Adventures with Dr. Birdy*: Emerald Pool After Hurricane Maria

 

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An exposed Emerald Pool in multiple shades of green on March 15, 2018.

After my more challenging hikes of the past two weeks, to Freshwater Lake and Middleham Falls, I didn’t even bother with boots during my next adventure with Dr. Birdy. This time, we were heading to the Emerald Pool, another renowned eco-site in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, in the heart of Dominica. I anticipated that my all-terrain sandals would be suitable for our shorter “walk”on this popular track

Although not a challenging trek in my estimation, our day would be a full one.  We were going to visit with longtime friend Mark Steele of Castle Bruce on the east coast. He is the proprietor of the former Beau Rive Boutique Hotel which had sadly been destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

As we were heading up the Imperial Road to cross the interior of the island, I chose to meet Dr. Birdy  at the  convenient location of the National Bank of Dominica “on the flat” at Canefield. He is the most punctual person I know on Dominica, so I left my apartment extra early to make sure that I would be on-time for our rendez-vous.  I caught a bus to Canefield from Roseau and was at our meeting point well ahead of schedule.  Or so I thought. I had no sooner left the bus and situated myself in the shade of the bank’s entrance than who should drive up but the man himself!  As I entered Birdy’s vehicle, we  laughed openly about being early as we didn’t want the other to wait!

We were still chuckling when we commenced our climb in to the mountains along the Imperial Road.  Birdy explained that he had found a nail in his tire and had taken it  to a shop first thing  for the repair.  It was fixed right away. Hence, his reason for the early arrival. I told him that I  feared lateness, and could never do that to my friend who has always been ready to roll right on time for all adventures in Dominica over the past 21 years!

As we continued in to the higher elevations, I noted that the road was good in most places, with the exception of the Antrim area (below Springfield), which had become increasingly problematic over the years. The rest was relatively smooth and the views of mountains both north and south were simply gorgeous.

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Northerly view from the Imperial Road, near Pond Casse. Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak is in the distance. There is a Jaco Parrot in the tree on the left.  Can you spot it?

It was a perfect day in paradise, and  there were occasional moments when it was almost possible to forget that a category 5 hurricane had demolished the entire country six months earlier.  But there were constant reminders: scenes of my beloved Springfield Plantation in a now dilapidated state; broken bridges; bent guard rails; eroded pavement; and ubiquitous landslides in the higher elevations brought it all home to me.  Nevertheless, I was thankful to be on the Nature Island once again, and to appreciate Birdy’s repetitive affirmation that: “Nature is resilient.”

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Morne Trois Pitons from the Pond Casse round-about on March 15, 2018. Dr. Birdy chats with a man  who is waiting for a ride . Birdy’s tour bus is parked on the left.

As we headed in a southeasterly direction from Pond Cassé and then turned east (left) at the junction of the Castle Bruce Road, we noted once again the extreme destruction of the forest caused by Hurricane Maria.  Some areas looked to be “burnt” but it was more likely that the trees were stripped and the ground was very exposed without dense tree coverage.  As well, it was evident that Maria’s catastrophic winds wiped out some ridges and valleys, while on the opposite hills, the devastation was not quite as extreme.

When we arrived at the Emerald Pool parking lot and Visitor Centre, it seemed that no one else was there yet.    After a little snack, we proceeded on the trail, noting portions that were stilled closed as they had either not yet been cleared of debris or fallen trees or had experienced landslides.

In the stillness of the morning, Birdy did hear Jacos but we did not actually see any at this time. In this portion of Dominica’s wilderness, the extensive damage caused by Maria was clearly evident.  Massive trees, especially stately Chatannayé (sha-tan-ney) with expansive buttresses but shallow roots felled, broken branches everywhere, spindly saplings, plentiful vines,  lack of canopy, regrowth at ground level, varying shades of green at the now-exposed Emerald Pool made it hard to believe that I was at the same site that I had visited dozens of times over my almost 20 years on Dominica.

Magical View
Emerald Pool’s open exposure from the Viewing Platform offers more than one shade of green for the visitor’s pleasure six months after Hurricane Maria.

As we neared the viewpoint for the cascade, Birdy spotted a Rufus Throated Solitaire and I actually saw a Plumbeous Warbler, once he had pointed it out to me.  These sightings prompted Birdy to go  back to his vehicle to get his binoculars. Meanwhile, I sat on a bench overlooking the Emerald Pool, and poked around the area nearby.  The distant view of Morne Neg Mawon (aka Laurent) took my breath away, as I had never seen it so clearly from this vantage point.  But at the same time, I was saddened by the stripped foliage and barren tree trunks wrapped in climbing vines, even though their altered appearance offered a changed beauty.

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Morne Neg Mawon, aka Laurent as seen from the Emerald Pool Trail on March 15, 2018.

