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February 2011

On the islands of Antigua, Barbuda, Dominica, & Guadeloupe


The Bananaquit 


List of Birds during the FONT Lesser Antilles Tour in February 2011

A List of Birds of the Lesser Antilles

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in the Caribbean


The following, relating to the FONT February 2011 Lesser Antilles Tour in the West Indies of the Caribbean , was written by Armas Hill, the tour leader:

Approximately 400 species of birds occur in the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea.
Just over a quarter of them are migrants that occur as transients or winter residents from North America.
About 300 species of birds nest in the West Indies, and more than half of them (about 170 species) are endemic to the Caribbean. Of those, nearly 100 are endemic to one island.

During the FONT Caribbean Tour in February 2011, there were 2 such endemic birds that are not often seen: the Barbuda Warbler, and the Guadeloupe Woodpecker. To see both of these birds, a special effort must be made. One must go to those islands where they are, as the birds do not leave them.  

Barbuda is a very small island, with only 48 square miles, located about 30 miles north of the island of Antigua.  Actually, the name of that country is Antigua & Barbuda, but those two islands are very different from each other. Nearly 100,000 people live on Antigua. Just over 1,000 people live on Barbuda.

We went from Antigua to Barbuda by boat, from A to B on the C, on a vessel called "the Barbuda Express". There were only a few people on the boat, along with many vegetables, fruits, and other food for those who either inhabit or visit the little island.   

On that little island of Barbuda, there really are more creatures of various sorts than people. Most obvious were the donkeys and horses that roam freely. Out in the bush, there are Fallow Deer and Wild Boar (both introduced from Europe years ago).

When we traveled back to Antigua from Barbuda, on a small plane, we could see from the air that on nearly all of Barbuda, there are no roads. A single dirt road goes north from the one small town, and another dirt road, or two, go south.

Throughout the island, Helmeted Guineafowl, brought from Africa years ago, occur in the scrubby countryside, usually but not always hidden. But the rest of the birdlife of Barbuda is native (other than the Eurasian Collared Dove that has invaded there, as it has other places).

What is said to be the largest nesting colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the Western Hemisphere, is in mangroves on the island. 
At the limestone cliffs at the north end of the island, we saw not a single person, but we did see a few dozen Red-billed Tropicbirds that were there to nest. We entered a cave by a white sandy beach and a beautiful blue sea, and climbed up to the top of the cliffs, where, that one morning, we were eye to eye with the flying tropicbirds. Being so, was truly a special experience at a spectacular place.
As we looked out toward the sea and the soaring tropicbirds and diving pelicans ahead of us, there were, below us and behind us, cacti and agaves. And among those plants there were birds such as the Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, and the ubiquitous Bananaquit.

During our 2-day stay in Barbuda, there were both West Indian Whistling Ducks (locally called "Whistlers") and White-cheeked Pintails (red-billed ducks that have also been called "Bahama Pintails").

But the bird that is unique to the island, occurring no where else in the world, and thus drawing us there to such an idyllic place, is the Barbuda Warbler
It looks rather like the Grace's Warbler of western North America and south to Nicaragua, with a yellow eye-line and eye-ring. 

Until not that long ago (in 2000), the bird was called the Adelaide's Warbler, with 3 geographically distinct populations: one in the more arid part of Puerto Rico (mostly in the southwest part of that island), one in Saint Lucia in the southern Lesser Antilles, and one on the little out-of-the-way island of Barbuda, in between, but no where near, either the Puerto Rican or Saint Lucian populations. Those 3 subspecies were quite isolated from each other.

Now, with revised bird taxonomy, it is the 3 species of the Adelaide's Warbler, as it is still called in Puerto Rico, the Saint Lucia Warbler, and the Barbuda Warbler, that are quite isolated. 
It is estimated that the population of the Barbuda Warbler is about 1,000 birds (not much different than the human population of the island). That of the bird is thought to be declining.   

Also isolated from other birds similar to it, is the Guadeloupe Woodpecker, a species endemic to that Caribbean island.

Guadeloupe is an overseas prefect of France. It has 2 senators and 3 deputies in the French parliament in Paris. The license plates on the mostly small vehicles are as those in France. The money is as that in France, the Euro. Of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Guadeloupe each year, mostly for its beaches, far and away most are from France.

It's interesting to note that back in 1763, Louis XV of France ceded Canada, a large country, to England, in order to keep the small West Indian islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with the Treaty of Paris. The thousands of tourists from France who annually visit the French Antilles surely must appreciate that bit of history.          

