Birdwatching on the bio-diverse and breathtakingly beautiful islands of the Lesser Antilles
The Birds of the Caribbean Small Group Tour will run from 4 – 18 December 2020 and will take you to the phenomenally bio-diverse and breathtakingly beautiful islands of the Lesser Antilles. On this leisurely-paced tour you should not only achieve a long list of indigenous regional specialities, but also some highly threatened endemics and near endemics. Combine this with the opportunity to get astonishing views of whales, dolphins and turtles and to do all this while travelling to some of the most fabulous and sought-after holiday destinations on the planet and you have the recipe for a truly memorable holiday.
Your guide for this tour will be Ryan Chenery, who was born and raised on Barbados and is a passionate and experienced birder, as well as a very amiable travelling companion. He will introduce you to the very best sites to see the stunning birds of the Caribbean, including the often critically endangered endemics like the Whistling Warbler in St. Vincent, the majestic Imperial Parrot in Dominica, the dazzling Purple-throated Carib and bemusing Grey Trembler on Saint Lucia.
04 Dec – Day 1 – BARBADOS
You will be met on arrival in beautiful Barbados by your leader and guide for the tour, Ryan Chenery, the Bajan birder. He will arrange the transfer and help with check-in at Butterfly Beach Hotel. That evening we enjoy a sunset stroll along the beach to Oistins fishing village for a delicious dinner of freshly caught grilled fish, shrimp, lobster, etc.
05 Dec – Day 2 – BARBADOS
The Graeme Hall Nature Reserve protects the last remaining mangrove wetland on the island, but for the last 10 years it has been closed to the public. However, as your tour leader is the former chief naturalist for the reserve you will be granted exclusive access to this serene setting. At dawn we assemble on the Leaf Deck and watch in awe as Atlantic Tarpon break the surface of the largest lake on the island and up to 14 different species of heron leave their roosts. We later meander along the boardwalk surrounded by the verdant greens of mature Red as well as Green mangroves, their dense canopies and aerial roots the favoured perches of many of the island’s unique species, including Golden Warbler, Barbados Grackle and of course the Barbados Bullfinch. Here we should also be fortunate enough to see the endemic subspecies of Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Green-throated Carib along with the island’s endemic subspecies of Caribbean Elaenia. This is also a good spot to see Green Vervets (Barbados “Green” Monkey).
After making the short 10 minute drive back to our hotel, we tuck into our buffet breakfast, enjoyed on the balcony overlooking the gentle lapping waves of the ocean. Later today we set sail on a privately chartered catamaran from historic Bridgetown and as the skyline, punctuated by the Parliament buildings and statue of Lord Nelson, fades in the distance we find ourselves snorkelling in sparkling turquoise waters, surrounded by marine turtles and the dozens of species of reef fish that frequent the shipwrecks of Carlisle Bay. We then set sail north along the spectacular west coast before dropping anchor in order to enjoy a meal aboard the catamaran. As we head back to Bridgetown, we will be sure to scan the seas for Brown Booby and Red-footed Booby, Brown Noddies, Laughing Gull and various species of tern.
06 Dec – Day 3 – BARBADOS
After another buffet breakfast we are collected by pre-arranged transport and in air-conditioned comfort set off on a full day birding tour of beautiful Barbados. We go to the top birding sites on the island, including those areas which the locals refer to as being “behind God’s back” and includes a great spot for several species not commonly seen on the other Lesser Antillean islands, among which are Masked Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Scaly-naped Pigeon and Southern Lapwing.
Along the way we stop to enjoy breathtaking views of the rugged eastern and northern coastlines whose shores are constantly battered by rolling waves of the Atlantic – a stark contrast to the placid waters of the Caribbean Sea upon which we sailed the previous day. We visit the oldest church on the island and bird it’s rich mahogany groves. Here we’ll learn of the historical and cultural significance of sugar and agriculture in establishing the strong bonds between this tiny island and Britain. Lunch is at a popular local “rum shop” where we enjoy traditional Bajan cooking at its finest. Our hotel’s lights dancing on the crests of the waves at dinner, point us north in the direction of Dominica – which we travel to tomorrow.
