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A Report from

St. Lucia, March 23-26th 2001 ,

Alex Kirschel

March 23
We arrived in St. Lucia in the afternoon, and actually thought we were in the Castries area. Not till we actually got to the hotel turning did we work out that we had come from the opposite side of the island, from the airport in the Vieux Fort area. We spent all three nights at the pleasant Fox Grove Inn hotel, which is half way down the eastern side of St. Lucia, convenient for travel to most of the good birding sites. St. Lucia is fairly pricey compared to Jamaica and particularly Cuba. The hotel was reasonably priced, but still the most expensive on our entire trip; food is more expensive, and the tour guides take quite a premium.

Our first lifer for the island was seen around the airport, and this was Carib Grackle. En route to the hotel we stopped briefly along the road when we saw a raptor fly over. It was a Broad-winged Hawk. Nearby, we added the St. Lucia subspecies of Bananaquit, and Adelaide's Warbler, a potential split from the one that occurs on Puerto Rico. We had a little look around near the hotel, adding Streaked Saltator, Tropical Mockingbird (not as common as we expected) and Scaly-breasted Thrasher; and we also saw Grey Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo and the ubiquitous Bananaquit and Carib Grackle.

In the evening we called the forestry division and asked whether a tour could be arranged. No one was available for the next day, but Donald Anthony might be available for the following day. They advised that we should have booked well in advance. They did suggest a place literally a couple of minutes away for the endangered White-breasted Thrasher, where we would start birding the next morning.

March 24
There is a track leading up into the hills near the village of Praslin, and it is crucial habitat for White-breasted Thrasher. Something must be done to conserve the area, as this species is down to 150-200 birds, perhaps including the small population on Martinique. We soon saw some of the island's commoner species, Black-faced Grassquit, Adelaide's Warbler, Bananaquit, Streaked Saltator, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Black-whiskered Vireo, Grey Kingbird, and Lesser Antillean Bullfinch. Then some of the endemics obliged, St. Lucia Oriole and after much waiting under a birdy tree attracting finches, the threatened St. Lucia Black Finch. It is easily distinguished from the much more abundant Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, as it has a much thicker bill than the latter, lacks the red face markings, and has bright pink legs.

Also around were the colourful Purple-throated Carib and Caribbean Elaenia, and suddenly I look into a bush on my right, a black thrasher-like bird with a white-breast, in trembling motion. My legs turn to jelly as I try to lift my bins, and lose the bird, but it was definitely my first look at White-breasted Thrasher! Stavros failed to see it, as we looked for the bird, and we decided I would go back to the hotel for breakfast while he continued up the fairly steep and rocky track in search of this key species. Half an hour or so later, I met him at the bottom of the track. He saw one and got excellent views, along with some other new birds. There was a shiny Antillean Crested Hummingbird near the car. He then went back for breakfast while I decided to go up and try for better views of the thrasher. Near the top I found them. I saw at least four more, getting stunning views of this extraordinary bird, as it flew from perch to perch, trembling at each stop. I also saw my first Grey Trembler, and several of the endemic and very rufous St. Lucia Pewee.

We drove on to the Quilesse Forest for the afternoon's birding. There is an entry fee of US$10 per person. We took a circular route, encompassing some viewpoints for the endemic parrot. We studied each dove flushed, hoping for Bridled Quail Dove, but most turned out to be commoner Ruddy Quail Dove, or Common Ground and Zenaida Doves. Some of the species seen near Praslin were seen again, such as the pewee, the oriole and the elaenia, the two hummingbirds and the trembler. We found birding quite a neck strain, as we were constantly looking high into the canopy, hoping for something in amongst the abundant Scaly-breasted Thrashers. At the first viewpoint I got brief fly-by views of the St. Lucia Parrot, but Stavros missed them. There were several Broad-winged Hawks and we saw some Lesser Antillean Swifts here. As we pressed ahead, Stavros moved far in front of me, and missed the first Mangrove Cuckoo of the trip, which would have been a lifer for him. I had seen several previously in the Everglades, where I had a knack of finding them. At the second viewpoint, we saw Antillean Euphonias. As we approached the final viewpoint we got perched views of the colourful parrot, much larger than the ones seen in Jamaica and Cuba, and finally, excellent views of Pearly-eyed Thrasher. We also got memorable views of the cute Rufous-throated Solitaire, feeding on the path just in front of us. Our last new bird of the day was the Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, the only one we saw on the trip.

Other birds seen on the day included Cattle Egret and Little Blue Heron. It was a good day's birding, leaving only a few target birds for the next one and a half days.

