Participants: Jim Holmes, Cindy ChangComments
My wife and I spent from March 27 – April 4, 2008 in the Lesser Antilles. The trip was a combined relaxing vacation with several excursions to try and find the Lesser Antillean endemics. We visited four islands (Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica).
I would strongly recommend seeing each subspecies on every island you visit. With the current momentum of splitting, many of the Lesser Antillean island subspecies are likely to be elevated to species status. Example: each of the four islands we visited has its own subspecies of House Wren and all four look and sound different (and habitat requirements are much different for several of these subspecies).
This trip report will focus on the St. Lucia portion of the trip. Our main targets were the St. Lucian endemics, Rufous Nightjar and White-breasted Thrasher. The St. Lucian House Wren, the nightjar and the White-breasted Thrasher are only found on the northeast/northcentral portion of the island. The other endemics are either widespread or require going to the mountain reserves (central and southern portion of the island). The areas for these species are most easily accessible from Castries.
Millet Bird Sanctuary Reserve
Ravine La Chaloupe
Union Forestry Reserve Trail
Cul de Sac River Marsh
We arrived at the Castries airport at 3:10pm on a LIAT flight direct from St. Vincent on March 31. We spent three nights. I spent April 1 birding the Millet Bird Sanctuary, the marsh south of Castries, and the Union Forestry Trail. On April 2, I birded Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe.
Birds and Reference material:
St. Lucia has three to five endemic species depending on your reference. St. Lucia Parrot, St Lucia Oriole and St. Lucia Black Finch are well accepted species. St. Lucia Pewee is split from Lesser Antillean Pewee by most (when split the complex is Puerto Rican Pewee, Lesser Antillean Pewee and St. Lucian Pewee). St. Lucia House Wren is split by some. The Nightjar was once split as St. Lucian Nightjar, however, most (all) experts consider it to be a race of Rufous Nightjar.
We used the field guide “Birds of the West Indies” by Herbert Raffaele and others, published in 2003. It adequately depicts the expected species. We also had the CD, Bird Songs of the Antilles, “Oiseaux des Antilles”. Realize that most of this CD is in French but the names are also provided in English. We downloaded the CD to our MP3 player and brought a small speaker so that we could tape in species. I also downloaded the recordings from St. Lucia on xeno-canto (www.xeno-canto.org/). This included recordings of St. Lucia Parrot, St. Lucia Warbler, St. Lucia Oriole, St. Lucia Black Finch and Lesser Antillean Pewee. Of note, every time that I played the xeno-canto recordings of Lesser Antillean (St. Lucian) Pewee, Caribbean Elaenia would respond.
I hired Moses Wilford for half a day to take me to Ravine La Chaloupe. He can be contacted at the Union Forestry Building (758-468-5645) or the main Forestry office in St. Lucia (758-450-2078). I did not contact him prior to my arrival, but I simply went to the Union Forestry building, and found him there. If you have a short time on St. Lucia, I would recommend contacting him prior to your arrival. He has a cell phone and his cell number is 758-714-0648 as of April 2009.
Lyndon John is also a recommended guide: LynJohn1@yahoo.com
Timing of the trip:
My understanding is that March to April is the best time to visit. This timing allows the best chances for seeing the endemics, many birds are singing (this is the peak time of Nightjar vocalization) and the best weather. The rainy season is May through November with July through November being hurricane season.
St. Lucia is one the most southern Lesser Antilles islands. There are two airports. The smaller airport is at Castries (SLU), on the northwest portion of the island. The larger, international airport (Hewanorra International airport – UVF) is at the southern end of the island and receives direct flights from the United States. Hewanorra airport is about 65km from Castries. American Eagle and LIAT fly out of Castries. The official language is English.
Driving and Rental Car:
Driving is on the left side of the road and the vehicles have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. In general, the roads are good and driving is easy although there was a lot of traffic (relative) in the Castries area. I had a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle which is mandatory to get close to Ravine La Chaloupe. You can get to Gran Anse and Millet Bird Trail in a 2 wheel drive vehicle. A 2WD to Millet Bird Trail is no problem but going down to Gran Anse in a 2WD requires care.
Avis has a rental car office at the airport. I rented from there. I had initially rented a 4WD starting on March 30 but then cancelled that reservation and made another reservation for March 31. The Avis counter only had evidence of a cancelled reservation. I showed them my current reservation and they ultimately game me a 4WD but it took some extra time to sort out. St. Lucia requires purchasing a temporary driver’s license, which the rental company can issue. My AAA International Driver’s License was recognized and I did not need to get an additional driver’s license.