07 Dec – Day 4 – DOMINICA
We take a morning flight to Dominica – an island regarded by many as the “Nature Lover’s Caribbean Island”. With its innumerable waterfalls and a river for every day of the year coursing through her vast tracts of primary rain forest, she offers a snapshot into what many of the more developed islands of the region would have resembled in years gone by. We begin our adventure on this remarkable island by exploring the Carib Territories – eight villages that represent the last remaining stronghold of a people who once travelled and settled throughout the Lesser Antilles and who still follow many of the traditions of their ancestors. Our time here gives us an incredible insight into the lives of the Lesser Antilles original inhabitants, allows us to delight in their extraordinary culture and arts and enjoy a traditional Carib meal.
After lunch we make the drive across the heartland of the island to our quaint, coastal hotel of Tamarind Tree. After checking in, we make our way down to walk along the fascinating black sand beaches that line this wild island’s rugged volcanic shores. Dinner tonight is enjoyed gazing out across an ocean whose inhabitants we will be getting to know tomorrow!
08 Dec – Day 5 – DOMINICA
After pausing at a roadside stand to sample a selection of homemade tamarind and golden apple juices, our vehicle climbs high during this, our initial foray into the Northern Forest Reserve. We will not have been travelling far before the mellifluous calls of an array of wondrous Lesser Antillean species gives us cause to pull off the dusty track to investigate. Upon doing so, we are immediately met with a veritable barrage of sightings of near endemics and birds indigenous to the region. Birds including the Scaly-breasted Thrasher provide excellent views by perching conspicuously in sparsely leafed mangoes; Brown Tremblers, always intent on theatrics, arriving on the scene to without hesitation lift their wings, cock their heads and start to TREMBLE; and pairs of delicate Plumbeous Warblers, whose excited trill calls greet their every leap along the creeping vines dangling tantalisingly close to our heads.
An astonishing number of species of whale and dolphin have been sighted in Dominica’s waters, and this afternoon we join an experienced Captain and Crew on a quest for ocean giants. Huge pods of Short-finned Pilots are the most commonly seen, while other larger species such as Humpbacks and False Killers have also been spotted on trips. There is even a strong possibility of an encounter with Dominica’s resident population of Sperm Whale for Dominica is the only country in the Caribbean whose waters are home to mothers and calves, which remain 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 Frasers, 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 take advantage of our time out on the water to scan the seas for pelagics – from Cory’s Shearwater to Wilson’s Storm Petrel and several species of gull and tern.
09 Dec – Day 6 – DOMINICA
This morning we wake to the smell of rich Dominican coffee as we set off before dawn in order 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 or Sisserou Parrot. Perched overlooking deep verdant valleys and with the distant sound of thunderous rivers coursing far below us, we scan the canopies of towering foliage for the undoubted monarch of this land. It’s more gregarious “cousin” the endemic Red-necked or Jaco Parrot provides more frequent entertainment as small flocks awaken to flutter from one fruiting tree to another, while behind us, the trapline habits of the Blue-headed Hummingbird ensure that we regularly turn our attention to the beams of sunlight illuminating the small patches of flowers thriving on the forest floor.
Following our morning birding in some of the most pristine forest remaining in the Caribbean, we make the short drive to Portsmouth and a journey by boat into the heart of a mangrove swamp, home to a completely different selection of species of wildlife (and should you wish) the opportunity to sample Dynamite Rum!
10 Dec – Day 7 – ST VINCENT
This morning we fly to St Vincent where we are collected by prearranged transport and head into the lush rain forests of Soufriere. Here we are guided along easily navigable footpaths to the best sites in the forest to see the critically endangered Whistling Warbler, along with a wonderful selection of other endemic, near endemic, as well as indigenous regional species such as St Vincent Tanager (recently split from Lesser Antillean Tanager) Grenada Flycatcher, Purple-throated Carib, all-black race of Bananaquit, and endemic subspecies of Brown Trembler. After our day in the forest we head to the local family-owned Beachcombers Hotel on the southwestern shoreline of St Vincent for a swim in calm, clear waters. (Please note – there will be opportunities to snorkel on most of the islands, so please bring snorkels on the trip if this is something that you would like to do). We will dine overlooking the swaying masts of catamarans and yachts moored off Young Island.
