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LESSER ANTILLES

5–19 January 2022

Visit ten small Caribbean islands with around thirty endemic species and forty-five Caribbean specialties on this adventurous new tour. We will be looking for endemic parrots, tremblers, thrashers and hummingbirds amid stunning scenery ranging from volcanoes, mountains, lush rainforests and azure seas in this chain stretching between Puerto Rico in the north to Trinidad and Tobago in the south, all in warm winter sunshine.

Day 1 Flight from London to Barbados where we will meet Ryan and transferred to our beachfront accommodation for the night. At dusk the West Indian Mahogany Trees that surround our hotel are filled with the calls of Scaly-naped Pigeons selecting their favoured roosts and the fluttering wings of Velvety Free-tailed Bats and the regional endemic Myotis nyctor (a small bat with no common name) setting out to feed. Food will of course be on our minds and after checking in, we can step down from our hotel onto the gleaming white sands that line the southern coastline of the island and enjoy a sunset stroll along the beach to Oistins fishing village where we can tuck into a delicious dinner of freshly caught grilled fish, shrimp and lobster with other meats plus vegetarian options also available. Overnight Barbados.

Day 2 The Lesser Antilles are comprised of a chain of largely submerged mountains running north to south in a double arc. The outer arc from Anguilla to Barbados comprises low, flat islands with limestone surfaces, while the inner arc is made up of a series of volcanic cones. A mere ten-minute drive from our hotel is the internationally renowned Graeme Hall Nature Reserve. This sprawling 240-acre wetland protects the last remaining mangrove forest on the island. For the last 10 years the reserve has been closed to the public, however as former chief naturalist for the reserve, our guide has arranged exclusive access for the group to this serene setting and species-rich site. Upon entry we assemble on the Leaf Deck and watch in awe as Atlantic Tarpon normally gently (but occasionally violently) break the surface of the island’s largest lake. Many herons and egrets can be found here including Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-heron. We meander along the well-maintained boardwalk surrounded by the verdant greens of mature Red as well as Green mangroves, their dense canopies the favoured perches of many of the island’s unique species, including nominate race of the Golden sub-species of Yellow Warbler, the potential split fortirostric sub-species of Carib Grackle and of course the endemic Barbados Bullfinch. The long dangling aerial roots of Rhizophora mangle line the walkway and provide shelter for skulking Green Herons and are the preferred runways for Barbados Anoles and armies of fiddler crabs. While in the wetland we will also have excellent opportunities for views of feeding Grey Kingbird as well as up-close encounters with the endemic subspecies of Antillean Crested Hummingbird and spectacular Green-throated Carib (two of the five hummingbirds we target on our travels through the island chain). This is also prime habitat for troops of Green Vervet Monkeys (known locally as Barbados "Green" Monkey), a species introduced from West Africa around 350 years ago. Other birds we may encounter during the morning include the invasive Shiny Cowbird, which is expanding its range. After lunch, we will take a short flight to the lush, heavily-forested volcanic island of St. Vincent with her largely black-sand beaches and vast sprawling wilderness, the first island we will explore within this inner arc. Flying from Barbados, we arrive at the recently built international airport to be collected by our transport to head straight into the lush primary rainforests of towering Mount Soufriere. Walking along the forest paths lined with wild Begonia, we have the best chance 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, Cocoa Thrush, the stunning Purple-throated Carib, and all-black race of Bananaquit (one of five distinct subspecies of Bananaquit found in the region). We end our walk at a dry riverbed, above which circle Common Black as well as Broad-winged Hawk (subspecies antillarum a near endemic known only on St. Vincent and Grenada), and guard our snack of freshly-picked fruit and plantain chips from inquisitive sapphire-headed St. Vincent Anoles. After our day in the forest we head to a local family-owned hotel on the southwestern (and only white-sand shoreline) of St. Vincent where you can swim in calm, clear waters. For those who wish to snorkel, you should bring your own on this Caribbean trip as there will be opportunities on some islands. We will then dine overlooking the swaying masts of catamarans and yachts moored off of Young Island. The vast majority of food consumed on St. Vincent is locally grown and produced, and the wide variety on the menu is testament to the plethora of vegetables, pulses and ground provisions (such as yam and dasheen) that thrive in the rich volcanic soils of the island. We suggest you try the tantalizing saltfish buljol as a starter, delicious! Overnight St. Vincent.

