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A Report from

Bird Watching in Saint Lucia, West Indies,

Christopher Starling

My wife, Crystal, and I spent our first anniversary on the beautiful island of Saint Lucia.  St. Lucia is an independent country at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles, between Martinique and Saint Vincent.  Having only been a country for 22 years and not advertising to the mainstream tourist community, we found the island to be very charming and unassuming - just what we were looking for.  There is however a Sandals Resort on the island, but we weren't worried for we had booked to stay across the island at the quaint Anse Chastanet  (pronounced ahn-shastanay) Villas.  We flew to Saint Lucia direct from Philadelphia with around fifty other people, we where surprised once we arrived to see all but four of them climb into the Sandals Resort bus. The six of us that remained found our way to the Anse Chastanet van. And just like that we were off to our exclusive mountain/seaside hide away! 

Believe it or not we were birding before we even left the plane noting Cattle Egret and, our first lifer, Caribbean Grackle on the runways.  Birding continued during our treacherous drive to Anse Chastanet. I say treacherous because the road system in St. Lucia leaves quite a lot to be desired.  Hairpin turns, blind corners, and apparently no speed limit accompanied by British style left side driving can make your drive through the mountain jungles fairly interesting.  Nonetheless, it was on this charge through the Lucian countryside that we spotted our next lifer, the Lesser Antillean Saltator. Saltators are robin-sized birds with large colorful finch-like bills. They are fairly conspicuous and noisy living in trees and feasting on nuts, fruits and berries.  Becoming frustrated with the inability to study these new birds from a moving vehicle I abandoned my binoculars and decided to take in the sites. 

Coming upon the town of Soufriere we rounded the Petit Peton, one of Saint Lucia's signature twin seaside mountain peaks, and began our ascent over the ridge to Anse Chastanet. In the local language, Patios - a form of French, Anse Chastanet means Chastanet Bay, and what a beautiful bay Anse Chastanet is.  Nestled between two sandstone cliffs Anse Chastanet is an approximate one hundred acre cove of deep blue tropical water, home to the protected Chastanet Marine Reserve and some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. Terrestrially speaking, the "resort", if you can call it that, is comprised of 49 cottages scattered about a forested mountainside that rises five hundred feet off the clean dark volcanic sand that would be our beach for the next week. 

We checked in and made our way to our lodge, which turned out to be one of the upper ones on the mountain.  Not great for running back and forth to the beach, (five hundred fifty eight stairs, I counted), but perfect for viewing the forest canopy for birds which we began doing almost immediately. Aside from Mourning Dove all the birds we saw the rest of our first day on St. Lucia were new birds for us. These included Caribbean Martin, Zenaida Dove, and the stoutly billed Gray Kingbird.  Also during the day we were introduced to two birds that we would become closely acquainted with over the next week, the Lesser Antillean Bulfinch, and the St. Lucia subspecies of Bannanaquit.  More towards evening as we sat on our veranda overlooking the numerous species of flowering trees below us we were quick to notice two of St. Lucia's six species of hummingbird, the Antillean-crested Hummingbird and the long billed Purple-throated Carib.  We would later learn that all hours of the day are great for viewing these magnificent little birds, which appear to be as common as Starlings are here.

After a great night sleep under the canopy of our very vital mosquito net, I arose rather early.  Anxious to get out and do some quick birding before breakfast, I set out towards the beach.  Along the path to the beach and through the open-air lobby of Anse Chastanet I began seeing all the birds mentioned before and then I heard what I thought was a Red-eyed Vireo.  But that didn't seem right because I remembered reading in my books that there was only one vireo found that far south in the Lesser Antillean archipelago. After a few moments of listening and searching I saw it.  It was indeed a Black-whiskered Vireo. Strolling along I got good looks at Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Common Ground Dove, and Gray Trembler.   At breakfast I met Crystal and we quickly noticed that every table was issued a water pistol.  We thought this was odd, I mean who wants to be shot in the face with water while eating breakfast?  Then we realized it was to shoo away the bullfinches and bannanaquits that were like house sparrows and feral pigeons here. We didn't seem to mind the aerial invasions as much as the other guests.  I took the time to study the unique markings of these exotic and colorful birds. Done with breakfast and off to the beach, hey I can't bird ALL day - or can I?  On the beach we were happy to see Brown Booby, Magnificent Frigate Bird, Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Caribbean Martin, Caribbean Grackle, Zenaida and Mourning Doves, Antillean-crested Hummingbird and the island's only Buteo, Broad-winged Hawk. 

