Chasing Rarities in St Lucia

This last weekend the family and I went on holiday to St Lucia. I had been seduced earlier in the week by the barrage of rarity reports coming through on all sorts of, and at times annoying rarity Whatsapp groups.

So the rarities that were coming in thick and fast were Rufous-bellied Heron, Sooty Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Eurasian Curlew. I had yet to see any of these species, and so one evening while drinking wine, I decided stuff this and I just booked a nice weekend away at Little Eden in St Lucia with dinner, bed and breakfast. I was not the only one who had been tempted by the specials, with some of my friends including EJ and Zach also booking weekends away in St Lucia at other venues.

Right then on Friday morning at 4:30am in the morning I left Amanzimtoti with the family, and headed straight to Western Shores with a stop at Wimpy half way for breakfast of course. Western shores is one of the newer reserves near St Lucia, and is the least known out of the reserves in the area which include Eastern Shores and Mkhuze.

Western Shores though is a hidden gem, and is actually one of my favourite reserves in KZN and SA as a whole. To think that the area was once under forestry and alien vegetation, but is now a stunning landscape and home to four of the big five is truly a conservation success story. I still have fond memories of seeing a leopard in a tree just a couple of kilometres from Dukuduku gate a few years earlier.

Giraffe - Western Shores, St Lucia

After we drove into the reserve, I was pleased that the roads were in an excellent condition, and being early on a Friday morning it seemed like we had the whole park to ourselves. Soon we spotted a Bateleur gliding in the wind, my first Bateleur sighting in Western Shores, after having seen them in Mkhuze and Jozini previously in KZN. Then after that we spotted another raptor that would fly low to the ground and then drop into the long grass. At first I thought it could be a Cuckoo Hawk after some distant photos I managed to get, but I doubted myself and eventually started to think it might be a female Montague’s Harrier. Anyway either would have been a lifer for me, but I should have trusted my instincts, as after sending the pics to some experts, the verdict was that it was an immature African Cuckoo Hawk. And the raptors didn’t stop there as later I got a magnificent Martial Eagle.

Western Shores (and Eastern) is also the best place in SA in the Spring and Summer to see Collared Pratincoles. They were numerous on the dirt roads, and you could drive your car quite close to them and take really good photos. But I have seen a hundred good photos of them before, so when I was close to one I set my camera for a high speed action photo, and asked my wife to get out the car, so the Pratincole would take off. It sort of worked, but I wish I had set my shutter speed even higher, as the rate at which they can take off is a sight to behold.

Martial Eagle
Collared Pratincole

I then headed to Charters Creek at the northern part of the park, that overlooks a large section of lake St Lucia. There was not much to be seen there, as the water levels were very high, but along the way we did see an inordinate amount of Yellow-bellied Greenbuls.

At about midday, I ran into my friend EJ and his girlfriend Barbara. They too had seen a fair amount of raptors, namely Bateleur and both Brown and Black-chested Snake Eagles, and annoyingly they had also sighted a Black-bellied Bustard, which I seem to always miss out on. The animal sightings we had were Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, Red and Grey Duiker, Impala, Nyala, and Waterbuck. Suprisingly I didn't see any Rhino before the picnic site like I usually do, and sadly no Elephants or Leopard.

I then headed out of the park and to Little Eden in St Lucia for an early-ish check in. The venue was small but beautiful, and had a stunning swimming pool, and views overlooking the indigenous forests all the way to the estuary and the ocean. There was also a deck set aside in the forest which was very conducive to birdwatching, and locating the forest specials.

