St Lucia Trip Report by Sue Bryan
January 9th – January 16th 2020
I have never had a great yearning to visit the Caribbean but as John and I had enjoyed our short break in Mauritius last year, not as a birding holiday but as a way of a few days of sun away from a UK winter where we could swim or snorkel and generally relax, we considered an island once again and looked towards the Caribbean. However as birding is our main interest our binoculars would certainly get packed and so we decided to look for something on a similar set up as last year. We searched the internet and spotted a good deal that British Airways www.ba.com were offering to St. Lucia. Like Mauritius the bird list was low but as we have other birding trips planned for the year this did not particularly bother us as long as we saw the endemics available.
Guide (for one morning only) Canice Peterson tel +1 (758) 718-3278
9th January Gatwick – St Lucia (Vieux Fort - Dennery – Bexon – Cul De Sac – Marigot Bay)
10th January Marigot Bay – Union – Dennery – Mamiku Gardens
11th January Millet
12th January Marigot Bay – Anse La Raye – Sulphur Springs - Soufriere
13th January Quilesse Reserve (Descartiers Trail) – Dennery- Cul De Sac
14th January Pigeon Island – Cul De Sac
15th January Praslin - Lumiere
16th January Canaries – Soufriere – Aupicon- Gatwick
Flights and Accommodation
International flights to St Lucia on British Airways www.ba.com including accommodation on a B and B basis cost £1109 each. We stayed at the Marigot Beach Club and Dive resort on the west coast of the island only accessible by a small ferry.
Car Hire booked through www.carflexi.com that Sixt provided for £468. An international driving licence bought at a post office for £5 is necessary along with a UK licence. Roads are good but very twisty with steep climbs. A larger size engine is recommended.
We had a B and B deal and made sure we had a little spare for a packed lunch. Evening meals were very expensive everywhere we went on this island that caters for rich, boat-owning Americans. We ate out in restaurants on 4 nights and self-catered in our room on 3 nights.
No visa required for UK citizens
We used an ATM machine at the airport for ECD Dollars but US$ were accepted at virtually all shops/restaurants/tourist attractions and market stalls that we visited. Credit cards were also accepted at shops, restaurants and garages.
St Lucia is in the tropics and so has a warm, tropical climate all year. The hurricane season is from June to November. We experienced a mixture of sun for most of the time with temperatures of 28 – 29 degrees but with frequent short (10 minutes) showers meaning that we carried an umbrella everywhere we went.
St Lucia is almost totally mountainous with very little flat land covered with tropical forests. Some land is cleared for banana crops.
After driving to Gatwick and staying in an airport hotel last night, John and I boarded a flight to St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. It was very warm and humid as we arrived at the airport on St. Lucia and we immediately ran into car hire problems once again as Sixt would not accept my international driving licence which I had gone to so much trouble to obtain as we had been warned that we would need one to drive on St. Lucia. Apparently I also needed my UK licence as well as the international one! Luckily John had his UK licence with him as well as his international one, which they were quite happy to accept. After much paperwork filling we were upgraded to a bigger car at no extra cost. Result!
European Collared Dove and Eared Dove were sitting by the car as we loaded up our cases into the car in the car park. As I had forgotten my phone car adapter we headed into Vieux Fort town where we watched two Magnificent Frigate birds flying above our heads by the coast road. John and I had both been ill for weeks and neither of us were on top form, meaning that instead of my usual efficiency I had forgotten a variety of essential items needed for our holiday.
En-route to the Marigot Beach and Dive Resort we drove along a very twisty but good surface road and saw Grey Kingbird, American Kestrel, Broad-winged Hawk, Western Cattle Egret and Carib Grackle. Using Google maps which I had downloaded onto my phone before leaving home, we navigated our way to the inlet of Marigot Bay and after parking the car boarded a little ferry across to our cabin overlooking the bay. What a wonderful view we had as the sun set and the lights came on. We enjoyed our evening meal in the warmth of the evening by the sea.