Day 3 Today we 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 leave our hotel at 04:30 (packed breakfast in our bags) to make for an area known only to select local forestry officers, and one that sees our vehicle cross the same river seven times at different locations, until we reach a guarded 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 their roosts in the verdant forests around us. This is a species that was long on the verge of extinction and is still listed on the IUCN most threatened species on the planet, so the opportunity to have incredibly close views of this number of wild birds in their natural habitat is one of the highlights of the trip. After our wonderful dawn encounter with the parrots, we descend the mountain, pulling over at select sites where the seemingly ever-present mangoes and guavas prove an irresistible lure to the St. Vincent sub-species of Lesser Antillean Tanager, a potential future split. Other birds should include Spectacled Thrush, Smooth-billed Ani and even Yellow-bellied Elaenia (feasting on fruit flies drawn to the ripening fruit). After the early start, by mid-morning, our birding is over for the day so we return to our hotel to relax by the pool or stroll along the spectacular beaches that line this coast. We will take lunch at the beachside restaurant and gaze out across the turquoise waters at Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns and Brown Boobies, before making the short ten-minute drive to the airport. Following a twenty-minute mid-afternoon flight, we touch down in spectacular St. Lucia. We will then drive slowly to our hotel via the quaint seaside village of Dennery where 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. From Dennery we make for a large sedge-filled wetland and, having timed our arrival with the setting of the sun, delight in the activities of Pied-billed Grebe, the Caribbean morph of American Coot, fly-bys of Belted Kingfishers and fabulous views of a host of over-wintering waders, waterfowl and herons all bathed in a soft orange glow. Our stay on St. Lucia is at a serene locally-run Inn, nestled amongst lush hillsides and gardens teeming with tropical flowers. Here you can take a swim in the pool before dinner, enjoyed on the candlelit outdoor balcony with a breathtaking view of glittering Praslin Bay. Three nights St. Lucia.

Day 4 This morning we will enjoy a leisurely breakfast before making the short drive to see one of the last thriving populations of the threatened near endemic White-breasted Thrasher (although some research suggests this is indeed a full endemic St. Lucia Thrasher, and the bird on Martinique is an entirely separate species), and other inhabitants of this Dry Atlantic Forest, such as the Lesser Antillean Saltator, curious Mangrove Cuckoo and endemic St. Lucia Black Finch. Following our time here we make for a tiny local hillside village where we learn from local Rastafarians of the many uses and local remedies of native flora. We then continue on to a unique ecotone known to harbour a good selection of the island's indigenous and endemic species. It is no exaggeration to say that a myriad of butterflies will be flitting around us as we search for birds including Gulf Fritillaries, Cloudless Sulphurs and Great Southern Whites whilst overhead, Lesser Antillean Swifts effortlessly manipulate the air currents. Our target birds amongst the trees include the colourful St. Lucia Warblers which peer underneath leaves in search of caterpillars, whilst overhanging branches present perfect vantage points for Lesser Antillean Flycatchers and the St. Lucia subspecies of Lesser Antillean Pewees to launch attacks on winged insects. An abundance of fruits ripening in the tropical sun here will also prove an irresistible lure for opportunistic St. Lucia Orioles. Before we head back to our hotel we travel to a location on the island where Rufous Nightjar can be seen in the pre-dusk light. The St. Lucia subspecies of Rufous Nightjar is another bird which may be accredited full species status in the future.

Day 5 Today we will take a packed breakfast and travel 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, together with gargantuan tree ferns, tiny bromeliads and orchids. We will 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 parrots, 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 near endemic Grey Tremblers and Caribbean Elaenias. From the forest we make for the scenic and spectacular west coast where we lunch at what is surely the restaurant with the best view on the island looking over the majestic twin spires of Les Pitons, before winding our way down into historic Soufriere. Here, isolated groves of drought-tolerant trees line the small secondary roads of this coastal habitat, and we target one of six subspecies of House Wren found in the Lesser Antilles. On St. Lucia it is Troglodytes aedon mesoleucus, endemic to the island. We finish the day atop one of the island’s highest peaks where we will be treated to the spectacular aerial acrobatics of a colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds.

Day 6 Today sees us take the short “island-hopper” flight to the southernmost of the islands on our trip, the “Spice Isle” of Grenada. From the air this small and densely populated island might seem an odd destination on a birding trip, however, by making for one of the last remaining vestiges of suitable habitat in the south of the island, we are soon provided with the opportunity to see the second rarest species of the entire trip, Grenada Dove. Latest counts estimate the number of surviving birds to be as low as 140 individuals; however, by drawing on local knowledge and experience amassed over numerous previous trips, you will get the best opportunity to be treated to a sight few people will have a chance to enjoy in their lifetime. After visiting the last stronghold of this delicate unassuming dove, we will explore the dry woodland that represents it’s natural habitats and here are treated to views of the islands other key inhabitants including Rufous-breasted Hermit, the endemic subspecies of Green-throated Carib (chorolaemus) and the other sub-species of Lesser Antillean Tanager which may be split into Grenada Tanager. Another bird present on Grenada but not other islands is Yellow-bellied Seedeater. We 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 coloured and newly refurbished local resort. Overnight Grenada.