I picked up the Skyviews map of St. Lucia in the airport. It is adequate for the Millet Bird Trail but falls short when trying to get to Desbarra (entrance to Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe).
Taxis and local transportation:
You can get to Desbarra and Millet by bus (actually vans) but I am unsure of the timing.
Currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (EC). We never exchanged money, but withdrew EC Dollars from the ATM. There was one ATM at the airport and there are ATMs at banks. Most locations accept US dollars (US$) and provide change in EC Dollars. The locals gave an exchange rate of EC $2.6 = US $1.
Hotels and Food:
We splurged and stayed at Cotton Bay Village in the northeastern portion of the island. We were able to book at very reasonable rate (US $175/night) via expedia (www.expedia.com). We were given a two bedroom, two and a half bathroom with a kitchen and living area for this rate. This is a new resort and the rate was significantly reduced due to multiple bad reviews after opening (primarily related to poor service). While we were there, the service was great. Food was expensive (although good) at the hotel restaurant.
We ate dinner at the hotel on one night. Otherwise we bought groceries and cooked in our kitchen.
Millet Trail: The office can be contacted at 758-451-6168. The area is easily reached from Castries. Head south from Castries on the main north-south road that goes along the west side of the island and up and over the hill through La Croix Marigot. Go past the turn for Marigot Bay (just past the Marigot Bay exit was a wet field with lots of egrets). Shortly after passing the turn for Marigot Bay, you will cross a small bridge over the Roseau river. Just past this small bridge/river, there is a turn to the left (at a yellow bus stop with a blue roof). There is a sign for Millet on the left side of the road just before this turn (the sign says Millet 6km). Take this left turn through banana plantations and go about 2km until you come to a T intersection (well, it is not really a T intersection, you will just bear right on it). Go right at the T intersection. Take this road for about 4km - 4.5km to the end and you will arrive at the Millet Nature Reserve/Trail. Along the way, there will be a paved road that breaks to the right (Do not take this right turn). There is a US $10 fee/person for going on this trail (I arrived before they opened, 8am). They wanted to charge me US $30 for birdwatching (apparently this comes with a guide). I politely refused the extra fee (since I did not have nor did I need a guide). If you contact them before you arrive, you can have a guide meet you there (before they open) for $30.00.
Cul de Sac River Marsh: This area is just a short distance south of Castries. From the La Toc Road (this road parallels the south side of Castries Bay), go south on the Millenium Highway. On Millenium road (go through a tunnel), you will come to a roundabout, go straight through the roundabout (where the new hospital is being built). The marsh is approximately 2km from this roundabout. Just before the marsh is an oil terminal. The best area seemed to be where the Cul de Sac River crosses the road.
Union Forestry Building: The Union Forestry Building and trails are easily reached from the Castries/Rodney Bay area. On the road from Castries to Rodney Bay, you will go through a roundabout with signs to Union. Take the roundabout’s east exit towards Union (this is the Babonneau highway). This exit has a small shopping center on the southeast side of the roundabout (it is actually set back about 100 meters from the main road). This shopping center has a cinema and a Domino’s Pizza. From the roundabout, it is 2km to the right turn to the Union Forestry Building. There is a sign for the Forestry Building at the turn. The good trails are behind the Union Forestry Building. St. Lucian Pewee is reportedly easy along the stream.
Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe: To get to Gran Anse or Ravine La Chaloupe, you must first go to Desbarra. You will take the Babonneau highway (see directions above) from the main road. The mileage will be given from the roundabout (shopping center with Domino’s Pizza and cinema) where you turn (east) on the Babonneau highway from the Castries-Rodney Bay highway. Go 5.5 km (past the turn for the Union Forestry Building) to the church/school at Babonneau and turn left at the fork. Then go 1.1 km to a fork and bear right. Then go 2.6 km and bear left at the fork. Then you will cross a concrete bridge over a small river. From the concrete bridge, you will go 2.6 km to the town of Desbarra. Immediately on entering Desbarra, there is a bus stop and the road forks. The left fork goes down to Gran Anse. The right fork goes down to Ravine La Chaloupe.
Getting to Gran Anse is easy as you simply take the left fork as you enter Desbarra and take it down to the beach. The scrub at the lower elevation is good for House Wren and Rufous Nightjar. There is also a pond at Gran Anse which is good for Masked Duck. This pond can be a little tricky to find. As you are nearing the beach, the road crosses a stream and then makes a sharp left (continuing on takes you through mangroves). However, you should park after you cross the stream (before the sharp left turn) and walk straight ahead (paralleling the beach). Walk across the open area and the small pond is present once the dry forest develops. Remarkably, we missed the Masked Duck at this pond. Reportedly, it is resident there. There does not seem to be nearby habitat for this species so I am not sure where the birds were when I visited.
