20 - 26 May 1998
by P. William Smith and Susan A. Smith
We had wanted to make a trip through the southern Lesser Antilles for some time, but circumstance had foiled our intentions until the spring of 1998. Our focus was on the Grenadines (also Grenada). We previously had visited St. Vincent itself in 1988.
The island of St. Vincent is a single, fairly recent (~600k yrs.) volcanic cone. The Grenadines are a series of much older islands and rocks which extend southward ca. 50 mi. along the boundary of two tectonic plates towards the island of Grenada, a double-cone somewhat older than St. Vincent. Most of the Grenadines (those north of ~ 12 deg. 32') are dependencies of St. Vincent (the nation is called 'St. Vincent and the Grenadines'); the few farther south, including the famous seabird rock Kick-em-Jenny, are part of Grenada. Only a few are permanently inhabited, others are so inhospitable as to provide excellent nest sites for seabirds. The Grenadines' landbird avifauna is unspectacular. Two of the St. Vincent Grenadines, Bequia and Union I., were reported to hold relict (introduced) populations of Rufous-vented Chachalacas, and we wanted to confirm their current status.
St. Vincent is not the easiest destination to reach because it lacks a jetport. American flies one prop plane daily from San Juan, PR, and LIAT and other regional airlines also fly there. Fares are rarely attractive. We obtained one frequent-flier seat all the way from Seattle which helped keep costs down [Caribbean islands often are very good value FF destinations because of high regional fares coupled with the any-origin-same-mileage policy of most FF programs; in late spring, demand is low so seats tend to be available].
When we visited St. Vincent in 1988, we saw most of the island's specialities including its two most famous endemics, the St. Vincent Parrot (probably the most spectacular Amazon) and the odd Whistling Warbler, which doesn't act or sound like a warbler (nor does it whistle). So, our plan was to stay for a day or two, then take a ferry to Bequia ("Beck-way") until we could coordinate with the semi-weekly mail boat to continue southward to Union, the southernmost populated island of the St. Vincent Grenadines. We we told that we could hire a boat there to take us the few miles across to Carriacou in the Grenada Grenadines. We planned to return home eventually from Grenada which does have a jetport.
Some years ago we had met a St. Vincentian, Fitzroy Springer, at a regional ornithological conference, and luckily I had obtained his home telephone no. I rang him before our trip, and he kindly made arrangements for us to stay at the nice Cobblestones Inn in Kingstown, plus to hire a jeep from Kim's Rentals, one of the few car hire firms; he also offered to join us in the field for a day. As it turned out, he even met us at the airport and facilitated our transfers, which allowed us to have the jeep ready for early departure the next morning.
St. Vincent has two nature trails, the Vermont NT, which we had explored in 1988, and another up the windward side of the volcano (Soufriere NT). Since Fitz lived near the base of the latter, we opted to try that one with him. In 1988 we tried to reach there but the road then was too basic even for a jeep. Now it has been improved, and we could have reached it even in a sedan (same is now true for the Vermont NT). We arrived while the birds were still active and spent several hours hiking leisurely through the rain foreSt. We met no visitors other than a party of "ecotourists" doing a swift march to the caldera and back (we never went that far, but I'm sure we saw more wildlife than they). It was an easy trail and a good way to see most of St. Vincent's birdlife (not the parrot), especially using tape playback which afforded spectacular views of the Whistling Warbler and the fairly rare endemic form of wren now lumped with House Wren. Fitz, we might add, was especially keen-eyed and knew all the birds' songs.
After our hike, we wanted to search for the Short-tailed Swifts, one of the few St. Vincent birds we missed in 1988. Supposedly it is widespread in the lowlands and especially common in Kingstown, but we failed to find it anywhere including at various previously-known sites. The literature suggests it mainly occupies chimneys, which seem no longer to exist on St. Vincent with the sugar industry shut down for over a decade (no one has a home chimney, of course).
