St Vincent

East coast of St Vincent

St Vincent will forever remain tender in our hearts, probably because it was where we had a break!

Now I don’t think we will reap much sympathy here… With the usual question coming to mind, ‘So, you’re surveying seabirds in the Caribbean’? (With warm, azure seas, golden sweeps of beaches and day after day of sunshine, in-bedded in the question).

and the odd fish...

The reality: it is fantastic and we love being outside and finding tennis balls of fluff gaping up at us from under a boulder… But, seabirds don’t follow the holiday makers. They go where others won’t, to the most remote, wave battered, hostile rocks far from man and his predating pets.

Sail Rock, St Vincent Grenadines

Ellen Rock, St Vincent Grenadines

Mustique... The picture postcard Caribbean

And so we followed, on our mission to record the number and location of all breeding seabirds on islands never or arbitrarily surveyed in the Lesser Antilles – reporting our findings to the Mothership, Natalia, at the EIPC (www.epicislands.org) head office. So by the time Wallilabou Bay came along we were ready to collapse in a heap.

Wallilabou Bay, St Vincent

The old boot thinks she's something special...?!!

But first Megan and I lead a publicity campaign to which no other could rival. We presented to the police and the young police club, the National Trust, the Forestry Department, over five schools, two radio stations, anyone who would listen and finally the ‘holy grail’ TV! Now, I think I was the only member of the team who truly relished performing in front of the camera. I blame my acting ‘heyday’ (ehem, primary school rantings) Anyway, it turns out, also as a surprise to myself, that I am a pre-Madonna and have found my home on the big screen, well local St Vincentain TV.. So poor Megan and Dave hardly got a look in as I glowered at the public of St Vincent. Although, in truth, Megan hated the mere mention of filming and it took a good elbow from Dave and myself to ensure our siren got a slice of the action. That night we videoed the TV at Wallilabou and watched the scene unfold… the edited broadcast version showed much of me and then a brief glimpse of domestic violence as Megan was shoved into the fray! The long and short of it was that everyone in St Vincent knew we had landed and learnt about seabird conservation, so the multi-prong attack had succeeded and was a recipe for success……..?!

Brian Johnson,AndrewLockhart,Fitzgerald Providence

Megan presenting to StV schools

Barrouallie Young Police Club

The route into town, Kingstown (the capital) from our anchorage at Wallilabou was tortuous. A mini bus would grind, honking to a holt and the entire human cargo would file out so we could squeeze onto a seat. Then, we would pound through the countryside with our ears blasted by Carib-dance anthems, wheels screaming around hairpin corners, Megan and I clutching one another as we nose-dived down to the sea and then up the next hill. The driver would blast the horn to tempt victims and catapult a massive Mumu or two onto a seat and half of Dave’s, before speeding off past banana plantations, thick forest, rainbow-coloured houses on stilts and a meandering skein of plastic rubbish.

Barroualle nr Wallilabou on the way to Kingstown

One morning we caught the bus at a particularly rude hour, still in murky half-light we sped for nearly an hour past sleepy eyed residents rubbing their eyes and wondering about in boxer shorts. Finally arriving in Kingstown we marched down the streets past the first fish and veg sellers and found our way to the radio station and then set off to the Forestry Department who were superb. They were interested in the work, lavishing us with ideas and help, suggesting media contacts, schools and partnerships. In turn, we offered to give presentations and to take their staff on a survey of the island.

The commute to the Captain Jack Sparrow Pontoon

At eight am on the survey day, Amos and Springer arrived and we grabbed them from the pontoon and paddled to Lista. That day we sailed/motored from Wallilabou Bay on the mid-West coast of St Vincent north, down the east coast, finally stopping near Young Island on the south-east of Wallilabou. We recorded every seabird (and any land-birds) roosting, flying or loitering, as well as the official breeding seabirds.

Springer and Amos from the Forestry Department

Gorgeous, wooded StV north coast

The seas were buttered with gliding birds: Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies and occasionally the biggest Boobies of all, the Masked Boobies, soaring over the crests of the waves. Sometimes, we happened across a thick, multi-species knot of birds, frenziedly feeding on a school of fish. This was a spectacle to see throughout our surveys, often near islands in upwellings of crashing waves, with different species using different tactics to hunt their prey, whether diving like arrows from a height into the deep (the Boobies – relative to our English Gannet), dipping into the surface (many of the ‘butterfly’ like terns) or the bandits (Magnificent Frigatebirds) chasing other seabirds until they disgorged their meal.

A Brown Booby gliding over the waves by StV

A Brown Booby paddling in sea like a duck

The Boobies had become a particular favourite of ours (although if you were to ask us about any of the other seabird species, they would no doubt be a favourite too…). Anyway, they were a superb family with their quizzical faces peering at us, whether an inquisitive Red-footed Booby chick looking down his beak at us from a guano covered tree nest, a Brown Booby adult in her waiter’s suit bobbing to her mate or a Masked Booby tight as a tick on his nest of neatly assorted stones. Then there would be the juvenile Brown and Red-footed Boobies in their almost indistinguishable liveries who would almost crash into Lista in their enthusiastic investigations and repeated, but failed attempts to land. And of course there was the name, which without failure sent every classroom of pupils into fits of giggles whenever Megan or I mentioned it. We tried talking our way around their names, but that didn’t really work, besides, laughs were always good and at least everyone would remember one family….!

..one more pici.. A pair of Brown Boobies

Back to the round island survey…Further inland, Royal Terns (true to name) with their large amber beaks and black crests, quartered the beaches and coastline, but we didn’t find many breeding seabirds on the cliffs, which actually was the case on most of the populated islands. We did, however, find a new breeding species, White-tailed Tropicbirds. Relatives of the Red-billed Tropicbirds with their magnificent, white, tail streamers doubling their body length, they looked very similar to the larger cousin, particularly in the heat haze over blue sea. On closer inspection, however, their bills were yellow and they lacked the black eye stripe that extended around the back of the heads and joined the other eye of the Red-bills. Additionally, they had a black panel on their median/greater coverts, but the most useful identifier we found was their call; a scatter gun of ‘pepping’ calls, compared to the Red-bills, which is a peeling exclamation followed by a descending spiral of ‘peeps’.. Right, think I will stop there, am not sure you are any wiser with these descriptions.