Little Eden
Little Eden

That night dinner was brought to our room. A delicious bacon macaroni and cheese. I had also brought with me a wine from Pearl Mountain Vineyards. The wine was called "Flight of the Drongo", labelled “For the Birds”, and was an organic Grenache. It was so silky and smooth and the perfect accompaniment to the macaroni. I can honestly say that it was one of the most delicious and unique light styles of red wine that I have ever had. Read more about it at:

"Flight of the Drongo" - Pearl Mountain Vineyards

Right then the next morning it was down to the serious business of finding the rarities at the estuary. I woke up early and was already ready at 5:15am, so I decided to walk to the estuary. I met EJ there at about 5:45 after I had already been there for about 15 minutes. EJ was a bit stunned that I had walked there, and said I could have been taken out by hippos. I had forgotten all about the hippos, and instead was looking for owls along the way, but although I heard a few before leaving my room, I didn’t see any. Anyway we walked the agonising walk to the location among the dunes, where you can see most of the estuary birds. We scanned for a long time, but there were no rarities. Only the usual common suspects of Greater-Crested Terns, White-fronted Plovers, Grey-headed Gulls, and both Greater and Lesser Flamingos. There were reports of Chestnut-banded Plovers coming through during the week, but all the plovers were fairly far away and difficult to id. EJ however needed one for a lifer, so I said you just have to take photos of the plovers and zoom in on your camera to identify them. After my 3rd attempt I got one. They are slightly bigger, rounder and whiter than the White-fronted Plovers. Soon I pointed him in the right direction and the lifer was secured.

But there were none of the big rarities. Zach and his mates had also arrived at the estuary, and were also hunting the Sooty tern among others. Then a report came through of a Rufous-bellied Heron at Eastern Shores. Me and EJ decided to abandon the estuary and head out and try and get the heron. I jumped into EJ’ car and we headed out. Now EJ is a pretty compulsive twitcher and I won’t tell you how fast we drove to Eastern shores, but I will say it was many multiples of the speed limit. Then even when we got into the reserve it was a race to the heron’s location, but the funny thing was, that the faster EJ drove the more birds he located, and boy did he find some good ones. Two Cuckoo Hawks in quick succession, then a critically endangered Southern Banded Snake Eagle, as well as a Brown Snake Eagle. We got to the heron location, a small wetland and scanned intensively for it. I eventually located an odd purple shape and after taking a photo, I confirmed that it was the heron with its back towards us. Later it moved about, and although not that close it gave us decent photo opportunities. A few other cars arrived, and we had the joy of shouting to them and explaining the rareness of the sighting. We also had a stunning fly over of yet another Snake Eagle, this time it being a Black-chested Snake Eagle.

Southern Banded Snake Eagle
Rufous-bellied Heron

So after sending a Whatsapp to Zach and bragging that we had got the heron, he informed us that he had just seen the Sooty Tern at the estuary. EJ went into full speed mode again and we made it back to the estuary in no time. By this stage the wind had come up and it was an agonising walk and run, while being sand blasted to the dune location. Whilst on the way a huge flock of Flamingos flew over and we got a few photos, but I think EJ got much better ones than me. Eventually we made it, and the Sooty (You Beauty!) was there. We sat on the dunes and tried to hold our cameras still in the gale force winds, and got the all-important record photos.

Greater Flamingos
Sooty Tern

It was then a very long walk back to the car, and I was completely buggered. I was dropped off back at Little Eden and just relaxed the rest of the afternoon, and finished the bottle of wine I had opened the night before.

The next morning I woke up late and had a relaxing breakfast on the stunning veranda at Little Eden. I also went to the deck in the forest and got sightings of the iconic Livingstone’s Turaco. I then decided to take the family to the estuary to see the flamingos, as they had just stayed behind the day before. We saw the flamingos, and I also managed to make my way back to the dune location, where a number of other twitchers were looking for the rarities. They said that there were none there, but after about 10 minutes I located the Sooty tern for them.

Little Eden - Walk to the Forest Deck
Livingstone's Turaco - Little Eden

And that brought an end to a wonderful weekend in St Lucia. There were reports of Grey-headed Kingfisher in Mtunzini as I left for home, but I was way too lazy to twitch them. EJ on the other hand phoned me later to tell me he had just seen them. I can’t wait to go back to St Lucia, and there are still plenty of rarities to chase, and memories to be made.

If you are looking for a place to stay in St Lucia, why not consider having a look at our recently launched accommodation directory, specifically targeted with birders in mind.

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