before heading back into the dry forest of Grenada’s southwestern shoreline where we’ll concentrate our efforts on the last of the six endemic subspecies of Antillean House Wren (all surely to be split in the near future), and we’ll hope to pick up a few other indigenous regional species along with any targets not seen on the previous day.
At midday we make the short 25-minute flight to Barbados. This tiny island of breathtakingly beautiful beaches surrounded by turquoise seas also shelters a few areas of prime birding habitat – not least of which is the internationally renowned Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary - a sprawling 240-acre wetland, protecting the last remaining mangrove forest on the island. The site is a mere 10 minutes from our hotel.
For the last nine years, this Sanctuary has been closed to the public, but we’ll be granted exclusive access to this serene and species-rich site. Upon entry we’ll watch as Atlantic Tarpon gently break the surface of the island’s largest lake and up to 14 different species of heron begin to come in to roost. We’ll walk along the well-maintained boardwalk surrounded by the vibrant greens of mature red and green mangroves. Their dense canopies are the favoured perches of many of the island’s unique species, including Golden Warbler, the recently split Barbados Grackle, and of course the Barbados Bullfinch. The long dangling aerial roots of Rhizophora mangle line the walkway, providing shelter for skulking Green Herons and Barbados Anoles along with armies of fiddler crabs. While in the wetland, we’ll also have excellent opportunities for views of Grey Kingbirds, as well as up-close encounters with Antillean Crested Hummingbird and the spectacular Green-throated Carib (two of the four hummingbirds we target on our travels through the island chain). This is also prime habitat for troops of Vervet monkeys (“Barbados Green Monkey”).
At dusk the West Indian mahogany trees that surround our hotel are filled with the calls of Scaly-naped Pigeons selecting their favoured roosts, the fluttering wings of Velvety Free-tailed bats, and the regional endemic Myotis nyctor setting out to feed. Food is also on our minds, and we’ll step down from our hotel onto the gleaming white sands that line the southern coastline of the island for a sunset stroll along the beach to the small fishing village of Oistins, where we’ll tuck into a delicious dinner of freshly caught grilled fish, shrimp, and lobster.
What better way to draw to a close our two-week journey through the enchanting islands of the Lesser Antilles than to stand on the veranda after yet another delicious creole dinner and gaze out across the exquisite moonlit Caribbean Sea? Night on Barbados.
Day 14: The tour concludes with breakfast before flights home.
Updated: 17 November 2020