Category Archives: 2010 – 2015 South American Circumnavigation

Grenada

The view from Lista, Hog Island

We have been living in Grenada for the past couple of months, whittling a new mast for our beleaguered Lista Light at the Grenada Forestry Department. Our anchorage has been Hog Island, on the dry forest door step of the endemic Grenada Dove’s reserve.

One of the options for a mast?

Lista started to sprout a fine beard that supported a family of mini Sargent Majors, a yellow and blue Needle Fish and an extremely timid Box Fish, not to mention the battalion of crabs who have clung, as our unfailing supporters, to her undercarriage. Unfortunately, we had to leave them (not the crabs) and have sailed to Carriacou, the home of the Carricaou Sloops and traditional wooden boat building to begin the dogged work of fixing planks, beams, below deck, keel, hull…..

A local boat racing at Hog Island.

But before all of this, we lost Megan at the end of June. Megan managed to put up with us as our research assistant for over 5 months, living full time aboard Lista Light. Quiet as a mouse at the beginning, she turned into a wild cat and is now a fully fledged member of the family, poor girl………….!

Megan

But more to come, if Dave finally puts down Shazza (his precious tape measure) or his beloved clamps….

Grenadines

The Grenadines from the church in Mayreau

The Grenadines rushed by in a whirl of seabirds, rocks and sea currents. Every island it seemed housed tower blocks of holidaying terns, laughing gulls and a good number of other species thrown into the mix. As we ticked off day after day of relentless surveys, we began to secretly hope the odd island might not hold seabirds!! Our typical day would involve, setting off at the crackers from our anchorage and sailing/motoring around a chain of islets with binoculars strained. Once breeding was verified Megan and I (and David, if Lista could be anchored) would jump into the water with dry bags full of survey kit and swim to the island.

Allawash seabird island

 Surveys on Canouan Baleine

Brown Noddy in flight

Before being pounded against the cliffs by waves or speared by urchins, we would heave ourselves up onto land and begin equipping ourselves. This would generally involve jeans and long-sleeved shirts to ward off biting insects and skewing plants. Then we would scour the entire island for nesting seabirds and record evidence thereof. If the birds were so thick, that clouds rose from the island, we would grab our pre-marked string and count birds and their nest, eggs etc. within a grid of plots. The number of breeding birds could then be extrapolated for the island by multiplying the number of inhabitants of a plot by the area of the colony.

Frigate Island survey in the cacti

Swimming onto the islands

Once completed, we would stumble, gasping for water back to Lista, swimming the gauntlet of crashing waves. Leaping aboard, we would down pints of water and stuff food into our mouths before setting off to seek out more islands and seabirds. By the end of the day, blasted by the sun and waves, we would start the never-ending process of writing up the day’s records. Then once the sun had set, Dave would sit up on deck and broadcast the cackling call of Audubon’s Shearwater to the listening islets in the hope of a response from an incumbent Shearwater. Jobs done and a meal of sweet steamed pumpkin and rice knocked back, we would collapse into our bunks and dream.

An Audubon's Shearwater chick

Surveys on Battowia

Surveying on Church Cay, Battowia

So many incidents peppered the Grenadines; a chain of islands of immense beauty, of the quintessential Caribbean kind, but also of the rugged, towering and wind sculptured variety. We found some of the greatest diversity of species and abundance of seabirds within their folds. This was likely due to their remoteness from human disturbance and threats. We were also surveying them during the optimum breeding season, May-June, when both the year round residents and migratory breeders are present. Next year we will be surveying the other islands in this feckoned period so will be able to compare abundance across the archipelago.

Isle de Ronde from Diamond Rocj

Frigate Island before the storm

A friend of ours christened our research as, ‘A survey of the worst anchorages in the Caribbean!’ Most sailors (or ‘cruisers’, the geriatric name given to sailing live-aboards) travel down the lee-ward sides of the islands and find cosy anchorages where there is little swell. We, on the other hand, blast down the unchartered windward sides of islands, seek out the most treacherous rocks and go where others will not! Incident wise, we lost rather too many of our ‘nine lives’ this year. Dave and Megan were nearly swept out to sea in strong currents when swimming back from an islet, Petit Cay. As they looked through their masks, they saw jetsam furiously flying along the sea floor which was carrying them with it. Needless to say they made it back to Lista, but will not be forgetting Petit Cay too quickly. Whilst Megan and I were surveying on Battowia, Dave had to deal with the tumultuous sea. First it caused the anchor rode to snap dislodging the anchor winch from Lista’s decks. Then, a paddle flew into the sea and Dave stupidly jumped in to grab it, but soon realized that Lista was receding and the currents were pulling him away. Gradually, he clawed his way back to her, chucking the paddle in front of him and madly swimming forward a few strokes. Then when we finally yanked the anchor up we found it was twisted!

Broken line, Battowia

Battowia

Megan and I paddled the kayak to a fearsome looking extinct volcano rising from the sea, Diamond Rock. We took ages to paddle there, as once again strong currents belted through between Diamond and Isle de Rhonde to the South. We couldn’t see anywhere to land, as waves continuously blasted the sides of the island. We kept powering forward desperately trying not to lose our way. Finally we decided upon an inlet and we surfed the kayak into it, skewering her bow against the rocks. We grabbed our dry bags and pulled the kayak up.

Diamond Rock

The walk up Diamond Rock

Once we had completed the surveys, we found that the waves were worse and were whipping into the inlet at a regular fearsome pace. We worried we would get stuck, corkscrewed into the narrow entrance so we tried pulling the kayak around and pulling ourselves into the kayak from the water, but the waves battered us against the rocks and Megan fell out of the kayak with a foot trapped in it. She managed to extract it, but it was a shock. So we had no choice but to leap into the kayak in the cauldron of waves and paddle like crazy to stop ourselves being bashed back into the inlet… and it worked….. we couldn’t believe it. Jubilant, we paddled with the current, pulling us back to Lista. Adult and juvenile Brown Boobies kept circling us, within a metre or two of us, hanging in the air, beaks moving from side to side for full examination, as if to check we were ok!

