Adventures with Dr. Birdy*: Searching for Parrots on the Syndicate Nature Trail

 

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A Chatannye, with its broad buttresses, remains standing in the Syndicate Nature Preserve near Portsmouth, Dominica. The Gommier trees (with white trunks) also survived the ravages of Hurricane Maria.

There are tears in my eyes when Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste  picks me up at my apartment in the home of longtime neighbours and friends, Vernon and Geramise Gordon in Wallhouse. It’s my last morning in my old neighbourhood in Dominica, and I love it there so much, I really don’t want to go! Alas, all good things must come to an end, but this visit is not quite over yet.  I am going to spend some fun-filled time near Portsmouth, in the north of the island, stay at the hotel of friends, and search for parrots on the Syndicate Nature Trail!

When Birdy drops me off at the international award-winning Hotel the Champs, I am warmly greeted by Lise Van de Kamp, who welcomes me like an old friend.  I had already seen her, along with her partner and co-proprietor Hans Schilders in Roseau, but only briefly, and I looked forward to catching up with them and hearing their ‘Maria’ stories during my short stay with them. More on their activities in the next post!

Birdy quickly arranged pick-up time for our tour the next day.  He could not linger, as he was taking a small group to Syndicate later that afternoon. I wished him luck in sighting parrots,  and  hoped I would be fortunate to see some birds the following morning.

Bright  and early, on Sunday March 25, 2018, I am ready for today’s adventure with Birdy just before 9 a.m.. I’ve had a filling breakfast and I am all set!  Of course, he is already there when I exit the hotel.  We drive down the hill to the main road, and Birdy has

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Dr. Birdy and Gwen are ready to hit the Syndicate Trail in search of parrots! Photo taken by Lise at Hotel The Champs.

already spotted a Jaco in a tree not far from Hotel the Champs.  I see it too. I am off to a good start!

We have only just begun the short drive to the Syndicate  turn-off as we proceed along the Picard portion of the E.O. Leblanc Highway.  Suddenly, Birdy pulls over, stops the vehicle, gets out, and says that he has something to show me.  He takes out his high-powered ‘telescope’ from the back of his bus, and sets it up on the shoulder of the road. We are facing a marsh, that is, wetland, and I know I must be in for a treat.  The sun is beating down, even though it is still early, and I start to sweat while I wait a few minutes for him to position the scope and locate this ‘surprise’.

“Ah hah! There it is!” proclaims Birdy,  “Gwen, come and have a look and tell me what you think it is.” I shut one eye and position the other over the view-finder. “Wow!  That is amazing.  Oh I love it.  It seems so close.  What is it doing?” I asked.  “It has young and

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American Kestrel as photographed through Dr. Birdy’s high-powered telescope.

that is the nest in that broken tree stump. It’s feeding juveniles right now. Tell me what you think it is,” coached Birdy.  “Hmmmm. I see the sharp beak and the claws.  Could it be a Chicken-Hawk, also known as Malfini in Creole?” I ask timidly.  “Well… you are on the right track.  It is a bird that is in the same family (Raptor or Bird of Prey) as the Hawk,” he replies encouragingly, “It is actually an American Kestrel. I hope you will remember that!” he chuckles.  “Oh Birdy, I’ll try my best.  Ask me when we pass by here later,” I laugh in reply. “I am sure you will.  You are doing well,” coaches Birdy as we continue the drive to our intended destination.

When we reach the village of Dublanc after a few minutes, we turn inland and immediately commence our steep ascent to Syndicate, in the foothills of Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak. As we drive higher and higher, I note devastated farms, mainly citrus and banana , and the strangest looking trees I have ever seen.  Somehow, their odd post-Maria appearance is more striking to me here than on the other adventures with Birdy  this trip. Maybe it’s the mighty  mountain (Diablotin) and the sparsely covered fields which form the eerie backdrop. There were moments when those twisted, bent, broken trees looked other-worldly to me.  Maybe it’s the mystery surrounding the elusive Black Capped Petril (aka Diablotin) bird that makes me feel this way.  If you’re curious, check the details by clicking here!

The other-worldliness (vine shrouded or exposed terrain) of the Syndicate Estate in the foothills of Morne Diablotin six months after Hurricane Maria:

 

 

Despite the changed beauty, I gasp with delight at the lush green terrain and inhale the fresh pure mountain air as we arrive at the trail-head.

As soon as we are out of the vehicle, Birdy  draws my attention to the beautiful flowers that line the start of the track.  It has rained here last night and the trail is slightly muddy.  I am so glad that I have worn my hiking boots, as the

going is a bit rough in spots.

