Montserrat has experienced many natural disasters over the years, common to most Caribbean islands including severe hurricanes, but the most catastrophic event was the eruption of the Soufrière Volcano in 1997, resulting in the destruction of the capital city, Plymouth, which is now known as a modern-day Pompeii. The volcanic eruption destroyed much of the natural forest habitat and coral reef in the southern part of the island. The eruption has resulted in two-thirds of the island being an exclusion zone. The areas of Montserrat outside of the exclusion zone are perfectly safe, volcanic activity being monitored constantly by experts at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. A new capital city in the north, at Little Bay is currently under development.
The rainforest of the Soufrière Hills volcano was major habitat for the endemic Montserrat Oriole. Its remaining area, in the Centre Hills, was not at that time protected. A major multi-partner project developed a management plan for the Centre Hills, a species recovery plan for the Montserrat Oriole, and established the Centre Hills as a protected area. Control of feral animals, such as pigs and goats, is an ongoing part of the Centre Hills management. The volcano eruption resulted in the agricultural lands and livestock in the exclusion zone being abandoned, abandoned livestock contributing greatly to the feral animal problem in the Centre Hills.
A series of hiking trails through the Centre Hills enables visitors to experience the rainforest. Taking the trails with an experienced local guide gives a good chance of seeing the Montserrat Oriole and other interesting forest birds.
Montserrat no longer has a lowland marsh or pond. The volcano eruption destroyed the wetland reserve at Fox’s Bay, and, despite much local protest, the last remaining mangrove wetland, Piper’s Pond, was filled in with the then Government’s permission for speculative development in 2014.
All the sites below, along with many others, are described in more detail, including directions for finding them, in the Guide Book “ Birding in Paradise – The Caribbean Emerald Isle of Montserrat: A guide to bird-watching, nature and heritage sites” (details of how to purchase this guide are described in the Visiting section).
The Lookout Sugar Mill yard is a historic and cultural site, with fascinating original machinery including the steam engine, and giant gears and rollers. It built in 1921 by Bhudda Allen and destroyed by the Okeechobee Hurricane in 1928. The mill was subsequently donated to the people of Montserrat in 1999. However, the vegetation around the yard—including some fairly large trees, plus the water usually present in the old sugar boiling pans—can attract a variety of small birds. Continuing along the road to the public cemetery provides views over the cliffs and the seabird breeding offshore Pinnacle Rock.
Little Bay, Carr’s Bay and the north-west coast: Little Bay is where the new Capital is being developed, and where the ferry from Antigua docks. Carr’s Bay, is noted by four old cannons on a grassy area, and a short walk from here along the beach front, or further along the road, crosses a stream which is on either side of the road, a good place for moorhens, passing shorebirds, and herons. The cliffs of the north-west coast frequently have frigate birds soaring around them. These locations provide good bird-watching for pelicans, boobies, frigate birds and possibly red-billed tropic birds. There is a large cattle egret colony in a tree by the stream.
Woodlands Beach: From the parking and picnic area at Woodlands Beach you might see a range of woodland birds, and occasional migrant birds of prey. Woodlands Beach, and other beaches around the island, are nesting sites for endangered green and leatherback turtles. If you see tracks up the beach, or uneven mounds and hollows near the top of the beach, please avoid these.
Old Road Bay and Belham River Mouth: The Belham River valley floor has been covered by volcanic lahars. Pay heed to the warning sign if there has been recent heavy rain. Various tracks lead through thick scrubby vegetation, through a quarry, to the beach. There are many opportunities for bird watching here, both in the scrub and on the beach, for example: Smooth-billed Anis, Common Grackles, doves, Green Herons, American Kestrels, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, Yellow Warblers and Bananaquits. The cliff area by the beach is good for Caribbean Martins.
Oriole Trail Centre Hills: Forest birds are a really special feature of Montserrat, and rain and cloud forest are its predominant natural ecosystems. The Montserrat Oriole, endemic to Montserrat, seven species endemic to the Lesser Antilles (including one with a subspecies endemic to Montserrat) and two others endemic to the Caribbean can be found in these ecosystems.
