Editor’s Note: This article, which originally ran in Western Tanager Newsletter, is reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Audubon Society. It is the final in a series of three articles on birding in the U.S. Virgin Islands by Robbie Lisa Freeman, who came here recently to learn about the birds on St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas, and the ecosystems that nurture them. Part 1 was published in October, and Part 2 in November.
St. Thomas: Gateway to the Caribbean
The car ferry from St. John, USVI to St. Thomas chug-chugs along across a two-mile stretch of sun-drenched azure waters that sparkle and shimmer as if draped in diamonds. Above us, cotton candy clouds dot a corn blue sky. It’s a picture postcard moment. But I’m not looking at the scenery. I’m staring at the small spec of a bird floating a few miles off our starboard bow near the Red Hook ferry landing. I grab my binoculars for a close-up, holding my breath. Bingo! As the barge draws closer to land the speck grows larger, materializing into a giant pterodactyl of a bird — the Magnificent Frigatebird! I’m excited to see this bird flying so low, as we’ll be coming here to take photos tomorrow. I make a mental note of the bird’s location as the car ferry docks and we prepare to disembark. Then I turn my attention to the island before us.
St. Thomas is the second-largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, at 32-square miles. Its major city, Charlotte Amalie, plays host to a cruise ship industry that carts in 1.5 million visitors a year, earning the island the moniker “the Gateway to the Caribbean.”
But we’ve chosen to visit at a quiet time. With pandemic travel bans, Charlotte Amalie is almost deserted compared to most years. That won’t crimp our style. We’ve come to spend time in the forests, parks, ponds, coves, and reefs, hoping to see visitors of the winged, scaled, and shell-backed variety. Fingers crossed.
The next day we’re up at 6 AM, on the prowl for breakfast and coffee. Luckily, we stumble upon Virgin Islands Coffee Roasters in Red Hook, just up from the ferry landing. It was the café’s logo that attracted me to the place – a black, white, and yellow sign emblazoned with a Bananaquit, the official bird of the Virgin Islands. Somehow it feels like just the right spot to start our day on St. Thomas.
An hour later we’ve parked at the Red Hook Salt Pond and are following the 1,000-foot boardwalk that guides us around the perimeter of the pond habitat. Trees and brush block our view to the interior, but occasional breaks in the scrub allow us a glimpse to the pond, where we see egrets, herons, coots, and other birds roosting and foraging. There’s no clear area to take photos so we continue around to the ferry parking area. Threading between cars with our cameras and binoculars, we must be a curiosity for the hundreds of travelers sitting in their idling autos waiting for the next ferry. I push that thought away as a shadow falls over me. Looking up, I see a soaring black frigatebird. So low! Excited, I accelerate my steps until I spy a small path off to the left. It drops down a bit and I see that it will take us to a thin strip of beach along the pond perimeter. There’s still no clear access to the salt pond, but on the beach we can escape the idling autos and I can set up my tripod and mount my camera to get shots of the gliding birds. We have no shortage of opportunities. A half dozen or more birds oblige us with fly-overs and for the next 90 minutes we’re shooting photos.
Because of the high shrubbery, our vision is mostly limited to birds flying directly overhead, so we’re shooting with our necks craned uncomfortably far back, nearly touching our spines. Still, this is the closest I’ve ever been to these great birds. Some soar as low as 50 feet above us. With this proximity, for the first time I can actually distinguish between the males and females. Females have brownish-black plumage, a white belly patch and a white beak. Some also have a white head and collar. Males have black glossy plumage with a black beak, and sport a red neck pouch that plays an important role in mating. During breeding season, the males congregate in large colonies atop an area of mangrove trees. The males vie for prime nesting areas in preparation for conducting an elaborate mating ritual. During this ritual, they inflate their throat pouches like giant red balloons and tap on them with their slender beaks to produce drumming sounds. Additional wing flapping is used to attract the females, who do flyovers to select the male that they deem has chosen the best nesting site, and who also possesses that additional “je ne sais quoi” that only female frigatebirds understand.