I have been here numerous  times over the almost two decades that I lived in Dominica, and I find it hard to believe that there is no longer any rainforest canopy.  The foliage of tall Gommier, Chatannyé and Karapit  trees once densely covered the trail.  Now the whole area is exposed to sunlight, and regrowth is obvious. Dr. Birdy shows me several saplings in various stages of growth.  He is very encouraged by how quickly the young trees reach towards the sky in a few short months since Maria.  As always, he declares and I have come to believe that “nature is resilient.”

The rainforest canopy is still drastically reduced six months after Hurricane Maria, but there is hope that it will recover, as evidenced by regrowth on the forest floor:

As we take in this changed beauty, Dr. Birdy first hears and then points to a pair of Jaco Parrots perched in the trees not far from us.  I take this to be a good sign, and am hopeful of catching a glimpse of a Sisserou (Imperial) parrot, whose numbers have always been significantly less than the Jacos.  Since Hurricane Maria, there have been a few sightings of this endangered bird (as per the IUCN Redlist in 2016), which is only found in Dominica, and is a national symbol. I am hopeful that this will be my lucky day. If anyone can locate them, it’s Dr. Birdy, who has occasionally seen them since the destructive storm hit the island in September 2017.

As we near the look-off over the Picard River far below, Dr. Birdy has already shown me a Blue-Headed Hummingbird  perched in a tree just behind where we have already walked.  As I’ve seen several on this visit, I trust that this tiny, beautiful bird, found only in Dominica and Martinique is indeed thriving.

All of sudden, Birdy picks up his pace.  With his large telescope in hand, he rushes to the edge of the look-off.  He has heard the distinctive squawk of the Sisserou on the opposite ridge and is hopeful that we will catch a glimpse of it today! I heard it too, but I am definitely not moving as fast as he is.  By the time I catch up with him, he has already set up the scope and is gazing with intensity into the lens as he scours the opposite ridge for the reclusive bird.

 

Patiently, seemingly endlessly, we watch and wait.  I take in the whole scene: a slope of Diablotin, the Picard River far below, the verdant ridge directly opposite, the broken and bent trees, the blue sky, the serenity of this special space in the wilderness of Dominica.  I wander around and content myself with thoughts of the possibility of seeing a Sisserou. Suddenly, Birdy calls me over to look into the telescope.  Nope, it’s not the national bird, but instead is a Jaco feeding on a fig-like fruit on a Ficus tree.  The agile bird balances precariously on a thin

Jaco Parrot Botannical Gardens
After unsuccessful attempts to photograph a Jaco in the wild, I was thankful to have taken this photo of one in rehabilitation following Hurricane Maria. It was recovering at the Parrot Aviary in the Botanic Gardens on February 9, 2018.**

branch, even hooking his claws around it to feed upside down.  I squeal with glee in the forest.  It’s not the big bird, but it is a thrill to observe the smaller parrot as if it were only a few feet away – instead of a long distance across a ravine!  As it  moves with agility from tree to tree and branch to branch, we watch it for a good long time – until it can no longer be seen in the range of the scope.  Once more, Birdy has heard the Sisserou.  It’s over there somewhere but did not come into our view during the couple of hours we spent at this site.  It’s okay: I am really not disappointed – except that the photos I took of the Jaco through the scope did not turn out!

We make our way back to the trailhead,  and the bird sightings are not over yet. I hear a call that sounds familiar to me, once Birdy has drawn it to my attention.  We back track a little and Birdy sets up the scope again. He finds the bird perched on a high tree branch and tells me to look.  It’s a Mangrove Cuckoo and I have never knowingly seen one, although I have heard it many times over the years in my old neighbourhood south of Roseau.

With the sighting of that pretty bird, it is a fitting end to my adventures with Dr. Birdy during this return visit to Dominica.  As we drive back down the mountain, I tell him where I would like to go next time: nearby Syndicate Falls; Segment 12 of the

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In the valley between these ridges, the Syndicate Falls waits for me in the continuing saga of my adventures with Dr. Birdy!

Waitukubuli National Trail; and Middleham Falls from the Cochrane Village track are tops on my list.

Learning about Dominica’s flora and fauna with Dr. Birdy is an ongoing process and I am very grateful for his enduring ‘lessons’ over the past 21 years. As we pass the wetland area where we stopped to observe a bird several hours earlier, Birdy asks: “Gwen, do you remember the name of the bird we saw his this morning?” I pause for only a second. “American Kestrel!” I shout out.  Birdy smiles. “Yes!  Now you’re getting it.”