Bonaparte Rocks

Then came Bonaparte Rocks, lying to the south-east of Carriacou. These are bands of particular nasty low lying rocks that break through the turbulent surface of the sea like the jagged teeth of a hag. Two bands protrude and we needed to examine them both. As we neared closer on Lista, birds plunged through the surf in a feeding frenzy and boobies, terns and gulls huddled on the barren islets.

Roseate Tern

It was difficult to determine who was nesting as Lista bashed in the waves and there was no way we could swim or kayak to them to get a closer look. After much straining through binoculars we resigned to a count of birds with ‘potentially’ nesting recorded. We started to manoeuvre away from the rocks and I said to Dave, ‘We have records for every island in our study area, we are just going to have to leave these as potential breeding records.’ And on that, Dave swung Lista around. We had just about a 100% rate of gathering records and he didn’t want to deprive us of these.

As he turned Lista through the surf for a closer inspection, we heard an almighty crack and Dave screamed, ‘Nooooooooooooooooooooo!’ Foam leapt at Lista’s bows, we had smashed into rocks. Dave barked instructions and I crashed below deck and madly pulled up floorboards to see if water was coming in, then grabbed the pumps. I was frantically praying that we were not going to go down now, not now that we had come so far, praying that water was not going to start lapping around my ankles. But nothing happened. We finally found a leak, a steady trickle of water seeping in low at her starboard side. We turned Lista back to Carriacou to investigate the damage. The charts had been wrong, two depths had been switched and we had crashed in what should have been 10m of clearance. It was a hideous experience, shaking all our nerves and highlighting how lucky we had been so far surveying in unchartered waters close to cliffs. On inspection we found that the rocks had gauged our sacrificial keel and that we had had a narrow escape.

Dave searching for crevice nesters

Some final stats on the incident topic:….. Number of Acacia species met- 5, number of crumbling cliffs-10, number of rock landings- 56, number of sea urchin spines- 42, number of biting ants-214 000, maximum number of layers penetrated by Devil’s Nettle-3, number of cacti spikes-345 000, number of vicious currents -4, number of times ran aground -1! Dave and Megan had a particularly nasty encounter with sea urchins when landing in surf on rocks, even with gloves on, spines managed to perforate fingers, feet and bums! I got to the stage where I had to tie planks on my shoes to prevent cacti penetrating and the final sorry saga was when my leg blew up and I was christened ‘club-leg’ thanks to the poison needles of the Devil’s Nettle.

Acacia, Diamond Rock

club leg

devil's nettle

Urchins lodging in Dave's purulent foot

But there were some extraordinary sights too. Arriving into Battowia was like finding Eden. Boobies flooded the sky and circled round and round us, before bungling attempts at landing on us. Magnificent Frigatebirds swept high above and hanged from the islands cliffs like giant vampire bats. As we scrambled the slopes we found Red-footed Booby chicks and parents peering down at us, which from afar, in their white fluffy livery, looked like snow smattering the entire island in drifts. We also found our largest Laughing Gull colony; nests, with chocolate splattered eggs speckled the entire island. Then there were the lizards, snakes and iguanas scrambling over the boulders and the giant spider webs that stuck to us as we scrambled under the scrub.

Boobies by Battowia

Magnificent Frigatebirds circling Battowia

Battowia surveys

More Battowia surveys

Iguana, Battowia

For sheer seabird extravaganzas, Battowia, Les Tantes and Diamond Rock were the greatest with nests and birds pinned to trees and cliffs. But then there was Petit Canouan…… nothing could rival it for sheer numbers of one species, Sooty Tern. We have yet to analyse the results, but it’s pointing to over 100 000 birds!! We learned from local fishermen that the island is known as the home of the ‘Egg Bird’ and that locals war over the harvest, with gun battles being reported! The looters have been burning the bush on the island each year to the extent that it has become a tall grass community, the desired habitat for Sooty Terns (the Egg Birds) but not for the Red-footed Boobies or Magnificent Frigatebirds that were believed to have bread their formally.

Sooty Tern extravaganza, Petit Canouan

Sooty Terns, Petit Canouan

Eggs, chicks&adults everywhere in the thick grass

The grasses were often over 2m high and the Sootys were everywhere. At every step that Megan and I took, we had to scour the ground for fear of standing on a chick, egg or adult. Birds were screeching and crawling all around us, seemingly falling from the sky. I had never seen anything like it. Dave, meanwhile, was stuck on Lista watching the clouds of birds float over the island. We had tried attaching Lista to rocks but she had broken free and then on a second attempt, Dave found her stern following him within a metre of partnering with the cliffs as he tried again to secure a line (depths shelving too quickly to anchor to the ground). So he abandoned the idea with too many currents and back-eddies and hove-to instead. When Megan and I finally finished our sampling plots and swam back to Lista, Dave chucked water bottles to us and we glugged back the nectar in the sea. Freeing Dave from his charge, I helmed as he swam off to snorkel the sheer under-water slopes and there nestled on a shelf was a Nurse Shark.

Lista awaiting our return from Petit Canouan

Sooty Tern emerging

Searching for eggs and nests.

On the subject of ‘egging’, one of the most stark encounters we had was on Petit Canouan. We had counted all the Laughing gulls eggs and nests and had swam back to Lista and were having some lunch when we noticed some guys climbing on to the island. They looked suspect, but it wasn’t until later when they scrambled into their motor boat and came across to us for some water that we saw their buckets, full of the Laughing Gull eggs we had just be counting! We couldn’t believe their audacity, especially as we had ‘Seabird Survey of the Lesser Antilles’ plastered onto Lista’s hull.

Laughing Gulls

'Egger', Petit Canouan

The harvesting of seabird eggs and adults continued to crop up during our surveys. A guy on St Vincent mentioned that he visited Battowia at least twice a year for eggs, due to their aphrodisiac qualities (a lame excuse it seems, to market any suspect bit of wild food). We found blood smattered rocks, skulls and feathers remaining from Red-footed Booby diners collected on Battowia and evidence of man (with the likelihood of his hunting birds) on just about every uninhabited island/rock we surveyed. When we showed a bird book to some fishermen who took us to survey a cluster of islets, they pointed out birds, not for their beauty, but for their edibility!!