Day 7 This morning we take a short flight to Dominica, an island regarded by many as the "Nature Lover's Caribbean Island". With her innumerable waterfalls and a river for every day of the year 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 pause at a popular roadside stand to sample a selection of homemade tamarind and golden apple juices, before our vehicle begins its climb high into the Northern Forest Reserve. We will not have been traveling 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 Lesser Antillean Pewee and Zenaida Dove provide excellent views by perching conspicuously in sparsely leafed mangoes. Brown Tremblers (one of an entire genera confined exclusively to the Lesser Antilles), arrive 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. As our van climbs ever-higher along the track, we scan the roadside for Red-legged Thrush, the subspecies albiventris a near endemic, as well as two members of the Mimid family, the common Tropical Mockingbird (subspecies antillarum endemic to the Lesser Antilles) and the less-often-seen Scaly-breasted Thrasher. Later in the day, we will travel into the Carib territories where eight villages represent the last remaining stronghold of a people who once travelled and eventually settled throughout the Lesser Antilles and who still follow many of the customs and practices of their ancestors. This visit gives us an incredible insight into the lives of many of the Lesser Antilles original inhabitants and allows us to delight in their culture and arts and enjoy a traditional Carib meal in one of their villages before making the short drive down to our coastal accommodation. Two nights Dominica.

Day 8 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 Parrot. From our position overlooking deep verdant valleys and with the distant sound of thunderous rivers coursing far below us, we scan the canopies of towering trees for the undoubted monarch of this land but now feared to number less than fifty individuals in the wild making it one of the rarest birds on the planet. It’s more gregarious “cousin” the Red-necked Amazon provides more frequent entertainment as small flocks awaken to flutter from one fruiting tree to another, while behind us, the trap line habits of the near-endemic Blue-headed Hummingbird ensure that we regularly turn our attention to small groves of Costus spictatus. Fifty-five species of butterfly including regional endemics such as Dominican Hairstreak, Godman’s Hairstreak, Godman's Leaf and St. Lucia Mestra have been recorded on Dominica, and these, along with the more wide-ranging Caribbean Buckeye and Cassius Blue, ensure that our eyes are drawn to every sunlit area of forest floor during our exhilarating day in the forest. On the topic of rarities, our vigil this afternoon will also target a bird that has only recently been sighted on the island after a long hiatus. The bizarre habits of the Black-capped Petrel lure breeding birds to the high mountainous regions of Dominica. As our tour sees us on the island in the middle of breeding season, we will have as good a chance as possible for sightings of ghost-like apparitions winging their way to roosting and nesting sites after a long day at sea. It must be stressed that although we will be in the right habitat and at the right time, the likelihood of sightings of petrels remains low due to the vast expanse of habitat and extremely low numbers of birds that have returned to once again call Dominica home. Returning to the hotel we may find a Ringed Kingfisher before dinner is enjoyed tonight from the balcony of our coastal cliff top hotel.

Day 9 We follow our time on Dominica with a boat journey across to the first of two French overseas territories in the island chain. Guadeloupe is a remarkable island, for its forests not only provide glimpses of some of the more secretive species rarely seen on other islands as evidenced by the Bridled Quail-doves walking at our feet and the nominate race of the regional endemic Forest Thrush hopping along select roadsides, but where one can get very close to a most curious endemic bird. 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 it certainly allows for fabulous looks! The lush forests of Guadeloupe also represent a favoured over-wintering site for a variety of North American warblers, and with the timing of our tour, we are almost certain to encounter such species as American Redstart, Prothonotary Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and others during our birding here. Our cottages surrounded by swaying palms and flowering bougainvillea offer the perfect post-birding relaxation spot and dinner tonight will be a wonderful blend of French cuisine and Carib-creole influence. Two nights Guadeloupe.

Day 10 Today we will take a day trip by boat to what is widely known as the “Second Emerald Isle”; Montserrat. You could circumnavigate the island on foot and never once step outside of the lush expanse of dense primary forest that dominates this magical island. This is a largely unspoiled land but the volcanic eruption of 1995 rendered half of the island uninhabitable, covering it with magma and causing a significant proportion of the population to emigrate but what remains is quite simply stunning. The volcano itself still smolders, but is constantly monitored by volcanologists who have declared the other half of this sparsely populated island completely safe for residents and visitors alike. Thankfully this is also the half of the island where we find our target bird species! The striking Montserrat Oriole is our number one target, and we walk the paths of this ancient forest, dominated by huge emergents and long swinging lianas, until we come to reliable stands of giant heliconias, for it is these that represent our best site for seeing orioles. As we have ensured we are on the island during nesting season, it is highly likely that such stands will reveal both the olive-green female and fiery-breasted male! Although Montserrat is home to this single-island endemic, it is also the best island for honing in on a species of thrasher that can prove difficult on other islands. Pearly-eyed Thrashers are abundant on Montserrat and can be approached relatively closely both within and on the edges of the forest. Another target and one which will require far more patience is the island’s subspecies of Forest Thrush. As we continue our walk through this picturesque habitat, it is clear that the forest floor can be just as alive as the trees above. Leaves rustle everywhere, Montserrat’s Anoles scuttle 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 huge fallen leaves on the path before us. Leaving the forest for lunch, we may spot an American Kestrel in the more open areas and as we sit back to relax and celebrate the day’s birding with a hearty meal, we can wash it down with a local specialty, Bush Rum! No sugar cane used in this one, only select local herbs and plants gathered from the forest! After our lunch break we will return to the harbor to take a boat back to Guadeloupe.