Day Three proved to be a nice relaxing day on the beach. Already being familiar with most of the local avifauna we were able to identify birds without having to look them up, how nice! That evening as we watched the sun melt into the Caribbean Sea, We saw a flock of large parrot-like birds fly by then roost a hundred feet off our balcony.  Knowing that we were not in the right part of the island to see parrots I consulted the guide to find that we were viewing our nineteenth life species, Red-napped Pigeon.

A month or so before we left, I purchased two books to assist us on our Caribbean birding adventure. The first was a Pocket guide called Birds of the West Indies. This was a 'so-so' book that provided some good photographs and brief summaries of commonly seen birds.  The real book of value proved to be the four hundred page hard backed copy of A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. This book compares to Sibley's in that its pictures are wonderfully illustrated; however, one addition and, in my opinion, added benefit is the informative narratives it gives you on each bird complete with range maps. This book would come to be a true gem of a resource.

In the latter book, I first learned of the endangered Saint Lucia Parrot, Amazonia versicolor, or Jacquot as the locals know it. This is St. Lucia's only parrot and its national symbol.  It is a beautiful creature of mixed green, yellow, and red, plumage with a deep blue face.  In the 70's there were only around a hundred of these birds. But through captive breeding and local educational programs the birds are rebounding.  In 1990 there were three hundred and today some seven hundred fifty Jacquots survive in the country's central mountain rainforest.  So how could we come all the way to St. Lucia and not go looking for this marvelous bird? We signed up for a bird watching tour that would take us to the islands interior in search of the elusive Saint Lucia Parrot, Jacquot.

Our Tuesday would begin at 3:45 AM. We arose and met our birding group at Anse Chastanet's main parking lot.  The other birders in our group were four Swiss tourists. Unfortunately the language barriers and the early hour did not provide much in the way of interesting conversation.  We began our hour-long drive into the Rain Forest where we would meet our guide Leo. Leo was a man around thirty years old who seemed very knowledgeable in the rainforest's flora and fauna.  We reached the parking lot for the Edmund Forest Preserve under the shadow of 3,117 foot Mount Gimie, St. Lucia's highest point, and the rainforest began to live up to its name, it started raining.  However, Boy Scout training came in handy, as Crystal and I were the only people with rain gear.  A short walk into the woods the rain subsided and we began to hear the true sounds of the jungle. Doves, crickets, cicadas, and tree frogs welcomed us as we trudged up the mountain trails. Our first bird was also our first island endemic for the trip and another lifer, St. Lucia Pewee. We hiked a little further and were met by the (becoming) usual; L.A. Bullfinch, Bannanaquit, A.C. Hummingbird, P.T. Carib, Red-napped Pigeon (which Leo called Red-necked Pigeon), Broad-winged hawk, Caribbean Grackle, and Caribbean Martin. But still no Jacquot!  Leo stopped the group and everyone thought he was onto "the parrot", but instead he was keyed onto a faint sound.  That's when I said, "that's a vireo".  Leo politely corrected me, "no it's a Caribbean Elaina".  "Ooohhhh", I said.sounded like a vireo to me. Then we saw it. The Elaina is a very small and talkative bird, which lives in the forest under story.  It is very elusive but we had some good views of it where we also saw him make his song, which, by the way, sounds like a Black-whiskered Vireo.

