October 16, 2015
The Island of St Lucia, located mid-way in the Caribbean chain of Islands, lies in the path of the Caribbean flyway and some oceanic migratory routes between North and South America. As a staging ground for many migratory bird species that pass through each year, it attracts Peregrine Falcon, Black Belly Duck, Masked Duck and many other species of wintering warblers and waders. More than a third of its land area is under forest cover provided by a wide variety of woodlands – from Montaigne forest, xerophytic and mangrove forest to secondary and scrub forest – one very good reason why the birds and wildlife of St Lucia are so many and so varied.
Each year the island welcomes over 300 different bird species and has eight endemics in amongst the migrant birds that favour the fertile offshore Islets, thick woodlands and coastal plains. Tens of thousands of seabirds congregate along the shoreline nesting grounds while others favour St Lucia’s two Ramsar wetland sites, areas of bountiful grass-fringed marshes full of wriggling invertebrates that tempt legions of hungry birds. During the summer months, the skies fill with feathered visitors arriving across the Atlantic from Africa, an epic voyage of thousands of miles. Many take up residence en masse on the southern tip of St Lucia on the blackened rocky crags of Maria Islands, declared a Nature reserve in 1982. Tourists can witness the spectacular sight of swirling birds with a guide and a rickety fishing boat (pack a broad-rim hat to protect your head from the bird-dropping poop from on-high!).
Another must-see are the aerial displays of thousands of migrant Frigate birds at St Lucia’s famous Frigate Island Nature Reserve, located mid-way along the East Coast. Frigate birds are extraordinary to look at as they weigh in at a modest 1.5 kg but have long and skinny, aerodynamic wings that can reach up to 2m in length. The park is off-limits during the breeding season but visitors can watch them at other points in the year from a scenic cliff-top nature trail: they soar, sweep, wheel and turn in well-choreographed formations and glide effortlessly above a tufted strip of mangrove swamp.
Like the Frigate birds from Africa, the migrant birds of St Lucia are either fully protected or partially protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1980) and by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It has well-established links with the UK’s RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), BirdLife, and other international wildlife conservation groups. Birds that undertake gruelling migrations do so at their peril – estimates suggest that more than 60 per cent of avian species that migrate from North America to South America via the Caribbean never make it. Those that attempt it using their own amazing internal compass include the Great Egret (often seen in wetlands at Vieux Fort and Cul de Sac); Blackpoll Warbler (rarely seen, preferring mixed woodlands and mangroves); Barn swallow (look out for it perched on telegraph wires and road signs around wetland habitat); Greater Yellowlegs (another bird that favours in Vieux Fort and Cul de Sac as well as the Bois D’orange wetlands); the Masked duck and the Tricoloured heron.
Local St Lucians feel protective of their visiting wildlife, not just for its beauty but also because of the great economic value to the island. Areas such as Grande Anse Ponds, Esperance mangrove, Bois D’orange swamp, Auberge Seraphine swamp in the north, Praslin mangrove, Fregate Islands on the east and Maria Islands and Point Sable in the south bring birders from all over the world to St Lucia. Migrant birds are also great seed dispensers and pollinators that provide a vital role in sustaining the island’s stunning array of flourishing plant species.
Like nomadic humans, animals migrate for a wide range of reasons. Scientists readily admit that there’s still a lot to learn about the ‘internal clock’ that tells an animal it’s time to relocate, redistribute and move. But one thing is agreed; that migration is a primeval urge that drives an animal past it’s normal levels of endurance. When migrating, wildlife ignore their usual food-gathering and home-building habits and travel with a single-minded purpose. Migrations occur in every part of the animal kingdom, from birds and insects to crustaceans and whales – some, famously, voyage vast distances while others move relatively small distances. One example of the latter is St Lucia’s tiny ghost crab, a crustacean that migrates in order to hibernate (Dec-April) or lay eggs in the sea. Though mainly nocturnal, this tiny, pale, shadow-like crustacean occasionally makes an appearance before sunset, emerging from the sand by the dozen to scatter in every direction. With its coal-black rotating eyes held aloft on stalks, the near-invisible ghost crab is constantly alert to the threat of predators, choosing quiet beaches in which to burrow and reaching speeds of up to 10 miles per hour when it needs to retreat swiftly from harm. As well as moving burrows to hibernate, ghost crabs migrate up to 8km – a long distance for a tiny crab – to lay their eggs in the sea.
The wildlife of St Lucia is a legacy of historic migrations or invasions. For example, nine of the eighteen reptile species found in amongst the island’s lush banana, coconut, mango and papaya trees are not indigenous. Today, St Lucia remains an important island for migratory marine wildlife with three species of endangered sea turtle breeding on the island’s sandy beaches: Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green. Until relatively recently, marine biologists were mystified as to how sea turtles managed to migrate great distances through Caribbean waters to oceanic expanses with no visual landmarks. Scientists now believe that they navigate by determining their longitude using two sets magnetic cues in order to follow a lengthy east-west route across open sea. Turtles have innate navigational skills as hatchlings once they make it to the sea after leaving their nests. They voyage vast distances until they reach maturity, then return to their exact place of birth to have their young on one of the most miraculous migratory journeys on earth.
Other incredible feats achieved by the migratory wildlife of St Lucia include other species of the sea. A veritable rainbow of exotic tropical fish follows a migration route through the island’s waters, including Kingfish, Tuna and Wahoo. Dolphins and whales are also found in abundance in Caribbean waters – more than thirty species in total at last tally. In St Lucia, dolphins can often be seen practicing their acrobatic skills in the bays while whales are often heard before they’re spotted, clearing their blowhole with an almighty whoosh before majestically slipping beneath the waves. With resident pods as well as migratory ones, the species most commonly sighted are Pilot whales, Sperm whales, Humpbacks and False Orcas. It is not unusual to see pods of dolphins – Spinners, Spotted, Bottlenose and Fraser dolphins – swimming with the whales. Pods of dolphins average around 40 but can sometimes total several hundred. Humpbacks arrive in the Caribbean (Jan-Mar) having migrated from their North Atlantic feeding grounds. They sing haunting courtship songs and give birth to calves in the warm tropical waters. Visitors can head out on whale-watching cruises from St Lucia between December and April, while land-based whale watching is possible too from Pigeon Pointe, between Castries and Gros Ilet. Be sure to pack a scope or pair of binoculars for this jaw-dropping spectacle.
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to St Lucia from London Gatwick, bringing your wildlife adventure well within reach.
Have you seen any of the stunning wildlife of St Lucia? Tell us bout your most memorable experiences in the comments section below.