The following morning we looked again for swifts at the birdy Kingstown Botanical Garden and elsewhere, and also took a fairly short walk along the Vermont NT to see the parrots (easily!) and anything else of note. The rare local race of the Rufous-throated Solitaire was a special treat there. In the afternoon we met with Fitz and several members of the local bird club named AvianEyes, who had asked us for organizational and other advice. Their group would be delighted to meet visitors; can offer guide service (for a fee); and also seeks help from the ornithological community to learn more about the endemic birds' life histories.
AvianEyes can be reached at P.O. Box 193, Kingstown, St. Vincent, West Indies.
Late that afternoon, we took one of the Admiral Line ferries to Bequia. The hour-long crossing was good for boobies and sea terns (although less so than from the mailboat south of Bequia). We had arranged to stay at the Village Apartments, only a few hundred yards from the quay. We found it on the internet (http://www.grenadines.net/bequia/villageapartments.htm) and are glad we did, because the owners were very accommodating, especially in hiring out their own car at a reasonable price. That made it easy for us to start birding the next morning before sunrise.
Reports of Rufous-vented Chachalacas were from the northern end of Bequia, so we headed to the Spring Estate (where there is a luxury inn) and found a network of roads to some well-forested areas around some fairly new homes just to the north. We quickly began hearing the birds' loud "Co-cri-co" calls, which ended by 7 am. Soon we had fine views and were able to make a rough population census, to be published elsewhere. We spent much of the morning birding the north end of the island, then took advantage of the car to explore more widely. Since Bequia is only 3,700 acres, we did a pretty complete circuit. So, we took the next day off and lolled at the beach.
On the 25th, we arrived at the quay by 11 am for the southbound Monday mailboat, which to no one's surprise was almost 2 hours late. As a government operation, it was not exactly consumer-friendly. Nevertheless, the boat itself is a former small Norwegian ferry, so it is good-sized and apparently quite safe. We steamed south towards the final destination, Union I., stopping at Canouan and Mayreau (although not ashore at the latter; debarkers had to leap to a water taxi amid flying freight!). The best seabirding was just south of Bequia, which is nearest the large seabird rock of Battowia. We had a couple of regionally rare Masked Boobies in this area. Along Mayreau we had two American Oystercatchers on the shore rocks, a rather rare species for that region. Brown Pelicans (regionally absent elsewhere) picked up in numbers in the southern Grenadines.
We knew that there were a few hotels at Clifton, the settlement where the mailboat docks, and we chose the rather faded Clifton Beach, which was friendly and for an aircon room charged half the price of a more upscale place. The desk clerk tried to hire a car for us for the next day, but the ONLY rental vehicle on the island had recently been wrecked. So, next dawn, we used shank's mare to reach Ashton, the other settlement towards the wilder west side of the island, near where Chachalacas also were supposed to occur. The island was much more xeric than Bequia and we were not surprised to hear nothing, but people living along the base of Mts. Parnassus and Taboi all assured us that the birds still did occur across the hills to the northwest, towards the essentially inacessable Chatham Estate. There being no road, however, we decided we had done enough chachalaca research so hiked out a defunct marina project on Ashton Harbor. We expected to find Collared Plovers but instead and unexpectedly found nesting Wilson's Plovers [the same was true on Carriacou and Grenada, and we will do further research into the situation]. We had some trip birds including Golden Yellow Warblers in the mangroves, but soon got tired. Back at the main road, a taximan offered us a lift back to Clifton [about a mile from Ashton], and we engaged him to take us to the Belmont Salt Pond shown on our map. We saw another pair of Wilson's Plovers there but not much else new.
The sea looked angry so the thought of trying to hire a small "water taxi" for the 10-mile crossing to Carriacou the next day was not appealing. We enquired at the airstrip and soon had tickets (@ US $18 each) for the 5-minute "mid-day flight" on Air Carriacou. Trouble was, no one told the pilot, who departed from Union more than a hour early, before we got to the airport. Despite giving us a stern lecture for not booking before 8 am (yet selling us tickets later than that, with confirmed seats), the airline finally took care of us, sending another plane from Carriacou not much later than we were supposed to depart anyway [the appearance of another stranded passenger probably helped our cause greatly]. If a vehicle had been available to us we probably would have spent an entire day birding over 2,150-acre Union. Nevertheless we doubt we missed much.
