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November in St. John, USVI, Francis Bay Birding Trail

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

Day 1 – An underwater birding trail…

I started off for the Francis Bay bird trail as early as you can in the Caribbean. No one else in Maho camp was stirring and the beaches were still empty. Francis Bay and the birding trail was only a short hike over the rock ledges to the right of Little Maho Bay, so I was to the lower trail entrance in about five minutes.

The Francis Bay birding trail has been described as one of the must-see places on St. John for birders. I had seen its sign on many walks to and from Francis and Leinster Bay but never ventured more than a few feet down its path because the clean turquoise waters of Francis and Leinster always drew me on.

At the lower trail head I was surprised to find a very well constructed, brand new boardwalk. I read later that about 20 Friends of the Park volunteers had put a tremendous amount of thought and time into the 650 feet of construction. Being somewhat of a builder, I was humbled at their efforts.

The mosquitoes were not quite as awed as I was, however, and quickly settled on my bare legs before I had gone more than a few feet on the walkway. Thirty or forty of the buggers on one leg convinced me to retreat back to the road and re-gear. Fortunately, I had brought light-weight nylon pants, a gore-tex paddling jacket, and a head net just in case.

After redressing, I resumed my stroll on the boardwalk. Not too far along, the boardwalk dipped down into the brackish pond water. I sloshed through it up to my ankles, and then moved onto the drier wood of the observation deck. The pond was obviously a little waterier now than when construction had been happening.

A small spotted sandpiper paced the outermost rail of the deck. At my approach it took to wing and relocated to a safer half sunken branch on the pond. Not far from the perch, a pair of American coots, white-cheeked pintails, and a ruddy duck paddled along. The ruddy duck followed the coot pair closely, almost as if it were a chaperone. After a startle, a few other chicken-like coots ran across the pond, flew a short distance, and splashed back down.

The ducks moved to the far side of the pond into the sun’s glare and were difficult to see, so I continued on with the bird trail. Just past the bench at the “T” intersection, the boardwalk descended back underwater. I slowly dragged my feet along the wood, not knowing if or where the trail ended. The firm footing of the boardwalk ended in murky water around mid-thigh, leaving only a few feet of trail “headspace” visible. A sunken tree that had fallen across the path tripped me up and I almost spilled myself deeper into the water. Eventually I came to a viewing bench farther down the trail. The sight was particularly comical, since only a few backrest boards were sticking above the water.

The trail finally rose up out of the swollen pond near its intersection with Francis Bay. I turned right to follow it upland and was surprised to see a small fiddler crab guarding the mucky swamp crossing. I crossed through with great squishiness and was serenaded by a bananaquit as I flipped the muck off my sandals. A spotted sandpiper guarded the water’s edge to my right, keeping his eye on a giant blue land crab that had emerged from the pond.

I finally wandered up to the pond’s scenic overlook. A sunning anole already occupied the bench. A small darnerfly alighted nearby. I stopped here for a moment and admired a group of brightly lit yellow Ginger Thomas flowers standing out against the clear blue sky. I then turned around and started back down the path.

My rocky trip back down the path towards Francis Bay was rewarded with a brief visit from a yellow warbler and a erratic moth. Ultimately, the trail led me back out onto Francis beach. As always, the vista in every direction was spectacular.


Day 2 – Pintails on the trail

This morning’s trip over Francis beach to the birding trail was bereft of humans and animals. A large over-ripe moon was setting in the west beyond whistling cay.

As before, swarms of mosquitoes descended on me as I stepped from Francis Bay beach road onto the boardwalk. I shoved my exposed hands unceremoniously into my pant pockets to avoid a bloodletting. Pants, jacket, and a head net protected me otherwise. When the trail started dipping into the water, I slowed my pace and concentrated on minimizing noise. Yesterday I’m sure I scared off a variety of birds with my noisy booty slooshing.

The quiet approach allowed me to sneak up on a flotilla of white-cheeked pintail ducks that had colonized the observation deck overnight. Even without the camera, I could clearly see the early morning light reflecting off the pintail’s crimson eyes as they kicked farther out into the pond. I settled onto the deck and stewed away in the tropical heat. The pintails eventually blended into the brush surrounding the pond’s far shoreline and I packed my camera gear.

The spotted sandpiper stood watch over the end of the boardwalk today, enjoying all sorts of invertebrates plying the water’s surface. I moved past it onto the trail proper and wasn’t surprised to find out that the water was still up to mid-thigh in some places. I exited the water trail without encountering any other wildlife and paused on Francis beach to admire the moonset before heading upland on the trail.

After crossing the mucky spot down near the pond, a mourning dove took interest in my trespass. It paced back and forth on its branch and kept pace with a comical head bob. A little farther up the path I stepped over an organic termite trail that had in pieces the day before.

I arrived at the overlook earlier than yesterday. It was still covered in shadow. Both the bench sitting anole and the darner fly were gone, either eaten or off at some other basking place. Even the beautiful Ginger Thomas flowers had shriveled overnight, making the whole sight just a little bit colder. I didn’t stay long at the overlook today.

The upland trail was still very dark on my way back down to Francis. The darkness added an ominous overtone to an overhanging termite mound. I walked past a sand fort we had built high up near the vegetation line yesterday, and out on the beach once again. The fort and tracks in the sand were the only signs of people I encountered as I trudged back to Little Maho Bay.


