Birding, Wildlife Photography, Travel

BIRDS OF SAINT LUCIA

A pair of Lesser Antillean Bullfinches on my balcony with a view of the Pitons and Soufrière bay behind them. 

A pair of Lesser Antillean Bullfinches on my balcony with a view of the Pitons and Soufrière bay behind them

In April this year, I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to the Caribbean and photograph the birdlife of Saint Lucia. I was invited over by by Anse Chastenet - a beautiful eco-resort on the west side of the island, which has an amazing diversity of bird species inside their grounds and surrounding areas. They wanted to produce a brochure for birders and photographers with a fresh collection of original images to showcase their birdlife and entice more visitors to come and experience the island. They asked me to come and do my best to photograph as many species as possible in just over a week... The pressure was on! To help me achieve this mammoth task, the management had provided me with a guide and a driver to assist me if I needed them.. Sounded good to me so I wasn’t complaining!

Having been to the Caribbean once before to photograph the frigates and tropic-birds in Tobago, I knew what to expect from the temperature and conditions, but I quickly had to get up to speed with the birds and wildlife so that I knew which species to concentrate on and where to find them. Saint Lucia has 5 true endemics, and a number of endemic subspecies, so these were high up on my list.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I was in for a treat - as I stepped off the plane to get my first taste of the sweltering tropical climate, I could hear a cacophony of bird calls and song coming from the surrounding forest. After my meet and greet at the hotel, I was shown to my room right down by the beach, where I opened up the doors to the balcony and in a flash, a lesser Antillean bullfinch flew straight in and up to the rafters. After half an hour of giving me the runaround, I managed to catch and release it, using a net fashioned with a loose scarf and my tripod. I decided to use the air-con from then on, so switched it on and went out to explore.

I didn't have to go far, as right outside my room, there was a little flowering shrub that had attracted 2 species of hummingbird - the small Antillean crested hummingbird and the larger green-throated carib. 

Antillean crested hummingbird - one of the few crested hummingbirds.

Antillean crested hummingbird - one of the few crested hummingbirds.

Green-throated carib in flight, feeding on nectar.

Green-throated carib in flight, feeding on nectar.

There was a range of habitats right inside the grounds - forest trails with rivers and streams running through them, beautiful beaches and cliffs, a small plantation, a few small lagoons, a reservoir and of course the hotel itself, which has been designed in such a way that it feels part of the landscape, and is teaming with small garden birds and hummingbirds. After checking out the grounds, I headed back to my room and found a juvenile little-blue heron just outside, walking the shore-line and hunting for small crabs.

Juvenile little blue heron walking at the surf's edge at sunset, looking for pickings. 

Juvenile little blue heron walking at the surf's edge at sunset, looking for pickings. 

Juvenile little blue heron stalking crabs.

Juvenile little blue heron stalking crabs.

From my beach-side apartment, I had easy access to the beaches and trails that start from Anse Mamin, a five minute walk to the next bay. It was great to explore and find my own little areas and watch and learn about each species’ behaviour, so that I could work out how to get close enough to get the best picture. One of my favourite places, although stinky and fly-infested because of the dry-season, was a small stream that ran down from the reservoir to the beach at Anse Mamin. Bare-eyed thrushes and Scaly-breasted thrashers flitted around in the trees above and spotted sandpipers, green herons and yellow-crowned night herons skulked in the stagnant stream. It took me a while to approach them and I probably picked up a few parasites along the way as I crawled down the muddy stream, but it seemed that if I could get the confidence of the green heron, then the rest of the birds seemed to settle down and let me get close enough to photograph them.

A green heron with what looks like a lovely blue stream, but is actually a stagnant pool with the reflection of the blue sky and Anse Mamin beach behind.

A green heron with what looks like a lovely blue stream, but is actually a stagnant pool with the reflection of the blue sky and Anse Mamin beach behind.

Yellow-crowned night heron hunting for fish in a small stream.

Yellow-crowned night heron hunting for fish in a small stream.