When Birdy returned, we paused for a while directly in front of the Emerald Pool on the well-worn stone path nearby.  For about 20 minutes, we watched a Purple-Throated

Purple Throated Carib Humming bird Photo Credit
Purple Throated Carib Hummingbird. Photo Credit:  Charles J Sharp.

Carib Hummingbird flit about the rocky “wall” to the left and just above the pretty cascade.  Birdy said that it was foraging for food for its fledgling (juvenile), that must have been nestled in a crevice on the ledge.

Then we continued on the section of the trail that is known as an ancient “Carib Trace.”  It also intersects there with Segment 5 of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT), which was not cleared at that time. There had been landslides and rock slides along this section, so we proceeded carefully, admiring the distant vistas as we gently ascended the damaged pathway.  After a few minutes, we stopped at a covered picnic table to have a snack.  While there, Birdy pointed out a huge ‘Day-Flying Moth’ that was not readily visible in the shadow of the wooden beams of the shelter’s roof.  It took me a few minutes to see it, with Birdy laughingly and patiently waiting for me to spot it.  He definitely has the visual acuity of a bird!

The trees in the Emerald Pool area were no match for Hurricane Maria. Photos taken about six months after the catastrophic storm:

After our refreshments in the forest, we carried on to the second look-off: it took in the Belle Fille River Valley and opposite slope from our vantage point.  Hurricane Maria had certainly wreaked havoc there.  The trees were broken and seemingly leafless, but according to Birdy, in time, the exposed saplings beneath the dead wood would certainly rise and the verdant forest would be born again.

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The upper Belle Fille valley, as seen from the look-off at the Emerald Pool on March 15, 2018.

A short distance further along the trail, we arrived at the third look-off and my favourite view of the area: in the distance, to the east, St. David’s Bay on the Atlantic and the Castle Bruce environs were waiting to welcome us!

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The distant Atlantic, St. David’s Bay and the Castle Bruce area as seen from the look-off at the Emerald Pool on March 15, 2018.

As we drove away to reunite with our mutual friend Mark Steele and spend an afternoon in his  congenial company on the east coast, I felt so grateful to experience another of Dominica’s stunning sites.  Not even a hurricane could destroy my passion for the extraordinary Nature Island!

*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

 

 

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Adventures with Dr. Birdy**: Dominica’s Freshwater Lake Trail in March 2018

 

Freshwater Lake Dominica, as seen from the heights of the Freshwater Lake Trail near the village of Laudat, on March 1, 2018.

On March 1st, 2018,  I waited  anxiously at the Fort Young Hotel  for my long-time friend and tour guide, Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste**. The renowned birding specialist, who is also a retired forestry officer was taking me to the Freshwater Lake Trail, at the top of the Roseau Valley.    After a year and a half away from Dominica, I was more than a little concerned that I might have lost my hiking capabilities after having lived at sea level “up north” for that length of time.  Then there was the ‘Maria’ factor: I had no idea what to expect in terms of terrain challenges or altered vistas following the devastation of that catastrophic hurricane in September 2018.

As always, Birdy arrived punctually and greeted me like a long-lost friend.  In his company, it has always been difficult to not laugh and joke around, which is part of the reason why outings with him are so enjoyable.  And then there is his inordinate patience as I am “academically challenged” when it comes to remembering bird names and identifying plant life. I’ve been hitting the trails of Dominica with Dr. Birdy as my instructor since September 1997, and he hasn’t given up on me yet!  In fact, I credit this highly knowledgeable and personable guide with teaching me more about the history, culture, geographical, botanical and ornithological features on Dominica than anyone else. So much so, that I was able to write a visitor guide to the Nature Island between 2003 and 2011 called Dominica: 100+ Things to Do, with this extraordinary person as my primary resource!

We drove up the Roseau Valley en route to the Freshwater Lake.  During the 20 minute drive,  Birdy updated me on his ‘Maria’ story.  Like many others, his home had been severely damaged, and  he recounted the terrifying events of that night, including flash flooding from the nearby river.  He and his wife Nella lived to tell the tale, but it was enough terror for my friend, and he was in the early stages of building a new house at a higher elevation in a more sheltered area.  Birdy was occupied with the planning and  construction process while happily taking interested parties on tours and birding expeditions around Dominica whenever requested.  I considered myself very lucky, as the tourist season was understandably slow following Hurricane Maria, and I was able to easily book four tours in March while I was on-island. Normally, I would have to schedule trips with him well in advance!

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Uprooted tree at the junction of the Freshwater Lake Road and the turn-off to the mountain village of Laudat.

