Into the Mouth of the Quill: Adventures in St. Eustatius

Old wooden signs point the way. They may not be as old as they look, but here, on the windward side of the Caribbean, tropical storms take their tolls—on signs, buildings, cars, and anything else that sits out in the rain. These signs to the trailhead simply say “Quill” in elegant cursive scrolled with weathered black paint.

The trailhead at The Quill.

The trailhead at The Quill; Statia, Lesser Antilles, by Steve Shunk.

The Quill is the crown jewel of St. Eustatius, better known as “Statia,” and this dormant stratovolcano anchors the Quill/Boven National Park, established in 1998 as the first national park of the Netherlands Antilles. Comprising about one-sixth the land area of Statia, the park includes a botanical garden and a web of trails across the mountain. The Quill sits at the northern end of the St. Kitts Bank, a small line of volcanoes that includes Mt. Liamuiga (aka Mt. Misery) of St. Kitts Island and Nevis Peak, on the island of Nevis.

You could probably find The Quill on your own—it is, after all, a big volcanic crater on a tiny island—but you will get much more from your outing if you hire a local guide. Biologist Hannah Madden knows the flora and fauna, the history and the politics of this magical and storied little island in the Dutch Antilles. Hannah also knows the best way to get you down into the mouth of The Quill. I was fortunate enough to have Hannah leading me up the mountain, and we were joined by Lisa Sorenson, executive director of BirdsCaribbean, the region’s leading conservation group.

Hannah Madden and Lisa Sorenson begin the long hike into the crater of The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles, by Steve Shunk.

Hannah Madden and Lisa Sorenson begin the long hike into the crater of The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles, by Steve Shunk.

We began our ascent at the barely-marked trailhead, passing through dry thorn-forest in areas once cleared for agriculture but now dominated by acacia and mimosa. From the moment we left the car, we were serenaded by the vocally and visually conspicuous Pearly-eyed Thrasher, a Caribbean endemic that is abundant throughout the island. Just a few hundred meters farther, we were treated to a male Antillean Crested Hummingbird, another Caribbean endemic, found from eastern Puerto Rico south to Grenada and Barbados. Visions of this little guy will keep you going on any trail.

About halfway up the mountain, we reached the junction of the Around-the-Mountain trail, and this is where the birding really began. We heard one of our “target” birds several times, the uncommon Scaly-breasted Thrasher, but we had to look at dozens of Pearly-eyeds before setting eyes on its far less common cousin. A bit farther on, we started hearing the low haunting call of the very shy and elusive Bridled Quail-Dove, yet another Antillean endemic that occurs only from Puerto Rico south to St. Lucia. The doves called from multiple directions, but they were too far off the trail, and we were headed for the crater.

Male Antillean Crested Hummingbird on the trial up The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles; by Steve Shunk.

Male Antillean Crested Hummingbird on the trail up The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles; by Steve Shunk.

We reached the lava-lined rim of The Quill ready for a break. As we stared across the awesome crater, a flock of Scaly-naped Pigeons flushed from below us and coursed above the canopy before burying themselves in the lush forest. Overhead, we watched a resident Red-tailed Hawk soaring above the rim. Red-tailed Hawks in Statia represent the nominate subspecies of this widespread raptor, B. j. jamaicensis, first described from Jamaica and occurring only in Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the northern Lesser Antilles; another Caribbean endemic.

From the rim into the crater, we were surrounded by evergreen forest, and down into the crater we went. I consider myself a seasoned hiker, but the descent into the mouth of The Quill rivaled some of the most challenging hikes I have experienced in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. As if climbing down a wall of boulders wasn’t challenging enough, it had rained the day before, so the rocks were very slippery. Thankfully, Hannah is a patient and accommodating guide, and she ensured that we arrived on the floor of the crater with enough energy to get back out.

Interp sign in The Quill crater, by Steve Shunk

One in a series of interpretive signs describing each habitat type of The Quill; this one the Pioneer Forest inside the crater; Statia, Lesser Antilles, by Steve Shunk.

We reached the bottom and were transported in time. The chorus of Pearly-eyed Thrashers continued, echoing from the canopy like the soundtrack of a Tarzan movie. But this was no movie. We stood in awe of Statia’s tropical jungle, under towering silk-cotton trees with wild banana in the understory. We sauntered along the crater floor without any words except, “wow.” We looked for blooming heliconia flowers, favored by a handsome Caribbean hummingbird, the Purple-throated Carib, but today wasn’t our day for that bird. Besides, I was plenty occupied with fungi, anoles, and seed pods.

The elusive Bridled Quail-Dove, resident on the outer slopes of The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles; by Steve Shunk.

The elusive Bridled Quail-Dove, resident on the outer slopes of The Quill. Statia, Lesser Antilles; by Steve Shunk.

A rain shower started while we stood inside the crater. We knew we had a climb ahead of us, and we didn’t want it to get any more slippery than it already was. After re-ascending the rim interior, we headed down the mountain with a great feeling of satisfaction. Not just for surviving the hike, but also for the opportunity to experience this amazing work of nature. A short ways down the slope, Hannah stopped us in our tracks and aimed us into the woods. For a mere minute or two, we watched a Bridled Quail-Dove shuffling through the understory, unaware of us, and very much at home on the slope of The Quill. I think this is what they call “icing on the cake.”

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Websites cited or otherwise referenced here include: www.natureonstatia.comwww.caribbeanvolcanoes.com, www.statiapark.org/parks/quill, www.hbw.com, and www.neotropical.birds.cornell.edu.

Steve Shunk

Steve Shunk is a contributing editor for Nature Travel Network. Steve started traveling early, with family Amtrak rides, summer beach houses, and extended car-camping. After a suburban childhood in four different states, Steve forged his independence Read More