Getting To Ravine La Chaloupe is a challenge and I am not sure that I could have found it (despite the directions that I had from the internet and from Wheatley’s book). I would recommend hiring a guide (Moses Wilford took me and he can arrange for a 4WD if you do not rent one). The road has deteriorated over the years and older directions do not emphasize the current difficulty to get to Ravine La Chaloupe. If you choose to go without a guide here are some directions/thoughts. Take the right fork as you enter Desbarra and continue down on this road. You could walk from Desbarra as it is about 5km down to Ravine La Chaloupe from Desbarra. Be careful if you are walking because there is a house with some dangerous looking dogs along the way down the road, on the outskirts of Desbarra. If driving, you should have a 4WD drive (you absolutely must have high clearance) to get down this road so that you can park close enough to walk to Ravine La Chaloupe. I did not need to use the 4WD down the road but needed it twice getting back up the road as there are several locations that were very wet/muddy/steep. Eventually the road down deteriorates such that you have to park and walk (this area is right before a sharp left turn, it is very rocky at this location). The road deteriorates well before the La Sorciere stream. Once you park the car, walk down the road and cross the La Sorciere stream. I do not believe any type of 4WD can cross this stream under the current conditions (very steep banks). Stay on the road (as it bears right) to the “old village” of Caille Des. The village of Caille Des is now just a few remaining pieces of wood. Once you get to Caille Des, you must turn left (east) and walk to the beach (it is a rocky beach with a lot of washed up trash). At one time there was a trail/road from Caille Des to the beach but now this trail is overgrown and we essentially walked through the dry forest to the rocky beach. At the rocky beach, walk south along the beach to the entrance to Ravine La Chaloupe (about 50-75 meters). Walk inland up Ravine La Chaloupe to look for the White-breasted Thrasher. On the way back to the car, we heard at least three Rufous Nightjars (saw one) at dusk. The nightjars were located between La Sorciere stream and where we parked the car.
There is a departure tax to leave the island. It is payable as you go through security screening. You get the best rate by paying in EC$.
Weather & Clothing:
This is the dry season on St. Lucia. We had some intermittent rain. Otherwise it was warm and comfortable.
Mosquitoes were not a problem in any place that we went. We never saw a snake. We had no problems with ticks. I picked up a leech while wading through the marsh south of Castries.
If you are planning a trip purely for birding and just want to see the endemics/specialties, you could probably do this with one morning and one afternoon, thus, making it possible to do with only a one night stay. However, I would strongly recommend at least two nights to ensure getting all the endemics/specialties. You need to bird a high elevation area (Quilesse Forest Reserve, Edmond Forest Reserve, or Millet Nature Reserve) to get St. Lucia Parrot. These areas are also good for St. Lucia Oriole, St. Lucia Black Finch and St. Lucian Pewee. However, to see St. Lucian Wren, you need to visit the dry scrubby area near Desbarra (either Gran Anse or Ravine La Chaloupe). Rufous Nightjar can be seen/heard at Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe at dusk. You have to go to Ravine La Chapoupe to get White-breasted Thrasher. If you tried to do this with a one night stay (which would be very risky), I would recommend the following: fly into Castries by noon/1pm and go directly to Desbarra area (stop by the Union Forestry building on the way and then bird Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe for House Wren, White-breasted Thrasher and Rufous Nightjar at Gran Anse as it gets dark). The next morning start at daylight at Millet Nature Reserve Trail or Quilesse Forest Reserve. Once you get your remaining birds, then you can catch an afternoon flight out to your next destination. Ideally, you would spend two nights as St. Lucia is one of the best (if not the best Lesser Antillean island for birding).
Other helpful trip reports:
Lesser Antilles December 2003 by Jeff Hopkins: http://maybank.tripod.com/Caribbean/Caribbean-12-2003.htm
Lesser Antilles November 1999 by Frank Frazier: This report is getting dated.
