West Indies! Those two words usually conjure up an image of an idyllic Caribbean setting: sun, sand, and sea; calypso music; colorful bird life; gorgeous sunsets. The West Indies are all that, and much more. For the birder, someone with love and enthusiasm for the outdoors and the desire to find birds in their native habitats, the West Indies provide a wealth of unique opportunities practically at our doorstep.
Until recently, travelers to the Caribbean were limited to tours that featured a variety of stops at exotic ports but few opportunities to truly see the countryside. Emphasis was placed on shopping and sunbathing, with little time left for exploring the natural world of the islands. But today, several nature tours are available that introduce the participant to the real West Indies or look at one or several choice islands in greater depth. In addition, many travelers are discovering that they can visit the various islands on their own, with their own itineraries, and with little more concern than is necessary when traveling in North America.
Although there already exists a wide range of literature about West Indian travel, accommodations, and restaurants, little information is available for the nature lover. This book intends to partially fill that vacuum.
The West Indies form a sweeping, 2,500-mile-long arc of islands that run east and south from Cuba to Grenada (Map 1). Cuba lies only 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, and 125 miles due east of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, while Grenada is located 85 miles off the eastern tip of Venezuela. The majority of the islands abut the Caribbean Sea on the south and west and the Atlantic Ocean on the north and east. They include a total land area of about 90,000 square miles. The islands range in size from Cuba, the largest of the West Indies, with a land surface of 42,827 square miles, to tiny Saba, with only 5 square miles. Elevations vary from the low coral islands, barely above sea level, to mountainous Hispaniola, which rises to 10,417 feet at the summit of Dominican Republic's Pico Duarte.
Geologists believe that none of the West Indies were ever connected to the mainland of North or South America. They are true "oceanic" islands, having risen from beneath the ocean's surface. A few of the islands, however, may have been interconnected during the Ice Age, when the oceans were somewhat lower, since much of their water was frozen on continental ice sheets. Relatively shallow banks occur between Jamaica and Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the northern Virgin Islands, and St. Vincent and Grenada. Most of the West Indies, however, are surrounded by extreme ocean depths. The Puerto Rico Trench, lying north of Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the northern Virgin Islands, and Anguilla, is the greatest depth in the entire Atlantic, 28,374 feet.
The origin of the Caribbean Basin is fairly recent, geologically speaking, and is still evolving via emerging volcanic and coral reef islands. The volcanic islands owe their origin to plate tectonics. The Lesser Antilles mark the edge of the great Atlantic plate that is slowly being driven westerly under the Caribbean plate. The great heat from the friction of the moving plates, 30 to 100 miles below the surface, creates overheated magma that eventually escapes at weaker places in the earth's crust as volcanic activity. The most notable volcanic peaks of the Lesser Antilles include (north to south) Saba, Guadeloupe's La Soufrière, Morne Trois Pitons on Dominica, Pelée on Martinique, and the other Soufrière on St. Vincent.
The topography of the Greater Antilles owes its origin to the same tectonic activities that were responsible for the mountains and valleys of eastern North America. Taking into account the great depths of the underwater trenches, the overall relief of the West Indies is most impressive. For example, the topographic relief between the Puerto Rico Trench and the summit of Dominican Republic's Pico Duarte is 38,791 feet.
Coral islands form along shallow banks that may be only a few feet in depth and are washed by the warm Gulf Stream waters throughout the year. Water surface temperatures vary only from about 82 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to 77 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Although many of the West Indies are fringed with "barrier" reefs, coral islands usually originate from "bank" reefs that form on shallow banks just below the surface. The bank reefs gradually build a platform and eventually rise above the surface. Barrier reefs then begin to fringe the island.
The majority of the West Indies possess sandy beaches of varying lengths and colors. White-sand beaches, famous throughout the Caribbean, generally are derived from broken-down coral, while beaches with black sand reflect the island's volcanic past.
The West Indies are normally divided into the Greater and Lesser Antilles; the Lesser Antilles can be further divided into the northern Leeward Islands and the southern Windward Islands. The several Caribbean islands along South America—Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curagao, and Bonaire—are part of that continent and are not members of the West Indies.
