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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
**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.