When our necks can no longer tolerate the contortions, we set out to explore more of the island, including Brewers Bay, nestled alongside the St. Thomas Campus of the University of the Virgin Islands and the Maclean Marine Science Center. Here, the National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation has partnered with the University to study turtles. Juvenile turtles are tracked with acoustic tags, revealing high numbers of turtles in the bay, despite the major hurricanes of recent years. We’re excited to explore this underworld trove and don our flippers, masks, and snorkels to see if we’ll get lucky. Within minutes of diving in, I run across my first turtle foraging through the sea grass. The water is so clear that he’s easy to spot in the distance. These gentle giants show no fear, nor do they bear a hasty retreat as I approach. I keep a respectful distance from him, observing the way he grabs at the grasses with his teeth and thoughtfully chews each bite. In all, during our hour in the water, we see about ten different turtles. Oh, happy day! So far, St. Thomas has not disappointed and we’re looking forward to what tomorrow brings, when we meet up with our local bird guides Mario Francis and Don Spencer.
The ‘Bird Man’ of St. Thomas
Mario Francis, aka “The Bird Man,” is the kind of guy who literally stops traffic on the street. We’re at the Nadir Bridge not far from Charlotte Amalie, leaning over a bridge rail to view the marsh below. Mario is pointing out a Green Heron, a Lesser Yellowlegs, and a lifer for us — a Tricolored Heron! While for me, these birds are the stars of the show, for the traffic on the bridge, Mario — dressed in full camouflage — is the star. Drivers honk their horns. Others lean out their windows to shout his name. And one woman literally stops her car to call to him. Traffic snarls and she moves on, parking just past the bridge to jump out of her car and run back towards us to give Mario a huge hug. I’m snapping photos of the heron rapid-fire, but I have to stop when this young woman breathlessly speaks to Mario. Her eyes shine with admiration for this man. Mario introduces us and tells us that she was a student of his for several years.
He taught science at the high school, junior high, and the elementary levels, and taught agricultural science at the Alternative Education Skills Center. In 1992, he started a program to educate kids ages 7 to 14 how to grow their own foods. He also taught forestry, ecology, biology, and conservation to instill in local residents a love for the outdoors. The animated young woman gushes over Mario for another ten minutes before sprinting back to her car.
Meanwhile, below us in the marsh, the Tricolored Heron hunts on with some amiable cattle egrets. Up in the treetops we hear and then see a noisy flock of Smooth-billed Anis cavorting around. Further down by the water we spy a Belted Kingfisher, a Little Blue Heron, Killdeers, and an immature Green Heron with a flapping fish in its bill. We watch with fascination as it expertly maneuvers the fish so that it can be swallowed head first. Then down the hatch it goes…. Or not. The fat fish is in the fight of its life and refuses to go down. I wince as I watch the heron’s gullet contort to accommodate its writhing dinner and for far too many moments, it seems the fish might expel itself or choke the heron to death. Finally, the fish slides down the hatch, and we all look at each other with a sigh of relief. Every moment in the life of a bird can be fraught with peril, whether they’re feeding, flying, or roosting. I marvel at these little miracles as I reflect on our morning with Mario and his co-guide, Don Spencer.
We had met Mario and Don at dawn in the parking lot at Magens Bay on the north side of St. Thomas. We needn’t have worried about not recognizing them. Dressed from head to toe in camouflage and birding gear, they looked prepared for some serious birding. We introduced ourselves and they gave us the lay of the land. Straight out from the parking lot was a one-mile strip of sandy white beach, lauded as one of the most beautiful beaches in the Virgin Islands. On the opposite side of the beach was more than 300 acres of tropical moist forest, dry forest, and mangroves. It was an impressive little park.
We first headed to the beach, where Mario had spotted a lifer for us — a Brown Booby perched on a buoy. Though he wasn’t close, through my binoculars I could see his facial features — the long, pale-yellow beak and the characteristic eye spot in front of the eye. Though I was hoping to catch him in action — they’re known for their swift aerial movements and 30–50-foot dives from the air to the sea when fishing — this bird sat still as a statue. Farther out, several other Brown Boobies languished on boat decks and other buoys. No diving displays for us. So, we’d moved on, heading towards the park.
At a small muddy pond, Mario had deftly pointed out my second lifer of the day, a Northern Waterthrush, foraging along the water’s edge. I likely would not have noticed without the Bird Man’s astute eye. “There,” he’d said, pointing. “There by the log.” The dark brown back helped to camouflage this small bird against the mud and leaves, but he had a beautiful buff-yellow chest, streaked with brown. I’d been surprised to learn that this long-legged bird was actually in the warbler family, as I think of warblers as tree-top dwellers who dart through leaves and limbs for insects. The waterthrush had continued on with its business and so had we, heading up to the forest trailhead.
