A winter sun holiday with plans only to relax, do little, enjoy the warmth, the beach, the turquoise sea, warm hospitality and fabulous food; turned out to have some delightful wildlife surprises to deliver as a wonderful bonus!
Travel to distant corners of the world, calls for both some purposeful carbon offsetting plans and also the extra hassle of lugging a heavy camera bag stuffed with kit on-board as hand luggage ..."just-in-case'.
We stayed at the Galley Bay resort on the beautiful island of Antigua and despite the remnants of Covid regulation irritants, travel was relatively straightforward. When dawn arrived the morning after our evening hotel check-in, the beautiful setting soon put paid to any travel tiredness as we explored our surroundings.
Antigua has a different beach for every day of the year, or so they say and the Galley Bay beach (above) was bracketed by short points and backed by a freshwater lake, aspiring to be a nature reserve and bird sanctuary.
We'd booked the holiday before I realised that this might present an opportunity for some wildlife photography. Indeed a quick Google of the resort revealed some previous guests YouTube posts featuring herons of all types and other interesting things to see on the lake.
In reality, perhaps due to the time of year, interesting things to see were to be found almost everywhere BUT the lake, which remained steadfastly 'quiet', with a couple of notable exceptions worthy of report shortly.
Usually, its the post dawn and dusk 'golden hours' that yield the most interesting wildlife, but with so many nectar feeders benefiting from the truly beautiful resort gardens and flora, there was something to see at every turn, no matter the hour.
The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Hummingbirds.
I guess all Europeans are thrilled to see these spectacular birds in action, as they are not present on our continent. Impossibly small, fast and nimble, they also present a pretty fierce challenge to the holiday-making wildlife photographer.
Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Doctor Brushy)
On the upside, our beautiful suite (...I know 🙄), opened directly onto the beach, with our own loungers positioned next to a Sea Grape tree and other hardy but flowering shrubs. This meant I could sit with Sarah, read a book / paper, in swim shorts with the camera to hand, ready to capture the regular visits of the industrious little Hummingbird as they whizzed at incredible speed from one flower to the next.
You can imagine the hundreds and hundreds of failed blurry images I captured in my pursuit of a decent shot, however some careful observation eventually helped me recognise these incredibly acrobatically gifted birds 'routes' and habits.
The tiny Antillean Crested Hummingbird is named for it's uniquely beautiful iridescent crest. I'm not sure what triggers it to flash this crest, but it could be glimpsed through the viewfinder like a millisecond flashlight. I had no idea how I was going to capture that moment, but practice over a few few days finally brought some success.
What an incredibly beautiful creature - just stunning!
I will return to the Hummingbirds shortly, but there were some other creatures of the Caribbean to see on walks around the gardens and lakes.
Mongoose, like much of the flora and fauna on these islands were introduced by settlers and now sit alongside endemic nature, in a strange mix of home and away.
The Mongoose introduction (in 1871), was intended to control the rat population on the Sugar Cane plantations. They remain still and could be seen scampering intelligently through the gardens, however they and the introduced rats they were meant to control, have had a devastating impact on ground nesting birds an all the islands.
The lake and 'bird sanctuary' were extremely quiet by day (less to do with Mongoose presence and more likely to do with season and habitat), however a some very early morning walks revealed a few visitors, albeit in just ones and twos instead of any real numbers.
(left to right) ... White-cheeked Pintail, Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt
The 'best' find was the elusive and hard to find Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a new species for me and finally spotted skulking in deep cover around the waters edge.
Some quiet and careful stalking allowed me to peer through the greenery to capture the incredible red eye, glaring at me in defiance, before I retreated to leave bird undisturbed.
I like this shot, perhaps because it called for some patience and fieldcraft to acquire it in the first place, but also for how the camera seems to be peering through the undergrowth to reveal the ruby red eye.
I'd hoped for a sight of an Osprey, or perhaps some Herons on the lake behind the beach. Hoped also that some 'unusual' sea birds might be glimpsed nearby from the beach.
I guess if I'd been on full 'wildlife-watch' with the camera in hand at all times, I might have some pictures to share. It was however, a holiday first and foremost, so was more than happy to get glimpses through the binoculars, if not amazing photographs.
We saw Osprey close overhead on our first (of many) walks along the beach, with the only other sighting at breakfast on the last day, as it cruised the seashore looking for its own breakfast - not a bad sight to go with your yoghurt and tropical fruit!
Other distant views ? ... well I saw Dolphins porpoising in the distance first thing when I opened the doors to the beach. I saw Brown Pelicans (all day), Royal Terns and Brown Boobies, all at distance, with often the incredible Frigate Birds cruising behind looking to steal a catch.
(Left to right) ... Royal Tern, Frigate Bird, Brown Booby
The best view of a Heron was when I found a cheeky yet huge Great White Heron, lurking in the gardens, failing miserably with disguise, whilst blatantly hoping to ambush an unwary visitor.
Let's return then to the whizziest of little birds to be found in the beautiful gardens - the Hummingbirds.
There's a larger Hummingbird on Antigua and Sarah spotted its activity when out for her morning power-walk.
The Green-throated Carib is still small, but significantly bigger than the crested Hummingbird I'd seen so far; favouring a 'Bottle-brush' shrub that morning, I watched as it helped pollinate the plant as it fed on the nectar on offer to persuade it to do so!
The bird would perch occasionally, allowing me to lower the shutter speed and ISO, to capture its incredible colouring that changed as the light glanced off its feathers at different angles.
The birds weren't the only colourful characters on display, Lizards and even some insects joining in the colourful parade.
The most numerous and vocal birds were the colourful Bananaquit. Their primary food is nectar and their behaviour was typical of a toddler with a sugar rush, fiercely squabbling amongst themselves disputing territory, with violent results.
Most remarkable were the clever little Antillean Bullfinches, that had worked out how to fly into the rooms and help themselves to the unused sugar sachets provided in the tea and coffee station.
I couldn't work out why I kept finding sugar sachets on the beach outside our room, particularly as neither me nor Sarah take sugar in hot drinks!
The mystery was solved when I saw the Bullfinches in the room, then fly out with their prize, only to be ambushed by a pair of squabbling Bananaquits.
Other regular sights when out on our walks were the local Kestrels, Doves and Pigeons all sporting more striking colours and enchanting calls than their European cousins, with the Gray (sic) Kingbird joining in the fun too.
What a place for a holiday .... and what a place for some beautiful wildlife, but I guess it's the memory of the Hummingbirds that will really stay with me.
Trips out with the camera in search of the beautiful wildlife at home, usually involves many thermal layers and coming home with icy fingers at this time of year. What a treat then, to watch the tropical wonders of Antigua, where a t-shirt and some some sunscreen were all that was required.
The larger Green-throated Carib was a real treat ...
... but it's the tiny little 'Doctor Brushy' (as the locals call them) Hummingbird, that captured my heart.
The photography challenge was tough, but fun.
This beautiful little bird was rarely still and if so, only briefly ..
I even liked some of the 'failed' shots where the bird flew into shade, creating dashing silhouettes.
... but my favourite wildlife shot of the whole holiday, was captured on our last day, in the tricky light to be found deep in the shrubs and flowering bushes.
Featured at the top of this blog and repeated here, somehow the background golden light behind the hovering bird about to feed, makes this the shot I'll have in my minds eye for years to come, when I think of the wonderful wildlife at Galley Bay on the beautiful island of Antigua.