March 25
We spoke with Donald Anthony at the Forestry Division and arranged to meet him outside the hotel in the morning. As we waited for him to arrive, we saw our only Green-throated Carib of the trip around the hotel car park. Donald took us to the Forestry Division Reserve near Castries, where we would look for Bare-eyed Thrush (a.k.a. Bare-eyed Robin (wrongly in my view)). It didn't take long for Donald to hear the call. Soon enough one came into view, Bare-eyed Thrush. We saw it well, and had distant views of one or two more. We continued through the reserve seeing other commoner species, and Donald convinced us that certain birds we were looking at were Brown Tremblers. We found it difficult to distinguish these from Grey Trembler, and would like to see more information on the differences of these two species in St. Lucia (apparently Brown Trembler in Dominica is very different). This bird remains our only doubtful one from the island, and would also be interested to hear other visitors' views on its status here. Many of the commoner species of the previous day were seen again, notably St. Lucia Black Finch, and also Tropical Mockingbird. Donald charges $15 per person, per hour; and we were charged for the two hours spent driving to and from the site, in addition to the time at the reserve. We suggest that if you plan to use a guide, such as Donald Anthony, agree to meet him at the reserve rather than at your hotel!

There were only a few species left to look for, and in that respect, three days should be enough to see all the key species. Donald suggested we look for (Violet) Eared Dove in the Vieux Fort area in the south. We had arranged from the night before to meet up with Moses at around 3pm to go in search of Rufous Nightjar, so we didn't have all that much time. We drove down, passed the airport and the town, and into one or two roads that looked like good habitat. I spotted something in the corner of my eye and asked Stavros to pull back. It was a Violet-eared Dove. Before long we saw a couple more, and looked around a small marshy area. Here there was Common Moorhen, Great Egret, Snowy Egret and the very local old world species, Little Egret. It was an excellent opportunity to study the differences of the latter two, side by side. We drove up the hill in the far south hoping to get views of Tropicbirds. Instead we saw Magnificent Frigatebird, American Kestrel and I saw a possible Peregrine fly by at speed. We then drove back up to the other side of the island, to Castries, where we would meet Moses. We waited a while before the pick-up truck we were looking for turned up. It was in fact a relative of Moses, who led us up into the foothills near the Chaloupe Ravine in the Grande Anse area, where we would meet Moses. He was playing cricket!

As he joined us, I looked up and was delighted to see an unexpected Caribbean Martin flying over. We saw it well, and also caught a glimpse of a Mangrove Cuckoo nearby. There was a gate, which Moses arranged to have opened, and we then proceeded down towards the Ravine. Moses knew exactly where to look for each species. At our first stop he said this is a good place for the endemic subspecies (strong potential for a split) of House Wren (St. Lucia Wren). We soon got onto one after hearing the call and saw it well. Further down we looked for the endemic subspecies of Yellow Warbler. We looked for quite a while this time, first seeing male and female Masked Ducks, Lesser Yellowlegs and Blue-winged Teal. I got another look at the wren and as we headed back towards the car I found it, the Yellow Warbler. The others came quickly to see it, with its reddish crown.

Moses took us on a little walk up to the sea, and we enjoyed the stunning scenery, before it started to get dark. At dusk Moses took us down a trail where he said he often saw the Nightjar. We sat and waited. Before long we could hear the call, very similar to Chuck-Will's-Widow, and something flashed by our heads along the trail, was that it? We couldn't be sure. We could hear another not far away. We followed the call, Moses suggested we go in front with our flashlight, and we got to within a couple of metres of the source of the song, but in pitch darkness. I shone the flashlight to the wrong tree but quickly adjusted as the bird left its perch. We connected briefly with it, a Rufous Nightjar! Considered as the hardest target on the island (and another possible endemic, regarded as different from the South American birds in the sense that it is sedentary, while they are migratory). This is not taking into account the presumed extinct Semper's Warbler, and the very local Forest Thrush, which is much easier elsewhere.

We were delighted with this find, and the period birding with Moses. I believe we paid him $50 or $60, which was similar to what Donald Anthony cost us earlier.

March 26
We were due to leave the island early in the afternoon, and decided to look once more for Bridled Quail Dove at Quilesse and then at a lake in the south, which we missed the day before, where we hoped for perhaps American Golden Plover. We saw neither, but got more looks at some of the characteristic birds of the island, and a few we had not seen here before, such as Scaly-naped Pigeon, which is common in Quilesse but hard to see in the canopy. At the lake before Vieux Fort we saw Spotted and Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated and Grey Plover, Great Blue and Little Blue Heron, Great, Cattle, Snowy and Little Egret, and by the coast we saw two white seabirds from the car flying along the sea in the distance. We dashed out of the car hoping to get views in our binoculars, but we couldn't see them. Were they Tropicbirds? We think Royal Tern is more likely, but we'll never know.

We left for Montego Bay happy in the knowledge that we saw the key species here, and with thoughts about the need to sustain the existence of the endangered White-breasted Thrasher, and consequently, more can enjoy seeing it in its natural habitat here in St. Lucia, and in Martinique.

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