Lesser Frigatebird – St Lucia

Report by Sally and Paul Bartho

11 to 13 October 2018

On the spur of the moment, Sally and I decided to dart over to St Lucia to try our luck at seeing the immature Lesser Frigatebird.

The day started off very pleasantly, however by the time we reached St Lucia – four and a half hours later – it was overcast and windy. The forecast was for foul weather to come.

Nevertheless we persisted in trying our luck that afternoon. Up and down the beach next to the lagoon wherever we saw Terns. At one point I sank knee deep into the quicksand- looked just like hard sand by the water’s edge. Had to lie flat down to extricate myself. Lovely black mud everywhere below thigh level. Fortunately both camera and binos got off lightly. Then to the beach to wash off in the sea. Nothing quite like walking with shoes and sox full of sand.

Legs and foots full of mud – poor shoes

Managed to do it a second time trying to cross a small stream to get onto a sandbank in the lagoon. Not so serious that time.

There were many waterbirds about, hundreds of waders – Three-banded Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers and Common Ringed Plovers mainly. Nine Black Oystercatchers, Pink-backed Pelicans, Greater and Lesser Flamingos in abundance, African Spoonbills etc.

On checking the Swift Terns we noticed a couple of Little Terns. They are really very very little. The photo below shows how small one is compared to the Curlew Sandpiper in front of it.

Little Tern with Curlew Sandpiper in foreground

After some time we reached the end of the lagoon with no joy. Then the bird appeared at a distance over the lagoon bombing the Swift Terns, and Flamingos putting them all to flight. Many photos were taken at a distance in dim overcast conditions. Most were consequently of poor quality.

Greater Flamingos take to the air due to Lesser Frigatebird (top right)

Then as we sat watching at the end of the lagoon where the Terns had just settled about 150 metres away, along came the Frigatebird to disturb them. However it was not the Terns which it was after but a very large Pink-backed Pelican. Coming, it appeared straight in line with us and the photos I got show the comparative wing sizes of the two birds. A fortunate mini series of shots.

A very hot shower was welcome when we got back, not only to get rid of the mud and  blown sand but also to warm us up.

The next morning we were up early hopeful of a brighter day in which to see the Lesser Frigatebird – not to be. Windy and overcast it remained. After a couple of hours we gave up and went to Western Shores for the rest of the morning.

Birding there was very quiet and like all the animals pretty scarce. However we did manage a few nice sightings of which the Martial Eagle was the pick of the day.

Martial Eagle

Red-breasted Swallows were seen mainly on the roads in the rain.

Red-breasted Swallow

And then we came across an unusual sighting. It looked like a spiders had wrapped a web all round a bunch of leaves. On closer inspection there were many red ants running about on the bundle. Later we learned that these are Weaver Ants and that these bundles are commonly seen in KZN coastal forests. The webbing is in fact glue.

Here is an excerpt from Joseph Banks’ Journal  found in Wikipedia “The ants…one green as a leaf, and living upon trees, where it built a nest, in size between that of a man’s head and his fist, by bending the leaves together, and gluing them with whitish paperish substances which held them firmly together. In doing this their management was most curious: they bend down four leaves broader than a man’s hand, and place them in such a direction as they choose. This requires a much larger force than these animals seem capable of; many thousands indeed are employed in the joint work. I have seen as many as could stand by one another, holding down such a leaf, each drawing down with all his might, while others within were employed to fasten the glue. How they had bent it down I had not the opportunity of seeing, but it was held down by main strength, I easily proved by disturbing a part of them, on which the leaf bursting from the rest, returned to its natural situation, and I had an opportunity of trying with my finger the strength of these little animals must have used to get it down.”

In the afternoon we did return to look for the Lesser Frigatebird. It was present but we were unable to get any better sightings of the bird as it kept its distance and the sky was grey again.

Lesser Frigatebird

Saturday morning was not only windy and overcast but it was also squalling. Instead of going to the beach we went into Eastern Shores. Surprisingly none of the dirt roads were closed. We were happy having a 4×4 to drive on them. In places the mud was very slippery and we watched one 4×4 almost slide off the road and down the bank.

Elephants had been out the night before along one of the dirt roads and in one place had downed a large tree across the road with no chance to go round. A long careful reverse was required to find a suitable place to make a U-turn.

Despite all the adverse weather we did manage to identify 107 bird species (click here to see the list) during the time in St Lucia as well as seeing several Rhino and a large herd of Buffalo. Most of the antelope species were hunkered down and not very noticeable.


Paul and Sally Bartho

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