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December 18-21, 1999

by Mark Gawn

My family and I spent several days in Martinique in early December, soaking up the ambiance of "France in the Caribbean" and looking for two target birds.  With work we were able to see both the endangered endemic Martinique Oriole and the equally endangered White-breasted Thrasher, shared only with nearby St.  Lucia.

We concentrated on the thrasher assuming that we would trip over an oriole along the way.  Accordingly, our first destination was Presqu'ile de la Caravelle, a large peninsula jutting into the turbulent Atlantic and the only known home to the thrasher in Martinique.  The eastern third of the peninsula is a national reserve protecting a variety of dry forest and littoral habitats.  The reserve is about an hour's drive from the airport and is well sign posted when you get to the peninsula.  The thrasher habitat can be reached by driving to the parking area for the Ruines du Chateau Dubuc and then descending on the well marked Sentier de decouverte (nature trail) which plunges down the ridge in a southeasterly direction.  After about a 10 minute hike you will reach a closed canopy forest on level ground with a relatively clear understory.  The trail forks beside a sign which correctly indicates that the thrasher (la Gorge blanche) can be seen in this habitat.  Based on our experience the best option is to quietly work the trail heading off to the left (east).  The other fork takes you to the mangroves where apparently the oriole (Carouge) can be found.

We arrived at the reserve on December 19 in the baking, noon day heat; after a fruitless search of two hours or so we retreated for lunch, returning at 4pm when things had cooled down a bit.  This time the thrashers were most cooperative.  Two magically appeared in front of me on the trail beside a puddle, before melting into the forest.  Meanwhile, several hundred meters down the trail, my wife Angie, and daughter, Jessica, were looking at another perched in the midstory.  On returning to our car I decided to have a go at the oriole in the thick scrub forest on the ridge top.  Squeaking quickly yielded Tropical Mockingbird, Caribbean Eleanea, Lesser Antillean Saltator, Bare-eyed Thrush, a Mongoose and the ubiquitous Carib Grackles before my wife pointed out yet another White-breasted Thrasher.  While the mongoose is bad news, it was interesting to see the thrasher in this habitat, albeit only a few hundred meters from more typical haunts.

Our quest for the oriole at Caravelle was futile, as was a search the next day in the lovely Northern Forest Reserve.  I was eventually successful in the dry forest near Le Diamant on the morning of December 21, when one, then another materialized in the midstory at about 8am.  I watched them for about five minutes as they slowly clambered about, mostly sticking close to the trunks.  The black & orange coloration reminded me of an Orchard Oriole with the vinacous head and chest making for a truly handsome bird.  They were located along the road between Anses-d'arlet and Le Diamant, a hundred meters or so east of the turnoff to la Plaine.

I was surprised that the oriole proved so difficult to find; this may reflect the fact that they were not singing (presumably spring would be better).  Interestingly I saw no Shiny Cowbirds, the bane of orioles in the Caribbean.  However, grackles were surprisingly common.  including in thick forest habitats where I had anticipated seeing orioles.  Perhaps with habitat fragmentation the grackles are invading the oriole's habitat?

Conservation and Hunting.  While the island is heavily developed for agriculture, substantial areas are protected in the form of forest reserves and both the oriole & thrasher figure in conservation education prograMs. Nonetheless, hunting was much in evidence (e.g.  spent shotgun shells on the roadside), some birds (e.g.  good tasting doves) seemed less common than on neighboring islands, and generally birds seemed less confiding than in neighboring Dominica & St.  Lucia.  However, and proving that it is unwise to make generalizations, I had my best look ever at a Ruddy Quail Dove, right beside an area marked off as a private hunting reserve.

Logistics.  Martinique is a Departament of France and as such is highly developed.  We had heard that it was expensive but found it no more so than Barbados; indeed, many things were cheaper.  Our car rental from Hertz at the airport worked out to FF500 per day for a Peugeot 306 and we found an adequate hotel at FF380 (Hotel Camilia, in Anse Mitan) near plenty of good restaurants.  The roads are very good by Caribbean standards, with excellent signage and fast moving traffic.  There is an ultramodern airport with plenty of flights to Europe and to neighboring islands.  A knowledge of French is helpful, but you could probably struggle by with English only.  We particularly enjoyed having breakfast at the neighborhood patisserie, nothing like a good cup of expresso to get you going in the morning!

References.  We gleaned our birding information from Roland Wauer's "A Birder's West Indies" (1996) and a 1989 trip report by Craig Faanes.  The only bird guide required is the recently released "A guide to the Birds of the West Indies" by Raffaele et al., but any edition of Bond's "Birds of the West Indies" would do.  Good maps can be obtained at your car rental or at a tourist kiosque.  The recently revised Lonely Planet guide for the Eastern Caribbean has good general information on Martinique.

I did not keep a comprehensive trip list, however, follows are some notes on birds of interest:
Broad-winged Hawk several, Northern Forest Reserve (NFR) 
Ruddy Quail-Dove 4 seen, le Diamant, several more heard 
Mangrove Cuckoo common Caravelle, NFR, Le Diamant 
Purple-throated Carib common in mountains 
Green-throated Carib common in lowlands 
Antillean Crested Hummingbird common in lowlands 
Blue-headed Hummingbird several, NFR 1 Le Diamant 
Rufous-throated Solitaire several heard, NFR 
Bare-eyed Thrush common, Caravelle and Le Diamant 
Trembler several heard only, NFR, Caravelle, presumed to be Gray Trembler 
White-breasted Thrasher 4, Caravelle 
Yellow Warbler common (red-headed "mangrove" form) 
Antillean Euphonia 1 singing male seen, Le Diamant 
Streaked Saltator several seen, Caravelle, Le Diamant 
Carib Grackle mega-abundant 
Martinique Oriole 2, Le Diamant

Mark Gawn