Last month, I had the opportunity to bird and photograph on St. John in the US Virgin Islands. When I first found out that I would be travelling there, I was shocked by how little information was available about where on the island was best for birding and even about the birds of the islands themselves. I figured that since over half of the island is a National Park, there had to be some birds around, so I was pretty excited despite the lack of information. The island has no endemic species but I had never visited the Caribbean before so there were a lot of potential lifers for me to find.
I spent a portion of the first three days of the trip birding around the hotel property but then decided that I needed to get out and do some real birding. Everything I could find about birding pointed to the Francis Bay Trail in the National Park as the best birding on St. John. My wife and I got a taxi early in the morning to take us to the trailhead, located on the northern part of the island. I had barely gotten out of the taxi and paid the driver when my wife spotted my first lifer of the day as it flew over our heads. I finally was able to see a Mangrove Cuckoo. I had searched and searched for this bird in Florida many times and was elated to finally see one.
We continued down the trail and were greeted by some familiar birds, Yellow and Prairie Warblers. The Yellow Warbler is the only warbler that breeds on the island, and the Prairie is an occasional winter resident. Just ahead of us, I heard a flycatcher sing and was fairly certain that it was a Puerto Rican Flycatcher. He is a very difficult bird to get on St. John, so I wanted to see it in order to confirm my identification that I made by its sound. Luckily the bird was somewhat cooperative as it stayed in view and sang for a few more minutes.
When we got to the first platform that overlooks a pond, I found a couple pairs of White-cheeked Pintails across the water, but they were too far for any photos. While we were scanning the pond, a local came along and asked me if we had seen “it”. We had no idea what “it” was, so he informed us that there had been an American Flamingo at the pond for the past week and that it had even made the front page of the local paper. It was not visible from the platform, but we were definitely keeping an eye out for it.
We continued down the boardwalk through the mangroves and came upon a small group of Smooth-billed Anis. After stopping at a second platform overlooking the water, there was still no flamingo to be found. By that point, we needed to start heading back to the trailhead, so we backtracked our way around the pond and up the trail. Just before we got to the parking lot, we decided to sit on some benches at an overlook to kill some time. I got adventurous and climbed down the hill a little bit to get a wider view of the pond. This paid off big time, as the flamingo had been in the far corner of the pond the whole time.
We quickly moved back down the trail and cut through the mangroves on a tiny little trail. It came out right at the edge of the water where the flamingo was only about 50 yards away. My wife and I both studied it through binoculars for a long time and also took some great photos.
Later in the week, we wanted to try one more morning of birding. I had heard about a place called Salt Pond so we decided to give it a shot. It was a 45 minute taxi ride, and while we found a few birds along the path down to the water, overall the birding was not very good. Still, I managed to get a few photos of some birds that I had seen around the island throughout the week.
St. John has a lot of potential for a birder that has never been to the Caribbean. I would love to go back and further explore this beautiful island.
Rob Ripma is a birder from Carmel, Indiana. He works for Wild Birds Unlimited and runs his own website and blog (www.nuttybirder.com). Rob counts Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, southwest Florida, and Arizona as his favorite birding locations in the United States. In his spare time, he speaks to schools, garden clubs, and other social organizations about birds and his travels and also loves photography.