There is some confusion about where to separate the Greater from the Lesser Antilles. All the large islands in the west—Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico—are readily recognized as the Greater Antilles. But the Virgin Islands have been listed as both Greater and Lesser Antilles, depending, it seems, upon political whims. Geologically, the division must lie between the Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands. The northern Virgins are part of the Puerto Rico Bank and so are most appropriately part of the Greater Antilles. The southern Virgin Island of St. Croix, however, could fit in either. All of the easternmost islands, from Anguilla to Grenada, lie along a shallow north-south plateau. The word "Antilles" was derived from the legendary island of Antilia that, until 1492, was thought to lie somewhere between Europe and Asia.
Flora and Fauna
The ecological principle of "the larger the island and the nearer the continent, the greater the diversity of flora and fauna" generally holds true for the West Indies. Since all of the islands arose from the sea, all life forms originally arrived by air or water, carried either by the wind, on rafts or plant debris, or by people from the continents who brought plants and animals with them. Birds and bats flew to the islands from the mainland. This explains the presence of several large mammals and also, perhaps, the large green or tree iguana. But, in general, oceanic islands never support the number of plants and animals that occur in a similar space at similar latitudes on the continents.
James Bond included about 400 bird species in the 1985 edition of his classic book, The Birds of the West Indies. More than one-quarter of those 400 species were Neotropical migrants that occurred only as transient or winter residents, nesting only in North America. Of the remaining 300 species that nest on the West Indies, 138 possess widespread distribution, and 161 species are West Indian endemics (Table 1). These are highlighted in boldface type when they are discussed in the text. Of those 161 endemics, 95 are single-island endemics, 32 are multi-island (two or three islands only) endemics, and 34 species are more widespread within the greater Caribbean Basin (a few may extend peripherally to south Florida o the Yucatan or may winter south of their breeding range). An earlier list was published in a double-issue article I wrote on this subject for the February and August 1990 issues of Birding, a magazine of the American Birding Association.
The high degree of endemism in the West Indies is typical for islands. Simplified ecosystems, such as those that exist on islands, stimulate evolution that results in higher percentages of endemic organisms. However, endemics rarely possess large populations and therefore are more susceptible to extirpation. Miklos Udvardy wrote in his book, Dynamic Zoogeography that "the larger the fauna of an island, the more species that belong tothe rare category and the larger the rate of extinction among them." Island populations, in comparison with larger mainland populations, are extremely susceptible to catastrophes such as hurricanes, habitat destruction, and overhunting that can wipe out entire species. N. J. Collar and P. Andrew, in the ICBP (International Council for Bird Protection) 1988 book, Birds to Watch, pointed out that 46 percent of all birds at risk of extinction are island species. Ninety-three percent of all bird species and subspecies that are known to have become extinct since 1600 are island species.
Further, an assessment of West Indian bird life reveals that it includes two endemic families (Todidae includes five Todies and Dulidae includes the Palmchat) and a host of additional endemic genera: Cyanolimnas, Zapata Rail; Starnoenas, Blue-headed Quail-Dove; Hyetornis, Bay-breasted and Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos; Saurothera, Great, Jamaican, Hispaniolan, and Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoos; Pseudoscops, Jamaican Owl; Eulampis, Purple-throated and Green-throated Caribs; Orthorhynchus, Antillean Crested Hummingbird; Cyanophaia, Blue-headed Hummingbird; Trochilus, Streamertail; Mellisuga, Bee and Vervain Hummingbirds; Priotelus, Cuban and Hispaniolan Trogons; Nesoctites, Antillean Piculet; Xiphidiopicus, Cuban Green Woodpecker; Ferminia, Zapata Wren; Cinclocerthia, Brown and Gray Tremblers; Ramphocinclus, White-breasted Thrasher; Margarops, Scaly-breasted and Pearly-eyed Thrashers; Cichlherminia, Forest Thrush; Catharopeza, Whistling Warbler; Microligea, Green-tailed Ground Warbler; Terestistris, Yellow-headed and Oriente Warblers; Leucopeza, Semper's Warbler; Xenoligea, White-winged Warbler; Torreornis, Zapata Sparrow; Nesospingus, Puerto Rican Tanager; Phaenicophilus, Gray-crowned and Black-crowned Palm-Tanagers; Calyptophilus, Chat Tanager; Euneornis, Orangequit; Melanospiza, St. Lucia Black Finch; Loxipasser, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit; Loxigilla, Puerto Rican, Greater Antillean, and Lesser Antillean Bullfinches; and Nesopsar, Jamaican Blackbird.