Red-footed Booby

This was pretty unexpected. The main course of seabird decline (and other wildlife) in the Caribbean and many parts of the world is habitat destruction or disturbance. Whether nesting habitat is lost to new swanky tourist developments or when seabird colonies abandon due to the noise of jet skis or the prying of ‘eco-tourists’. The next threat is invasive species: rats, cats, dogs, monkeys, pigs, mongooses and manicou efficiently eat their way through seabird colonies. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable as they nest on the ground and have evolved on islands without mammalian predators. Seabird colonies on islands with introduced predators, if not extirpated already, will soon be.

Bridle Tern Egg

The third threat in the Caribbean is the hunting. Now this was probably fine in the past when seabird levels were estimated to be 10 times the level they are today. But now, when seabird populations are a fraction of the past and sailors are reporting dramatic declines in even the last 15 years, with humans grabbing probably already addled eggs for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities in their 40 horse power gas guzzling motor boats, when there are chickens wondering around every street corner on every island, it does not seem fair to take the wild harvest. Nor does it seem fair (while I am on this rant) that people are eating turtles and their eggs, when just about every species is critically endangered and when there is enough cheap chicken in the Caribbean to feed the entire population (a decent proportion of which is obese). Indeed, Dave and I met an Italian lady in Carriacou who formed the Kido Foundation on the island to protect turtles. She asked us to cover turtle tracks if we found them during our seabird surveys to dissuade potential hunters. A couple of days later, we found tracks on Sandy Island, but we were too late, most of the nests had already been dug up and the eggs taken.

Turtle Tracks

Carriaocu is a beautiful island, in fact I am tapping the diary from the island right now as we begin the process of mending rotten planks… It is a small island, about 70 miles north of Grenada. Sharp, peaks, covered in dry-wood stagger across it. It is wonderfully rural, somehow having escaped development so far. One of the largest expanses of mangroves we have seen stretches along the side of Tyrrel Bay. It shelters birds, fish nurseries and shellfish, whilst filtering any sewage runoff and protecting the bay from storms through its intricate root structure. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Sandwich Terns, Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls wheel in the bay where we are anchored. The boobies and pelicans smash through the water and fish fly into the air and the Frigates snatch fish from under the beaks of their competitors.

Laughing Gull laughing

The hills behind Hilsbourgh the main town

While we were surveying we spent days at the Lazy Turtle trying to connect to the internet and found the most delicious pizzas. Then Dave and I cycled around the island on the quest of finding breeding seabirds. We found mile after mile of sandy tracks under a scrubby canopy at the cliff side, but no breeding seabirds. We didn’t meet a single other person, save a man on his donkey. A grave yard appeared at Jew’s Bay, under poisonous manchineel trees, gradually falling into the sea. It was a haunting sight, sand had been extracted from beaches further down the coast, longshore drift was being stopped and so the grave yard was eroding. We also found a hut where we collapsed starving and consequently had the best meal of curried mutton, pasta, rice and beans and fried vegetables (Carib staples). Then on passing a house with fields full of chickens and cattle, we asked the owner whether we could buy some eggs, to which he plied us with bags full of eggs and would not take a single note in thanks.

Megan finally succumbed to the pain of her urchin prickles still nestled in her finger tips and we cycled up a precipitous hill, with monstrous trees, to the hospital. It was a remnant from the turn of the century with a flock of sheep and a line of canons eyeing the sea suspiciously that stretched far into the distance. Finally a huge screen slid open and a petrified Megan was beckoned forward by a doctor who she was convinced was to cut off each of her fingers. He turned out to be young man, newly trained from Trinidad. He smiled at the tender fingers and said the spines would dissolve before long, although we could check on the internet for any alternative cures! Hmm, that was the first time a doctor had pointed us in the direction of the internet for a possible cure.

Carriacou Hospital view

Sisters Rock dive site

Megan and Dave finally went diving and near to Sisters Rock found some of the richest coral gardens they had ever seen. The sea was full of fish of all sizes and shapes, rays, eels and more nurse sharks. I watched their bubbles from the surface through my snorkel mask, followed a barracuda and viewed Brown Noddies flying centimetres away from my head.

A lift to the bird islands in the Tobago Cays

Brown Noddy sticking close on her nest

Before Carriacou were the famous Tobago Cays renowned by yachts people for their white sands and coral reefs. We sped off in a park motor boat to some seabird islets where Dave found our first Audubon’s Shearwater chicks nestled in a crevice. It was a fantastic sight after only ever having seen the grey forms of the nocturnal adults lured to our broadcast calls flapping in the sky. Here we finally eyeballed the beauties up close. We also found our first Roseate Tern eggs perched precariously on rock ledges by their nonchalant squawking parents. Then back to Lista and the Cays, all three of us managed to perch on the kayak and in pyramid formation circumnavigated an island whilst counting the number of breeding seabirds.

Audubon's Shearwater

Roseate Tern Egg

Petit Tobac, Tobago Cays

Passion fruit crepes served up by chief lowrie

In the middle of all of this dawned our first wedding anniversary. Megan stoically guarded Lista and we finally left them in the afternoon of 17 May and rowed ashore to Baliceaux. We scrambled under the poison apple tree (Manchineel) and found a grassy patch above the beach to tether our tent. We were shattered and lay down after the effort. Suddenly I noticed a cow pat that appeared to be moving? Screwing my eyes up I looked again and there before us was a tortoise!! We went over to investigate, but it had already ‘darted’ under a bush. We sat incredulous at the occurrence, when we noticed another and then another and then realized that the entire hillside was crawling with the things! It was like a mini version of herds of Wilderbeast grazing on the Serengetti, with large and tiny totoises gradually munching their way along the slopes.

