Natural Wonders on the Caribbean's Island of Dominica
Newly discovered by adventurous travelers and the eco-minded, Dominica is a Caribbean pearl that harbors jewel-like rare parrots and a boiling lake.
Where exactly has Dominica hidden its runway? Out the starboard windows of American Eagle Flight 5062, the jungle-clad slopes of Morne Diablotin, the highest peak in the eastern Caribbean, loom like a green, gathering wave. To port, there is only a further cloaking of canopy, swelling as our aircraft skips above the pronged ridges of the Northern Forest Reserve. Finally, a few simple huts and groves of citrus trees appear, then a sliver of tarmac shoehorned into a distant, narrow river gorge. That’s Melville Hall Airport? The plane makes a sharp, 90-degree bank and drops into the steep-sided cut, a descent that feels more like a dive-bombing run than a final approach. Just beyond the wingtips, a gantlet of banana, coconut, and cacao trees line our landing path, so close I’d be tempted to pick their fruits if I didn’t have a death grip on my seat’s armrests.
A daunting degree of difficulty has always been the saving grace of Dominica (pronounced do-min-EEK-ah), an unspoiled place its boosters call the “Nature Island.’’ For centuries its extreme topography, including four peaks topping 4,000 feet, discouraged any settlers who weren’t intimidated by the truculent native Carib, whose lyrical name for the island—Waitukabuli—means “tall is her body.’’ Located in the midst of the Antilles, between the French possessions of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica was the last island in the Caribbean to be colonized and has been independent only since 1978. This former British backwater has never succumbed to mass tourism. Its few beaches are mostly composed of uninviting black sand. Rainfall can exceed 300 inches a year. And pervasive, precipitous mountains coupled with the lack of an international airport have stymied the tourism industry. On Dominica, nature still dictates the terms of visitation. This is a destination for travelers who won’t miss cabanas or casinos or white-sand beaches, who don’t mind getting caught in the rain or tramping up a live volcano in search of rare, rainbow-hued parrots.
Puerto Rico, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia can all claim a singular parrot, but diminutive Dominica is special. Though just 290 square miles—smaller than the five boroughs of New York City—it supports two Amazon parrot species found nowhere else in the world: the endangered imperial (Amazona imperialis), known locally as the sisserou, and the red-necked (A. arausiaca), or jaco, which is considered vulnerable. Only Jamaica, an island 15 times the size of Dominica that is home to the yellow-billed and black-billed Amazons, can make a similar claim.
“We’re quite lucky to have two parrots,’’ says forest ranger Bertrand “Birdy” Jno Baptiste as he coaxes his jeep up the western slopes of 4,747-foot Morne Diablotin. Dominica’s preeminent bird expert is a stocky, energetic man on constant alert. He takes care not to spill a mug of hot, home-roasted coffee on his oversize T-shirt or camouflage-print cargo shorts as he tackles a succession of switchbacks and scans roadside farms of coffee and oranges for wildlife. “They need tall trees,’’ he continues. “They need proper rainforest. That’s why they’re here in the first place.’’
I look through his windshield, which sports a “drbirdy2” decal in NASCAR-sized type, at the primeval landscape confronting us. Since leaving the northwest coast’s dry-scrub forest, we’ve climbed approximately 1,600 feet in just five miles to arrive at Morne Diablotin National Park. The nearly 8,500-acre preserve was created in 2000 to safeguard the parrots’ primary-forest habitat and protect this watershed, which supplies Portsmouth, a town second in size only to Roseau, the capital. Morne Diablotin is hardly the last vestige of mature rainforest on Dominica; 60 percent of the country remains wooded, including large swaths designated as parks or forest reserves that have never heard the scream of chainsaws.
The upper slopes of Morne Diablotin abound with the towering, 100-foot gommier and chataigner trees preferred by the island’s parrots, which nest in their cavities. Jno Baptiste parks his vehicle, shoulders his tripod and costly Brunton scope, and leads the way onto Syndicate Trail, a nearly mile-long loop along the park’s western boundary with an excellent birding reputation.
Along the well-marked track, he notes the resin oozing from a gommier, a gum tree that Carib Indians used to hew seagoing canoes, and the stout, buttresslike roots of a chataigner, a tree with fruit similar to chestnuts. Above us a blue-headed hummingbird—found only on Dominica and Martinique—nicks a spider web for insects and nesting material. From the forest floor, Jno Baptiste picks up newly shorn green leaves of a riverwood tree; they’ve been cut by parrots. It could be either the sisserou or the jaco, he says. Both species relish the shoots. Just off the track, Jno Baptiste notes a large cavity in a karapit, a tropical hardwood where parrots are also known to nest. The two-foot-wide hollow could hold an imperial parrot, which requires wide roosts, since its chicks must flap their wings before fledging, but it’s too close to the trail, he explains. It’s better suited to a red-necked parrot, a bird less sensitive to human presence.