Perhaps my favourite photographic experience of the trip was photographing this yellow-crowned night heron. I slowly crawled down the muddy stream to get as close as possible to him. It was particularly dark and shady under the thick canopy, but very occasionally the breeze would blow a gap in the treetops, big enough for some light to get through and the heron would peer up indignantly as the sun gave his game away to the small fish it was after in the water below.

Just a short walk from Anse Mamin, up through the forest trails was a small reservoir. Here I found the first 2 endemics on my list. The Saint Lucia pewee (pronounced "pee-wee"), an endemic flycatcher and the Saint Lucia warbler.

Endemic Saint Lucia pewee - a lovely, confiding little flycatcher.

Endemic Saint Lucia pewee - a lovely, confiding little flycatcher.

Endemic Saint Lucia warbler, making short work of the tiny insects in the tree-tops.

Endemic Saint Lucia warbler, making short work of the tiny insects in the tree-tops.

Around the reservoir were small endemic Saint Lucia anoles (a small tree lizard), grassquits everywhere, grey kingbirds hunting flying insects over the pool, grey tremblers and mangrove cuckoos calling from the surrounding trees and the occasional broad-winged hawk would pass overhead on the lookout for prey.

Mangrove cuckoo, a shy bird that likes the deep scrub.

Mangrove cuckoo, a shy bird that likes the deep scrub.

Broad-winged hawk patrolling the skies.

Broad-winged hawk patrolling the skies.

Saint Lucia Anole - a small endemic tree lizard which varies in colour, depending on its environment.

Saint Lucia Anole - a small endemic tree lizard which varies in colour, depending on its environment.

A short walk from the reservoir I found a lovely little lagoon, which I could have spent the rest of the day at. There were small shrubs planted around the edges, which were the cause of a lot of competition between the hummingbirds. I learnt a few things about hummingbirds that day - firstly that for such small birds, they can be extremely territorial and aggressive and secondly that they don't just feed on nectar, but are occasional flycatchers too. I watched a green-throated carib a number of times hovering mid-air until a small fly flew close enough for it to quickly dart after, grab and swallow.

An Antillean crested hummingbird displaying his crest in defence of territory.

An Antillean crested hummingbird displaying his crest in defence of territory.

Green-throated carib hovering in wait for insects.

Green-throated carib hovering in wait for insects.

After spending a few days with the birds at the resort, I decided to head out to a few nearby places, to look for some of the island's other specialties. Not far from the resort, at nearby Bouton, I managed to track down endemics number 3 and 4 - the Saint Lucia oriole and the beautiful and rare Saint Lucia green parrot or "Jacquot".

Saint Lucia oriole.

Saint Lucia oriole.

Saint Lucia green parrot or "Jacquot" in flight.

Saint Lucia green parrot or "Jacquot" in flight.

I didn't get quite as good pictures of them as I'd have liked, but under the time constraints, it was the best I could do and at least if I didn't manage any better, I had something, and more importantly there was only 1 endemic left to go.

Whilst up at Bouton, looking for the parrots, I got chatting to Charles and Meno from the hotel and they told me how down in Soufrière bay, just outside of the resort, that in the early evening, women from the market would throw scraps of chicken skin into the harbour, which would attract the laughing gulls and magnificent frigatebirds. We decided to head down and try it for ourselves, so Charles picked up a few bags of old scraps and we headed down to the relaxed little town and hung out for a lazy few hours, drinking a few Pitons and waiting for the evening sun so that the light was nice and low and warm. When Charles threw out the first few scraps of skin and neck, a solitary laughing gull headed straight over.

Solitary laughing gull in flight.

Solitary laughing gull in flight.

The rest of them obviously knew the drill, as within minutes, all of the laughing gulls in the bay were heading towards us and we got to watch a real feeding frenzy - and to their amusement, so did the rest of the town.

Laughing gull feeding frenzy, hovering in wait for chicken scraps.

Laughing gull feeding frenzy, hovering in wait for chicken scraps.

It wasn't long before the frigates were attracted, but they were much more direct and determined. They seemed to see the piece they wanted from quite a distance and made a bee-line straight towards it.