The French name of the Guadeloupe Woodpecker is "Tapeur", from "taper" meaning "to tap", or "to strike, bang, or beat". 
Of the more than 200 species of woodpeckers in the world, there are things about the "Tapeur" that set it apart from the others.
It has a reddish-purple breast and belly, but often the bird appears all-black. 
In flight, the bird does not undulate as woodpeckers normally do. 
Its call is also distinctively its own, a loud "ch-arrgh" given by birds in the forest to maintain contact with each other. 
Oddly, the closest woodpecker to it, in terms of appearance and structure, is the Lewis' Woodpecker of western North America. it is in the same genus as the Lewis', Melanerpes
But the Guadeloupe Woodpecker is so geographically isolated from others in the woodpecker family. There are also Melanerpes woodpeckers in the Greater Antilles and in Central and South America, but there is no other woodpecker of any kind in the Lesser Antilles. 

On Guadeloupe, the "Tapeur" is a rather shy, and often inconspicuous bird of the dense forest and other wooded habitats. It occurs below 1,000 feet above sea level. It is estimated that its population may be 10,000 pairs. The bird does not "flycatch"; its diet of insects is taken in dead wood.    

A particularly interesting aspect of Melanerpes herminieri, the Guadeloupe Woodpecker, is that the length of the male's bill is 20 per cent longer than that of the female. During our tour, we were fortunate to see a pair, together, in a bare tree, and that notable difference in bill length could easily be seen.

Another interesting bird for us on Guadeloupe was the Plumbeous Warbler. That species is a two-island endemic, occurring only on Guadeloupe and Dominica, where we also saw it during the tour.   

Other birds that we enjoyed during the portion of our February 2011 tour in Dominica were the two Amazon parrots endemic to that island, the Imperial and the Red-necked Parrots, the beautiful hummingbird known as the Purple-throated Carib, the maybe even more beautiful Blue-headed Hummingbird, the usually secretive Forest Thrush, and the Rufous-throated Solitaire with a song that's beautiful, as if from a flute in the trees . 

A distinctive bird that we saw was a thrasher called a trembler, as it has an odd habit of shaking its wings. Hence, it has the name Brown Trembler. That bird was seen on Dominica, while another member of its family, the Scaly-breasted Thrasher was observed on both Dominica and Guadeloupe. Yet another member of the thrasher tribe, the Tropical Mockingbird, was on Guadeloupe. At the very northern end of that species' range in the Caribbean, it was found singing its rich song in scrub habitat by a beach.    

Some of the birds during our tour occur on most, or even all, of the Lesser Antillean islands. Thus they have that geographic appellation of "Lesser Antillean", included in their common names as an adjective.
On Dominica, Lesser Antillean Swifts flew in the sky above us.
On Dominica and on Guadeloupe, Lesser Antillean Flycatchers posed in trees near us.
On Guadeloupe, we saw the Lesser Antillean Saltator.
On every island we visited, there were Lesser Antillean Bullfinches. That little bird often would join us for breakfasts in open restaurants (or those even with just an open door).

The Bananaquit would also come to some of our breakfast tables. That species ranges from the Bahama Islands south to Argentina. In that extensive range, there are 41 subspecies. 24 of those subspecies are on Caribbean islands.
On the islands we visited in February 2011, the Bananaquits were of the subspecies Coereba flaveola bartholemica, with the normal Bananaquit coloring of black, white, and yellow, with red in their open mouths. 
Bananaquits on two other Caribbean islands, by the way, that we have visited in the past, lack the white and yellow, being all-black.   

During our February 2011 Tour, on the island of Antigua, a Broad-winged Hawk was found sitting quietly in a tree where the foliage was dense. 
The 5 subspecies of Broad-winged Hawks on West Indian islands are residents, not ever coming in contact with those of the same species in eastern North America.
The resident Caribbean subspecies occur in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and in the Lesser Antilles. Of those subspecies, the one on Antigua, Buteo platypterus insulicola, has the smallest range, being endemic to just that one island. It is said to be smaller and lighter than any other subspecies of Broad-winged Hawk. And also notable about it is that it is the only bird (as a subspecies) endemic to the island of Antigua.    

After the sun set, on the remote, quiet island of Barbuda, in the otherwise dark night-time sky, the profusion of stars was brilliant. The thousands of stars, from first to sixth magnitude, were magnificent as was the band of the Milky Way across the sky. To look up at Orion in February, without being cold was nice indeed. Looking at it, through binoculars and seeing the nebula was great. To the eyes (even those of a person getting older), there were, as just noted, thousands of stars. With the binoculars, there were thousands more.
Being out that night, I thought how nice it would be to hear an owl. There were the sounds of frogs, but I realized that there are no owls, any longer, anywhere in Antigua & Barbuda. And it's now the same for Guadeloupe.