Day 3 – Birds on the beach

I slipped on wet, sandy, cold booties, walked down the 100+ steps and climbed over the rocks towards Francis Beach. The waves had lessened over night, making the passage a little less tenuous with the camera gear. The moon once again stood as a solitary sentry over the empty beach.

The water had noticeably receded from the birding trail this morning. Mosquitoes hadn’t taken note of this fact and continued to whine around my head net whenever I paused to consider a photograph. The spotted sandpiper gently flipped from the observation deck onto its perch in the pond at my approach. I settled down on deck and the sandpiper preened for the camera.

American coots had replaced the pintail ducks at the observation platform this morning. They paddled to and fro a half-dozen yards from the deck, periodically ducking under water to search for crabs or other edibles. Like the pintails, their tiny red eyes sparked strongly in the morning light. Their red frontal shields also set them apart from other coots of the pond. I left the observation deck shortly after the coots vanished into the surrounding mangroves.

The slog along the water trail was less deep, and I nearly bumped into an immature yellow-crowned night heron when exiting the water. The mangrove’s darkness and bird’s camouflage defeated my best attempts to snap a photo. By the time I could reach up and flip the lens to manual focus, the bird had stalked off into the mangroves.

The upland trail was still too dark for any meaningful photography, so I hurried my pace up to the overlook. At the overlook I took a few breaths to marvel at the size and monetary significance of two yachts that had anchored outside of Francis Bay.

Nothing was stirring about the overlook, so I beat a hasty retreat back down towards Francis. My soggy tread “pushed” a great egret out from the fringing trees onto the beach as I neared the trail bottom. It stood shock still in the surf for a few minutes before launching into the air and flying gracefully away over the trees.

Instead of walking back to camp along Francis beach, I turned back onto the waterlogged bird trail in the hopes of re-encountering the night heron. My painfully slow second pass over the submerged trail didn’t turn it up, however. The bird characters had changed at the observation deck. The early morning coots had been ousted from the deck area by white-cheeked pintails. A common moorhen and the American coot sparred instead for a basking spot across the pond.

After a while, I exited the boardwalk onto the road, stripped down to shorts and a T, and walked back to camp. As I neared the end of Francis Bay, I sat to watch a mourning dove meander around on the beach. It’s seemingly random wanderings took on new meaning as I watched it inspect and ingest little stones or seeds that had washed onto shore.


Day 4 – Minnows flying everywhere

Today was my fourth and last visit to the Francis Bay birding trail. I was no longer surprised that the boardwalk at Maho was deserted at my outset. There’s no morning rush hour at Maho. I splashed over to Francis Beach and bid farewell to the half moon. It hung higher in the sky and would soon be competing for space with the mid-day sun.

I was in my “bug gear” in a flash as I approached the trail. No sense in getting Dengue the last day. The mossies were agitated as ever, but I ignored the repeated attacks on my headnet and continued on. At the observation platform, I watched a white-cheeked pintail and its bright red orbs briefly until it took refuge in the overhanging brush. A lipstick red dragonfly practiced touch-and-goes on the same mangrove branch nearby and spiced up my remaining stay on the platform.

The rest of the trail was still under water. The levels had, however, receded somewhat. My previously submerged sandy footprints leading to the boardwalk’s edge were now high and dry. I still had to slip off the far end of the boardwalk into the cool swampy water. It wasn’t any less icky today. This morning,my slow wade through the muck was only interrupted for a short while by a pearly eyed thrasher intently picking at termites.

I turned left at the water trail’s terminus to take in Francis Bay. The early morning sun still hadn’t lit up Francis’ shores, but beamed strongly over the far shores of St. Thomas. Until now, I hadn’t really noticed how over-built southern St. Thomas really was.

Predators, probably bar jacks, were active in Francis this morning. Clouds of small fish leapt out of the water to escape unseen dangers below. Pelicans took advantage of the diversion and attacked minnows clustered at the surf line. Following a strike, the pelicans would sieve huge mouthfuls of water, pause to maneuver the fish, and then gulp down the less fortunate. Following some strikes, the pelican’s beaks would be sprinkled with dazed fish, caught but not physically eatable. A kingfisher joined in the pelican frenzy, striking fish from above and then retreating back to a branch to pause before striking again. The minnows eventually quieted and the pelicans flapped off down the beach to ruminate.

I continued my walk up the trail toward the upland forest. Near a low muddy spot, I caught the barest glimpse of a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron, probably the same one that had outmaneuvered me yesterday. I slowly pressed down into the muck and the bird settled. After a while, the heron grew curious and watched intently as I snapped its portrait.

The night heron cooly out-patienced me on his perch and I had to rise up from my soupy, organic resting spot. I wandered farther up the trail as it watched intently after.

At the overlook, I could see that only one of the super-yachts remained in the harbor. The other had transformed into a gorgeous double-masted sailing vessel. A warbler and I visited for a short while on the bench and watched out over the pond.

I was distracted momentarily on the return trail by an impossibly active butterfly. At the hill bottom, I slogged left onto the flooded trail for one last visit to the observation platform.

At the observation platform, the spotted sandpiper flew to its in-lake perch and busied itself hunting for aquatic insects. An osprey flew in low from Leinster Bay, circled, and then alighted on a perch even farther out on the pond. It surveyed moorhens and pintails paddling nearby and confidently settled in to preen. I squatted on the deck and watched it, quietly hoping for activity that never manifested.

The full morning sun baked me for over an hour before I said my farewells to the osprey. On my way out, I took one last look down the soupy boardwalk, and then shuffled slooshed back to Maho camp.

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