Magnificent frigatebird in flight, with sun shining through its gular skin.

Magnificent frigatebird in flight, with sun shining through its gular skin.

They would take turns to fly in to the frenzy, completely dwarfing the gulls, and heading straight for the prize piece they had their eye on. They would snatch it from the water or more often from a gulls bill like taking candy from a baby. I don't think I saw one of them miss once and they made the squabbling gulls look like real amateurs. Definitely worthy of their reputation as pirate-birds.

Frigatebird snatching chicken scraps from laughing gull.

Frigatebird snatching chicken scraps from laughing gull.

I stayed around the resort for the next few days, as I wanted to make sure to try and get some pictures of the local birds with the iconic Piton mountains in the background. I moved from the beach up to an apartment half way up the mountain with an amazing view out over the forest and Soufrière bay towards the Gros and Petit Piton.

View of the Pitons from Anse Chastenet, St Lucia.

View of the Pitons from Anse Chastenet, St Lucia.

My first night in the new room, I was treated to a beautiful full moon, which lit the scene with an eerie light, so I tried some experiments with long exposures and white balance until I started to get some nice landscapes. In the morning I put out some fruit punch on the balcony to attract the birds and eventually they found it and started to visit regularly. I mostly had the company of lesser Antillean bullfinches (pictured at the very top of this post), grackles, bananquits and the occasional tropical mockingbird.

Tropical mockingbird in front of the Piton mountains.

Tropical mockingbird in front of the Piton mountains.

They eventually got so comfortable with coming to the balcony, that I could take the food away and get a few pictures with just the birds on the balcony.

A female carib grackle in front of the Pitons.

A female carib grackle in front of the Pitons.

A pair of lesser antillean bullfinches with the Piton mountains in the background.

A pair of lesser antillean bullfinches with the Piton mountains in the background.

Next on my list was visiting the bat cave just around the cliff, between Anse Chastenet and Soufrière. I had heard some of the guests talking about it and I'd seen a few large bats flying around the beach at dusk, so I was curious to see just how many there were for myself. I arranged a boat for the next evening. I spent the morning relaxing and enjoying the beach as I thought I deserved at least a morning off to have a snorkel and explore the coral reefs at Anse Chastenet and Anse Mamin. I'm glad I did as I saw all kinds of fish and sea-life, which I won't even begin to try and list, and I later found out that they are some of the best reefs on the island. We headed out on the boat in the late afternoon so that we still had plenty of time to explore the cliff on the way round to the bat roost. Just out from the beach, blue boobys were perched on the cliff and a pair of American kestrels were busy courting and getting amorous.

Blue booby on the cliffs at Anse Chastenet.

Blue booby on the cliffs at Anse Chastenet.

Just a little further around was a colony of nesting cattle egrets and just above them a row of yellow-crowned night heron nests. The night herons were a little high up the cliff for pictures, but we got some lovely views of the egrets nest-building and interacting.

Cattle egret nest-building.

Cattle egret nest-building.

I couldn't believe it as we approached the bat cave - you could hear them from quite a distance and as we approached, it looked like the walls were alive, rippling with movement. It was hard to pick out the individual bats - so close in colour to the cave walls and incredibly tightly packed in, but as we got closer the occasional one would fly from one side to the other or perhaps get an elbow in the ribs and call out indignantly.

Antillean fruit-eating bats at their cave roost in Soufrière.

Antillean fruit-eating bats at their cave roost in Soufrière.

There are an estimated 5000 Antillean fruit-eating bats at the Soufrière roost - an awesome spectacle and largest of the two main roosts on the island. We hung around as it was approaching dusk and I was hoping to see them leave the roost in a great explosion. As the light faded, we noticed a few American kestrels a broad-winged hawk and my first peregrine falcon of the trip soaring in the sky above. They had obviously come for the bats too, but with more sinister motives. Unfortunately, it got too dark for us to stay as the skipper didn't have enough lights on the boat to be licenced to navigate after dark, so we left the bats to run the gauntlet of the waiting birds of prey and headed home.