John and I were up early and decided to see what we could find in the gardens of our accommodation, which was a spacious room half-way up the steep hillside with wonderful views across the bay from our balcony. We watched a Brown Pelican fly across the bay along with a hovering Osprey and a Royal Tern feeding. Lesser Antillean Bullfinches were common as were the St Lucia race of Bananaquit. In the bushes we watched a Lesser Antillean Saltator as well as Black-faced Grassquit. Zenaida Doves were also feeding on the grass. We were delighted to see Brown Boobies out at sea too as my last view had been one in Cornwall!
At breakfast we watched Carib Grackles and Lesser Antillean Bullfinches around our breakfast table down on the balcony by the sea. It was delightful to sit by the sea in the sun and heat.
Tourist ship in Castries Harbour
John and I ventured out after breakfast and after crossing over the bay on the ferry drove north along the coast through Castries. Here there were several massive ships docked in the harbour. I have never seen such big cruise ships before! Thank goodness we were not staying in Castries!
We continued to the forest at Union where we were told that all the trails had been closed to visitors because of the new construction taking place. Not a good start! We went to the office to see the boss where he kindly arranged access and a guide (Canice Peterson) to another trail for us the following day. We birded in and around the visitor centre at the edge of the forest and saw Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, Tropical Mockingbird, Common Ground Dove and Zenaida Doves as well as Purple-throated Caribs.
Along the roadside telegraph wires Grey Kingbirds were common but we watched one here hawking for insects.
We chanced upon Mamiku Gardens where I was in need of a cup of tea. This turned out to be a good stop as the botanical garden was full of birds. However although we had had a lot of sun with high temperatures, a feature of our holiday was to be many short, sharp showers which were a nuisance and we learnt to carry an umbrella with us wherever we went. We were merrily watching a tree full of Spectacled Thrush, Scaly-breasted Thrasher and Purple-throated Carib when another downpour had us running for cover. We just about reached the tearoom when the heavens opened. The pot of tea for two was delightful on the balcony as we watched an Antillean Crested Hummingbird constantly feeding on the flowers beneath us. It was a delightful spot as the rain soon stopped and the sun came out once again. We also added Snowy Egret to our list here as a bird surprised us lurking behind the trees.
We returned to the ferry and sailed across to our accommodation where a Pina Colada was most welcome on the decking by the sea!
After our discussions yesterday with the boss at the forestry headquarters at Union, we were up before breakfast and had requested an early morning ferry ride across Marigot Bay to meet up with our guide Canice (US$ 30 each) who was there to greet us as we disembarked on the other side of the bay. We followed him in our car to The Millet Trail where after a bit of fun getting the gates unlocked with some assistance from a hammer, we walked up to a view point over-looking the forest. En-route we watched several St Lucia Black Finches on coconuts that had been set up as feeders.
After a bit of a wait we watched two St Lucia Parrots fly across in front of us as well as watching another perched parrot some distance away. We walked back down and had brief views of a St Lucia Warbler before we started a quite strenuous steep forest trail where we walked up to another viewpoint where we saw more St Lucia Parrots flying across the valley. Considering the effort involved we saw very little, partly because it was necessary to watch where every footstep went on the steep gradient using our walking poles. We saw nothing on the descent until we were back on level ground where we saw Grey Trembler, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, more St Lucia Black Finches and a St Lucia Oriole near a few more coconut feeders. The forest was very dark making photography almost impossible. Near the end of the trail Canice and I watched a Pearly-eyed Thrasher on a coconut feeder.
We returned to our room for a picnic lunch where we stayed for the afternoon. John’s knee had taken quite a beating on the trail and I had started a migraine. We were both grateful for a lovely place to be for a restful afternoon and evening watching the boats come and go in the bay.
