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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Lesser Antilles

2024 Narrative

Day 1 - Grenada: What a start to the trip, as we enjoy superb views of a Cape May Warbler (a potential first record for the island) right outside the hotel grounds. Having seen this overwintering migrant, the question turns to: what more does the Spice Isle of Grenada have in store for us? Answer - a likely date with several mouth-watering regional specialties and critically endangered endemics! After a hearty welcome dinner accompanied by a number of social beverages of varying alcoholic percentages, it is time to head to bed in anticipation of our first foray into Lesser Antillean  birding tomorrow.

Day 2 - Grenada: The Grenada Dove is one of the most critically endangered species (not just birds) on the entire planet and is rapidly heading closer to the point of no return. No census has been done since 2015, but some estimates have this bird at less than 40 individuals! At dawn we make for the last stronghold of the species, and after hearing three, are finally privileged enough to see one of these “Walking Ghosts” cautiously feeding amongst the tangled undergrowth of its dry forest home. A special and treasured encounter. 

With the number one target sighted, our attention turns to tracking down the owners of the myriad calls emanating from the thorn-laden branches surrounding us. (Grenada) House Wren (a likely split) and Grenada Flycatcher provide excellent views as does Black-faced Grassquit, Eared Dove, Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Tropical Mockingbird.  

After returning to the hotel for breakfast, we head out again in the afternoon, where we ascend into the heights of Grand Etang National Park and are treated to stunningly close views of Lesser Antillean (Grenada) Tanager (another likely split!), all-black morph of the endemic subspecies of Bananaquit, Cocoa (Lesser Antillean) Thrush, Rufous-breasted Hermit and the endemic subspecies of Green-throated Carib. 

A short walk down to the beach before dinner yields a pair of Scaly-naped Pigeon, fluttering Yellow-bellied Elaenias, a basking Lesser Antillean Iguana, and on the coast, Royal Terns and Brown Boobies plunging into the crystal-clear turquoise waters. 

Day 3 - St. Vincent: The Whistling Warbler is one of the most critically endangered warblers on Earth, and after losing a significant amount of habitat thanks to the violent eruption of Soufriere in April 2021, numbers have recently fallen even further. Still though, isolated populations do remain in select moist montane forests, and after the most challenging hike of the trip, we both hear and see this highly coveted monotypic genus. Not exactly known for perching in one place for lengthy periods, on this occasion, the spectacularly monocled warbler with the ever-cocked tail and an inquisitive but flitty demeanor, poses rather well. Whilst in this ancient and unspoiled forest we also enjoy close views of Lesser Antillean (St. Vincent) Tanager - and are therefore able to compare its fiery chestnut cap and blonder underparts to the deep maroon cap and purple tinged underparts of the Grenada ssp. Some taxonomies have already split these two strikingly differently plumaged tanagers, and others are expected to follow suit - hence the need to target both! 

Ever entertaining Brown Tremblers and Scaly-breasted Thrashers add to our ever growing list of regional endemics. 

After a delicious and sizable local lunch of fish, chicken, dasheen, quinoa and green fig salad, we -  rejuvenated and revitalised - make for a private site known to harbour the largest remaining population of the threatened St. Vincent Amazon. As these large and unusually plumaged parrots begin to arrive overhead, twisting and cavorting as they descend to favoured perches, we enjoy stunning views of the deep sapphire blues, rich oranges and vibrant yellows interspersed amongst their bronzed brown bodies and oddly white heads. This truly is a special place and a treasured encounter. 

Day 4 - St. Lucia: After an early morning swim in the sea, followed by breakfast on the open air verandah gazing out at the swaying masts of catamarans, and gliding frigatebirds, we board our plane for St. Lucia. As we make a stop in Barbados, there’s time for a spot of airport birding which proves to be hugely successful, yielding both the endemic Barbados Bullfinch and the soon-to-be-recognised Barbados Grackle! TICK! 