Antillean fruit-eating bats at their cave roost in Soufrière Bay.

Antillean fruit-eating bats at their cave roost in Soufrière Bay.

With my week nearly over, I cleaned up the few bits around the hotel that I had overlooked like the ubiquitous zenaida doves and tried in vain to photograph a few of the species I had had ok views of, but not got close enough to for pictures like the kestrels and the beautiful belted kingfisher, which I'd had my eye on for a few days, but who was frustratingly flighty.

Zenaida dove on Anse Mamin beach.

Zenaida dove on Anse Mamin beach.

On the last day, I made a plan to head out and look for the last endemic on the list and a few other bits which would be an added bonus and which I at least I wanted to see before I left, even if I couldn't get a picture. We headed to Des Cartiers, which is a well known forest trail for parrots. We got some great views of them flying over the forest in pairs, but sadly too distant for anything more and had the same luck with the rufous-throated solitaire - a smart looking bird, which I was really pleased to see, but a little disappointed not to get anything more than a "record" shot of. Lastly, we headed to Millet - another forest trail with almost guaranteed black finch, my last endemic. We followed the trails and got close enough for some more "record" shots of the males, but we managed to get close to one of the females, feeding on a coconut husk that had been left out on the trail by the park wardens.

Endemic Saint Lucia Black Finch feeding on coconut husk.

Endemic Saint Lucia Black Finch feeding on coconut husk.

With all 5 endemics in the bag and a long list of other species, my photographic mission was accomplished. There were a few executive decisions I had to make, like giving up the rare white-breasted thrasher for the sake of numbers and productivity, which given more time I wouldn't have had to, and there were a few nice birds I missed (and I'm not blaming my over-talkative guide on occasion!), but all in all it was a great success. I'd love to go back as now that I know where to find it all, and how much photographic potential there is on the island, I could achieve much better results than I did in the short time I was there. I may talk to Anse Chastenet about running wildlife photography tours out there in the future as apart from the amazing birdlife, the landscapes, light and other wildlife are all worth visiting the island for.

You can see some of my other pictures from the trip on this site: http://birdsofsaintlucia.com

And on the Anse Chastenet main site with some words by my good friend Ed Drewitt here: http://www.ansechastanet.com/activities/birdwatching.html

Thanks to Karolin for the invite and all the staff at Anse Chastenet for such a pleasant stay, particularly Charles and Meno.

© Sam Hobson 2014

www.samhobson.co.uk

Birding, Wildlife Photography, Travel

ESTONIAN ADVENTURE

In March this year, I went out to Estonia to meet up with Luke Massey. He was leading a photographic tour for Estonian Nature, and I’d been invited to tag along.

I’d never been to Estonia, but I’d heard great things about it - Primeval boreal forests, peat bogs, some of Europe’s densest populations of wolves, bears and lynx, and a healthy number of white-tailed sea eagles.

We were hoping to photograph the eagles in the snow, but having booked the trip a few months previously, we hadn’t expected such a warm Spring and when I arrived, the snows were still yet to come - in fact the day before I arrived it was the hottest day on record for the time of year!! Harsh Winters usually means hungry eagles, so a road-kill roe deer left out in front of a photography hide would normally attract double figures. This wasn’t the case though, and the eagles had plenty of food - perhaps a little unfortunate for us, but great news for the eagles. In fact, Luke had seen first-hand evidence in the shape of a dead wild boar floating down a river, ostensibly drowned after falling into a lake that had thawed unseasonably early.

We already knew that this wasn’t going to be the trip we’d hoped for, but I was still looking forward to seeing a bit of Estonia’s taiga landscape and wildlife - perhaps the warm Spring might have brought the bears out of hibernation early...

Luke had already had an encounter with a confiding family of Eurasian elk, which sounded pretty exciting to me, having never seen them myself.