Totoises

We had attempted to walk, but lethargy overcame us and we instead accomplished a series of ‘sits’. We managed to walk up the hill and found a small hut. A man was shelling peas (of the famous rice and pea variety). We sat on the bench with him and delivered the odd comment. He was born in the Caribbean and had never wondered far, save Baliceaux which he visited most weeks, throughout his life on his boat from Bequia. He knew about wildlife, fish, the land and islands, all their secrets. He kept chickens on the island and had ridded it of invasive mongooses which had eaten their way through his flocks. He also had cattle and burnt back areas of encroaching bush annually for them, explaining the ferocious fire we had seen earlier. Soon he got up, it was clear he had had quite enough of chatting, so we walked over the valley. We sat in the pasture with the tortoises (believed to have been brought over by the Amerindians from South America) and gazed over to Battowia.

Departing

That evening, we celebrated our anniversary with pasta and weevils. It was the first time we had cracked into the little critters, but there seemed no alternative, we couldn’t through the rabid pasta away, besides the little mites held good stores of protein. Anyway, I had read that at first one picks weevils out of food, then one eats them begrudgingly, finally one actively seeks them out! Luckily it was dark, so we couldn’t really see what we were eating! Unfortunately, none of us ever really grew to enjoy the wee beasties that popped up in our pasta, rice or noodles, even though, when wondering around the boat, or dropping out of the sky into your book, they were such jolly looking little characters….!

Weevil egg pasta

There was also Mustique and the wonderful Dianne who showed us around the island and after only having met us for an hour, offered us a shower in her Aladin’s Cave of a house. To three stinking, salty, surveyors this was bliss (well for two of us, Dave is never too worried). One of the freakiest episodes was sailing from Mustique and seeing a ‘fin’ rearing from the sea. It was in fact the metal from a colossal shipwreck (Antilles) long sunk but still piercing the surface of the sea and ready to wreck further more ships (though not many venture through the tide swept channel).

220diane's

Mustique Primary School

Antilles Wreck rising from the deep

There were the Savan Islands and the old fishermen drying and salting fish in the sea air. Dave admired their stoic countenance and apparently traditional and thoughtful ways. They potentially represented small scale, sustainable fishing (if fishing can be sustainable?) There were the shoal of squid marching through the sea, we couldn’t believe the primordial sight and swam after the retreating spectacle. These work commutes made us feel like the smuggest so-and-sos on the planet, that is before we nearly plunged to our death whilst ascending some crumbling cliff.. but that is the lust for life….?

Savan Islands

Mayreau church

Mayreau inhabitants

As you can probably see from the content of this diary, I am lagging, with not a word rattling around in my head. I cannot, however, end before telling you about Mayreau, glorious Mayreau. It is a tiny island near the Tobago Cays where we met Father Mark de Silva. We met to quiz him about seabird records and after over three hours of discussion until we were all slipping off our seats in yawns, finally bid our goodbyes. He was remarkable, such a knowledgeable man and natural historian with a particular interest in invertebrates. We visited his church one Sunday and sat amid drums, fiddles and voices belting out tunes over the magical Caribbean Sea far below us. It was a fantastic atmosphere, with the congregation from all denominations free to dedicate prayers (one lady certainly took the opportunity with a good 25minute monologue!). Father Mark introduced us and our seabird work and explained the importance of conserving seabirds as they were the animals that ate the diseased or old fish in the food chain and kept stocks healthy for us to consume. After the service we chatted with the congregation outside of the tiny pebbled church and knew that we would have to return.

And a few more images of the Grenadines….

Starfish<, Mustique

Laughing Gull chick, Frigate Island

The world's smallest tortoise

At the office

Presentation, Bequia school

Any similarities?

The cutest Red-footed Booby chick

'The end' another wound, I promise......!

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

Montserrat

Waiting for a boat. Its an odd concept perhaps given we went to some fairly extreme lengths to arrive here by boat. A nice sturdy one too. The problem is that Montserrat and in particular, the Soufriere Mountains to the South have had an unpleasant habit, since 1995, of exploding willy nilly. And actually we would be happy to chance a trip around the island in the old bird but for the pyroclastic flows (great word, lava effectively) which have eked out into the ocean below sea level and about which the Admiralty charts can never really be kept up to date. So with volcanic activity and in particular those pyroclastic flows (too good just to use once…!) preventing the entry of Lista into the entire southern section of the island we busied ourselves surveying the north from Lista and waited for the local folk to supply a more nimble low draught craft for the job.

smokin not prohibited

Our timing was dubious, short of sleep after 5 nights at Redonda’s whim we arrived into Montserrat in a 3m Northerly swell, the open side having lost the capital under ash, and the Harbour staff and Police were busy pulling their boats out because it was chewing up dinghies for breakfast against the barnacles on the harbour wall. But this was more from the fire into the frying pan, a slight improvement. To add to this roll, although unknown to us on arrival, it transpires Montserrat is the only place in the world which holds St Patrick’s Day as a National Holiday outside of Ireland. You even get a shamrock in your passport! And the festival village, the epi-center, was at Little Bay, our place. Peace and quiet were going to be hard fought.

In the meantime we surveyed from land and got to know Montserrat, her intriguing people, her winding spread out villages and her hills by bike, and she seemed to get to know us too! Everybody was rather impressed with Kath and Megan on the bikes grinding around the island doing publicity on radio, and the endless outreach to teach local kids. Many a time were they asked for a ride by the local chaps interrupted in their daily whereabouts by these two bird surveyors. Innocent I’m sure. After a very dry few weeks we did our best to integrate with the locals which appears to be drinking a lot and dancing til 4am in the festival village two days before the actual event had started – Emily leading festivities with some rather spirited pole dancing followed by a local chap doing the same in her pink wig. A happy night with blues to follow!

oh dear, some explaining in the morning?