It is obvious that the West Indies contain much to whet the birder's appetite. The islands possess an exciting world very different from the one that exists on the continents.
When To Go
Although any time of year is good in the Caribbean, the principal tourist season runs from December through April. That is the winter dry season in the West Indies, the time of year when North Americans most appreciate warmer climates. Hurricanes can be extremely disruptive in late summer, the summer rainy season runs from May to November, and midsummer can be hot and humid. Year-round temperature extremes range from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the lowlands and 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the mountains.
For the naturalist, March through May produces the greatest array of flowering plants, although many species bloom and produce fruit yearround. Birds are most active in the spring.
Getting to the West Indies is not quite as easy as simply driving across the border into Mexico or Canada. Most travel agents can provide travelers with a range of airline and cruise options, and if arrangements are made far enough in advance they usually include excellent cost-saving fares. BWIA and Liat Airlines offer special fares for twenty- and thirty-day unlimited travel from a West Indian entry point such as Puerto Rico or Jamaica. Also, occasional intra-island travel by boat is possible, such as between St. Thomas and Tortola, but longer trips rarely are worth the extra time required.
Always obtain advance room reservations, especially for your first night on each island. Arriving at an unfamiliar destination after dark without knowing where you are bound can be not only confusing but an awful introduction to a new island. Remember that few airlines arrive on schedule. In the Caribbean, expect delays and you will have a more relaxing trip.
Getting through customs is rarely a hassle, although each island has its own unique system, and you must follow directions. Waiting for baggage seems to take the greatest amount of time. Proof of citizenship is an absolute necessity. The best proof is a passport, but a copy (preferable) of your birth certificate or voter's registration card will also suffice.
If you are not on a tour and plan to travel on your own, you will need to rent a vehicle. Be sure to reserve a vehicle well in advance. If you arrive late and the rental office is closed, go on to your hotel and either return the next morning or ask the people at the hotel to obtain a vehicle for you. Also, the free road maps available at the rental car agencies are seldom adequate for negotiating more than the principal highways. If you plan on driving any of the out-of-the-way routes you should purchase a map at home prior to your trip or spend time the first day finding a map store; some hotel gift shops carry adequate maps, but most do not.
Pre-entry inoculations are not required. Take insect repellent with you. Although insects are rarely a bother, mosquitoes and no-see-ums, locally called "mompies," can be a nuisance; ticks and chiggers are uncommon. Be on the watch for bees and wasps in the brush; tiny "Jack-Spaniards" and larger wasps can pack a wallop. Also take sun-block. Visitors from North America tend to suffer more from sunburn and dehydration than from insects and diseases. The Caribbean weather is usually warm and humid, and visitors can easily forget to drink enough water. Take a canteen or bottle of water with you every time you go outdoors.
What to wear? Because of the usually pleasant temperatures, lightweight clothing is essential. The mountains, however, can be much cooler. A cap or wide-brim hat is also essential, and so is light rainwear or an umbrella for sudden showers. Although daytime dress runs from bathing suits and shorts at the beach areas to more modest attire in the towns and shopping areas, long pants and shirts for men and skirts and blouses or dresses for women are expected for dining or entertainment in the evening.
Expenses and Money Exchange
Although most of the Lesser Antilles share a common currency, called "EC" for Eastern Caribbean dollar, most of the Greater Antillean countries have their own money; Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands use U.S. dollars. Although the U.S. dollar is generally in demand, don't depend upon being able to use it away from the cities. Country businesses usually require common currency. Jamaica, for example, accepts only Jamaican currency. Credit cards are accepted throughout the islands, although some businesses take only currency.
I usually obtain the appropriate currency from the money changers at the Miami, Atlanta, or New York airports prior to flight time so that I am prepared when I arrive. Although money exchange is possible at most of the island terminals, they often close early or at odd times of the day, so it is easy to miss those opportunities. Many island banks also provide an exchange service, but they too may be closed or out-of-the-way. Exchange rates vary from year to year and even from one day to the next.