Another shocking image..White-tailed Tropicbirds

In the meantime, Amos and Springer regaled us about life in St Vincent and a childhood of long days running free, gauging their selves on fruits. From Wallilabou, north, the coastline was a stunning mass of green towering forest. The forest was pock-marked by the occasional settlement, small shambling dwellings or the make-shift homes of the cannabis growers. Amos and Springer told us of their endemic St Vincent Parrot, which with St Lucia and Dominica, were the only islands within our study area that were home to the rare Amazon parrots. We surmised that the parrots must have flown from South America to the rainforests of these islands thousands of years ago and overtime evolved into the species present. Or could the first Amerindian settlers have been involved in their transportation, was their enough time for the parrots to evolve into a new species?

Fisherman with Frigates in attendance

Banana flower, one of the many fruits grown on StV

Wallilabou Bay became our nest from where Megan and I painted, Dave constructed and we all read. Megan nearly having finished her tome, Les Miserables (literally pronounced), also hunted down prospective MSc or PhD opportunities. Dave’s mission was to refurbish just about every block aboard Lista. For the uninitiated, a ‘block’ according to Tom Cunliffe, ‘your man’ (as Emily-being Irish would have said) when it comes to all things ye olde sailing, is, ‘A pulley on board ship’. Lista, being an old gal, boasts the most beautiful of these oval ash or elm contraptions dangling within her hair… sorry, David will be scoffing, this is a far too lyrical/non-sensicle description. A picture below should explain all. Anyway, Dave tried a series of different concoctions to beautify and strengthen the blocks, first sanding, then boiling them in linseed oil, then dousing them in anything he could get his hands on from wood stain to simple linseed. ‘Experimentation’, is the general guiding principle we use aboard Lista, trying new and traditional products that could be more sustainable or ‘green’.

A block

Dave and the guitar

I found a beautiful stream swathed in rampant vegetation and together Dave and I scrambled along its bank running past the odd cow and her calf, but otherwise no humans at all, just nutmeg trees, strangler figs and a trail winding higher and higher into the hills.

On the way to the stream

One evening we decided to run a different route, passing yellowy houses, under the glow of street lamps and collections of guys hanging around bars and shacks, in a haze of fruity smoke. As we wound our way up the hill, the signs of people reduced, as did visibility and the sounds of the night took over. The buzzing of thousands of cicadas and unidentified insects, with the high pitched squeaks of tree frogs grew into a hot crescendo as our foot falls grew more lethargic. Then, suddenly, we saw a flash. Then another and another, until an entire tree was turning on and off in front of eyes. The lights would suddenly take off and dart into space or join one another, loop the looping down to the vegetation at the road side. It was an incredible performance, the likes of which we had never seen before.

Bouyed by the lack of people, the musty smell of vegetation, the shapes of bats twisting past us and the ultimate display of the fireflies, we drank in the cool air and galloped home. This was the Caribbean we had been looking for, an island resplendent with tropical vegetation, with intact rainforest still growing high. It was far removed from Sint Maarten where the fire flies had disappeared, along with most of the natural world, to be replaced by concrete and burnt, flabby tourists.

North coast of StV again

St Vincent is notorious for its ‘boat-boys’ who are a hot topic amongst the yachtie brigade. Most detest them, as the guys madly motor towards a boat heading into a bay to anchor and rap on their sides (knocking the freshly painted hull) and demand money for mangoes, wine, oysters, tying lines, making bread…… Others adore their services. On our arrival they flocked around us, with wars breaking out across Lista’s stern as to who would reap the booty. But, we found that they soon grew tired of the three ruffians, anchored for far too long a period to be interesting within the bay. One guy, however, was particularly persistent with a medley of rotten offerings, which he doggedly paddled to us each day aboard his surf board, wearing a huge orange life jacket.

Wallilabou Bay and the Pirates of Carib set

One Sunday we all trotted off to church. Megan and I had been meaning to go for ages, Dave was mildly interested. The Pentecostal service was in full swing when we arrived. We couldn’t exactly skulk anywhere being the only white, blonde, blue eyed people and in Dave’s case, giants, in the congregation. So everyone turned around as we shuffled into our pew. Two men at the front held microphones and soon the whole congregation were belting out hymns accompanying the orchestral beats on the stereo. Then the sermon began. People feverishly followed the verses in their bible while the preacher belted out praise for God. We were lambs following God and then he would suddenly exclaim, ‘Somebody Say…..’…. In this instance it was ‘lambs of God’ and so the audience would cry out, ‘God!’ The next verse it was ‘holding my staff’….‘Somebody Say, Staff.’ So we bleated the line. This continued for a good forty minutes, by which time people were crying, swaying and dancing and we were wondering how we were going to extract ourselves as there appeared to be no hint of an end.

Megan and DL in there Sunday best!

Eventually we made a leap for the isle and thanked the relevant parties and wondered back down the lane. Christianity is incredibly powerful within the Caribbean and finally we had a glimpse on the world. Small children, the odd teen and plenty of middle aged and older people attended church. The numbers were clearly much larger than in the UK, but the young were still lacking. Various denominations were represented throughout each island, with most streets boasting one type of church or another. When chatting to islanders God was often brought into sentences, whilst whole radio programmes was dedicated to worship. Then there was the ‘funeral hour’ radio broadcast, when the names of long lines of relatives, close friends, distant friends, anyone wondering off the street… would be read out and their praise for the deceased delivered under the doleful notes of organ pipes.