Today was meant to be a non-birding day as I wanted to see the volcano at Sulphur Springs on the island and John wanted to visit The Pitons, a World Heritage Site. The Pitons are two mountainous volcanic plugs, that are quite spectacular to see. Gros Piton is 798.25 metres high, and Petit Piton is 743 metres high and are linked by the Piton Mitan ridge near Soufriere on the west coast of St Lucia. However, John and I were still up early and birded the resort grounds before breakfast where we found the St Lucia Pewee, a bird that we had failed to find yesterday. We were delighted as we were told it was a higher elevation bird.
After a lazy breakfast and noting a Red-billed Tropicbird at Anse la Raye as we stopped to admire the view, we drove onto Sulphur Springs, a volcano where you can drive right into the crater. En-route we stopped at a convenient point where we had good views of The Pitons. Once at Sulphur Springs we took a guided tour and watched the hot bubbling mud pools in the centre of the sulphur-smelling crater. As with most tourist spots it was crowded and we soon opted to walk to a quieter area. We left our guide and birded above the crater where we found a Black-whiskered Vireo in the heavily vegetated area on a pathway leading to a small hotel.
Another rain shower interrupted our birding and we returned to the car and drove down to Soufriere. The rain had stopped and the sun had reappeared. We treated ourselves to an ice-cream whist watching Magnificent Frigatebirds diving for offal from the fishermen in the harbour. A Laughing Gull here was also new for the trip.
It was now very hot and so we returned to our apartment where I enjoyed a swim in the sea after John spotted an American Kestrel perched by our room
Descartiers Trail Map
John was eager to do the Descartiers Trail in the Quilesse Reserve, a high elevation trail that was going to take us all day to get there and actually do. You are supposed to book ahead and pay the entry fee but we found two workers who took our money as we arrived. (25 ECD each) We knew it might take some time to get there up some small, twisty and steep lanes. I had managed to find it on my downloaded map on my phone but we also had some good directions from trip reports. I would advise anyone to download a map of St Lucia using Google maps before arriving on the island as signs do not exist on St Lucia and junctions often don’t have road markings, so it is not obvious which way the route you want goes. There are no maps of any trails at the reserves we visited and so maps from trip reports are vital. We followed the road for 6km after leaving the main road through the smart village of Ti Roche and found a small road on the right that cuts back sharply with a small sign to the reserve. After about 2km we turned left uphill. There is a sign but easy to miss. Shortly after we turned right along a track which deteriorated as we went along it. The reserve was at the end of the track. We encountered a few mosquitoes here but none that required any repellent. After parking up and paying our fee, we set off along the trail not realising there was a cross track by some steps. Luckily we had met Vision (a Guide) along the trail that we had spoken to at Birdfair and he told us where to go. We turned left at the steps and after about ½ mile found a fence where we could look out over the valley below.
Lesser Antillean Flycatcher
This area by the fence was one on the most productive areas that we birded as we had seen almost nothing on our route up. We watched St Lucia Oriole, , Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Antillean Euponia, flight views of St Lucia Parrot, Purple-throated Carib, St Lucia Pewee, Grey Trembler, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, St Lucia Warbler, St Lucia Bullfinch and Bananaquit here over a period of an hour or so. I also saw Scaly-naped Pigeon which unfortunately John missed.
We walked back and had a picnic lunch before stopping near Dennery on the roadside to watch Lesser Antillean Swifts as well as a Broad-winged Hawk perched.
At Cul De Sac we added Shiny Cowbird to our lists before stopping for the supermarket here for some food supplies.
Today was planned to be another ‘non-birding’ day where we could do some swimming and hopefully some snorkelling. We set off and John drove to Pigeon Island where we parked in a large car park by the beach. The sea looked incredibly rough on one side of the promontory but calm on the other side.
We stopped on the rough side to watch some Brown Boobies on a small rock offshore before wandering along the calm side along the beach watching the Ruddy Turnstones, Royal Terns and Magnificent Frigatebirds as we went. By a few market cabins we watched Common Ground Doves, Shiny Cowbirds and Carib Grackles.