After about 20 minutes,  we passed the junction of the Valley Road going on to the interior mountain village of Laudat. A heavy mist hung over the lush terrain as we continued along the Freshwater Lake Road, and the sun broke through intermittently as we neared the eco-site. Suddenly, Birdy pulled over, stopped the vehicle and opened the door.  I followed his lead. As soon as we got out, Birdy excitedly exclaimed that he had just heard a Jaco Parrot.  “Listen,” he instructed, “Do you hear it?  There it goes again.”  And then: “There it is!  Right over there on that branch.  Do you see it?”  I was definitely rusty, but within a few moments I spotted the brightly coloured

Jaco Parrot Botannical Gardens
Before my tours with Dr. Birdy, I was fortunate to observe  Red Necked Parrots (Jacos) in rehabilitation post-Hurricane Maria at the Parrot Aviary in the Botanic Gardens near Roseau*

parrot.  Of course, all of the birds on-island had been traumatized by the storm, and had lost habitat.  But Birdy was not discouraged on their behalf.  He explained that there were some food sources such as wild tamarind in the higher elevations, and nooks in damaged trees where the parrots could shelter. It was not known how successfully they would breed at this time, as understandably these birds had undergone tremendous stress as a result of ‘Maria’.   While there, we heard a Mountain Whistler, a shy bird that normally nestles in the tree-tops.  I think Birdy actually saw it, if I recall correctly, but my eyes failed to spot the pretty bird, formally named a Rufous-Throated Solitaire.  It was comforting to know that some birds had made it through that terrible storm. “Nature is resilient,” Birdy reassured me repeatedly over the course of my four tours with him this visit.

After waiting and watching for a few more minutes, we resumed our drive, while observing areas that had been more severely impacted by the cyclone, as compared to other sections that looked more intact. Birdy explained that Maria’s trajectory and resultant winds had directly struck some areas harder than others.  It was easy to observe the stripped, barren mountainsides and then turn 180 degrees to look at greener, forested areas that showed much less damage.

When we arrived at the Visitor Centre, we met two men who were repairing the structure.  I was very encouraged by their work, and remained hopeful that this conveniently situated and sheltered building would soon be fully operational again.  I had always appreciated their facilities, which had included a snackette, covered porch, picnic tables, washrooms and an exhibit on the geological features of Dominica.

As we started out on the trail, we were completely shrouded in a chilling “fog,” which is commonplace at this lake at an  elevation of 2,500 feet.  With its eerie aura, it is no wonder that this inland body of water is reputed to have a monster in its depths! Despite the persistent drizzle at this eco-site, which is located in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Birdy and I commenced the climb on the southern side of the lake.

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The Visitor Centre at Freshwater Lake (upper left) as seen from the trailhead on the south side.

 

Along the route, we noted not only the devastation of the forest, but as Birdy quickly pointed out here, there and everywhere, the remarkable regrowth of trees and plants during these few short months after the hurricane. As always, Birdy trekked slightly

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The Freshwater Lake Trail can be slick but well worth the effort!

ahead of me, calling back cautions when he encountered a slippery wooden step, loose soil or slick mud. In the damp and saturated surroundings, it was necessary to tread carefully.  Occasionally, he offered a hand if a step was missing and the leap was long for my short legs.  There were also a few places where earth slippage revealed precipices much closer to the trail than previously. I have relied on one metal hiking pole for many years, and as before, have come to depend on it for balance and stability, thereby  preventing many possible tumbles. However, we did proceed with caution and made note of any areas that could be considered treacherous to hikers.

 

 

One of the many blessings of a tour with Dr. Birdy is that it is never rushed and there is always something else to discover along the trail.  As usual, Birdy pointed out absolutely everything that he observed, in terms of orchids, wildflowers and plant-life.  I do not recall any bird sightings or sounds on this particular day.  However, I was provided with so much information that I swore to Birdy that I would have to bring a notebook with me next time.  The man is a veritable fountain of knowledge, when it comes to natural features in Dominica!

And there were always ample opportunities to catch our breath and marvel at the spectacular, dramatic views of the east coast (Atlantic side) from the highest points on the trail. As  a result of Maria, I saw more villages, mountains and ocean views than ever before. With drastically reduced tree-lines, the landscape was much more exposed.  Despite the devastation, the scenes were extraordinarily beautiful.  I have learned that Dominica is a place where, regardless of circumstances, the Nature Island remains true to its self-proclaimed moniker, as it rebounds from the destruction caused by Maria.

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In terms of my fears about having lost my hiking “feet,” I should not have wasted time with needless worry.  On a tour with Birdy, the focus is on taking it all in, and enjoying the splendor of Dominica, in all  manners, shapes and forms.

The colours of nature along /near the Freshwater Lake Trail:

 

After having spent a few hours on the Freshwater Lake Trail, covering all of it and discovering more under the tutelage of Dr. Birdy, I  enthusiastically looked forward to the next adventure.  In a week’s time, we would hike to Middleham Falls  from Laudat and I felt ready to undertake this slightly more challenging trek.  Until next time!

*Jaco Parrot was photographed on February 9, 2018 and is published with permission from Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In March, this Jaco and several others 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.

**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