After a good but tumultuous year in which I changed jobs and changed cities, I felt the need for a vacation that was more relaxation-oriented than my usual adventure/hardcore birding excursions. I chose Antigua as a destination because it appeared to combine a classic Caribbean beaches-and-perfect-weather venue with a bird population which was interesting but low in diversity, reducing the temptation to spend every morning and afternoon in the field. As it turned out, I had chosen well for my purpose.
For preparation I read a few trip reports on the ‘Net and purchased Birds of the West Indies by Rafaelle et al. Although the book rarely shows alternate plumages, I found it perfectly sufficient for identifying all the tropical birds I spotted during my visit. Travelers not already familiar with North American migrants, especially terns and shorebirds, would be well-advised to supplement Rafaelle with something that addresses these families in more detail.
In the descriptions below life birds will be represented by all capital letters. I generally mention a bird only the first time it is seen on a trip, and then omit to list it in connection with later appearances, thereby avoiding innumerable repetitions of such unavoidable (fi charming) birds as bananaquit and lesser Antillean bullfinch.
Saturday, March 14: Arriving at the airport in Antigua in the afternoon, while waiting in line to go through Customs I spotted my second-in-life Zenaida dove (Zenaida aurita)- the first of many to be seen on the islands. Upon reaching the Dickenson Bay Cottages I saw numerous bananaquits (probably the most common bird on the islands) (Coereba flaveola). A walk down to the McKinnon Salt Pond produced my life WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS (Anas bahamensis) and some diving brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) in the fading light.
Sunday, March 15: Returning to the V.C. Bird Airport to make the jump to Montserrat early in the morning, I noted three CARIB GRACKLES (Quiscalis lugubris) getting an early start as the sun peeked up. I had reserved a spot on the 6:30 a.m. flight and therefore showed up at the airport at 5:30 a.m. It turned out that Winair had cancelled the 6:30 flight and the representative checked me in for the 8:00 flight instead. She neglected, however, to tell me either of these things, and so I spent a long time waiting in the gate area before another passenger arrived - at nearly 7:15 - and mentioned that the 6:30 flight had been cancelled. As it happened, the 8:00 flight also took off half an hour late. Winair’s service is crap.
On Montserrat I met James “Scriber” Daley, who had been waiting, and we got a late start on the morning’s birding, which definitely affected our results. He took me up to a forest trail in the central hills where we quickly turned up PEARLY-EYED THRASHERS (Margarops fuscatus), one of which posed for study. Our initial try for the endemic oriole was unsuccessful, but further down the trail Scriber heard one call and managed to lure a male MONTSERRAT ORIOLE (Icterus oberi) in just above our heads for long views. We found some good flowering trees where we had repeated - and eventually good - views of GREEN-THROATED CARIB (Eulampis holosericeus) and ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRD (Orthorhyncus cristatis). Scriber noted that the carib has recently become very hard to find on Montserrat for unknown reasons, and he was pleased the bird appeared.
On our return trip a scaly-breasted thrasher popped up right in front of us, but Scriber was unable to get me on it - my old trouble with distinguishing birds against complex backgrounds was rearing its head again. Scriber spotted a forest thrush perched on a log, but it was blocked from me; then Scriber lost it and I refound it on the forest floor. Unfortunately it darted out of sight before I got my binoculars on it and I never had a diagnostic look. We had better luck with a PURPLE-THROATED CARIB (Eulampis jugularis) that we found and briefly viewed attending a banana flower (a depending teardrop-shaped purple affair). We also heard a mangrove cuckoo (Coccyzus minor) for a second life “sighting.”
We returned to the road to wait for our taxi driver to pick us up, and found LESSER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH (Loxigilla noctis), BLACK-FACED GRASSQUIT (Tiaris bicolor), and SCALY-NAPED PIGEON (Columba squamosa). I heard scaly-breasted thrashers calling from either side of the road but was unable to find them before we needed to move on. While driving we saw American kestrel (Falco sparverius) and magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens).
At Scriber’s nephew’s house we viewed several RED-BILLED TROPICBIRDS (Phaethon aethereus) sallying out from rocky promontories and passing reasonably near shore. Back on the road we picked up cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) and what may have been a mourning dove but was more likely just another Zenaida dove. Scriber took me to a place where the road ran above a steep embankment and he spotted a bridled quail-dove below, and became understandably agitated when I proved unable to make it out - a real hard miss. We tried to pick up lunch at a barbecue restaurant but the place was packed and we had to give up, but not before seeing a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) flying out over the water.
I returned to Antigua and again visited the McKinnon pond in the evening, finding sandwich terns (Sterna sandvichensis), greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres), black-bellied plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), great egrets (Ardea alba), the first of many gray kingbirds (Tyrannus dominicensis), possible Western sandpiper (Calidris mauri), ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), blue-winged teal (Anas discors), and common moorhens (Gallinula chloropus). I met a couple there and helped them with several shorebird and tern identifications; they mentioned they knew of a spot for a hard-to-come-by Antiguan specialty and readily agreed to show me.
We drove to Yepton Swamp and immediately found about forty WEST INDIAN WHISTLING-DUCKS (Dendroycygna arborea). Also present were black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), CARIBBEAN COOTS (Fulica caribaea), and spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia).