Touching down on spectacular St. Lucia, we enjoy a tasty buffet lunch on the beach, before birding the wild northeast of the Island. Here we enjoy some of the best possible views of St. Lucia Black-Finch, when a glorious male perches unobstructed about 10 feet away!  This simply isn’t supposed to happen. This species is a skulker who typically offers brief views, however this particular showman apparently hasn’t read the memo, opting to remain on a single perch, in the open, tail constantly bobbing and seemingly reveling in the attention. Along with this critically endangered endemic, other targets which show well along this forest edge are (St.Lucia) House Wren, the absolutely stunning Lesser Antillean Euphonia with its glorious turquoise cap (a bird that just last year was upgraded to full species status), delightful St.Lucia Pewees flitting out from favoured perches to snatch winged insects, and a superb St.Lucia Warbler - underparts perfectly mirroring the tropical sun that behind us bathes the rugged East Coast.

At our lavish resort many opt for a swim in the large pools before settling down to dinner with options including Caribbean style braised lamb shank, herb almond crusted salmon and Madras Mahi Mahi.

Day 5 - St. Lucia: An early start is warranted as we make our way down to the dry forests of the southeast and an audience with the threatened White-breasted Thrasher. Much larger and darker than the nominate on Martinique, these birds are initially hesitant to emerge, but after spending over an hour in the area (picking up Caribbean Elaenia, Antillean Crested Hummingbird and 2 female St.Lucia Black-Finch along the way) we almost fall over backwards as two adult birds flit out of the dense tangle of vegetation and perch at eye height in front of us….almost too close for binoculars! Absolutely amazing!! 

Later in the morning we exchange the dry broad-leaved forest for higher elevations as we move upwards along the famed Des Cartiers Trail. En route to our viewpoint we enjoy a lengthy encounter with an immature St.Lucia Oriole - a species in rapid and perilous decline largely due to the ever increasing population of Shiny Cowbirds (in turn increasing due to the creation of ever more edge habitat through human development). Upon arrival at the observation area we are stunned as the songster extraordinaire - the Rufous-throated Solitaire - perches at knee height directly in front of us. 30 minutes later we are again staring open mouthed as a pair of spectacular St.Lucia Parrots silently cruise by at eye level, before taking up residence in a fruiting tree below us - providing plenty of opportunity to revel in the vibrant blues, reds and greens of this - the most colourful of the four endemic Amazonas in the region.  

After a delicious local lunch, we take a ride across to a large wetland, where the birding takes yet another turn - this time the focus shifting to the myriad waterfowl dotted across the sedge-lined waterbody. A variety of herons, coots, and grebes also provide some enjoyable post-lunch viewing.

Arriving back at the hotel, the remainder of the afternoon is ours to enjoy swimming in the tranquil clear waters of Rodney Bay or relaxing by the pool. A nearby fishing village is our setting for dinner, and after watching a stunning sunset bathe the placid waters of the Caribbean Sea in golds and oranges, we tuck into grilled Barracuda and Mahi Mahi - all in the company of dozens of Royal and Sandwich Terns. 

Day 6 - Martinique: After a delicious buffet breakfast, we set sail for France (the tropical Caribbean version!). En route we have sightings of Red-billed Tropicbird, Brown Booby and several Magnificent Frigatebirds. After docking in historic Fort-de-France, we make our way up to the dry forests of the northeast, where our number one target is the White-breasted Thrasher (nominate found here on Martinique). After close views of a male singing Yellow Warbler and of a hugely cooperative Lesser Antillean Saltator perched at knee height a mere 6 feet away, we descend to a normally reliable site, where the Thrashers certainly don’t disappoint - a small family unit of 5 birds diligently flicking leaves in a seemingly endless search for invertebrates. 

After a dinner including enticing options such as king prawn tails in coconut curry and grilled octopus, as well as desserts such as pineapple cake drizzled in aged rum, we make for bed. Another spectacular single island endemic is on the cards for tomorrow! 

Day 7 - Martinique: Waking as the sun rises over the vast bay surrounding the coastal capital of Fort de France, our breakfast of warm cheese infused bread and pain au chocolat is interrupted only by the arrival of Orange-winged Amazons in the nearby trees, and of inquisitive Tropical Mockingbirds trying to pinch some of the delicious breakfast from our plates. 

As our van makes the short steady ascent into the Carbet Mountains, our route is lined with towering Tree Ferns and flowering heliconias - both favoured locations for Martinique Orioles. One of these brilliantly patterned birds eventually shows itself, albeit fleetingly, before more lasting and closer views of a foraging adult male are enjoyed by all members of the group (at very close range). There is seeing a bird, and then there is seeing a bird - and this certainly falls into the latter category - that superb deep maroon hood and flame orange mantle and flanks, a beacon amongst the deep dark foliage.