If you think this looks like a moose, it’s because it is - the Eurasian elk is what the north Americans would call a moose. They are both Alces alces, the largest living member of the deer family. In America, an elk is another large deer, a bit like a large red deer, which to add to the confusion, was called an elk by European explorers because they thought it looked like a European elk, which is in fact a moose. Got it?! ;) ©Luke Massey 2014

If you think this looks like a moose, it’s because it is - the Eurasian elk is what the north Americans would call a moose. They are both Alces alces, the largest living member of the deer family. In America, an elk is another large deer, a bit like a large red deer, which to add to the confusion, was called an elk by European explorers because they thought it looked like a European elk, which is in fact a moose. Got it?! ;) ©Luke Massey 2014

We headed up to the north-east - just a few miles from the Russian border, and that night I got to see my first Estonian wildlife, when a long-eared owl flew out in front of our car. We were shown a capercaillie site, which we thought we’d try in the morning as we heard capers calling from the tree-tops and found some prints and droppings. Back at the lodge that night I had my first encounter with elk - a hearty wild elk stew. Very tasty, but I never expected to taste elk before seeing them.

Overnight, the weather changed - the temperature rapidly dropped and it dumped over a foot of snow. We got up before dawn to get to the caper site, but it wasn’t looking good as wildlife isn’t particularly active when the snow first comes. On the way, I saw my first ural owls hunting in the dark and we had a couple of snowy hares running through the beams of our headlights.

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At the caper site, it was deathly quiet, with not even a whisper of wind - I could even hear the large flakes of snow hitting the ground. We slowly walked the forest trails for a few hours, checking clearings and tree-line edges with our binoculars, but it seemed like the wildlife was hunkered down deep in the forest, waiting for the snow to pass. Apart from the odd raven cronking in the distance and the thin high-pitched calls of crested tits up in the trees, we were alone.

© Luke Massey 2014

© Luke Massey 2014

We headed back to the lodge to meet local guide, Uudo, stopping on the way to take a few pictures of garden birds in the falling snow. Uudo took us on a bit of a tour of the area, where we saw black grouse, beaver sign and pine marten tracks in the snow and Uudo took us to a place where he had recently seen brown bear and cub tracks, which must have been just out of Winter hibernation.

© Luke Massey 2014

© Luke Massey 2014

As the light started fading, Uudo took us to a site where he had radio collared a Siberian flying squirrel. It was a bit of a Benny Hill moment watching Uudo running around, trying to find the squirrel, but it wasn’t long before he got a decent signal and we found them. Our spirits were instantly lifted, as we had some amazing sightings of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree, chasing each other around the trunks and poking their little heads out of their nest holes. It was the perfect time to see them as it was right in the middle of their courtship season and there was loads of activity. We looked for squirrel droppings at the base of the nesting trees, which Uudo told us were more valuable than gold, as their presence can prevent the area from being forested - the main reason the squirrels are suffering is islandisation of habitats due to forestry. Uudo’s study of the Siberian flying squirrels is incredibly important to their survival in the area, and that night he told us a heart-warming story about how he raised a family of squirrels and taught them to fly, after one of his squirrels called Karl was eaten by a pine marten and they were orphaned. He took them into his home and when he was confident that they could fly well enough to survive, he released them into the wild, and continued to monitor them. After a few months, they were all eventually picked off by pine martens - pine marten and Ural owl are their main predators, but goshawks and eagle owls will also take them.

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After a few days in the north-east, we headed south towards the eagle hide - we weren’t expecting miracles, but there had been reports of at least 1 eagle in the area and perhaps the snow would bring us luck. On the road down, we stopped to photograph an obliging road-side snow bunting in the falling snow. We pulled over and left the hazards on, which I chose to include for a bit of context.

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The next morning, we got into the hide before first light and to our surprise, we were soon joined by a white-tailed eagle which perched in a nearby tree to check out the road-kill roe deer carcass that had been left out to encourage them down. We decided not to move around or take any pictures as we didn’t want to spook it before it was light enough to get a decent exposure, but frustratingly it decided not to hang around and that was the only eagle we saw that day.