The highlight of the trip without a doubt was the start of the St Patrick’s day celebrations and the Belly race. Up at 0430 to make the triathalonic feat of dinghy/bike/run to the start of the race we somehow contrived to miss the start, but not the finish. The road was littered with Caribbean booty making the freedom walk regardless of health, age or pie-eating status – a wonderful sight enjoyed by up to 300 locals. We collated with the field of “athletes” at the local stadium where fish and coconuts and music and green garb was abundant.

rocket fuel

The fact Montserrat shares its national holiday with the Irish has either something to do with the former Irish settlers who spent time here (and leave relicks in the language like (“I’d say” despite being present tense, or “at all, at all” appended to a sentence) after being persecuted as settlers in the US then St kitts, or more likely some canny work by the locals to coincide with their struggle for freedom with the worlds favourite ceremony. And perhaps getting some nice big floppy hats free from Diaggio. You can imagine the decision to rule out st georges was a challenging one…… Either way it should be said that the Monserratian is a welcoming people, sports a happy-go-lucky attitude, values strong family links (and genes?!) and Guinness is aflowing making the other “emerald isle” a convincing suitor for Eira.

the monserrat and the real deal

Back to the St Patrick’s day sports parade. After some salt-fish and baby coconut juice we mingled with the folk limbering up for the track events. It started in good sports day tradition with the younger children running their hearts out, perhaps two or three in the field, and a comedy commentator awarding the prizes (which seemed to all be a mixed crate of booze, very odd) to whoever he thought may have won. The races worked their way through the under 10s, under 18s, under 30s, under forties (for which sadly there was no field because Kath and I fancied ourselves in that one) up to the crescendo, the big one, the over forties, or “Belly Race”!!! Our announcer bellowed excitedly into the microphone “cmon laydees and gentlemon, dis is da big one, Da Belly Race, you gonna see a whole lotta belly comin doen the track here….. Stand back, me not sure they gonna be able to stopping at the end there….”

“You gonna feel the earth moooove, don worry, its not the volcano, is de Belly Race!!””

“Stand back, stand back, somebody be getting the Red Cross, ders gonna be some heart attacks coming down the track here .. . . .!!

And they did – the men, bellies and all lined up, giggling and hackling, including one wily gringo that must have fancied his chances against the field. The ringer, bookies favourite. Crack – off they went! But what’s this, the ringer cannot be seen behind the mighty flesh pounding down the track, they were fast, I would have been obliterated (though lets be clear, these are no endurance machines!!). Our friend Mark the BBC photographer was in position to get a photofinish of the thunder, and was very nearly wiped out by the cavalry unable to decelerate! The sight and sound of a small rustic sportsday stadium laughing and shrieking with these gladiators had to be experienced. The ladies race was even more competitive with some large units hurtling down the runway, one falling early on but no foul play was suspected, only gravity clutching at some fairly hefty straws.

pyroclastic... !

Too much to keep going, Kath and I took to the bikes into some of the hillside deemed at risk of volcanic activity according to some old signs but we needed to see what habitat existed to the South. We found rolling hillside, small scale agriculture and lovely old ladies sitting on flower shrouded porchways, admiring their creations. Montserrat had a welcoming feel the whole time we were there, slightly mad, but warm people. We passed a chap just, you know, admiring himself in one of those convex road mirrors, another Guianan accountant who looked like anything but, who erupted into a shriek of laughter at the end of every sentence (His kin make up 25% of the population here). Many more too. But they have a saying here, it is the only place in the world where a white lady in a car at night, upon meeting a black man with a machete would simply stop to give him a lift. There is NO crime. Nothing! We tried it, left a bag out near the festival village, accidentally, and returned the next day, nobody had taken it or touched it in any way. And the fact the people, the 5000 out of the 12000 that lived pre-volcano, have had to move their town and homes against a force majeure rather than human foe seems to make them slightly nonchalant, practical about it all without too much sorrow. Mad as a box of frogs, but the best people in the Caribbean so far!

morris dancing meets riverdance in the caribbean?

The festival itself was cozy but had all the appearances of turning incomprehensibly boozy that we beat a retreat fancying that with the locals preoccupied this would be the only chance of solitude on the famous rendezvous beach. Kath and I jumped into the dingy and popped over there, carrying a small village of clobber to set up camp for the night. It was the first night spent off the boat since Morocco last year. It was a beautiful night made even more special because at around 2130 both Kath and I heard a distinct sound, a devilish cackle not recorded here for 40 years, the Audubon Shearwater. At first we couldn’t believe it, but again it cried, seeking its mate in her burrow in the cliffs, this nocturnal seabird. We needed more proof to this unrecorded visitor -the next day we returned with the sound gear and Megan to verify it all – and on the first playing we were bombarded close to the dingy by a male Audubon Shearwater – like Redonda it was magical to be getting good data which repaid our efforts in a tricky environment. Actually this was the highlight of the visit, better than the bellies!

Plymouth under ash

Scriber and Jim our guides

To conclude, our boat did arrive, we toured the perimeter of the colossal flows and empty grey ashy towns and we got the counts we needed, filled out the quadrupulate forms required to leave and packed up our landing craft. We sailed out to Antigua away from a very bizarre place, Territory of the UK, multicultural, explosive, quirky and open. We had shared the island with some very funny folk indeed:

The best head mistress on the planet, a true mother hen,
The backgammon boys at Carrs Bay, playing for a ten,
The goat hunters from Trinidad screeching off in their carina,
The Belly racers and crowd in a crowded ampitheatre,
The customs lady and her “free” form and handy weather forecast, funny
(she looked wistful then peered out the window – “I tink it’ll be sunny”),
The librarian and her fully serviced office for a week,
The veg man and his christophine which resembles a puckered bottom cheek,
The Little bay bar and the selfservice barman,
The sumptuous tartan clad ladies on the annual walk/run
The finest, most elusive restaurant avec loo with a view,
only open every other Sunday from 10-2,
The hills for providing quenching coconuts and hellish heart rates,
and the shore for your shearwater and his curious nocturnal dates,
And to the man with the mirror, I hope you’ve found what you were looking for…..

Volcano, just thinking .....