Even after 21 years of traversing trails on Dominica, there is still so much more to see, visit and learn. I can’t wait for my next adventure with Dr. Birdy on the Nature Isle!

*Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste, a retired Forestry Officer in Dominica is a renowned and highly regarded local tour guide and birding specialist.  He can be contacted at: (767) 245-4768 (WhatsApp, text or call) or by email at: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm

**Sisserou (Imperial) and Jaco (Red-Necked) Parrot were photographed on February 9, 2018 and are published with permission from Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In March, the Sisserou, along with a “mate” and several Jacos at the Parrot and Conservation Research Centre (Aviary) in the Botanic Gardens were transferred to the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots  (ACTP)’s facilities in Germany.

 

 

 

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Adventures with Dr. Birdy: A Trek to Middleham Falls in March 2018

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Middleham Falls, at about 275 feet, is one of the tallest cascades on Dominica. As seen on March 8, 2018.

 

A cruise ship was in port at the Roseau Cruise Ship Berth when Dr. Birdy (Bertrand Jno Baptiste)** drove through the congested streets of the capital to pick me up for our hike to Middleham Falls on March 8, 2018.  When he stopped for me at the ‘Fort Young Round-About’, we almost simultaneously exclaimed that we were really tired. Birdy had driven for more than an hour through heavy traffic from his temporary home in Picard, near Portsmouth, Dominica.  He had been having occasional trouble sleeping, and like most people on-island, was still recovering from the trauma inflicted by Hurricane Maria. I wasn’t feeling one hundred per cent, but did not explain why until we reached our destination later that day. “Never mind,” I said to reassure Birdy, “We’ll feel better once we are in the forest!”

This time, our drive up the Roseau Valley was hindered by reconstruction and road works around the turn-off to the Middleham Falls trail, near Laudat.  A worker advised us that the road would be closed for a few hours, so we would not be able to exit from the interior.  However, we were not deterred, as we knew we would take our time and likely not return until it reopened anyway.

As soon as we arrived at the Visitor Centre, I took advantage of the washroom facilities, donned my hiking boots and drank some coconut water that I had brought along with me.

We were not even out of the parking lot when Birdy suddenly stopped: “Look over there!”  “Where exactly?” I asked.  Birdy pointed and remarked excitedly, ” Follow my finger. Right on that limb just above that big branch and over to your left.  It’s a Thrasher!”  Finally, I caught a glimpse of it, to the satisfaction of my teacher, and we headed off on the trail.

My legs really felt wobbly, but I hadn’t mentioned this to Birdy yet.  We had to cross the Providence River,  fast-flowing but shallow.  Plenty of slippery rocks.  Admittedly, there had been other trips here when I had taken off those boots, and then put them back on once I reached the other side.  But I could not get away with that timid approach with Birdy. “Look,” he coached, “You’ll be fine.  Just follow me and step where I put my feet, go slowly, use your pole for balance.” I took a deep breath, and did exactly that.

Miraculously, I made it across without incident and was absolutely thrilled about it.  But when I paused on the opposite bank, took a drink of water and stepped forward, my feet went out from under me. I am still not sure what happened – a loose stone or stepping on an unstable rock – but I went down for about two seconds.  I quickly bounced up, while Birdy laughingly exclaimed: “What happened to you?” My  legs trembled  slightly but I was not going to admit it. “I dunno. A loose rock and I stepped on it wrong, I guess.”

We continued along and I paused frequently to drink water and take in the very exposed track and the diminished rainforest, so different from my numerous excursions on this once-familiar trail. I have written several posts about Middleham, my favourite waterfall in Dominica on my blog Ti Domnik Tales.  You can read about those memorable outings here.

Without that canopy, I was thankful that it was a cloudy day. I was somewhat “woozy” and really didn’t  feel up to direct sunlight on my head. This pristine area, part of Morne Trois Pitons National Park was really “smashed up”, as a result of Maria. Tall trees were the exception now, as opposed to the norm.  However, the trail itself was well cleared and easy to follow, thanks to Dominica’s Forestry Division workers and helping hands from a Cuban group of volunteers.

This time, I did see the endemic blue-headed hummingbird as it whizzed by my head at the same time that Birdy noted it.  But when it perched on a nearby bough,

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Blue-Headed Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

my eyes could not locate it. However, Birdy studied it with pleasure.