There are also five more specialist forest bird species. Bird watching in dense, dark, rain-forest is difficult. By far the best chance of seeing the orioles, and other forest birds, is to book a walk with local expert James ‘Scriber’ Daley, or one of the other guides. The Montserrat National Trust can help with this. The well-maintained Oriole Trail is a good place to start. There are a few steep sections, and in wet weather it can be muddy and sticky.
Jack Boy Hill Visitor Centre can be reached by car, by a paved road, although as this is also the road which leads to the waste landfill tip, the paving is somewhat potholed in places. The road which passes the airport, goes along the east coast, with great views. Jack Boy Hill Visitor Centre is not currently manned, but sits in pleasant gardens, with picnic places and toilets, and offers great views both out to sea, across the volcanic outflows, and of the Soufrière Hills volcano. This is a good spot to enjoy great views, with the opportunity to see a variety of open country birds and seabirds.
Garibaldi Hill is south of the Belham River valley, and overlooks this to the north, and the remains of Plymouth to the south. There is a narrow, steep, mainly paved road to the top, so that the volcano warning post can be serviced, but be aware that in wet weather this road becomes very difficult and sometimes impassable. The views from the top are outstanding, and the shrubs and trees alongside the road, and at the top, often have a variety of small birds in them.
The National Trust Botanic Garden at Salem contains pleasant and interesting gardens, with native and endemic plants, that many attract birds, especially hummingbirds. There is a small entrance fee to this garden, which is used to maintain it. While here, you can also visit Trust exhibitions, such as the Volcano Exhibit, and the well-stocked Oriole Gift Shop.
Montserrat has an active volcano the Soufrière Hills, which after laying dormant for over 500 years, became active in the 1990s, however, Montserrat is perfectly safe to visit. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory, now the world leader in this sort of volcano, constantly monitors volcanic activity, and adjusts the exclusion zone as necessary. However, only the northern third of the island can be lived in. The slopes of the Soufrière Hill used to be covered with rainforest, so the loss of this habitat put pressure on the forest biodiversity, including the Montserrat Oriole. The destruction caused by the volcano has obviously had severe economic effects. Nature tourism, including bird watching, can make a major contribution to the local economy, so do consider visiting this beautiful island with its friendly and helpful people!
A guide booklet, “Birding in Paradise, The Caribbean Emerald Isle of Montserrat, a guide to bird-watching, nature and heritage sites”, with full color photographs of birds, maps and guiding text, can be purchased from the Montserrat National Trust Museum and gift shop (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org) and other outlets, or from the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF) as a PDF download suitable for tablets. The booklet in hard copy retails at about US$10 (or more if posted) or download at US$8. Most of the purchase price goes back to supporting conservation in Montserrat. The guide booklet carefully describes routes around the island and sections on the birds and some of the other wildlife to be seen, as well as historic and volcanic features. Both the booklet and the staff at the Montserrat National Trust can provide information about guides who have been trained to take people on the hiking trails, and provide other useful information.
The Mountain Chicken (frog) now limited to Montserrat and Dominica, and endangered by habitat loss, but more significantly, by the chytrid fungus. The galliwasp (lizard), endemic to Montserrat, and extremely threatened due to habitat loss. The endemic Montserrat Galliwasp Diploglossus montisserrati is listed as ‘Critically Endangered (CR)’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Since its discovery in 1964 there have been only a few confirmed sightings and consequently very little is known about this lizard. It is highly elusive and lives amongst the leaf litter and rock crevices of just a 1.5ha area of Montserrat’s forest. This makes it one of the world’s most geographically restricted vertebrate species, and one of the most endangered lizards. The flowering shrub pribby Rondeletia buxifolia is found only on Montserrat. It was rediscovered in 2006. Until 2006, the pribby was known only from one book about the vegetation of Montserrat. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (RBGK) botanists obtained information about possible locations for the plant from herbarium specimens rescued from the forestry headquarters in Plymouth, which had been inaccessible since the volcanic eruption. Based on this information, populations of the pribby were re-discovered by RBGK and Montserrat forestry staff.
There are several other endemic plant and invertebrate species. Montserrat is even richer in insect species than some much larger islands in the region. This is thought to be due to the larger islands being totally devastated in geological time by their volcanoes, while Montserrat has, for longer periods, had some parts of the island not covered by hot volcanic material.
(All photographs in the map infowindows are copyright and thanks to Dr. Mike Pienkowski, UKOTCF.)