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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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