Redonda

Redonda, the Kingdom of Redonda, to give it its full and noble title is a very large clod of igneous rock providing a vista for several of the surrounding Caribbean islands, Montserrat, Antigua, Nevis etc, but rarely visited by locals save for her fishing grounds, nor yachtsmen without a slightly masochistic streak. Or a need to count seabirds. Think St Kilda except less fun to land on, but I suppose less of the Scottish gales we miss.

Approaching Redonda

Katharine, Megan and I had been looking forward to this abandoned rock since the start, and fortunately after some pretty gusty wind on Nevis the wind settled in the North East and allowed us to sail down to Redonda. The anchorage is dubious, tucked into the south west there used to be a pier for unloading the mined guano and phosphates, and a post office (formerly with two token staff counting buttons or some such, the minimum infrastructure required to hold the island as a territory for Antigua). There is no evidence of either now as boulders cascade down from the 600′ cliffs immediately behind, well into the sea. The pilot guide recommends anchoring in settle weather only as close to the shore as possible, and only for a lunch stop in settled weather. 3m swell working its way from the North East makes 100yds from the shore feel very close!! we squirmed about trying to find the mythical plateau to drop our hook into but ended up chucking it onto a patch of sand about 15m deep and hoping to set away from the cliff with the waves smashing next to us. Then in peculiarly British fashion and following years of watching dad we threw Lista into reverse and put down the hammer whilst intently trying to find a sight line to prove we had dug in. Grand. Our French kin folk seem to adopt a strategy of flicking off the anchor with a nonchalant “boff” and then lighting as gauloise and going down below to fix a glass of Chateauneuf de Pape well before the anchor has scratched the surface of the water, never mind loop a nice bit of coral for them. “Chapeau”. Even with 70m of chain and an additional 50m on a stern anchor to hold us away should the wind change attached to another 40m of braid rope it wasn’t exactly stress free anchoring! 5 nights we stayed, 2 nights of sleep.

Nestled next to the boulder field

The first full day was too rough to land anywhere safely so Katharine and Megan completed aerial counts all day every hour as I fidgeted attempting to appear calm about our position next to the colossal cliffs. Aerial counts are brilliant and most practical for some species like the Tropic birds where the method allows us to assume a nest for a breeding pair by their very presence near a land form (if they are not breeding they are far out to sea, i.e. pelagic) if a count of actual nest is unfeasible, but there’s nothing like walking the land for Frigates and Boobies. Now then, behave class. We inverted some power from a very busy Wind Turbine and Kath and Megan spent the evening entering their data.

kath analysing some stuff

Day two Megan Katharine and I prospected for a little bay to land the dinghy, eventually finding a boulder beach on the south end to storm with a big splash and drag manoeuvre. Emily stayed aboard Lista Light with one finger on the engine start button. With 50m of climbing rope, rat traps, VHF, binoculars and water we traversed the boulders and made a slow ascent up the 60 degree crevice (ghaut is the local word) of unconsolidated scree and dust. Mountain goats roam here and are pretty nimble. a dead one quarter of the way up proved that even the best-in-class can get it wrong in loose rocks. not rock climbing but not far off!

megan really loved the ascent . . .

 . . . . And descent

At the top there is a plateau scattered with mining artefacts from back in the day, and lots and lots of lizards (endemic, rare ones apparently). Redonda was a dream come true and we got data never recorded before on nesting of frigates, much bigger counts on tropicbirds and masked boobies as well as a good number of red footed boobies. Basically a real beacon of hope and a feeling we are really doing some pioneering work. Without human pressure, goats and rats amount to the only introduced threats which limit the possibilities of Redonda but plans are already in discussion to eradicate – anyone got an air rifle and a few sausage butties and I’m your man.

rat-catcher???

We also are starting to get a look into the ecology and behaviour of the birds (something the schedule of our work would never allow proper scientific study of), we know a Brown Booby is likely to take flight at our presence and we must take extra care, a Masked Booby will sit tight under the most intrusive interruption, maternal instinct, or just as likely paternal as they share the parental chores, coursing through the brain above the desire to take flight. And we know a Red-Footed Booby will happily share a scrubby tree with Magnificent Frigate birds, despite their thieving (kleptoparasitic to use the correct term) tendencies. I digress, Redonda is about the wildlife so enough chat, just images.

Magnificent Frigate Birds heading off to sea

Red Footed Boobies in one of thier many morphs

Red Footed Booby chick

Masked Booby Chick

We swam ashore on the next day with Emily this time as the boat wasn’t looking like wandering off in the reduced swell. It wasn’t an entirely brilliant plan but with the exception of a couple of bumps and bruises we got there ok. The “dry” bags were making slightly aspiration claims. We split into pairs and divided the island north and south, and completed a 100% count in a long day. Peregrine Falcons scoped above us, Kestrels watched on and our subjects seemed slightly bemused with our presence. The goats evaded my rocks at the last minute as always. “God loves a trier” as they say. Lista sat patiently in the bay below. Montserrat had a clear top and chuffed away on her volcano. We perched on cliff edges and counted the crap out of everything.

Easy terrain . . . Not

Kath counting

It’s a privilege to have landed to do this research, I hope not too many people do (old meanies) because this place, if left undisturbed, will provide a much needed helping hand to the birds to nest and folk will see the product of that all over the seas in the Caribbean and thousands of miles beyond. Plus the “anchorage” is grim and you won’t sleep much. And you’ll break your dinghy trying to land it. And get eaten by rats if you do get there. And disable yourself trying to clamber up. And. And. And .. .. ..

Adult and Juve Masked Boobies

St Kitts and Nevis

Around St Kitts

We sailed down the coast of St Kitts scouring the coastline for likely seabird habitat and birds. It did not appear particularly promising; nevertheless, Dave and I took off on the bikes for a round island seabird reconnoitre.

The bikes have become a vital part of the trip- our loyal iron steeds transporting us around countries and islands, to shops, boat suppliers or providing us with a getaway from the deep blue. On arrival into a new harbour they are wrenched from Lista’s stomach, deep in the engine room, with seats and tyres reassembled before straining disembarkation onto the harbour-side. Or, more likely, we grapple to drop them into the dinghy and paddle furiously to a beach, (with Dave screeching instructions as to the best strategy) desperately trying to stay afloat, whilst riding a wave onto the sand.