Friend on the way back from church

Having a good scratch

Whilst travelling through the Lesser Antilles we had very often encountered, ‘one shoe’. We could not really comprehend why it was that only one shoe should be present, but nevertheless, from trainers, to boots, to flip-flops to sandals, the last owner had only seen fit to abandon one shoe. Whether strung over a telephone wire, sitting proud in a ditch, along a beach or under a mangrove bush they continually popped up. Who they belonged to, what they had done to deserve such treatment, was an abiding enigma and there being no noticeable increase in one-legged islanders only compounded the mystery. Then one evening, a clue emerged. Megan and I were walking back from town to meet Dave. We couldn’t find the path in the dark and clambered over a grassy bank aided by the light from a passer by’s mobile phone. Safely at the bottom of the bank, we found a swift running stream that we had to ford. I leapt over and was busy screaming at Dave who we had been trying to attract for the past half hour, when I heard a yelp. In attempting to cross the stream, Megan’s flipflop had slipped to her toe and before she knew it had dived for freedom. No longer inextricably linked to its boring ‘other half’ it was free to kick back and head off to join the glorious waiting room of one shoes in the sky…..

Megan before the loss ot the one shoe.

So it was, that Wallilabou Bay, which we had not been all together sure about going to (being convinced that its fame for hosting the Pirates of the Caribbean film would render if heaving with tourists) had become our sanctuary. The bar where we got internet was still the dilapidated set for the film, with coffins and pirates lining the walls. The lady who served us ginger cordial beamed at us and became our favourite, a donkey and her foal grazed nearby and spotted pigs screamed on the hillside. Dave was endeared to the St Vincentians when failing to extract money from a local hole in the wall, without a penny on him, was given $5EC to catch the bus to town to find a bank that would cough up! And then there was the shimmering phosphorescence that bubbled in the water beneath our boat. Under the cover of darkness, we would dive deep into the green water, silver jets bursting from our bodies and bob about under a kaleidoscope of stars.

Gutting fish at Wallilabou

Finally we left and under sail, with only the sound of water rushing at our bows and belted down St Vincent’s coastline. Lured by the blue sea, Megan and I tied fenders on long lines behind the boat and dived in and sat (no glamorous surfing) in Lista’s wake. Our last stop was Petti Bayout, or Ginger Bay as we christened it, this being the result of Megan churning out vats of ginger cookies and Dave crystallizing ginger, creating a veritable factory of ginger brewing. Now Megan has been christened the Queen of Cookies and she deserves the accolade producing the most mouth-watering, melting ‘biscuits’. Unfortunately, on this instance, we didn’t have the correct sugar for the cookies, so Megan had to use some sort of icing sugar…. Resulting in not quite the same level of culinary excellence. Indeed, I think there may still be some of the little cannon balls hanging around still, failing to grow stale, nor attracting even any insect infestation whatsoever. The bay was beautiful, with wooded cliffs and honey comb peaks, a wisp of a beach and fireflies pricking the sky each night.

Dragging behind Lista

Megan's cookies

And a few last memmories of St Vincent: Milligan Cay where we found Bridle Terns and their eggs. Dave and a blow hole and some urchins on Milligan Cay. Washing in the rain on Lista’s deck (this may have been a St Lucia photo..) it happens whenever there is a downpour (fairly often) and is a longstanding luxury living a board our floating caravan.

Bridle Tern Egg

Blow holw

Sea urchins

Washing on decks

St Lucia

The last few months have been packed with the two royal ‘B’s, Birds and Boats, hence, the lack of any chat of, ‘where-to?’ and ‘what-fors?’

So finally, sitting in the oven that is our saloon, I shall attempt to fill you in….

Megan and Marcus

We sailed thought the night with Marcus (our singing Swede) through a whispering blackness, finally halting at the coast of Martinique on my birthday, 11th April, to a reception of Barn Swallows who laced the shrouds and sung us salutations. We deposited Marcus onto the shore in the early morning. He had set sail from Sweden in 2008, aged 25 and crossed the Atlantic with his mate, in his 24 ‘odd’ foot boat, Dory. He had dined aboard Lista with Clare our crew mate in Caruna, when Dave and I were banqueting at my sister’s wedding and Dave’s cousin’s. So it was with vague symmetry, that we wished him well on his way back to Sweden and the start of new adventures 4000 miles further on.

But after leaving Antigua and Barbuda, the first true landfall was St Lucia…….

Famous piton rising up on W coast of St Lucia

And with it came a parrot, not any old shoulder perching parrot, but the real McCoy, well actually the real Amazonia versicolor the endangered St Lucia Parrot. Megan, Dave and I will never forget it and so, St Lucia will forever be synonymous with rainforest and parrots.

Tree ferns on the tracks in the rainforest

As the sun was rising and the cockerels were well into their sixth and seventh requiems, we paddled ashore and clambered up the beach and onto a track. Immediately we bumped into two glossy little Green Herons Butorides virescens skulking in puddles that were steaming after the night’s rain. Rounding the hill we walked down into Soufriere, passing pigs snuffling on the beach, roosters, line upon line of rainbow coloured washing billowing above the pavement, dilapidated shacks, people stretching and yawning. We found the bus stop and waited until finally a van arrived and we shot up into the hills, to be ejected at the end of the road, where the bus reversed and roared off to collect other flotsam and jetsam loitering at the side of the road…

Sorry, just a quick aside, on the subjects of buses in the Caribbean. They work! Individuals, generally cool guys with a predilection for pounding tunes (in fact that encompasses most of the Caribbean public) dart up and down the roads of the Caribbean swiping vagrants from the side of the road and jamming them to their destination. The buses are converted vans, with perhaps 10-11 seats, but more can squish in or land on top of you. They are fast and furious, but the main lessons that us Brits should learn , is that they are regular you never find yourself waiting for a bus, where ever you are in the countryside or town they are always running. The thought of sitting for most of the morning on a forlorn bench on Dartmoor for a girt coach that passes twice a day if you’re lucky puts the best of travellers off, this way, cars are pretty much redundant.