11 Dec – Day 8 – ST VINCENT TO SAINT LUCIA
Today we have the privilege of being one of the few groups of people on the planet to observe dozens upon dozens of St Vincent Parrots leaving their roosts and filling the skies all around us. We leave our hotel at 4:30am to make for a site known only to select local forestry officers and one that requires us to be ferried by SUV along a winding track (crossing the same river SEVEN times at different locations) to a secret site deep in the heart of the densely-forested north. We strategically select our spots atop a high ridge and from there wait for the raucous parrots to emerge from the verdant forests around us.
After the early start, by mid-morning our birding is over for the day and we return to our hotel, to relax by the pool or stroll along the black volcanic sands of the beach that line the coast. We have lunch at the beachside restaurant before making the short 15 minute drive to the airport for our flight on to Saint Lucia.
Following a 20-minute flight, we touch down in spectacular St. Lucia. We drive slowly on route to our hotel, pausing at a reliable site for Black Swift, before visiting the quaint seaside village of Dennery. Here we have the opportunity to experience the intense bartering culture engrained in and practiced by generations of local fishermen who line the pier in anticipation of returning boat crews. Our stay on St. Lucia is at a serene locally run Inn, nestled amongst lush hillsides and gardens teeming with tropical flowers. Dinner tonight is enjoyed on the candlelit outdoor balcony with a breathtaking view of glittering Praslin Bay.
12 Dec – Day 9 – SAINT LUCIA
Upon waking at the peaceful Fox Grove Inn, we step out onto our private balconies and gaze out in awe at the heavily forested slopes surrounding us and sparkling ocean waters to the horizon. Tropical Mockingbirds flit from one swaying palm to another, their diverse calls seeming to beckon us down towards the pool for a morning swim. Following a relaxed buffet breakfast, we set out on an exploratory birding tour of the hotel grounds, before making our way down to Mamiku Gardens to see what treasures both feathered and flowered await us there.
After lunch we enjoy a pleasant drive to the scenic and spectacular west coast of the island and enter the only drive-thru volcano in the entire western hemisphere. Escorted by a guide, we explore the base of the crater where the very earth itself appears to come to life in the form of hissing springs and large bubbling mud-filled ponds – a testament to the raw power coursing beneath our feet.
The afternoon is ours to explore the famous city of Soufriere with her backdrop of the majestic twin spires of Les Pitons, learn of her battle-scarred history and visit Diamond Botanical Gardens. As we slowly wind our way across country back to Fox Grove Inn, we make a stop at a large sedge-filled wetland and having timed our arrival with the setting of the sun, take in the last activities of the day of Pied-billed Grebe, the Caribaea morph of American Coot, fly-bys of Belted Kingfishers and a host of over-wintering waterfowl and herons.
13 Dec – Day 10 – SAINT LUCIA
This morning we enjoy another leisurely buffet breakfast on the balcony, before making the short 10-minute drive to see one of the last thriving populations of the threatened near-endemic White-breasted Thrasher, along with other inhabitants of the island’s Dry Forest – such as the brazen Lesser Antillean Saltator, curious Mangrove Cuckoo and endemic St. Lucia Black finch.
We continue on to a unique ecotone known to harbour a number of the endemics and endemic subspecies on this island (which boasts the highest number of endemics in the Lesser Antillean range). 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, Lesser Antillean Swifts effortlessly manipulate the air currents, amongst the trees colourful St. Lucia Warblers peer underneath leaves in search of gorging caterpillars, overhanging tree limbs represent 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 prove an irresistible lure for opportunistic St. Lucia Orioles.