Day 11 Today we take the short flight to the stunning, but heavily-forested, other French territory in the region, 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 will have vanished. The stark differences in topography, geology and the ethnic and cultural differences to be found amongst the populations ensure that a visit to the islands of the Lesser Antilles is very much an exploration of ten very individual and unique islands. Here on Martinique, 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 is unlike anything we’ve seen on previous islands and is testimony to an unquestionable Franco influence. This remarkable and heavily forested island is the oldest in the Lesser Antilles with a stunning single-island endemic, the Martinique Oriole. While in some truly spectacular primary forest, we will also be looking for Black-whiskered Vireo and Blue-headed Hummingbirds (in case this delightful near endemic hummer proved elusive in Dominica), as well as targeting the striking rufous-hooded endemic ruficapilla subspecies of Yellow Warbler known as Golden Warbler and Ruddy Quail-dove. Overnight Martinique.

Day 12 We will have a little more time after breakfast to spend birding before at midday; we take a flight to sun-kissed Antigua, the island with a beach for every day of the year. Upon arrival we drive to our quaint, historic Country Inn located in a rural setting on the outskirts of the capital city of St. Johns After checking in, and freshening up should you wish, we are driven to a nearby thriving wetland where we do some leisurely birding focusing on a number of overwintering waders, waterfowl and herons with Wilson’s Plover, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Least Sandpiper, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal and White-cheeked Pintail all possible. As the sun starts to lower in the sky there is even the chance of an encounter with small flocks of West Indian Whistling-duck. After returning to the hotel we can enjoy a stroll around the grounds (binoculars in hand of course) where the mature trees offer ideal roosting for a selection of indigenous specialties before tucking into a Caribbean-themed buffet dinner, and after meal cocktails from the well-stocked bar. Two nights Antigua.

Day 13 After a lavish buffet breakfast enjoyed with a view of White-crowned Pigeons feeding in the crowns of swaying palm trees, we head to Antigua’s main port, where Laughing Gulls can be watched before we embark on a day trip to the smaller sister of this twin-island state. We are soon jetting across some of the most beautiful waters in the Caribbean Sea and arriving into 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 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 species such as Common Ground-dove, White-winged Dove, Black-faced Grassquit, Lesser Antillean 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 bow) and moors us literally within touching distance of thousands of nests, chicks and adults. We will spend half an hour in the presence of these incredible birds, observing their behaviour and watching as squadrons of adults manipulate their impressive six-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, it is “postcard perfect”. 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 fish, chicken or lobster and 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 Least Terns. 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 dolphin and whale encounters. Back at base, standing on the veranda after yet another delicious Creole dinner, we go over the extensive and varied trip-list while gazing out across the moonlit Caribbean Sea that for two weeks we have journeyed across. What better way to reflect on our travels and draw to a close our adventures in the magical islands of the Lesser Antilles.

Day 14 Following a buffet breakfast, sadly we will have to return to the airport for our return, overnight flight back to the UK at the end of this fabulous tour arriving on Day 15.

PLEASE NOTE THAT ALTHOUGH THE TOUR WILL START IN BARBADOS AND FINISH IN ANTIGUA, THE UNRELIABILITY OF AIRLINES AND FERRIES IN THE CARIBBEAN MEANS THAT WE MAY HAVE TO CHANGE THE ORDER OF THE TOUR AT SHORT NOTICE.

General Information The climate is generally warm to hot, although mornings can be cool at altitude with rain possible. The tour pace is generally moderate (but with mostly early starts) and most walks are not particularly strenuous. Accommodation standards are good, all with en suite facilities. Transport is by minibus and road conditions are generally good. There are some health requirements which should be referred to your GP. Some insects can be expected so repellents are recommended. Visas are currently not required by UK citizens for any of the islands.

Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 5; maximum group size: 10.

White-breasted Thrasher

White-breasted Thrasher

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