There were, until about the end of the 19th Century. There were 2 subspecies of the widespread Burrowing Owl: the Antigua Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia amaura and the Guadeloupe Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia guadeloupensis. Both are now extinct, and both, it's written, became so by 1900. The culprit with both is said to have been the introduced animal, the Mongoose. 
The Guadeloupe Burrowing Owl was actually on an offshore Guadeloupe island known as Marie Galante. 
The Antigua Burrowing Owl was on the islands of Antigua, Nevis, and St. Christopher (St. Kitts).
Burrowing Owls still exist on Caribbean islands on Cuba, Hispaniola, and in the Bahamas. 
From a few specimens, it is known that the isolated Guadeloupe and Antigua Burrowing Owls were darker than others in the West Indies. 

Offshore from Antigua, 35 miles, there's actually a third island in that country with the name of two islands, Antigua & Barbuda. That little island is called Redonda, a rocky volcanic islet. No people live on that island, but seabirds, of various kinds, nest there such as Red-footed and Brown Boobies and Brown Noddies.
But in the "Caribbean Islands Handbook" there's a most interesting note (that seems erroneous based on everything else I've read). Certainly it's intriguing. The note: "Redonda is well-known for its burrowing owl, now extinct on Antigua". 
As just indicated, no one lives there. And as of yet, I don't know anyone who's ever been there.

After referring in this essay to island birds, and ending with some that have gone extinct, a concluding statement or two is appropriate:

Among the bird species listed by Birdlife International (of the U.K.) as being at risk of extinction throughout the world, nearly half (46%) are island species.
And, since 1600, 93% of all the bird species and subspecies that have become extinct, globally, are island species.

There may not be as many species of birds during tours in the Caribbean, as there are some other places, but those that are there are certainly worth seeing. 
And we enjoyed doing so on the West Indian islands we visited in February 2011.   


1) Nature other than birds was also observed during the FONT Feb '11 Caribbean Tour:

The island of Guadeloupe, from high in the air, or on a map, has the shape of a butterfly. 
Among the butterflies that we saw on that picturesque island, in addition to the common Whites, Yellows, and Blues, there was a beauty called the Red Rim, Biblis hyperis, and some of the local population of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus. 
Monarch butterflies in the Caribbean, that have been treated as races or subspecies, are resident and do not migrate. 

Land Mammals are few and far between on Caribbean islands, with most being those with wings, that is various bats, and those that have historically been introduced.

We noticed a raccoon as an emblem on signs for the large Guadeloupe Natural Park (an area of forested hills and volcanoes). It has been called the Guadeloupe Raccoon
But recent studies (from 1999 to 2005) have determined however that the animal on Guadeloupe is actually the subspecies of the Northern Raccoon from the Bahamas. That subspecies, Procyon lotor maynardi, is an endemic on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, other than the population transplanted on Guadeloupe. It is said to have been brought there by humans "a few centuries ago". 
When the Guadeloupe Raccoon was considered a valid subspecies, it was Procyon lotor minor. When it was said to be a distinct species, it was Procyon minor. With whatever classification, it is a rare animal on Guadeloupe, with a small and declining population estimated at about 2,000 individuals.

On Barbuda, a mammal that was seen not brought there by humans was the Greater Bulldog (or Fishing) Bat, doing that, fishing, after dark at a pond where the Whistling Ducks were doing that, whistling.

While the number of land mammal species in the West Indies is low, that of amphibians and reptiles there is high, with a large number of endemics on the various islands. 
During our tour, there were Watt's Anole and Griswold's Ameiva on Barbuda and Leach's Anole there and on Antigua. Those lizards are endemic to Antigua & Barbuda. We also saw the attractive, green Leopard Anole, endemic to Guadeloupe.
On both Barbuda & Antigua, there were Lesser Antillean Whistling Frogs. On Barbuda, we came across a Red-footed Tortoise (called locally the "land turtle"), not native on Caribbean islands, having been introduced from South America where it is widespread.
Seashells on the beaches of Barbuda are varied and interesting, None of us dove or snorkeled but the underwater marine life there is said to be varied and interesting as well.  

2) More regarding the island of Redonda:    

Historically, on that small rocky islet it was guano that was the draw, in those days an important ingredient in the making of explosives. The guano was from the large number of terns, boobies, pelicans, and frigatebirds that contributed to the phosphate deposits.
In 1979, a group of naturalists, an archeologist, and a geologist went there. They discovered only two trees as the islet is covered mainly with coarse grass and cactus. The entomologist tallied 20 species of small moths. A beetle attracted to seabird guano was discovered. And of course the seabirds were there. But the party also did find a Burrowing Owl, a species that had disappeared from Antigua over 80 years earlier! 

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