A travel guide to Antigua and Barbuda, a key to great nature and birdwatching sites on the islands. Part three of a four-part series.
Antigua has been colonized by cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts. Yet the inquisitive traveler can easily go beyond the bling and find authentic local food and lodging. Rental cars are available at the airport. Remember that Antigua is a former British colony; you drive on the left side of the road. Antigua is small (281 km), so where you stay on the island matters little when it comes to time traveling to sites.
The one large city in Antigua is St. John’s, with about half of the country’s 80,000 residents. This itinerary is oriented with St. Johns at the center, and we will visit the island in a more-or-less clockwise fashion. Many of the Caribbean endemics are ubiquitous around the island. Find any patch of greenery and you will see Bananaquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Black-whiskered Vireo, Zenaida Dove, White-crowned Pigeon, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, Caribbean Elaenia, Gray Kingbird, Carib Grackle, Grassland Yellow Finch, and the like. Our itinerary will focus on finding those species that involve an effort.
McKinnon’s Salt Pond is a short drive north of St. John’s, immediately inland from Runaway Bay. McKinnon’s has been altered over the years (mangrove removal, for example), but this is still the premier site on the island for waterbirds. White-cheeked Pintails are common here, and West Indian Whistling-ducks are often seen grazing along the shoulders of the roads. Caribbean Coots join the variety of waterfowl that winter here and/or migrate through these wetlands. Black-necked Stilts and Wilson’s Plovers nest on the sand and gravel shores, and are often joined by Least Terns. Shorebirds migrate through McKinnon’s in immense numbers in spring and fall.
Continue north around the tip of the island to Jabberwock Beach. There is a wetland area borders the beach, with many of the same species seen at McKinnon’s. Continue the east side of the island, past sites such as Fitches Creek, to the village of Seatons.
Seatons offers simple accommodations (try Ellen’s Bay Cottages) and simpler food (although it is hard to imagine anything better than a fresh-landed fish fried whole in the local style while you pass the time sipping rum with the locals). Here boat access to the offshore islands can be arranged (again, contact EAG for recommendations). Seatons is also the location of Stingray City, an ecotourism operation that will carry you out into the bay to swim with the rays.
The boat trip from Seatons threads through a bewildering collection of reefs, islands, islets, and even the Gates of Hell. Islands such as Rabbit, Lobster, Galley, and Great Bird are seabird nesting areas, and the birds are easily seen without landing on the islands themselves. Efforts are underway to remove rats from these islands in order to restore the critically endangered Antillean racer (Alsophis antiguae). Seabirds have benefited from rat extermination as well.
Sooty terns, Bridled Terns, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Noddies, Laughing Gulls, and Brown Pelicans abound on these islands. The tropicbirds lay their single egg in a crevice in the limestone only a few feet above the water. The noddies and terns build their rather crude nests in the dense scrub higher on the islands. Land birds such as the resident Yellow Warbler, Caribbean Elaenia, and Black-whiskered Vireo nest on these islands as well. The steep cliffs on Great Bird Island create updrafts that attract not only terns and tropicbirds but Caribbean martins as well.
From Seatons the rest of the island is easily accessible. Before heading south take a short side trip east to Devil’s Bridge National Park. This area of eroded karst bordering the sea is breathtaking, and it is a local tradition for couples to cross Devil’s Bridge as the sea rushes in. Listen as the incoming surf sucks and then spits seawater through the blow holes.
There are reportedly 365 beaches in Antigua, one for each day of the year. Each is seductive, each will tempt you. There will be times when you will need to avert your eyes and focus on the road to avoid the temptation to stop at just one more. However, you should surrender to the temptation and spend time at Half Moon Bay National Park. This is the most beautiful beach in Antigua, eclipsed only by the pink beaches of Barbuda.
From Seaton the next stage of the itinerary veers south. Potswork Reservoir, the largest on the island, is only a short distance south of Seatons. This is worthwhile stop to look for waterfowl, particularly in winter and during migration. Larges flocks of Ruddy Ducks and Pied-billed Grebes are found here. However, your time is best spent in the high mountain forests along the southern edge of the island. These forests are the haunts of most of the remaining endemics on the islands.