Our total list of 60 species for St. Vincent and the Grenadines reflected the rather quick nature of the trip, but we had a lot of nice experiences and saw good birds. Lacking both a jetport and a large tourist base like Dominica's, the nation is "unspoilt", with generally pleasant, helpful people and much to commend it. The main island has a number of nice modest places to stay along Villa and Indian Bay Beach, and AvianEyes is glad to help visiting birders and biologists. Bequia is a gem within a gem, and anyone regardless of interests would enjoy it (though perhaps "in season" it is less relaxed).
We can't easily separate our costs for this part of the total trip, but we think our on-the-ground per diem was about $US 150 for two, all inclusive. Go and enjoy! Bird list follows.
Codes: A=Common and widespread; B=Common but local or restricted habitat; C=Uncommon but widespread; D=Local or restricted in habitat, not common but observable; E=Apparently rare/local.
[B] Booby, Brown Sula leucogaster
[B] Booby, Red-footed Sula sula
[B] Pelican, Brown Pelecanus occidentalis
[A] Frigatebird, Magnificent Fregata magnificens
[E] Egret, Great Ardea alba
[C] Heron, Little Blue Egretta caerulea
[A] Egret, Cattle Bubulcus ibis
[C] Heron, Green Butorides virescens
[C] Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Nyctanassa violacea
[E] Osprey Pandion haliaetus
[D] Hawk, Black Buteogallus anthracinus
[A] Hawk, Broad-winged Buteo platypterus
[B] Chachalaca, Rufous-vented Ortalis ruficauda
[D] Plover, Wilson's Charadrius wilsonia
[D] Plover, Semipalmated Charadrius semipalmatus
[E] Oystercatcher, American Haematopus palliatus
[D] Willet Catoptrophorus semipalmatus
[D] Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
[D] Turnstone, Ruddy Arenaria interpres
[A] Gull, Laughing Larus atricilla
[D] Tern, Royal Sterna maxima
[D] Tern, Sandwich Sterna sandvicensis
[B] Tern, Roseate Sterna dougallii
[B] Tern, Bridled Sterna anaethetus
[B] Tern, Sooty Sterna fuscata
[B] Noddy, Brown Anous stolidus
[A] Pigeon, Scaly-naped Columba squamosa
[B] Dove, Zenaida Zenaida aurita
[B] Dove, Eared Zenaida auriculata
[A] Ground-Dove, Common Columbina passerina
[D] Quail-Dove, Ruddy Geotrygon montana
[B] Parrot, Saint Vincent Amazona guildingii
[C] Cuckoo, Mangrove Coccyzus minor
[C] Ani, Smooth-billed Crotophaga ani
[D] Swift, Black Cypseloides niger
[B] Carib, Purple-throated Eulampis jugularis
[B] Carib, Green-throated Eulampis holosericeus
[A] Hummingbird, Antillean Crested Orthorhyncus cristatus
[A] Elaenia, Caribbean Elaenia martinica
[B] Elaenia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia flavogaster
[D] Flycatcher, Grenada Myiarchus nugator
[A] Kingbird, Gray Tyrannus dominicensis
[C] Martin, Caribbean Progne dominicensis
[C] Wren, (St. Vincent) House Troglodytes aedon
[E] Solitaire, Rufous-throated Myadestes genibarbis
[D] Thrush, Cocoa Turdus fumigatus
[C] Robin, Bare-eyed Turdus nudigenis
[A] Mockingbird, Tropical Mimus gilvus
[D] Thrasher, Scaly-breasted Margarops fuscus
[D] Trembler, Brown Cinclocerthia ruficauda
[B] Vireo, Black-whiskered Vireo altiloquus
[D] Warbler, (Golden) Yellow Dendroica petechia
[B] Warbler, Whistling Catharopeza bishopi
[A] Bananaquit Coereba flaveola
[B] Tanager, Lesser Antillean Tangara cucullata
[A] Grassquit, Black-faced Tiaris bicolor
[A] Bullfinch, Lesser Antillean Loxigilla noctis
[B] Grackle, Carib Quiscalus lugubris
[B] Cowbird, Shiny Molothrus bonariensis
P. William & Susan A. Smith, Washington USA