It was hot and we wandered over to a beach bar and ordered a Pina Colada for me and a beer for John. I asked how much we owed and it was explained that there was no charge as we had inadvertently wandered in to an ‘all exclusive’ resort. We had ‘bucked’ the system as we had come along the shoreline rather than through a gap in a wall where there were security guards. The barman was very pleasant to us as we enjoyed our free drinks that I offered to pay for, but a security guard with no sense of humour glowered over us. Our relaxing free drinks were supped up at a pace I would rather forget! Hey ho! Grins all round then!
We both enjoyed a lovely swim in the aquamarine blue sea with the sun beating down on us as we discussed our rather generous hosts giving me a rather huge slug of rum in my Pina Colada. It was a wonder that I was fit for anything!
On our way back we called into the Union Forest Reserve once more where we were invited to walk most of the trail as long as we returned the same way to avoid the area where the new construction was going to take place. Here was our best chance of Scaly-naped Pigeon which John still needed to see. Luckily I managed to find one which John had flight views of but it took off from its perch before I could describe where it was sitting. We saw another Grey Trembler but little else before the rain set in.
We had a day left and two target species (White-breasted Thrasher and the St Lucia sub-species of House Wren) to find. I contacted Vision and he suggested a location near Praslin Bay opposite where there is a half-built abandoned hotel. We walked down the road about 400 metres and found the gap that Vision had described on the opposite side of the road. We saw a pair of St Lucia Pewee flitting around as well as Green-throated Carib and Antillean Crested Hummingbird. A Black-whiskered Vireo gave us a heart-stopping moment before John identified it. A Scaly-breasted Thrasher put in an appearance before we decided to visit Mamiku Gardens once again where the thrasher had been reported.
St Lucia Warbler
We walked a
trail that the owner of the garden recommended for the Thrasher and I managed a
couple of record shots of a St Lucia
Warbler. However dark conditions and too many thin tree trunks made
photography difficult. After another pot of tea for two we left for a site near
Lumiere. The track was impossible to drive, so we walked along it towards the
beach where we saw a Green Heron and
a Great Egret. Black-faced Grassquits and Shiny Cowbirds were common alongside
the ditch. We failed miserably in our quest for either of our target species
though and returned back to Marigot Bay for a lovely barbeque out on by the
chefs at the resort.
Our last day had arrived but our flight was not until the evening so we thought we would explore the west side of the island. However it took us rather a long time to check out due to a mix-up in our bill and the ferry not running which had been taken out of service for maintenance. We had to call for help to trundle our suitcases to the other beach and catch another boat which had been called to take us across to the other side of the bay where our car was parked.
Once we had loaded our suitcases we headed once again for Soufriere stopping off to watch Magnificent Frigatebirds flying over various bays we encountered. At one estuary we watched Little Blue Heron, Great White Egret and a Green Heron. By late morning it was very hot and we sought an ice-cream at Soufriere. We were given the biggest bowl of Banana ice-cream I have ever seen. It took some effort to eat it all. We made our way to the Diamond Botanical Gardens where we walked up to the volcanic waterfall. John was in his element identifying plants for me. A Grey Trembler perched on a Ginger plant as a Green-throated Carib zipped around. Near the exit a Lesser Antillean Bullfinch posed for a photo but I only had my i-phone with me as my camera gear was all packed ready for our flight later on.
After lunch we drove to Aupicon near the airport where an exceptionally kind cafe owner at ‘Grill n Chill’ not only let us use his car park but supplied us with free alcoholic drinks too! We walked across to the lake where it was covered in Common Gallinule and Blue-winged Teal. A Great Blue Heron flew across at the back of the lake as well as a few Snowy Egret and another Little Blue Heron. We also saw a few Caribbean Coot.
All too soon in the heat of the day we returned our car to the airport and caught our evening flight back to Gatwick.
As a postscript I have to say that St Lucia is one of the most friendliest places that I have ever visited. The people (with the exceptionof the security guard at the Sandals Resort at Pigeon Island) went out of their way to help us and offered us so much kindness as we made our way around the island.