The first of the two accessible tropical forests remaining on the island is Wallings Reservoir, a short distance west of John Hughes village on Fig Tree Drive. Wallings Reservoir is itself unremarkable in its own right, although the Victorian architecture and engineering are certainly worth seeing. Around Wallings, however, are trails that snake through some of the most mature forest in Antigua.
Mahogany, ironwood, mahoe, gunstock, and white cedar are among the trees that join in creating this dense forest. Visits are most productive in early morning and late evening. Birds that may be seen here (and are rare or absent elsewhere) include Ruddy Quail-Dove, Bridled Quail-Dove, Scaly-naped (Red-necked) Pigeon, and Antillean Euphonia. Broad-winged Hawks are resident in these forests, and many of the Caribbean endemics seen elsewhere on the island are common here as well.
Quail-doves are Caribbean natives, and are difficult to see. The secret to seeing them is to disappear. Walk the trails at Wallings in early morning or late evening. Stride patiently (and silently) along the trail, watching for any movement or motion ahead or along side the trail. Quail-doves often walk into the open, but not if you are barreling forward at full speed gabbing with your fellow birders. Let the doves come to you.
From Wallings continue to Christian Valley. However, on the way you will pass Darkwood Beach, and across Valley Road is the Darkwood Salt Pond. The salt pond can be viewed from either end (north or south). The pond itself is private property, so it is advisable to view this pond from the shoulder of the road. The time of year and the level of water in the pond impact the numbers of birds that may be seen. With the right conditions, however, Darkwood attracts clouds of migrant shorebirds and waterbirds. Black-necked Stilts and Wilson’s Plovers nest here. Migrants such as Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, and Semipalmated Sandpiper can be found here by the hundreds. White-cheeked pintails are common in the deeper water, and a variety of herons and egrets crowd the edges.
Continue toward St. John’s on Valley Road through Bolands. Look for the Christian Valley Agricultural Station sign on the right (east) of Valley Road, and enter. The entrance road is horrid, but eventually you will bounce and jiggle your way to the entrance gate. EAG has developed the Christian Valley Birding Trail here, in concert with the Christian Valley Agricultural Station with funding provided the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.
The forest here is an eclectic mix of tropical fruits (mango, avocado, guava, soursop) and native woodland trees. Birds to be seen here include the doves mentioned before for Wallings (Ruddy Quail-Dove, Bridled Quail-Dove, Scaly-naped (Red-necked) Pigeon), as well as Scaly-breasted and Pearly-eyed Thrashers, and Antillean Euphonia. Antillean Crested Hummingbirds and Green-throated Caribs are common at lower elevations. To see the Purple-throated Carib, however, you must hike to the higher elevation forests. The Purple-throated Carib feeds on heliconias, so you must climb until you find them in bloom.
When you return to the entrance gate you will notice a monument that declares this area the new Mount Obama National Park. Mount Obama (formerly known as Boggy Peak) is the highest peak in Antigua (1,319 feet). Antigua created the park in honor of the election of the first African-American to the American presidency. For more information about visiting this remarkable site and hiking the trails, contact EAG.
From Christian Valley this itinerary returns you to St. John’s via Valley Road. As you leave you may see another of the endemic Anolis along the entrance road, Anolis watti.
Plan on spending time visiting a few of the sites in and around St. John’s. The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is downtown and should not be missed. You can easily spend an entire morning just touring the museum. Fort Barrington is near St. John’s, and a climb up to the fort offers a panoramic view of Deep Bay and St. John’s Harbour. English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard are at the extreme southern tip of the island, and those interested in the colonial period should take time to visit these heritage sites. In recent years a historic sugar plantation, Betty’s Hope, has been restored as an in situ museum (absent the slaves, of course).
Admittedly there are birding, cultural, and historic sites that have been left out of this itinerary. However, this trip can be accomplished in a few days, leaving you time to get to know the locals. Antiguans are delightful people, quick with a laugh and even quicker with a welcome. Local tour guides such as Junior Prosper and Victor Joseph can be reached by contacting EAG. Use them. EAG is working with limited resources to protect the natural history of this most remarkable place. They deserve your support as well.