Porto

To date the squeaking duo have pedalled us through the arid lands of Morocco, passed tagines brewing at the roadside to the snowy heights of the Atlas Mountains; along the ancient, tiled streets of Porto and for countless forays in foreign ports for sundry frippery from: foam, to loo seats, to soil (for our herb garden)to paint, books, marine ply….. We have jousted with long timber poles down the pavements (reclaimed from a D.I.Y. job that was abandoned by a recycling unit, a great stroke of luck) and hurtled along dual carriage ways with gas bottles trundling in the trailer.

On the way to the Atlas

The trailer is the ‘piece de la resistance’. The faithful number was purchased for our honeymoon to transport Bluberry (Mum’s black Labrador) up and down the Devon lanes in leisurely style to Exmoor, our enchanted destination. (Blueberry, let me explain, is no canine ‘Pre-Madonna’, it’s just her enthusiasm for runs leads her to hurl herself at ferocious speeds after us, culminating in ‘pad burn out’- hence the carriage).

But, perhaps the greatest feet of the trailer on the trip so far has been the Portuguese food haul in Cascais. With a loyal audience of trolley minder, Dave and I began pushing tonnes of spaghetti, juice, tinned tomatoes, rice etc. into pannier bags, wrack bags, rucksacks, shoulder bags and finally trailer. Much to the delight of the grinning trolley minder, Dave finished the job with a bucket on his head in a final contortionist’s flourish.

Landy, 'green' crossing the railway

So in accustomed style, the bikes led us off to the wonders of St Kitts, via the railway as the best vantage point for the windward coast. The round island escapade did not reveal breeding seabirds, but there were Magnificent Frigate Birds soaring the coastline, Brown Pelicans, lazily flapping along deserted beaches and Brown Boobies skimming the waves. The bikes attracted the customary attention which has ranged from grins and laughter at the mad whitey couple ascending some tortuous hill, to chiding pleas for lifts or simply rambling chat. Road kill is always interesting – this time we found mongooses (a disaster- introduced threat that munches through seabird eggs and chicks). Rats (another introduced disaster) and goats (third disaster- they graze out nesting habitat and trample eggs).

Thankfully, roadkill Mongoose

We also found an old man wondering the railway in welly boots searching for bee hives and monkeys. He was the first rural character we had met in the Caribbean, for many it seems that the new lights of the towns are superior to the old country ways. The hives were of course for honey, the monkeys for experiments. (Monkeys are another mammalian pest, introduced to some Lesser Antilles islands, adding a new predatory and unwanted tier into the islands’ ecosystem).We played him the Audubon’s Shearwater calls in case he should recognise them, but apparently not.

We abandoned the bikes in sugar cane and dived down a sandy track to the coast. We found a deserted beach with luscious vegetation tumbling over sandy cliffs as far as the eye could see. Again, no signs of breeding seabirds, save a solitary Brown Pelican languidly flapping and scrutinising the waves.

High forested mountains stretched up into the clouds in the centre of the island, with seemingly limitless Audubon’s Shearwater nesting potential. We did not have time to survey its recesses on this trip, no doubt predators would be doing their work of banishing the burrow nesting birds anyway. We did play the call to other islanders but no one recalled the once widespread Shearwater of the Lesser Antilles.

Baseterre, the Capital

Megan and I ‘scored’ on outreach, ‘winning’ a school presentation, radio slot and chats with some really helpful local birders, Percival Hanley and Mikey Ryan, within a couple of hours of landing. Along with information gathered from papers and the library, the most likely spots for breeding seabirds appeared to be south on Booby Island and the St Kitt’s peninsular. Meanwhile, we chatted about the project to ‘ZIZ the Pulse’ before flying to the school. Only to find that we had been doubled booked by an aggravated lady who was presenting on ‘stress control’, hmm! Finally, a class of teenagers studying science and geography were unearthed and we followed the sluggish steps of the teacher to their room. The projector had been snatched by the stressed, stress reliever, so Megan and I taught the class in the traditional way, with posters, chalk and black board. No matter what we said, however, the winners were always the ‘Boobies’. As soon as we mentioned a ‘Booby’ the whole class collapsed into sniggers and giggles, leaving Megan and I desperately searching for alternative birds. Oh the delights of common bird names from Tits, to ‘Cock’ Sparrows, to Brown Boobies.

Radio

Local School

We sailed south and found a beautiful bay with a roost of sixty odd Magnificent Frigate Birds along with turtles and shoals of rainbow fish. Megan and I took off in the kayaks, while Davo finished building a new rope locker box and Emily partook in a smattering of sun bathing. We found Brown Boobies, more Frigates and Brown Pelicans, but no nests. The beaches were white, endless, backed by mangroves and dreamy. We munched on some peanut butter sandwiches, before finding a lagoon fringed by a necklace of rotting fish. We couldn’t comprehend why? Pollution or drying out with associated lack of oxygen? Frigates circled above, but appeared uninterested in the bounty. We did not have the kit to take water samples, so regretfully left. As we paddled back to the boat, a huge green turtle snorted air in front of the kayak. Suddenly, he saw us and splashed his flippers in a fluster down to his watery recesses

Sailing South

A secluded bay

We were all pinning our hopes on Booby Island. Megan and I had viewed it from a distance in the kayak but could not get a proper look, so we bundled off in Lista, found some sand to anchor her and chucked the kayak over board. We bashed through the waves but all we could see was rock and prickly vegetation. Very disappointing, but perhaps terns which return to breed in April, will be nesting when we return next year?