A few other birds such as Bull-finches and Plumbeous Warblers  flitted about. Sometimes Birdy even called to them by mimicking their sounds.  After more than 20 years of intensive study, he definitely knows what to do!

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Dr. Birdy details a sighting of the Blue Headed Hummingbird and other forest facts during our trek to Middleham Falls on March 8, 2018.

Again, the changed terrain, downed trees and exposed trail made me wonder at times if I were really on the same track that I once knew so well. It was fairly easy-going as we ascended into the forest.  By the time we reached the junction with the Cochrane side of the trail, which also intersects with Segment 4 of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT) I was astounded by its new unfamiliarity.  Those tracks had not yet been cleared (the Cochrane one is open as of July 2018) and it looked like never-ending brush and

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The picnic shelter and interpretive sign are located near the junction to the Cochrane end of the trail. It also intersects with Segment 4 of the WNT. I could only see brush and broken trees at that time.

broken trees for as far as I could see into the forest.

From there, the trail to the falls went off to the left – and it was all downhill from there!

I was rather fatigued, but distracted myself by distant views, as well as taking in Birdy’s thorough descriptions of everything along the way. (Although I really must record him next time!)

Seemingly suddenly, the terrain changed, and large, sometimes slippery boulders demanded skill and agility to cross over them.  In the distance, the gentle roar of the falls became apparent.  Although feeling unwell, I concentrated on Birdy’s words and setting my feet where he had placed his.  Occasionally , he offered a hand. I was tempted to tell him that I couldn’t go any farther that day.  I was just out-of-sorts.  But I said not a word, and continued to carefully maneuver my body over the huge rocks.  Within a few minutes, we were there!

A new viewing platform had recently been erected, and I exclaimed to Birdy that its location was not what I recalled from previous visits in 2014 and 2015.  In fact, there had been no structure for several years, and on other treks with friends, we simply settled ourselves on nearby boulders to admire the towering cascade.  To me, the approach seemed more difficult, but Birdy explained that because of persistent rains and perpetual dampness, the rocks were more slick than at other times.

And the waterfall really did look different.  Birdy felt that landslides, blockages and torrential rains associated with Maria might have diverted the courses of some of the water sources that used to flow into the cascade.  The torrent of water did seem diminished to me, but not for lack of rainfall!  This was in March, but January and February, normally drier months were extremely wet this year (2018).

As I guzzled my juice and inhaled my sandwich, I started to feel much better. A light mist  further moistened my already damp clothing and I inhaled deeply of the pure fresh air emanating from the flow of the falls. “Birdy, I am really sorry,” I confessed,” I’ve had the “loosey-gooseys” (diarrhea) for a few days and I really wasn’t very strong this morning. I almost told you I couldn’t go over those big rocks, but I just listened to you and followed your steps, and I made it!” Birdy smiled as he said, “I had no idea.  But you know, with hiking, sometimes it is as much mental as it is a physical effort.  If you psyche yourself to do it, then you can!”  Truer words were ne’er spoken!

While we rested and ate lunch  overlooking this sensational site, a visitor from China came along.  She appeared to have been running, and when we made her acquaintance, she admitted to being an athlete.  She really enjoyed the trail, but only stayed for a few minutes at the falls while Birdy and I took pictures of her (at her request, on her camera) as she posed like a model with the falls as her backdrop.  Then our guest was off, with me cautioning her to “be careful!”  We did not see her again, so she must have run the entire way back as well!

The different moods of Middleham Falls:

                   Left: November 2014;    Centre: May 2015;     Right: March 2018.

The return journey was much easier for me.  I really felt rejuvenated and re-energized at the falls: a total tonic for what had ailed me!  We refilled our water bottles at a spring not far from the falls and I drank deeply of this pure water, high in the mountains of Dominica.   Along the way back, I bounced over the steps, chatted merrily and seemed to have found my old self in these sensational surroundings.  But the lessons never stopped – and Birdy continually pointed out many natural wonders – birds, trees, plants and fruits of the forest while we appreciated the changed, but constantly amazing beauty of the Nature Island.

After this amazing journey, I was more than ready for the next one in a week’s time:  the stunning  Emerald Pool!

“Nature is resilient,” according to Dr. Birdy, and as evidenced by these plants and flowers in regrowth on the Middleham Falls trail in March 2018:

**Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste, a retired Forestry Officer in Dominica is a renowned and highly regarded local tour guide and birding specialist.  He can be contacted at: (767) 245-4768 (WhatsApp, text or call) or by email at: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm