Mission to Montserrat
The tiny Caribbean Island buried almost 20 years ago by a still-smoldering volcano is now brimming with signs of life, a thriving a population of orioles brought back from the brink of extinction, and the looming threat of another blast.
Elsewhere in the exclusion zone, lahars have filled the west side Belham River Valley, suffocating its permanent waterway and the island's only golf course. In early 2010 a gargantuan 65 million-cubic-yard pyroclastic flow erased all evidence of the airport terminal and runway before rolling several hundred more yards into the sea as it extended the coastline.
"Where the land now is, the water depth was 27 fathoms," relates Furlonge, who points out the flow from an east side overlook on Jack Boy Hill. Twenty-seven fathoms--that's 162 feet below sea level--all now filled with the volcanic debris of an astounding island growth spurt.
The new land is uninhabitable, however, and the mercurial volcano has squeezed residents into a tiny safe zone in the northern third of the island, which is buffered from pyroclastic flows by the Centre Hills, a protected, four-square-mile block of wooded, steep-sided peaks that doubles as Montserrat's water catchment and rises to 2,431-foot Katy Hill.
"People have to get used to living with the volcano," says Cole. "We don't know when it's going to stop. You mustn't give people false hope. They've just got to get on with life--develop the north part of the island and just cope with ash fall from time to time. If people think it's going to stop in six months' time and they can go back to Plymouth, that's not the case. You can't develop that area again. The volcano might stop for 10 years, and then start up."
The volcano has also wreaked havoc on this verdant island's biota, especially its endemic national bird, the critically endangered Montserrat oriole. A graceful, eight-inch-long passerine with an elegant, slightly curved beak, the male Icterus oberi is a show-stopping dandy in the wild, with jet-black plumage set off by stop-light yellow underparts, rump, and belly; hardly outdone, females flaunt attractive greenish-yellow feathers.
With very specific habitat requirements--typically undisturbed mesic or moist forest at least 500 feet above sea level--the Montserrat oriole always had a severely restricted range. Even before the 1995 eruptions, the bird was confined to three wooded areas totaling just 12 square miles (or about one-half the size of Manhattan). Volcanic activity has since wiped out almost two-thirds of that habitat, including its former stronghold, the ridges and ghauts (or ravines) of the Soufriere Hills volcano.
In the immediate aftermath of the volcano's awakening, the oriole population crashed, perhaps by as much as 50 percent. Lava flows and toxic gases killed birds outright. Heavy ash falls brought respiratory problems and also damaged the lobster-claw heliconia plants that the finicky birds use almost exclusively to build their hanging nests. According to Montserrat forest ranger James "Scriber" Daley, feral pigs from abandoned farms also destroyed large stands of heliconia, while voracious pearly-eyed thrashers, a regional endemic bird that is widespread on Montserrat, raided oriole nests for eggs and chicks.
Fearing the worst, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which operates an animal "ark" for critically endangered animals on the Channel Island of Jersey, collected eight orioles with mist nets in 1999 to be bred in captivity. They also gathered nearly extinct "mountain chickens"--actually one of the world's largest frogs and found only on Montserrat and Dominica--dying off in droves from the lethal chytrid fungus.
Issued a shotgun and a brace of hunting dogs, Daley eradicated more than 400 pigs--some of the boars topped 75 pounds--which helped to preserve the heliconia and stabilize the oriole population of the Centre Hills, a designated Important Bird Area. Helicopter-borne rangers also made a heartening discovery: a small oriole population deep in the exclusion zone in the South Soufriere Hills, a forested 86-acre IBA entirely surrounded by pyroclastic flow and literally clinging beneath the volcano's rim.
"These birds really do find a way to survive," says Daley, who estimates there are now "close to 2,000 birds" confined to a total range of five square miles--less than four times the size of Central Park. It is a remarkable comeback, given that some wildlife experts predicted the oriole would be effectively extinct in the wild by 2010.
Daley, who grew up in the obliterated village of St. Patrick's, considers the tenacious bird a living symbol of Montserrat's resilience and rebirth from the ashes. A new capital complete with port, cricket ground, and municipal buildings is slowly rising on the northwest coast at Little Bay, and Montserratians can already point with pride to a $2 million cultural center spearheaded by Sir George Martin.
The rare oriole is also helping the island venture into avian tourism; a series of hiking trails have been blazed into the Centre Hills and provide an excellent chance to spot several other uncommon restricted-range birds, including the forest thrush, bridled quail-dove, and brown trembler, among Montserrat's 54 resident species.
Daley, who's also the island's most accomplished bird guide, recommends we explore Blackwood Allen Trail, a moderately challenging 1.2-mile bushwalk on the northern edge of the Centre Hills.
"As a forest ranger, I don't work a day," enthuses Daley, a 26-year-veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for Montserrat's fauna and flora. "Believe it, this is my trail."