Travel costs of accommodations, food, rental vehicles, and fuel are comparable with those in the United States, but they are considerably higher than those in Mexico.
Road Conditions and Fuel
Road conditions vary from island to island and season to season. On most of the islands an automobile will suffice, but a jeep is recommended for St. Lucia.
Gas stations are available in most towns, and only rarely will you be driving any great distance. Exceptions are Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. In those countries take extra care to fill your gas tank before you take off on an extended trip.
Four principal languages are spoken in the West Indies, although you will hear numerous dialects as well. English is the principal language on Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Barbuda, Antigua, St. Barts, Nevis, Saba, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada. Spanish is the principal language on Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. French is the principal language on Haiti, French St. Martin, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Dutch is the principal language on Dutch St. Martin. But in spite of speaking only English with a smattering of Spanish, I have never had a problem obtaining accommodations, food, rental cars, fuel, and other necessities.
Food and Drink
Most people who travel in Third World countries have learned to be extra careful about what they eat and drink. In the West Indies there is little to worry about in the cities and towns. All have safe drinking water, and food served in restaurants can usually pass the same test for cleanliness that exists in the States. Away from the principal towns, however, you should be more careful about drinking water. Whenever you are going into the country, be sure to carry your own supply. Although most of the small towns and villages possess safe drinking water, a few do not. It also is wise to carry some snacks such as granola bars and nuts for the times when a lunch place is not available.
Food and drinks often are made from crops that are grown or raised locally. Favorite dishes are made from fish, shrimp, chicken, goat, beef, and pork. Beans and rice are important staples. Common vegetables include plantain (cooking bananas), cassava, pumpkin, taro, breadfruit, okra, and cabbage. Common fruits include banana, pineapple, coconut, mango (in season), and citrus. Spices are often unique and require some adjustment; caper, coriander, curry, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper are most popular.
Drinks include orange and grapefruit juices, coffee and tea, imported mineral waters, soft drinks, imported and local beers, and various liquors. Drinking coffee on the Spanish islands can be a shock to your system unless you add milk or cream to dilute the coffee syrup. Tea is common on all the British islands. Many islands produce their own brand of soft drinks, some of which are quite good, and Coca-Cola is available everywhere. Many islands also produce rum, a sugarcane product. Some of the brands, such as Puerto Rico's Bacardi, St. Croix's Cruzan, Martinique's J. Bally, and Cuba's Bucanero, are imported around the world. Rum drinks are favored within the islands because that liquor is often cheaper than soft drinks. During the years I lived on St. Croix (1986-1989), I could purchase a bottle of Cruzan rum for only $2.50. A shot of rum in the juice of a squeezed fresh lime (grown everywhere), a shot of liquid sweetener, and water produced a wonderfully refreshing and inexpensive drink.
Food quality varies from island to island. I have eaten some of the finest meals imaginable in the islands. Some of the best ones have been on the French islands, at French restaurants on British islands, or at the abundant seafood restaurants.
Whatever your taste in food, drink, entertainment, and scenery, you will find much to enjoy in the West Indies. A wonderful new world awaits naturalists wanting to see the islands' unique flora and fauna. To the birder wanting to find new and unique species, the West Indies offer a special treat.
Any time we visit a place that is different from one with which we are familiar, we feel apprehensive. But a visit to any of the West Indies is usually as safe as visiting unfamiliar places in North America. International travel does possess hazards, but the vast majority of them can be alleviated by using old-fashioned horse sense about what you do. Most concerns are no different from the ones you would consider when you travel in the States. For instance, it would be foolish to wander alone around the cities of Kingston, San Juan, or Santo Domingo after dark, just as it would be foolish to walk alone after dark in downtown Toronto, New York, Dallas, or San Francisco.
It also would be foolish to leave personal effects unguarded on a beach or park bench. For that matter, leaving money and expensive equipment in a hotel room is just as foolish. Every island possesses individuals who will take advantage of your carelessness; petty thieves and robbers are as much a reality in the West Indies as they are in the States. However, the vast majority of people you will meet in the West Indies are as honest and dependable as most people elsewhere. Nevertheless, get in the habit of always carrying your money, passport, camera, and other choice items with you at all times, either in a fanny pack or backpack.