On the track to the rainforest

Back to the rainforest, Megan, Dave and I walked up the road that turned into a track through thick secondary rainforest, interspersed with crop patches. True to its name, fat drops of rain soon started to fall, before long we were completely deluged and cowering under huge umbrella leaves. A guy with a ‘panga’ (machete) joined us and we sat watching torrents of rain descending. Pangas are ubiquitous in the Caribbean, one lady whom we met in Montserrat commented that there were few places in the world where she would feel safe picking up a guy wondering down the road wielding a machete and offer to give him a lift! They are superb implements and as far as I can see are deployed in just about every situation whether cutting vegetation, weeding crops, digging holes, slashing open coconuts or cutting your neighbour’s ear off…..

Heleconia

The rain never really stopped so the three drowned rats kept descending up the hillside until we found the entrance to the forest. We then wondered down paths and tracks through humming rainforest, with huge tree ferns wavering above us and wisps of mist uncoiling in the luscious vegetation. Heliconia caribaea (Bird of paradise) type plants hung their gargantuan blooms, collecting water and debris like buckets and consequently stinking to high noon. Antillean Crested Hummingbirds Orthorhyncus cristatusand Purple-throated Caribs Eulampis jugularis sipped nectar with their wings buzzing at full throttle in a clearing on a ridge, while a Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus (that looked just like a mini version of our Common Buzzard Buteo buteo and cousin to Elstone Buteo jamaicensis.

Helconia

We had quite a few visitors, peering at us through the vegetation; a Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus clambering in the tree tops and lots of little Lesser Antillean Bullfinches Loxigilla noctis hopping from branch to branch. Then in a small clearing we spotted a Robin sized bird. Gradually, it grew bolder and came closer and closer, almost stretching to grab some mango from Megan’s hand, before retreating. The friendly wee chap turned out to be a Lesser Antillean Flycatcher Myiarchus oberi. Meanwhile we were providing the local English take-away to the resident mosi fraternity.

Lesser Antillean Flycatcher

Mosquito dining on Dave's blood

We stood for ages with our Flycatcher. All sorts of creatures started to reveal themselves from within the undergrowth, including the most haunting whistles. We peered into trees to work out what on earth was making these celestial notes, a frog perhaps, an Oriole? The St Lucia Oriole Icterus laudabilis a striking black and yellow Blackbird Turdus merula sized bird, like many of the Orioles in the Caribbean is endemic to one island and is declining due to habitat loss (same old story). Also due to the spraying of pesticides which reduce their prey and the spread of the parasitic Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis which acts like our Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. We have the Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, a rare summer migrant to the East of England where it can be found breeding in commercial poplar plantations. The male is golden and black and sings the most stunning fluting sound. But, after all of this chat, we have finally traced down the song of the St Lucia Oriole and it wasn’t our songster at all… So the search goes on.

A forest crab- landcrabs everywhere in Caribbean

Megan tries to tempt thr Flycatcher

On we walked, randomly winding our way up and down paths. Dave ‘optimistically’ worked out the likelihood of our seeing a parrot was probably less than 1/1000, based on the area of habitat, the number of trees per square metre and the latest parrot census. And almost exactly after he had sealed the words of doom, we heard them, three screeching maniacs flapping madly to lose us over the canopy. Needless to say all we saw was a streak of vibrant green, but seeing a parrot in the wild was pretty incredible for all of us and for Megan (being a parrot fancier) it was almost too much to take…!

After seeing the Parrot....

Entrance to forest, promoting conservation & care

We hopped into the van of a Forestry Department ranger on our way down from the Reserve and he explained that they had just finished the most recent census and that there were over 1000 parrots left in St Lucia. Apparently a team of scientists from the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) had joined him and his colleagues in the survey. This had involved pairs of surveyors being stationed at viewpoints across the reserves in the early morning and late afternoon recording parrot activity for three solid weeks. He explained that the problem now was that the lack of habitat was pushing the parrots into farmland (previous forest) and that they were feeding on fruits, nuts and crops leading to renewed human-bird conflicts.

Flowers by thr track side.

View out of the forest

The issue of keeping parrots as pets is contentious. People adore their intelligence and loyalty. The problem is that their populations are vulnerable or endangered in the wild. Pet traders claim only to possess birds bred in captivity, but the illegal trade in birds captured from the wild continues. By keeping a pet parrot, there is a concern that it will perpetuate demand leading to greater pressure on the remaining, threatened populations.

St Lucia Parrot up close at Gov offices

We kept a Red-tailed Hawk whilst living in Devon and took ages deciding whether it was morally fair. In our view, we were keeping a bird that was common in its native homelands of the Americas, so there was no threat to its wild status. (Falconers keeping hawks native to the UK, such as Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrines, have to be registered and are inspected by the police to ensure that no eggs or chicks are taken from the wild). Secondly, we hunted rabbits and rats with Elstone, prey that he would hunt naturally in the wild and we flew him just about every day. Thirdly, when we lost him at the beginning of the ‘manning process’ (when he was learning to associate us with food) he flew about 50m away into a tree where he sat for the next two days. His two driving forces were food and fear and the balance there of. We gained from him, watching his behaviour and habitats, as did people who saw him, he was healthy, but whether happy…..who knows?

Elstone

We spent some time trying to obtain a permit to undertake our seabird work. In the meantime we moored at Rodney Bay, a fairly modern, plastic marina, which nevertheless became home. Dave and I smashed off on a few runs into the ‘suburbs’ packed with mansion sized houses, guard dogs and fences to the headland which had also been divided up into housing plots in the relentless urbanisation of the island.

Emily cuts my hair...!

We worked with the Forestry Department and National Trust, meeting them in the beautiful forested grounds of their offices surrounded by a motley collection of animals and birds in cages. Dave, Megan and I powered up the projector and introduced the scope of the project and spoke about seabird conservation. They suggested all sorts of ideas for spreading the conservation message including creating a film, that we could use when speaking to community groups in 2010. Elevated by the meeting we trotted down the track under vast tropical trees, resplendent with climbers and set off to prepare for our surveys.