Monday, March 16: A morning walk down the road from the cottages to a restaurant that served breakfast produced the first of many common ground-doves (Columbina passerina). Back at the hotel, I spotted a flying broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) of the local subspecies. I spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon sunbathing and swimming, but returned to the McKinnon pond to find the following new birds: tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor), least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), and short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus). Also at the pond was a winter-plumaged Bonaparte’s gull (Larus philadelphia), which was listed in my West Indies bird guide as only found as a vagrant on Antigua.
Tuesday, March 17: Breakfast at another restaurant led to my noting several royal terns (Sterna maxima) on pilings in the water. I then took a taxi to a ziplining outfit in the central hills, there seeing another green-throated carib and some helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) that were probably not completely feral. A short exploratory walk down Fig Tree Drive from the ziplining station serendipitously turned up the entrance to Wallings Preserve, which, as it happened, was one of the premier birding spots on Antigua. On the trails up to the summit I found CARIBBEAN ELAENIA (Elaenia martinica) fairly quickly. Several dove-type birds flushed and overflew the trail as I walked up past the reservoir, and eventually one landed in easy sight just a few feet off the trail. I noted the dark back coloration and assumed it was another scaly-naped pigeon, but since it was so close I stopped to study it anyway - only to see, when it turned its head, a white horizontal mark on the cheek. It was a BRIDLED QUAIL-DOVE (Geotrygon mystacea) affording an unprecedented long look at close range without any obscuring foliage! I realized that I had been looking for a much lighter bird and several of the doves that had crossed my trail probably had also been quail-doves - they seem to be easy to get on the stretch of trail running along the reservoir as long as you are alone and quiet. I made it to the top, took some pictures of the view, and then returned to the bottom, hearing perhaps a couple of pearly-eyed thrashers but no scaly-breasted thrashers although they are supposed to be at this location. Just at the retaining wall of the reservoir I found my life’s second black-whiskered vireo (Vireo altiloquus), which came in to inspect my spishing and showed nicely.
I hitched a ride to English Harbour and looked around a bit. The only new birdlife was a yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) at Nelson’s Dockyard.
Wednesday, March 18: I spent this day lying low for the most part as I had attained a nascent sunburn on Monday and wanted to let it die down before it got so bad as to interfere with my vacation. However, I did return to the McKinnon pond, where I found sanderling (Calidris alba), lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and my second-in-life group of about twelve black-bellied whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis). Also interesting was a juvenile roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) - another bird supposed to be merely a vagrant in these isles. In the morning I had checked out the margins of a weedy field and had a stellar view of a perched green-throated carib, showing off the blue band on its breast.
Thursday, March 19: I took the ferry to Barbuda, hoping to see some seabirds on the way, but all that was seen was an eagle ray leaping out of the water several times as we were leaving Antigua’s harbor. In Barbuda the only taxi was quickly appropriated by a self-absorbed jackass of a guy who wanted a tour of the island, and did not want to deviate even for the five minutes it would take to drop me off at the airport. The taxi driver eventually turned a deaf ear to his protests and took me along. On the way we stopped at a small Spanish fort - really not much more than a twenty-foot-high tower that looked like a brock - and I spent a few moments looking at the nearby scrubby trees. Movement caught my eye and I raised my binoculars only to find another bullfinch, but then I realized there was another bird in the same tree - and it was the endemic BARBUDA WARBLER (Dendroica subita)! Well, that was easy, although I would get a number of even better views later in the day.
Eventually I was dropped off at the airport and I followed directions I had to a road which would lead to a good pond for birdwatching. George Butler showed up and gave me a ride to the spot; he asked me to let people know that he is the man for guiding birdwatchers on the island. At the pond, I found more Barbuda warblers, and when I paused to sit down in the shade of a low tree, a LESSER ANTILLEAN FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus oberi) came in close to look me over. I also found a juvenile great blue heron (Ardea herodias) visiting the pond. Other birds noted during the several hours I spent here were barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) and a Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto).
I started walking back to the airport so I could catch a ride back to the ferry. It was a long walk and I hitchhiked, only to find that the ferry was actually in the opposite direction on the road I was on! The stop at the Spanish fort had turned me around on the way out. Anyway, it was already 3:10 and the ferry would be leaving in half an hour, but fortunately the people who picked me up kindly turned around and took me right to the drive to the dock.
On the return trip we had a whale show well several times near the ferry, and eventually pass behind us.
Friday, March 20: I returned to Wallings Reserve with a rented car but an early hike on the trails produced American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) as the only new bird. No scaly-breasted thrashers seemed to be present at all. Driving away I saw a white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) fly across the road. I tried Christian Valley that afternoon, turning up a male yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia) and not much else.
Saturday, March 21: A last-ditch early-morning effort at Christian Valley proved futile. After returning the rental car, I walked down the road to get in a last morning’s sunbath, and along the way a white-crowned pigeon (Columba leucocephala) flew across the road and perched in easy view - my second life sighting.
That afternoon I caught a flight back to Charlotte, was delayed in Charlotte for several hours, but finally made it home.