Red-footed Booby: offshore at Ravine La Chaloupe
Brown Booby: offshore at Gran Anse and Ravine La Chaloupe
Magnificent Frigatebird: several at the Cotton Bay Village
Great Blue Heron: Cul de Sac River Marsh
Great Egret: multiple locations
Little Blue Heron: in the Cul de Sac River Marsh
Snowy Egret: in the Cul De Sac River Marsh and wet fields near Marigot Bay
Cattle Egret: common
Green Heron: along the Golf Course at Cotton Bay
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron: remarkably, I flushed it along the Union Forestry Trail
Eurasian Spoonbill: we found this bird at the Cul De Sac River marsh. This is the first record for North America/AOU area. We initially thought that this was a Roseate Spoonbill based on probability but it did not have any pink. Fortunately others saw the bird and made a definitive identification several days later. I waded through the marsh to get documentation (photographs) since we were not sure exactly what species it was. While wading through the marsh, I picked up a leech.
Blue-winged Teal: Cul de Sac River marsh
Osprey: seen from our resort at multiple days
Broad-winged Hawk: seen at multiple sites
American Kestrel: only one was along the road near Union
Common Moorhen: Gran Anse pond and ponds along Golf Course near Cotton Bay Village
Spotted Sandpiper: Gran Anse pond
Solitary Sandpiper: at the Gran Anse pond
Laughing Gull: along the bay in Castries
Rock Pigeon: common in urban areas
Scaly-naped Pigeon: common along Millet Bird Trail
Zenaida Dove: common
Common Ground-Dove: common
(Bridled) Quail-Dove: I flushed a Quail-Dove in the same area on both times I walked along the trail at the Union Forestry Buildings. I did not get a good look (and was unsure of the ID), but Moses states that Bridled occur along the trails.
St. Lucia Parrot: several flying around the Millet Bird Trail
Mangrove Cuckoo: 2 seen on Millet Bird Trail and 2 seen in the mangroves at Gran Anse Beach
Rufous Nightjar: at least 3 heard calling and one seen on road from Desbarra to Ravine La Chaloupe. We were walking from Calle Des up the road to where we had to park the car. The birds began spontaneously calling at dusk. I was able to see one with a flashlight after walking in the forest.
Purple-throated Carib: common at higher elevations, forested areas
Green-throated Carib: common at lower elevations
Antillean Crested Hummingbird: common, subspecies exilis
Caribbean Elaenia: common throughout
Lesser Antillean (St. Lucian) Pewee: I had difficulty with this species. I missed it at Millet Bird Trail (prior trip reports noted similar difficulties with this species at this location). This species is reportedly common along the stream along the trail behind the Union Forestry Building. However, I missed it here. I finally found one bird in the dry scrub near the end of the road to Gran Anse (from Desbarra). Of note, whenever I played the xeno-cano tape of this species, Caribbean Elaenia’s responded. Finally, I gave up playing the xeno-cano tape of St. Lucian Pewee.
Gray Kingbird: common throughout
Lesser Antillean Flycatcher: two at the Millet Bird Trail, subspecies sanctaeluciae
Caribbean Martin: at the Cul-de-sac River march south of Castries.
House (St. Lucian) Wren: This bird is reportedly difficult. I had little difficulty. Two at the lower scrub around Gran Anse and one in Ravine La Chaloupe. For those that do not split this species from House Wren, this is subspecies mesoleucus.
Tropical Mockingbird: common
White-breasted Thrasher: two birds (a pair with one seen very well) in Ravine La Chaloupe. Once we got to the entrance to the ravine, we had to walk up the ravine (about 150meters) before we had one (and then the second bird of the pair) responded to us. Subspecies sanctaeluciae.
Gray Trembler: 2 along the Millet bird trail, subspecies macrorhyncha
Scaly-breasted Thrasher: common in multiple locations
Pearly-eyed Thrasher: both at Desbarra area and Millet Bird Trail
Bare-eyed Thrush: near Desbarra
Black-whiskered Vireo: common throughout
Yellow Warbler: a couple at our resort, subspecies babad
St. Lucia Warbler: common along the Millet Bird trail, Gran Anse, and on the walk to and in Ravine La Chaloupe
Bananaquit: common, subspecies martinica
Black-faced Grassquit: common
St. Lucia Black Finch: I had trouble with this species. I saw one male on the Millet Bird trail. I looked at a lot of Bullfinches before finding it. Once you find the Black Finch, it is surprisingly different from the Bullfinch.
Lesser Antillean Bullfinch: common throughout island, subspecies sclateri
Lesser Antillean Saltator: several seen in the Gran Anse area and along the way to Ravine La Chaloupe and at the Union Forestry Building trail
Carib Grackle: subspecies inflexirostris
St. Lucia Oriole: male seen on the way down to Ravine La Chaloupe and an immature seen in Ravine La Chaloupe