Washerwoman

Dirk & Anne

Few other events to report, save for Dave’s momentary collapse when he accidentally poured 300 litres of water into the fuel tank (so glad it wasn’t me!). My belated birthday celebrations, when Dave and I slunk off to a restaurant and unexpectedly finding Dirk and Anne again. We met the Canadian-Dutch couple first in El Jadida, Morocco amid the bustling fishing boats, found them again in the Canaries and expected that was it, until we met them in Sint Maarten (when they turned up to our seabird presentation) St Lucia and finally Grenada. They are an extraordinary couple on their second global tour, living most of their lives aboard their 45 foot boat, with the biggest hearts and the most incredible, Jeepers Jack, Holy Mackeral stories….

Emily, sailing to St Lucia

Rodney Bay was also where we left Emily, with Dave picking up the wee Irish nymph and depositing her and her cases on the pontoon in a fly-by, before we departed for the birds. She had arrived in woollen tights most unexpectedly in Sint Maarten and travelled with us for over 500 miles whipping up meals, slathering on face packs and generally infusing the boat with her Gaelic charm. Never one able to suppress emotions, lumps began to form in my throat and tears dropped to the deck.

Emily's and the face mask

Emily and Megan had also become best of friends, waging competitions on who might gather the greatest number of kisses. Emily won, although Megan could not have lost, being a human honey-pot with a swathe of Caribbean men following her wherever she swaggered, with Dave and I acting like a pair of crotchety parents swotting her poor drooling followers in her wake.

Emily and Megan making My B'd cake

Booby chicks

Skips

Bird Rock

With Emily receding into the distance, we sailed north and found wave blasted islets with Brown Booby chicks and flocks of roosting Magnificent Frigatebirds all new records, new to St Lucia and the Caribbean. We sailed down the howling East Coast passing bright villages and new developments. In the distance Megan thought she noticed birds, as we grew closer, the sky looked to be writhing in movement. Sooty Terns everywhere, screeching and tumbling through the sky, fishing in the waves and descending into the cacti of Maria Island at the far south-west of St Lucia. This was our first encounter with the returning migratory masses and the sight was forbidding. The birds had just started pouring back to their summer breeding grounds and were being joined by Bridled Terns and Brown Noddies. With more birds due to arrive and the full summer count due in 2010, we counted the flocks aerially and estimated over 1500 already breeding. This was a first signal of the increased tempo and magnitude of the survey in the weeks to follow!!!

Sooty Terns

On Maria Island

Surveying

Like many of the seabird islands, Maria Island had a rich assemblage of other wildloife from brightly coloured lizards, to the ubiquitous Carib Grackles Quiscalus lugubris recorded chewing on tern eggs. The cacti had also started to bloom.

Ground Lizard

Carib Grackle

Cactus blooming

Moor Sooty Terns nesting in the cacti

From our anchorage at Maria Island, Megan and I kayaked to Scorpion Island, a small mangrove covered islet some 2.5 miles away within a reef that prevented Lista from nosing close. There was nothing on the island apart from land-crabs peeping out of every hole and a film of rubbish. On the way home the wind smacked us on the beam of the kayaks and without a rudder we were having to paddle solely on the starboard side to stop the boat from heading straight into the wind, where she is happiest with two aboard. Of course, Land (now Lowrie) seized the opportunity on a fitness drive to power as hard as I could. On arriving back to Maria Island, I realised I couldn’t get out of the boat, nor could I get onto Lista. On closer inspection by Dave and Megan, it was found that my spine had kicked out of a place from all the one-sided straining and now had a good meander at its base.

In absolute agony, I was like a little old lady tottering around the boat. The next day I scraped my way along the street in Vieux Fort desperately seeking a doctor or lift to the hospital for an x-ray. Finally we found our way to an air-conditioned fridge of a waiting room and with Marie Clares pressed into our palms, I awaited my marching orders. A Doctor beckoned me in and within 5 minutes had diagnosed the problem, explaining that my muscles had a spasm due to the incessant, unaccustomed exercise and that I should pop some pills for the next couple of days and avoid further activity. Annoyed about the latter, but jubilant by the former I knocked back the first pills and just as he predicted was sorted within a few days.

Captain

Ah, almost forgot to mention, we met some characters in Vieux Fort. First a lovely chatty guy who was filling us in on BBC world service and his culinary exploits- rice and peas, which he cooked for his family every night, occasionally with some chicken. Then there was another guy who wanted to hold Megan and my hand. This was mildy unusual, but not completely extraordinary, men generally shouted at us as we wondered the streets…..but what was unusual was his attention to Dave. As soon as he saw our rugged captain he grabbed him and looked lovingly into his eyes. Then, on a second encounter he tried to kiss the big swathy man!!! Well, I mean, you try and resist??!

The beauty!

We seemed to home to Rodney Bay throughout our stay at St Lucia, becoming addicted to the cold chocolate frappes administered in a cafe by the docks where we obtained internet access. Searching for internet access became our pre-occupation throughout our surveys. We constantly needed to speak to contacts, arrange permits and meetings, send newspaper articles, add the odd diary entry and keep Natalia up-to-date with it all. Natalia is president of Environmental Protection In the Caribbean (EPIC). She realized the need for a comprehensive census of the seabirds in the Lesser Antilles in 2000. She and her husband, Adam, began surveying islands in the north of the chain near to their charity’s base in Sint Maarten, but were unable to do a complete survey of the archipelago due to the extent and the number of islands necessitating a live-aboard boat. They also had two children, Cadence and Ella, which slightly complicated the proceedings! So Natalia became my long distance mentor.

Little Blue Heron Visitor

Anchoring

We tried anchoring in a beautiful wooded cove to the south of it, but the anchor wouldn’t stick, so back to Rodney Bay we fled. Not before jumping into the cool green water as a rain storm descended and we swam through a barrage of huge droplets ricocheting off our heads.