The Magens Bay trail is overseen by the Nature Conservancy, Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and Magens Bay Authority. The trail is well-maintained and takes hikers through a number of forest ecosystems, then across a boardwalk through mangroves, before returning to the beach. For the next hour or so, we had seen and heard Yellow Warblers, Gray Kingbirds, Common Ground Doves, Green-throated Caribs, Pearly-eyed Thrashers, and other birds of the area. About the time we entered the tropical rainforest, ironically we’d been hit with a rainstorm. Not prepared for this sudden change in weather, we’d luckily located a stand of tall trees with broad green leaves that sheltered us from the rain.
In 20 minutes, the storm had passed, and we’d scampered down the trail following the raucous calls of parrots. In our travels we’d seen several unique parrots endemic to the French Caribbean Islands, and on the island nation of St. Lucia. So, we were excited to see what this parrot of the Virgin Islands looked like. We couldn’t miss them. These comical, colorful conures were having a post-rain party, flapping and squawking through the tall sea grape trees. Their bright yellow heads and bright green back plumage made them easy to spot. The tips of their long wing feathers and upper feathers were bright blue, while the breast was yellow green. They were a riot to watch, and they were also lifer number three in the first few hours of our morning.
As Mario talks about the 295 species that have been recorded on the island, he casually mentions an Adelaide’s Warbler. “Can we see it?” I ask. Then we’re off to see the bird. Adelaide’s Warblers are endemic to Puerto Rico, Vieques, and the Virgin Islands, so my chances of having the opportunity to see this bird again seem slim. At the top of a hilly road, Mario pulls off on the shoulder. This roadside area doesn’t seem a likely spot for birding, but I trust this big man. We slowly comb the trees alongside the hilltop, looking for a bird that is very similar to the winsome St. Lucia Warbler we had seen in the French Caribbean a few years back.
The markings of the two are known to be almost identical: Soft gray plumage on the head, back and wing, with a bright yellow chest, two white wing bars, a short yellow eyebrow, and a striking crescent under the eye. I vividly remember the St. Lucia Warbler, so I’m excited to see its near‐doppelganger. This bird is being difficult to spot, but Mario has no doubt he will find it. We amble on, checking out every square inch of the treetops. Then suddenly, there is a flash in the lower branches and the little sprite is there, so bright and …. quick! He doesn’t sit still for a second, darting through the leaves, displaying that typical fast‐foraging movement of most warblers. We watch with wonder for several more minutes. I attempt some photos – ha ha. This bird does not pose. But we’re happy and a short time later we’re back on the road, heading to one last hotspot, the salt pond at Compass Point.
The salt pond at Compass Point has been an area of controversy on St. Thomas for decades. Developers have engaged in an ongoing land grab, chipping away at the mangroves and salt pond areas for a marina, homes, hotels and other development, and ignoring the ecological importance of the area. Like all salt ponds, this muddy, often smelly marsh serves as a critical catchment basin for storm water run-off and sediment collection. It’s also an important feeding and nesting area for many species of birds, and a nursery for fish and other marine animals. These critical salt pond habitats, and the often-adjacent mangrove forests, have been degraded across the Virgin Islands, despite the Virgin Islands Coastal Zone Management Act, which specifically recommends these areas be protected from development. Fortunately, in 1992 the Compass Point/Benner Cove site was recognized as “one of the most important wildlife areas on the island of St. Thomas” by Roy Adams, then commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and was designated a Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary.
As we gaze at the large mud pot in front of us, it’s easy to see how those not in touch with conservation might dismiss this with a shrug. It’s not beautiful. And it looks a bit daunting.
“We’re walking through this?” I ask Mario. He gives me a grin. “Are you game?” Don is already ahead of us, his shoes sucking through the muck. I follow. About 50 yards out, I hear a shout and look back towards the road. A guy is calling to us. “You going out to see the flamingo?” the stranger shouts. “He was spotted about an hour ago.”
Did he say flamingo? We wave back at him, giving him a thumbs up. Hmmm. I’m less squeamish about the mud now, with a possible flamingo in my future. As we trudge along, the mud gives way to firmer ground, thick with grasses and scrub. We literally need a machete to get through the dense vegetation. Yet we persist and the ground becomes firmer but rocky, and still dense with prickly brush that snags at our sleeves. At one point, Randy loses his footing and topples backwards into the scrub. As he attempts to clamor up, Mario shouts at him “Don’t move.” Randy freezes. So do I, as I have no idea what the danger may be. Snake? Scorpion? Don backtracks and extends a hand down to Randy.