After lunch we wind down the afternoon in a tiny local hillside village where we enjoy a pleasant stroll through this small Rastafarian community and learn of the many uses and local remedies of a variety of native flora found in the village gardens. We sample a selection of fruits plucked fresh from the trees and follow this with a visit to a hummingbird garden where three species of these tiny winged-wonders flit at arm’s length before us. En route back to our hotel we stop at a reliable location for an audience with one of the most difficult of endemics to see – the remarkable St. Lucia Nightjar!
14 Dec – Day 11 – SAINT LUCIA
Today we awake to a packed breakfast and pre-arranged transport waiting to take us 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 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 are afforded excellent views of the island’s national bird (and most colourful of all Amazonas) – the magnificent St. Lucia Parrot. At this site we are also in the presence of myriad other deep-forest dwellers. The haunting ethereal song of the Rufous-throated Solitaire and the high-pitched note of the Lesser Antillean Euphonia are intermingled with appearances by Grey Tremblers, Caribbean Elaenias, Pearly-eyed Thrashers, and the endemic subspecies of Antillean House Wren. We may even be fortunate enough to enjoy an audience with the secretive Bridled Quail Dove.
We finish the day and our wonderful time on Saint Lucia atop one of her highest peaks – where we are treated to the spectacular aerial acrobatics of a colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds.
15 Dec – Day 12 – ANTIGUA
We fly to our all-inclusive beachfront hotel in Antigua this morning, where we will tuck into a buffet lunch before soaking in the sea, heading for the pool or just relaxing with a good book on the beach. As we’ll be on the west coast, the waves are practically non-existent, and this is yet another good opportunity for snorkelling. As the sun lowers, we take the opportunity to explore the long stretch of beach, looking at the sea cliffs above us for Peregrines, Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors, and at the surrounding swaying palm trees for the elegant White-crowned Pigeon. After a dinner of Caribbean delights, we soak up the local live entertainment and enjoy a few cocktails before heading to bed.
16 Dec – Day 13 – ANTIGUA & BARBUDA
From Antigua we embark on a day trip to the smaller sister of this twin-island state. We board our vessel and are soon jetting across some of the most beautiful waters in the Caribbean Sea. Arriving into Barbuda one can immediately see the stark contrast between the heavily developed and 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 those previously encountered on our trip. Our main target here is 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 Common Ground Dove, Caribbean Elaenia, Eared Dove, White-winged Dove, Black-faced Grassquit, iguanas, and bizarrely, herds of feral donkeys!
Barbuda is also home to the largest Magnificent Frigatebird colony in the entire 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, so it is a wonderful treat to board a dinghy that takes us across a shallow lagoon absolutely teeming with marine life (as evidenced by the hundreds of jellyfish of every shape and size floating beneath us and clearly visible from our bough) and moors us literally within touching distance of nests, chicks and adults. We spend half an hour in the presence of these incredible birds, observing their behaviour and watching as squadrons of adults manipulate their impressive 6 foot wingspan to return with food to perch beside their young.
Driving around the island one cannot help but be struck by the spectacular and unspoiled natural beauty of Barbuda. This is “postcard perfect”, a land which offers a window into how many other islands in the chain now dominated by popular beachside condos and villas would have once looked. The water is a glistening turquoise blue and the colours 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 follow it up with a relaxing swim in sparkling turquoise waters and a stroll along an idyllic white sand beach. We are in full tropical holiday mode. This truly is a case of Birding in Paradise!
On our return leg across the sun-kissed seas to Antigua, we may have the opportunity for even more memorable dolphin and whale encounters.
17 Dec – Day 14 – ANTIGUA
On our final full day of the trip we explore a thriving wetland to witness to the variety of North American shorebird species, herons and waterfowl that make the bays and brackish waters of an island boasting over 365 beaches their winter home. Fittingly we finish our travels through the West Indies with an encounter with the West Indian Whistling Duck before returning to the hotel to enjoy one more island sunset before our journey to the airport and flight home.
18 Dec – Day 15 – RETURN TO UK