Swimming

Sailing along St Lucia's coastline

Barbuda

Over the course of our journey to date we have been amazed by the variety amongst the islands of the Caribbean, preconceptions of simple white sand, and pina-coladas, and stereo-types of jovial “don’t worry be happy” mommas have been blown clean out of the water. Barbuda, this flat smear on the ocean was to be no different. Over the course of the journey too, we have always been ready to leave each of our ocean “nests” by the time of departure, excited to be moving on, exhausted from rolly anchorages, breaking moorings, grating anchor chains, even unreliable contacts and harassing officials. In this instance Barbuda was totally different. We could have stayed for a week and feel like she, this rural petit idyll has plenty to offer people of our mindset. Til we meet again, Barbuda

Pink sand beaches

Due to pressure on our schedule (uh-hum, how business like…) from slow passages with a minimal rig, and from some meetings with assessors we had originally considered whether Barbuda would even be possible at all. On the one hand it was the home of a trillion Magnificent Frigates (well, about 2500pairs, the biggest population in the Caribbean), a massive spectacle which because of its importance is currently being studied by a Phd student, and the local Environment Awareness Group (EAG) of Antigua and Barbuda. So there was work we could draw upon instead of reinventing the wheel. On the other hand Barbuda must be home to other species too, and perhaps they hadn’t received the same focus? To the north of Barbuda, is, well, nowt, until Nova Scotia 1500 miles to the North, so as a geographic outpost it peaked our interest. We headed off from Green Island, Antigua SW, nice and early, under motor and sail until about noon, easily pushing 5kts with an ensemble of mizzen, mizzen staysail, main(3-reefs) and Jib, and a low level of motor assistance. The breeze improved a little so we cut the engine and still kept our pace on a beam reach which improved my mood no end! Perfect. The scientists rested their minds or mulched on the morphology of a tropicbird or some such. I scanned for Whales and Dolphins. We had seen bugger all since passing some miles to the North of Barbuda in January. The depths on this leg of the passage barely exceed 30m but at the deepest point something caught my eye. A bloody great splash, and again with large blows! I yelled something and awaiting the awkward few minutes after raising the alarm when everybody is scanning the horizon and starting to doubt, oh dear. But relief! They smashed through the surface again and again – a pod of 5-6 Humpbacks a couple of miles from our starboard bow but clearly visible. No photos of random bits of sea, just lovely to see and remember.

Home for 4 days

Barbuda is more chanced upon than arrived at. With a peak of 59m, the bulk of the 64sqm being below 10m it all that is seen from up to 5 miles out is a very fine, sheer line of white sand with the odd palm tree. As we eventually picked our way through the reef into Cocoa Point we were greeted by both Bottlenose Dolphins and a huge Turtle, probably a Leatherback, and mile upon mile of white sand. The population of 1500 must have been elsewhere, which was nice.

The next two days unravelled with military precision and planning. Without time to factor in “outreach” here this was 100% surveys. It took Kath back to her Boland days, where I had stalked her originally proving my outdoor credentials through kilometre squares of bog and moor, seeing only her rump as she tore up the hills (once surveying, once to re-collect key articles deposited on the hill like GPSs etc)…

Day 1.

Megan and Emily were handed Spanish Point and as far North as they could get on the Eastern fringe. Having landed the bikes the night before, Kath and I mounted the old steeds (after recovering then from the night watchmen at Cocoa Point everso exclusive hotel complex) and surveyed the South West up to Codrington passing a number of breeding pelicans at the port crashing blindingly into the small fry at the waters surface…

Breeding Plumage Adult Brown Pelicans

Breeding Plumage Adult Pelicans

Breeding Plumage Adult Pelicans

We hesitated for a brief internet session at the furniture store, and cool bottle from the shop (conspicuous in its lack of alcohol, despite it being 11am the locals seemed to have gone straight to beers to wake up), and then joined the Highlands at gun shop cave,10m to the North. The highlands in this case was a slight aspiration, at a mighty 26m, but I guess relativity might play a part in this little misunderstanding. From there we headed out on foot leaving the bikes in the mangrove.

The territory

Trusty hayless horses (the bike that is, not kath)

The bikes have been heroic. We treat them badly, prop up the seats with stones, walk them down gritty beaches, load them in salty seawater and in return they provide us easy miles, even on dust, ball-breaking roads, and fast access to survey sites anytime of day. They also allow us to get a good idea of habitat, predators/threats and see amazing sights along the way like the American Kestrels, Crested Hummingbirds and the ever present Bananaquits…

American Kestrel (aka killy killy)

Antillean Crested Hummingbird

Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Bananaquits

Back on foot -mile upon mile of white sand and flotsam greeted us, baked our senses, and filled our crappy shoes. Flotsam consisted of mainly single shoes, a theme on Barbuda, fishing floats, oil cartons and assorted crap floated over from Europe.

Flotsam

By the time we had surveyed the northern section the paths had turned into donkey tracks, then goat tracks then duck waddling tracks then no tracks at all, just mangrove. We walked miles before chancing upon 5 boys mounted facing variously forward or backwards on 3 donkeys who grinned at us foolish donkey-less white folk, and eventually Codrington, the capital, for ice-cream and hydration.

Friend or Foe

We hitched and walked home as the night sky turned the azure and white into shades of metallic grey and blue. Nudey nocturnal swimming back to base camp always a treat.

Day 2

Breakfast strategy meeting at 6am. Landing craft departed at 0700. Clinical. This time Megan and Emily tackled the Western fringe, so far as could be reached until Mangroves said no, and then headed North to Codrington. Lowrie and Lowrie yomped to the South of the highland chain and surveyed north splitting between cliff and dunes. This was spectacular territory, the lowlands reminiscent of African bush, the cliffs like Mexico perhaps with tall Century succulents, cactus and rocky outcrops.

Habitat

Caves dotted throughout the South Eastern highlands were filled with evidence of camps created by Barbudans getting away from the rat-race in Codrington. Or fishermen. Lots of goat, deer, donkey and tortoise remains littered the sites.