“Let me pull you forward,” he commands. “Don’t reach back.” He pulls Randy up and we look to survey the massive, spiky cactus Randy had almost fallen onto. I imagine those inch-long thorns tearing into flesh — and a very unpleasant visit to a hospital. But we move on, choosing not to dwell on the near disaster. Ahead of us, Don keeps an eye out for other potential problems. After another 20 minutes of cautious plodding, we come to a clearing and a view of a large pond. Binoculars up, we spy wading birds and ducks on the glimmering water. Then Randy shouts, “Look! A Flamingo!” Sure enough, wading in the midst of the water is a lone, lanky Caribbean Flamingo. I’m a bit flabbergasted, given the only flamingo I’d ever seen was in a Miami zoo. But Mario and Don are quietly exultant — almost reverential about the sighting.
“In all my 40 years birding here, I have never seen a Caribbean Flamingo on the island,” says Mario with a shimmer of tears in his eyes. Don shakes his head, admitting it’s been four decades since he has seen one on St. Thomas. To understand their depth of feeling, one has to know the history of these birds. Caribbean flamingos were once abundant in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but were hunted to near extinction for their flamboyant pink feathers, their meat, and the pet trade. Today, this flamingo represents a rebirth of these birds in the wild in the Virgin Islands. Through our binoculars, Randy points out the large oblong tag around its leg, labeled “Necker.” This flamingo is part of a breeding colony started on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. The birds were brought there in the 1980’s by Sir Richard Branson in order to re-establish flamingos back in the wild. Further observing the bright salmon-pink bird, we high five each other all around. I’m touched beyond words to think that our birding adventure could result in such a thrilling and memorable sighting for these two local birders. Flamingos are said to symbolize beauty, balance, and grace. We all feel graced by this bird’s presence, and more than a little thankful that this salt pond was saved for birds like this and the countless other species that will no doubt stop off here in the weeks, months, and years ahead for resting, refueling, and continuing the circle of life on St. Thomas.
Mario Francis, The Bird Man of St. Thomas
Mario Francis is a big man in stature and an even bigger man by reputation. Known throughout the islands as the Bird Man, he has been birding, teaching, and leading community efforts on the island for more than 40 years. His own love of nature started early. He studied forestry at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and it was through a forestry internship at the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania that he fell in love with birds.
“I recall the first time I really noticed birds,” says Mario. “It was around 1989, and I was deep in the woods marking timber for cutting when I saw a bright florescent blue creature darting through the trees in front of me. So, I followed with great curiosity to see what it was. It was the most amazingly beautiful Indigo Bunting. I fell in love with that bird, and from that moment on I was hooked on birds.”
That chance encounter with a bunting led Mario to a lifetime of birding adventures. After graduating college and working for a couple of years in Pennsylvania, he returned home to St. Thomas to work at the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture. He also joined the only local Virgin Islands Audubon Society, a chapter on St. John, a ferry ride away. He participated with the St. John chapter for more than three years and was elected to the Board of Directors and worked as chairman of the Education Committee.
“I encouraged local residents, children, and island visitors to get involved in this great science of Ornithology,” says Mario. “My committee taught bird identification classes, bird conservation, and conducted lectures and bird-watching walks.”
Wanting to inspire even more people with birding, Mario launched the St. Thomas chapter of Audubon, heading new bird walks, workshops, and bird conservation projects annually at schools.
“I would go to the schools and give lectures, conduct demonstrations, build bird houses and feeders, and teach other skills,” says Mario. “It instilled a great joy and admiration for wild creatures into the local residents.”
He was also chairman of Virgin Islands Urban and Community Forestry Council, served a six-year term as president of EAST, Environmental Association of St. Thomas, was Cofounder of Reef Rangers, and founded a landscape management company. No wonder everyone on the island knows this man. He is truly a man of the land, fiercely committed to nature and to training the island residents to be watchful keepers of the natural world.
As we had parted ways after a long day of birding and sightseeing, Mario had left us with the words that I imagine are his motto. “Keep on birding and acting for wildlife!” Good words to live by indeed.
For information about birding on St. Thomas, contact Mario Francis of the St. Thomas Audubon at 340-643-5060 or 340-776-1610.
Robbie Lisa Freeman is a public relations professional in Los Angeles and a contributing writer for the Western Tanager Newsletter. Follow her on Instagram @freebird2020LF.