Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Monday, 2 February 2015

Grenada, 1/1/15-7/1/15

St George's, Grenada, 7/1/15

The Lesser Antilles never featured much on my radar as a place I’d ever likely visit. During wishful journeys I've traced in the atlas I suppose my eye immediately wandered to the two great continents sandwiching this chain of small islands. So it was my girlfriend’s idea and her plea for some winter sun coupled with a steadfast refusal to spend another holiday “standing in a ditch wearing waterproof trousers” that saw us packing the lotion and heading off from Gatwick in the murk of new year’s day morning.

Researching the trip was lots of fun and relatively straightforward since there are only two international airports covering the region (and Barbados). That, along with an amazing deal on a flight to Grenada, helped us cobble together a two and half week journey travelling South – North, from Grenada, through St Vincent and the Grenadines, before spending time in Dominica and flying out from Antigua. I knew embarrassingly little about the region and hadn't heard of half the islands, but I knew it would be hotter than Kent in winter. Besides booking some accommodation, I arrived having read relatively little, opting for the adventure of it all. I did read about the wildlife of the region even though “not a birdwatching holiday” was given as the party line. Happily for me though, that wasn't always the case and I’ll mostly stick to that here.

For all the anticipation, we were greeted at Grenada airport with the kind of downpour that causes (light-hearted) consternation among a holiday crowd, most of whose very reason for being there was to avoid such a thing. But happily it soon abated and the smell of rain on hot tarmac began to permeate through our first wide-eyed glimpses of a lush, green island. That first hour made quite an impression as we bounced around in the back of small minibus on the way to our lodge in Crochu on the Atlantic coast. It’s the colours of the gardens and trees that whizzed by that sticks in my mind, the lurch of breaks and the urgent, jumbled rhythms of soca music on the bus stereo. That was followed by the realisation of how quickly the warm afternoon light gives way to night here. In a blur we’d been introduced to our lovely host, Ingrid, and were following the sound of yet more blaring music to a nearby street party where we drank ice cold Caribs on the kerb, surrounded by locals on motorbikes and the sweet, humid, tropical night.

The next morning I awoke and was soon smiling stupidly at our colourful surroundings, a postcard blue sky and all manner of new sights and sounds. The gardens held a nice variety of birds and searching the lime tree sprawled over the balcony I could soon make out the first exotic, feathered shufflings of the trip. Tropical Mockingbird, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch and the ‘black’ race of Bananaquit were all conspicuous as were scaly Common Ground-doves, a perfectly proportioned dove not much bigger than a sparrow. A superb Gray Kingbird whistled and darted from a prominent perch nearby. Everything was so new, except one thing - a familiar, drawn out song rattling in the lime tree belonging to a House Wren, the tanned cousin of our own troglodyte.

A visit to the picturesque capital, St George’s bought my first view of a Magnificent Frigatebird over the harbour - a truly prehistoric looking bird and well-deserving of its name. Getting acquainted with the ‘squeeze in and hold on’ customs of the local buses we saw a lot of the island. One of my favourite sites was Levara Pond at the north eastern tip which we reached after walking from Sauteurs. Huffing through the heat of the day (as only an English person would) the walk was briefly enlivened by the appearance of an enterprising young boy who seemed concerned that we were destined to get lost. His generous offer of guidance also came with the offer to buy a tablet which, unfortunately for him, I declined. I explained I think he’d picked the wrong tourists as I am still not entirely sure why I’d ever need one. The walk was great, taking in the beautiful and remote turtle-nesting beach of Levara, before a track inland led us via a boardwalk through dense mangroves to a viewing tower overlooking a large lake. Here on the fringes, among the exposed, spidery mangrove roots lurked Snowy egrets, green and great blue herons, an Osprey looked on and a Caribbean Coot and Pied Billed Grebe made the only ripples on the water’s surface. The site is part of a wider Ramsar-designated protected area in recognition of its biodiversity and importance to sea turtles.