Beach camps on the windward side

We found one family there cooking up sweet potatoes (a relief to the local mammal population no doubt) and relaxing on mattresses on pallets. They shared information on nesting sites and local terminology for the birds (Chi Chi Chowa is the local name for a Red-billed Tropic). But not their sweet potatoes despite Kath and I hesitating awaiting some sort of offer which we would apologetically accept, waiting like a bad smell (I pose that as a simile but I suppose it was fairly factual too). On we went on one of the most fun days yet, 10miles on foot north, then riding 10 miles back.

Red-billed Tropic Bird Sub-adult

Watery waders arty picture

It was amazing territory, a good few Tropicbirds in unexpected locations, more hummingbirds, waders, and totally deserted apart from one family. At one point as Kath was digging large thorns out of her left shoe we accidentally flushed a mother goat from the rocks, she darted out bucking and leaping. She left her Kidd. I should know better but i picked the little critter up and he sort of befriended us, highly unprofessional i know. I have been searching for goat to make the legendary Goat Water, a Caribbean sort of stew, for weeks. Many rocks thrown, no hits.

Dinner?

Now one sat with his weak, un-resistant neck in my arm, too easy. I thought about it for a second but we had bonded, no good, and we put him down. But as we ran off he followed, caught up, sat by my leg (looked up then seemed to read my previous thoughts) then quickly re-attached himself to the safer haven of Kaths leg instead!

Of course not. Never crossed our minds.

We finally evaded him and allowed the mother to return and chastised ourselves for interfering with nature’s way, but it was all good fun.

So we collected at the boat for our evening debrief. In 2 days we managed to cover all of the ground we could without overlapping with the Frigate site to the North, we had tucked into local banana fritters, ice-cream and chicken, chatted to the locals on their bikes and merely opened the lid on this little nation. Perfect beaches and scrub, small densely arranged population without the usual sprawl, 2 hotels, two grass runways, no cruise ships and a spattering of yachts, and too many fond memories. Not for everybody, thankfully, but to us Barbuda was a flat version of a perfect tropical hideaway, rustic, rural, rich in simplicity and introspectiveness. Been there, didn’t buy the t-shirt (because there wasn’t one, thank god!).

Antigua

We met ”Keith and Keith” in Montserrat. In Frank Butcher tones they instructed us to sail to Jolly Harbour, where we would find them in ”Angie’s” between 5 and 12pm every night. They could sort our dockage, a van for supplies.. what ever we needed, they could find it, ”innit”, Del Boy style.

Marcus

In the end we had to sail to English Harbour to meet the insurance assessor and finally start the process of mending Lista’s mast. As we chugged down the creek, a blonde haired guy waved wildly at us from his boat. Marcus, of course, Claire our crew mate from Cornwall had sailed to Portugal with Marcus and his two mates on his 23ft yacht while she was minding Lista in La Coruna. We had never met him, but heard all about the Swede and seen photos of him and his mates dining aboard Lista.

Sorry – image not available (Jess, Freya, Boo, James)

That evening the ”Groupies” descended upon Lista. The English Harbour posy were a fine group of 20-40 year olds who moved in a herd, rather like first year Uni students. It was most unusual for the Lista crew to have such a team of ready made friends. First there was Marcus senior, who sprung up the mast to check it out and regaled us with his eco life style, boating prowess and links with home- the very same village as my Mum’s! Marcus’ girlfriend, Jess, who had lived in the Caribbean and sailed the seas for years, although only in her early twenties. James and Freya who had worked on Brixham Trawlers in Dartmouth and afar teaching excluded children how to sail, while building a dinghy, working on their boat and making bags. Marcus Younger- our civil engineering student, who sailed from Sweden aged 23 and Boo, who quietly told us of his mission to sail the seas. He had never sailed before, but this did not deter him. He made the leap to quit work, attended sailing courses, gained his Yacht Masters and finally set off as skipper of his own boat, crossing the Atlantic solo.

Marcus, Dave and me

Dave’s days were spent talking to the Insurance Assessor for replacing the broken mast, measuring and writing endless inventories of the parts that were lost and finding Ship Wrights prepared to produce quotes for the work. Emails, phone calls, bike rides abounded as Dave tried to figure out the best way forward. Meanwhile Megan and I chased contacts for media, outreach and surveys. Finally the Government granted us survey permits, we linked with the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), we sorted a slot on the local radio, fired off articles to the local papers, talked to school students and found a venue for our presentation.

Antigua, unlike the other islands we had surveyed have an active environmental group, EAG, who are undertaking regular surveys on offshore islands. They have gained funding through associated work on the endemic Red Bellied Chaser Snake. De-ratting the islands has been achieved through bait (formulated in Switzerland) that is only attractive to mammals, thus sparing birds and reptiles. EAG is comprised of volunteers who are keen to conserve Antigua’s natural heritage and spread the conservation message, working with local fisherman and the like, devoting evenings and weekends to surveying and monitoring.

Megan on the Radio

Megan and I met with teachers Victor Joseph and Junior Prosper of EAG and their fishermen for a day’s surveying on Rabbit, Great Bird, Lobster and Redhead Islands to the NW of Antigua. We chugged off in the fishing boat, finding no signs of nesting activity, being assured that the time to visit was May when the Terns and Gulls returned laying throughout the islands. Things were to change on Rabbit Island. Following slashed paths through the thorny scrub, we heard rasping calls and squeaking and the pungent aroma of guano grew thicker. As we rounded the bend, Brown Pelicans, appeared- huge fluffy white chicks, grey leathery hatchlings and mottled sub adults all chatting and clapping their bills. They nested atop the bushes with the adults sitting on eggs or by their bulky chicks, returning with fishy snacks in their huge gaping sacks. We rapidly counted eggs, chicks, nests and pairs of adults, soon retreating before the agitated Pelicans flapped from their nests.