After enjoying the frenzied quivering of a Grey Trembler displaying in the crown of a fern, and perched Purple-throated Caribs with their resplendent rich pink throats glinting in the sun, we move yet higher into the mountains. Surrounded by towering peaks on all sides, we gradually enter the land of the Blue-headed Hummingbird - a highly coveted species and absolutely glorious hummer. No sooner have we arrived at a patch of tiny flowering shrubs, than a spectacular male lands directly in front of us and fans his tail, twists and pivots his head - revealing every deep shimmering sapphire scale on his nape - before beginning to feed.  Enjoying this sight with the ethereal cacophony of Rufous-throated Solitaire all around us, and an unseasonable autumnal downfall of leaves fluttering down towards us, is another wonderful and treasured highlight of this fabulous island adventure. Our day concludes with a delicious private dinner buffet at our hotel on Guadeloupe. 

Day 8 - Guadeloupe: Our second stint in France begins with us driving into the spectacular Parc Nacional du Guadeloupe - home to several key target species. No sooner have we exited the vehicle, than the first of these emerges from the lush forest. The stately and sharply dressed Bridled Quail-Dove is typically a secretive forest bird, but here on this tiny Dependency of France, it is reliably seen, and seen well. This is by no means the only memorable bird encounter of the morning.  In the vicinity of the dove, another often shy and difficult species hops out onto the short grass and proceeds to probe for worms in the soft mud. Endemic to the Lesser Antilles, the Forest Thrush is a strikingly patterned bird, and provides exquisite and extremely close views; as indeed does the glossy black Guadeloupe Woodpecker dexterously excavating a tree cavity overhead; and the entertaining Brown Tremblers performing their methodical shimmy on branches nearby.

After another birding stop at which we collect the near-endemic Plumbeous Warbler, we settle down to enjoy a delightful picnic of French cheeses, patés, freshly baked baguettes and chocolate! This is picnicking at its glorious best and the wine flows well into the afternoon.

After a restful afternoon in the pool and at the beach, we enjoy a sunset wetland stroll during which we add a few migrants to our trip tally, before tucking into another sumptuous dinner - this time at a popular Senegalese restaurant. 

Day 9 - Dominica: Upon approach to Dominica, we are greeted by the imposing vista of towering Morne Diablotin - realm of the Imperial Parrot - largest and grandest of all Amazonas. With potentially as few as 50 remaining (and this low population spread across vast tracts of wild and inaccessible terrain) this is unquestionably the most difficult endemic to see on the entire trip. After a light lunch we set off into the forest, wondering if we will become members of a very exclusive “birding club” - those who have laid eyes on this critically endangered species. 

From the outset, the signs are encouraging, for no sooner have we arrived at our prime viewing site, than an Imperial vocalises. We diligently scan the vast valley before us for any sign of movement. There is none. Seeing a large, primarily dark green bird somewhere in a sprawling valley of dark green trees is….challenging. We wait for it to call again, and then again. Where is it?? Every tree limb is scoured, but if the bird is perched at the rear of a tree, obscured from our vantage point, it is impossible. However, after waiting and watching patiently for a couple of hours, in a split second, a large dark bird drops from deep within the clutches of a towering emergent and perches in the open. WE HAVE CONTACT! As if we are one well-oiled birding machine we line up behind the scopes trained on this - the “El Dorado” of the parrot kingdom! Everyone soaks in and savours this truly special and spine-tingling experience. As if this lengthy perched viewing wasn’t enough, the bird then takes to the air and slowly cruises past us before perching again within view! 

Fully satiated by these near incomprehensible views, we start to leave the forest, and on the way out pick up another two key targets - several pairs of the smaller and far more common endemic Red-necked Amazons, their electric green plumage and striking sapphires and reds bathed in the light of the waning sun, along with the last of the 4 House Wrens unique to this region - and all very likely splits. 