Walking through a forest of Honduran Mahogany can be quite humbling.  These are immense trees that seem to reach the sky.  They make the forest floor so dark that it makes bird watching difficult but the yellow streaks that flew by were easy to see.  We saw a streak and followed it to a branch and there perched was another Lucian endemic Adelaide's Warbler.  A little further down the trail, on our way to the parrot lookout, we were treated to views of Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, a multi-island Caribbean endemic, as well as Scaly-breasted Thrasher, both lifers.

After an hour-long trek through the muddy rainforest we reached our first look out for glimpses of Jacquot. Though these would elude us, we were happy to see Antillean Swifts soaring overhead.  This is where Crystal made what was probably the best sighting of our trip.  She noted and later described a small colorful bird of green and blue that was perched out in front of her.  Leo had been hearing but not seeing the Caribbean Euphonia.  He spent a lot of time looking into the canopy for this bird but was never able to spot it.  We all heard it, but like he said it is green on the under side which makes it virtually invisible from the ground.  A masterpiece of natural camouflage, this bird would prove evasive to us all except Crystal!

We began our hike once again and almost immediately heard this horrendous squawk fly by above the canopy.  Leo confirmed that this was indeed our Jacquot. Hearing the bird only made us covet its view even more.  Along the trail we saw many of the before mentioned birds including a couple more of the endemics and lots of hummingbirds.  At our final over look we were treated to our "Holy Grail" at last, three St. Lucia Parrots what a treat!  Leo exclaimed that we were indeed lucky to see Jacquot. As most of the island locals go their whole lives with out seeing one.  A sentiment that proved true upon conversation back at Anse Chastanet.  Feeling thankful to have seen our target we began to head back to the trailhead.  Back at our first over look we got more views of Parrot fly-bys. Along the way we heard many more Parrots in the Mahogany trees.   We arrived at the parking lot and were given views of two new birds Brown Trembler, and the very endangered St. Lucia Black Finch.  Leo was very excited to see the black finch, as were we. He exclaimed that he only sees a couple of these a month!

The ride back to the coast proved to be worthwhile as we got to see a Tropical Mockingbird, a bird I expected to be very numerous but proved not to be.  We only saw two of them during the whole trip.  Also on the ride we viewed a pair of American Kestrels on the telephone wires.

A couple of days went by and the before mentioned birds made themselves known to us, some more then others of course.  Royal Terns, Frigates, and both herons proved to be common at the beach as were Caribbean Martins, Laughing Gulls, and a lone Brown Booby that flew by daily.

Our next birding trip took us a mile down the coast to Anse Mamin, a deserted sugar cane plantation that was responsible for many of the slaves, which have descended to make up much of southern St. Lucia's population.  Anse Mamin today is a fruit and herb garden that supplies the Anse Chastanet restaurant with tropical delights.  It also doubles and triples as a mountain bike park and a bird sanctuary.  Here we saw many of the before mentioned species with five interesting sightings.  The first was a new species Bare-eyed Robin, this is a unique thrush with a very striking song.  The next point of interest was two A.C. Hummingbird nests! One had an infant bird in it that was no bigger then a thumb nail! After that we entered the ruins of Monsieur Mamin's house where we were greeted by scores of fruit bats roosting.  Then, we saw our first Green Herron of the trip.  Our final life bird of the trip proved to be one of my favorites the St. Lucia Oriole.  This island endemic is very similar to our Baltimore Oriole.  He flew right at me then perched ten feet a way.  I wonder if he was attracted to the Oriole that was on my baseball hat?

In addition to birding and beaching we managed to squeeze in three SCUBA trips including one night dive (my first). 

Anse Chastanet is a perfect holiday retreat for the nature lover in all of us. All in all we had a great trip birding with 40 species, 33 lifers and 4 endemics noted. With stunning scenery and perfect beaches, we will defiantly be going back! 

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