Brown Pelican chicks

Next was Great Bird Island, heaving with Red-billed Tropic Birds soaring through the air and tumbling to their nest crevices. We picked our way around the island searching out and marking nests, registering chicks and squawking adults. It was perfect terrain and free of rats thanks to EAG’s work. The islands were enchanting, low coralline, with turquoise seas lapping at the reefs. The reefs were not so great, however, like most of the reefs we have searched in the Lesser Antilles, much of the choral is lifeless, bleached bricker-brack strewn on the ocean floor. The fishermen waded through the shallow reef searching for conch. He plucked a haul of over 20 into the boat and knocked out their contents as we sped back. We do not know the status of conch in the Caribbean, but it is likely that such a large mollusc must take years to accumulate its calciferous shell (similar to the Lobster, which is threatened in the Caribbean and throughout most of its global range). Can such an easy prey taken throughout the Caribbean served to locals and tourists alike, be sustainably harvested?

Surveying with Victor and Junior

A visit to Claire Hall School where Victor and Junior both work was next on the agenda. A huge crowd of students greeted us and we talked about EPIC, the seabird species we are researching, their ecology, breeding habitat, survey methods and us- how we came to be Ecologists. Questions varied from the effects of D.D.T. on seabirds, to the meaning of fecundity, to queries about petrels and shearwaters. Megan hitched a lift on the back of my bike and we cycled back to St Johns, Antigua’s capital city, home to cruise ships and the associated paraphernalia and animosity that surround them. We were soon back in St John’s for our radio session. Kim (another EAG member) probed us about our mission and the seabirds of Antigua. We also had a first- phone in questions- there was actually someone listening!

The cruiseship inmates descend for duty free...

English Harbour was a timeless little enclave full of predictably, Brits. Its architecture had been preserved, along with the watered lawns (kindred of gulf courses; incredible vanity in a country gripped by draught) smart restaurants and bars and a posy of five Brown Pelicans. The Pelicans had perfected the art of smashing through the water on plummeting dives of over 20ft. This takes some learning, young Pelicans, newly wet behind the bill, generally perfect such feats over years (they are long lived like many seabirds potentially living up to sixty years and not breeding until three years old). We spent days trotting down the road, under the road block and along the harbour front to either Gee Gees ór Mad Mongoose for the internet. Sometimes we would slip to Pigeon Beach for a dip or run over the garrison hills amongst the goats and thorns and views out to sea.

Brown Pelican

Aboard the dinghies

Magnifent Frigate Birds scavenging in the Harbour

Finally, with outreach complete and presentation booked for our return, we slipped anchor for Barbuda. Barbuda being a fairly hefty trip, we decided to moor by Green Island. With Emily on the bowsprit and Megan and me at the bow we zigzagged our way through reef hemming us in on all sides. We found a patch of white sand and Lista settled with little more than 30cm below her keel. I paddled off in the kayak with the stern anchor to keep Lista locked away from reef, and we snorkelled under our floating survey platform checking out for any marine ”hanger oners”. Together, we flipper off for the reef finding a treasury of fish, but little living coral. This was overshadowed by Megan and Emily’s encounter with an Eagle Ray! The next day we hunted for Red-Billed Tropic Birds and sat in the sugary sand as the waves lapped at our toes.

Green Island

Aboard the Kayak

Red-billed Tropic Bird

More Red-billed Tropic Birds

After Barbuda….(read Dave’s account of our brief sojourn to the ”pancake paradise island”) we returned again to anchor near Green Island before heading back to English Harbour to our friends and the Yacht Club presentation. Megan and I spent most of the day preparing and rewriting our talk. Dave was ensnared with Lista before three intense hours of film creation – a Project montage from our video snaps. Half an hour before departing, the video crashed… we left to prepare for the talk, leaving Dave to retrieve the file. Luckily Dave appeared with laptop and video sorted and the three of us began our presentation to an inquisitive audience of birders, conservationists and sailors who pelted questions at us as we talked.

Yacht Club Presentation

The local beach

Megan

With Marcus (Younger) in tow until Guadeloupe we finally left English Harbour. Our last appointment on Antigua was Five Islands, a group of little islands near the mouth of Jolly Harbour. Megan and I slipped into the kayak and headed for them, while the others motored to Jolly Harbour to provision. We secretly prayed there would be nesting birds, but did not hold much hope. Two down, two to go, we paddled to number three and there they were, PELICANS!!! screeching, stinking, Brown Pelicans balancing in the scrub. We jumped out of the kayak with GPS and note books and tethered it to a rock. Like snakes we slipped up the crumbly island side and peered at the inhabitants. There were masses of chicks in flimsy nests in the branches ( a few on the floor) sprouting pin feathers, mottled and near to fledglings or still eggs. They objected to our presence, squeaking wildly and flapping desperately to hop away. We couldn’t bare the disturbance, scared that the eggs or chicks might topple, or chicks ensnare their selves in the thorns. So quickly and crouching low we recorded the numbers, before descending and sneaking to the other side of the island for the missed birds. There were no signs of rats, but we were concerned that the critters might swim over from the mainland to the seabird booty. Mission accomplished in under 20 minutes, we slunk off, leaving the magnificent birds in peace.

Within an hour, we were back on Lista and joining the crew to haul the latest provisions aboard. The last owners of Lista had warned us against the ”mosquito infested hell hole that was Jolly Harbour’. We soon appreciated the meaning of the words. Squished together in front of a lap top screen on the ”library” seat, we watched a film. Sweat sluiced off our sides and our skin stuck together. In our mini, ‘Black Hole of Calcutter’ mosquitoes whined incessantly in our ears. It was truly horrific, none of us got a wink of sleep. Marcus tried the bow sprit net and several spots up on deck, Megan and Emily preferred below deck and were eaten alive by the blood suckers. Dave and I also attempted above deck, with the whisper of a breeze, buried from head to toe under sheets, but still proved fair game for the frenzied flying hoards.

Some treats and small eats..

And to finish, a few key photos from Antigua……

Zenaida Doves

Gheko

Banana Quit and L.Antilles Bullfinch

Banana Quits galore

Megan

The Floosy