Day 10 - Dominica: Our second morning on the Nature Isle begins with a drive to a reliable location for White-tailed Tropicbird, where a few of these elegant ocean wanderers are beginning to investigate potential nest sites. Steadily approaching the cliffs above our heads, we enjoy ever closer views of their gleaming white plumage accentuated by billowing tails buffeted in the wind. 

Later this morning we attend an audience with a roosting (Lesser Antillean) Barn Owl, another likely split, before a delicious local lunch of Dominican specialities follows. With all key targets seen, and seen well, we make for the Dry Forest where we add a host of key species to our now lengthy regional list; including Red-legged Thrush, Lesser Antillean Pewee, and dynamite views of Lesser Antillean Flycatcher perched at eye level a mere 6 feet away. 

As the sun sets on a glistening Caribbean Sea we watch Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns and even a Ringed Kingfisher cruise by our clifftop accommodation, many of us opting to down a cold cocktail in the warm tropical evening. 

Day 11 - Antigua: Touching down on the glistening beach-lined shores of Antigua, we make for our hotel, where our first thought is birding the extensive grounds. Indeed, no sooner have we exited the vehicle than we are training the scope on a wonderfully patterned White-crowned Pigeon and American Kestrel. Now on the last leg of our incredible 10-island adventure, the familiar rum punches begin to decorate the table in many more locations than at the beginning of the trip. It is safe to say that in addition to the birds, there are certainly myriad other delights to be enjoyed during Caribbean birding! 

Dinner tonight is yet another delicious fusion of West Indian, African and Asian culinary delights. On the menu this time: pork chops, creole shrimp and roast chicken. 

Day 12 - Barbuda: Our early morning arrival on Barbuda brings with it the opportunity to explore a parched, sun-drenched and almost unfathomably flat island. But within the pockets of scrubby vegetation lay a number of hidden wonders. The stunning Barbuda Warbler is the star, its beautiful, warbled song ringing out on either side of us as we walk - with several visible as they seek high elevated perches from which to vocalise. Caribbean Elaenias (this very pale ssp a likely split), the obviously different ssp of Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, and the miniscule endemic ssp of Lesser Antillean Flycatcher also show well. 

Crossing a shallow lagoon by motorised skiff, we are soon in the presence of giants. Thousands of Magnificent Frigatebirds fill the skies above us, while others claim prime nesting sites on the dwarf mangroves that fringe the marine-life rich lagoon. As we are relatively early in the breeding season, many males proudly inflate their bright red throat pouches in an attempt to win the affection of carefully discerning females. Although the majority are only now seeking a mate, others have paired up, with some already having established nests in which sit curious powder puff white chicks.   

A quiet swim in blissful turquoise waters follows, before settling down for a lunch of conch, curried chicken and freshly caught mahi mahi. Griswold’s Whiptail, Lesser Antillean Skimmer, West Indian Buckeye and herds of feral donkeys are amongst some of the kinds of wildlife providing post-picnic entertainment. 

Day 13 - Montserrat: Montserrat is an island with a dark and dangerous recent past, the mighty stratovolcano that erupted in the mid-90s rendering over half of the island uninhabitable. But it is also a fascinating place with a rich history and fabulous avian treasures - the undoubted highlight of which is the splendid Montserrat Oriole, a species that we enjoy multiple views of….one particular male posing perfectly on an exposed branch and with a backdrop of the fiery volcano ever-smoking and smouldering in the distance. Ever vocal Mangrove Cuckoos, inquisitive Pearly-eyed Thrashers and frantically trembling Brown Tremblers share the largely unspoilt forests of this magical land. 

With the sighting of the Montserrat Oriole, we’ve done it - every single endemic of this remarkable island region has been seen! In celebration we join Montserratians in downing their beverage of choice - the incomparable Bush Rum! Ahh excellent! 

At our farewell dinner we reminisce on our travels and recount fond highlights of our wonderful 2 weeks together. What an adventure, what a group, what a trip! 

Day 14 - Homeward Journey: There is still time this morning for a visit to a nearby wetland, where over 30 species of shorebird, heron and waterfowl show brilliantly well in the early morning light - dancing Tricolored Herons, soaring Lesser Black-backed Gulls, elegant Black-necked Stilts and both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs but a few of the sightings - before making our way back to our hotel for a traditional Caribbean breakfast, and homeward journey. 

— Ryan Chenery

Created: 29 February 2024