The Magnificent Frigate Bird Roost

Next stop was Nevis, we headed north and circumnavigated the rotund island before docking in Charlestown. Nothing much to report- we couldn’t find breeding seabirds, but we did find great people and a journalist keen to write about our project. One guy ranted continuously about Barracuda and how he would eat no other fish. The only hitch being their susceptibility to ciguatera- a bio-accumulation of toxins that builds up in predatory reef fish. On some islands it is illegal to sell Barracuda for that reason, but the man pertained that as long as flies go near it or the cat (without any unfortunate outcomes) all would be well.

View to Nevis

Dave ran off into the hills, finding some rural revelry amongst the verdant vegetation and abandoned sugar cane mills. Megan, Emily and I tapped upon our laptops – a rather unhealthy pre-occupation that devours our time. It does allow us to work on the hoof, which is great, but the spectacle of lines of people buried in a cyber world in a bar smacks of our incompetence at real interaction. A pair of Zeniada Doves were far more attuned with interaction, cooing sweet nothings to one another in their flimsy nest atop of a light. The sound of the Zenaida’s woops will, I am sure, always conjure the Caribbean for us. They are ever present and beautiful, with their flicks of iridescent plumage, their throats inflating as they belt out their amour to the world.

We were invited to a St Patrick’s Day hash – a crazy, howling run amid ‘on, on’s’ and ‘hash, hash’, following flour trails through the hills, starting and ending with a healthy pint. Much as this would have appealed to us, the infamous Redonda beckoned as our next stepping stone on our seabird quest down the Antilles chain……

Zenaida Doves

St Eustatia

Anchorage at Orangie Bay

We didn’t think Saba could be matched for beauty, wilderness, wildlife…. then along came Statia, hitting us with laughter and friendliness and revealing hidden valleys and lush rainforest. No sooner had we bombed the Marine Park offices, then Lee Mudson (Marine Manager) threw open the office doors, library, internet, marine park boat…. to speed us along on our surveys (hospitality matched by no other island) while Hannah Madden (National Park Ranger) and the rest of the team prepared to march us to hidden jewels and co-ordinate media for us.

Marine Park Notice Board & Lesser Antilles Iguana

The Stenapa Staff

And a close up of the beauty..

Megan and I sped off on bikes after our quarry, Red-billed Tropic Birds and began searching for nests on the windswept spectacle of Zeelandia beach, quickly finding Tropics sticking out like raisons amid the layers of shale cliff. So the days were filled scaling the cliffs counting Tropic Birds and watching their repeated, failed attempts to alight upon their nests. (This would happen time and time again, the white, rapid, ‘rowing” flapping birds would emerge as a white dot from the ocean haze. They would come into land again and again before a final bungled landing would have them splayed across a boulder, where they would precede pulling themselves along on their belly- their tiny black legs being ill adapted to land dwelling).

Tropic Bird 'Pastry'.

Zeelandia Bay

Next the boat, with Lee and Gadget manoeuvring us around coral reefs and crashing waves as we searched for seabirds on Statia’s cliffs and beaches. Red-billed Tropic Birds were the spectacle, with their screeches resounding around the cliffs as they wheeled through the air. A flock of Magnificent Frigate Birds loafed in a ravine, Brown Pelicans and Brown Boobies perched onto cliff ledges or plunged for fish, but only the Tropics were hell bent on breeding. We were getting a feel for Tropic Bird life- with their daily routine of fishing and alighting back to the nest. Accordingly, we did another water-based survey checking out parts of the island that we had not been able to reach during the ‘witching’ hour, 1530 and 1700. And so we discovered Tropic Bird paradise- tens of birds looping and squawking over the cliffs.

Lee, Gadget and Me.

Lee, Gadget and Megan

Statia felt more ‘real’ than picture perfect Saba, with its dilapidated housing areas and a more mixed population. Unfortunately, both islands had their rubbish tips; Saba’s sprawled down a gulley and was guarded by a hundred eerie cat eyes, Statia’s slumped into beautiful Zeelandia beach in a tumble of water bottles and packaging, a reminder of humankind’s excess and our love-affair with plastic, packaging and inability to re-use, recycle or just stop buying in the first place.

Plastic Bottles on Zeelandia Beach

Together we walked up Gilboa Hill with Hannah pointing out orchids, edible fruits, lizards and butterflies to us. She has been working on the island for over three years and has been compiling a diary of terrestrial plants and fauna (http://web.me.com/hannah.madden/Site/Welcome.html). Dave and I returned late one night to Gilboa Hill after eyeing potential Audubon’s Shearwater nesting habitat, but after blasting the male and female duet across the hills for half and hour, we padded back down the rocky track, the night void of any answering calls. Crickets, cicadas and bats clicked and buzzed in compensation and finally fire flies lit our way, dancing and fizzing through the scrub.

Seed pods on Gilboa Hill

Spider Web on Gilboa Hill

Lizard, Gilboa Hill

Megan had reached the tender age of 24 (I do sound like an old crock) and we we thought is about time we had a dance… So we met in bar, found a few bevies and our dancing moves… Next morning, somewhat bedraggled, we scaled the Quill, the fabled dormant volcano with a rainforest growing within. Round and round the slope we went, accompanied by Hermit Crabs marching their laborious ascent of amour in quest of mates and peppered with Mahogany stands atop huge buttress routes straining for the sun. The view was incredible- we looked out over tree tops worthy of tarzan with lianas swinging into the distance,

Dancing on Statia

Dave, me and Megan

View from the Quill

Hermit Crab Marching up the Quill

Hermit Crab Again

Megan and I made our final sortie for Red-bill Tropics, whilst Dave sloped off with ropes and climbing gear to check out potential nesting habitat. We all met up on the beach for surfing and battered our way through the waves in a washing machine spin, finally leaving the waves as the sun went down.

Red-bill Tropic adult and chick

From Gilboa Head: Hannah, Emily, Megan and Melissa

Presentation to the STENAPA staff & vols

Daily Data Entry

The daily data entry aboard Lista, a view to our next destination throught the tree tops of the Quill, St Kitts and a final image of the chief character in the preceedings- a Red-billed Tropic Bird. Photographed by Hannah Madden, this time a sub-adult, without the flashy tail.

Hannah Madden's RBTR