My first encounter with a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), Rex hotel gardens
Carib Grackle (Quiscalus lugubris), Grenville
Levara beach, Grenada

From a birder’s perspective though and indeed Grenada’s own, there’s one bird that holds sway over the island and one I was especially keen to see. The secretive Grenada Dove is the island’s national bird and, regarded as critically endangered, a genuine world rarity. Confined to small pockets of woodland in the south west, but more frequently encountered on posters or painted on village walls, seeing it takes a bit of luck and local expertise - or both. Before leaving I’d arranged to meet a local guide, Jerry, who knew the island’s birds better than most since he’s pretty much Grenada’s only dedicated birdwatcher! Imagine that.

On the day, Jerry picked us up at 6.30am and we headed off on a circuitous route of the south, first taking in some mangroves near La Sagesse for a smart vagrant Tri-coloured Heron. A stop at a mangrove viewpoint near Woburn held a good variety of North American waders including a Least Sandpiper, several Semi-palmated sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe. With the sun well up, we then made our way to the Mount Hartman Estate to begin our search for The Dove . All the while Jerry talked passionately and knowledgeably about Grenada’s wildlife and his love of the forests. Despite the Grenada Dove walking a fine line with an estimated population of well under 200 males and development in the area an ever-lurking issue, he was positive about the role of eco-tourism and the various local efforts to preserve it. Walking the narrow, winding trails on the estate, under a dense canopy of scrub, our first stop found nothing. Moving on we saw Grenada Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and bulky Scaly-naped pigeons before Jerry picked out the plaintive, sighing calls of three doves nearby. None showed but it was a quietly rewarding moment in the heat of the morning. Another target on the estate was the Grenada race of Hook-billed Kite, thought to be endemic and worth further study. Unfortunately these had been scarce for some weeks and we didn't see any but we still had good views of a pair of Broad-winged hawks, the commonest raptor by far on the island.

Returning to the entrance, Jerry suggested we try the first spot one last time which we did. This time, as we resumed the same positions, he instantly hushed and pointed a little way to our left and the pale form of a Grenada Dove quietly picking its way across the woodland floor. A subtly pretty bird with a bold white crescent where wing meets breast, it was a privilege to share a moment with it in the woodland it calls home, the only place on earth.

Mt Hartman peninsular, home of Grenada Dove; photo showing land lost to a new marina on right, 4/1/15
Village mural, Crochu

Some time later we finished the day in Jerry’s garden watching hummingbirds on his sugar water feeder. He showed us around his garden pointing out the dizzying array of fruits, herbs and spices growing in a small area: cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg, avocado, bread fruit, golden apple, lemon grass and callaloo to name just a few. It was wonderful to smell their warm scents, straight from the earth. I had the feeling that if I ever stopped moving for long in Grenada the vegetation would reclaim me and make me an ungainly scarecrow, with binoculars round its neck. And I mean that in the very best way.

One bird I hadn't expected to encounter as much as I did on the islands was Merlin, a bird that for me conjures up images of my local marshes on bleak, winter days. Yet stopping at the abandoned Pearl's airfield on the east coast one afternoon, I saw just that - a male Merlin chasing barn swallows...successfully too! Completing the unusual scene were several old cuban planes parked on the edge of the runway, relics of Grenada's 'socialist experiment' in the late 70s and long since air-worthy. Faded, dented and stripped in places, the planes were otherwise eerily real with only the restorative limbs of flowering creepers and trees deciding their fate now.

As well as discovering its turbulent history, it's incredible to think that only ten years ago Grenada suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Ivan, an event which shredded the island's basic economy by devastating key cash crops such as nutmeg and damaged 90% of homes. Jerry showed us traces of it that are still visible on hillsides and villages, but I was struck by the good-natured stoicism of people we met. Equally impressive were the novel attempts at diversifying the agricultural sector through local cooperatives and eco-tourism. For a country I knew so little about, Grenada was a real surprise and wonderful place to explore.


Big Sky Lodge - excellent garden lodges in Crochu
Buses - do it
Chocolate - Grenada Chocolate Company and Belmont Estate
Jerry - forester and bird guide, knows the birds of Grenada inside out. Email:

Brown Pelicans over main street, Carriacou, Grenada

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