As the day progressed, the temperature rose and the snow melted and more and more ravens appeared until we had at least 40 in front of us. It was really interesting to watch them feeding and bickering and I learnt a lot about their behaviour and pecking order, just by watching them all day.

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At first, they had trouble getting in to the deer carcass as not only does it have a thick hide, but was partially frozen. Over the course of the day, as it got warmer, there was various amounts of activity, but there seemed to be just a brief period of around 15 minutes when they got to the “good stuff” and there was a sudden feeding frenzy. My most memorable moment was when a dominant raven plucked out the roe deer’s heart and seemed to parade up an down with it like a prize, almost challenging the others to take it from him, before taking it elsewhere to feed on it.

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Although it was interesting to watch the ravens, we decided not to risk the eagle hide again, as it is a big investment to stay in from before dawn until nightfall, and it turned out to be the right decision, as there were no further reports of eagles there for the rest of the week.

Instead, we decided to spend the rest of the time visiting different areas of Estonia, driving the forest tracks and looking for wildlife. The next morning started promisingly as just outside our hotel, there was a pair of whooper swans roosting on a frozen lake. Just as the sun was rising, a dog-walker out for an early morning stroll along the edge of the lake passed by and the swans raised their heads from under their wings to watch them go by.

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Later that day we came across a group of female capercaillie that had come out of the forest to feed on the grit on the forest road. Grit is important to aid digestion as with no teeth, birds need something solid and abrasive in their gizzard to help break their food down. Although very shy, they weren’t in a hurry, so we slowly got closer and closer, using the car as a hide and lying on the ground to get a nice low angle.

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Later that day we met up with Marika Mann from Estonian Nature and she showed us a black grouse lekking site, with over 40 lekking black grouse. It was an amazing spectacle, but too distant for pictures, so we set up some hides near the biggest concentration of grouse droppings in a nearby field which was also an occasional lek site, in the hope that they might move in the next few days. Later that evening I saw my first elk at the edge of a clearing. It was too dark and distant for pictures, but it was great to watch them and as they disappeared into the forest, we drove around the corner and watched them as they crossed a clearing that had been cut for power lines.

The next day we met Tarvo, another guide that knew the area well and he took us out to show us his local patch. It was quite a quiet morning to begin with, but after a few hours and some breakfast, we saw another family of elk, a great grey shrike, long-tailed ducks, a black woodpecker, a field of cranes and a flock of 300+ snow bunting that had stopped on migration to feed in a field.

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© Luke Massey 2014

© Luke Massey 2014

That evening, Tarvo took us to a site where he had put up a nest box for Ural owls earlier in the Winter, which was already occupied. We didn’t want to get too close at such a sensitive early stage in nesting, so we stayed well back and observed with binoculars and took a few distant pictures.

Before long, the week was up and it was time to head home to the UK. The weather was a blessing and a curse, as all though we saw some sights that we would have missed without it, like a big fall of woodcock brought down by the snow during their night migration, we missed a lot of opportunities that we might have had if it was a more “normal” Winter and the wildlife had been behaving more predictably. I didn’t come home with award winning frame-fillers of white-tailed eagles, but we did see one flying low over the trees on the way back to Tallinn airport, which was a nice way to round off the trip. Estonia was great for wildlife watching and I saw loads of species that were firsts for me. Photographically, we could have done with a bit of better luck with the weather and some better planning of alternative options for when the wildlife or weather wasn’t behaving as we’d hoped. There is definitely some amazing potential there though and from the amount of bear, boar, lynx and wolf tracks we saw in the snow when we were there, I think it is somewhere I will be returning in the future :)

Thanks to Estonian Nature for inviting me and showing me around. You can check out their wildlife holidays and photography tours here.

© Sam Hobson 2014

www.samhobson.co.uk

Coming Soon...

I'm currently collating my wildlife notes and pictures from my recent photography trips, including Saint Lucian birds, Norwegian musk oxen and some cute Fuerteventuran ground squirrels, but I'm going to start with my trip to Estonia in early Spring, which I'll be posting early next week.

Here is a short clip of some Estonian common ravens feeding and bickering at a roe deer carcass..