Natural Wonders on the Caribbean's Island of Dominica
Sometimes heard and seldom seen, the 20-inch imperial parrot is the world’s largest Amazon species, measuring about two-thirds the length of a macaw. A striking creature with a purplish head, amethyst breast, and lime-green wings, the bird is accurately a flagship species, appearing on Dominica’s national banner (the Carib believed they would be reincarnated as sisserous). A census is hopeless, as the reclusive sisserou lives only in the mountainous interior’s most inaccessible sections. By Jno Baptiste’s reckoning, fewer than 300 imperials likely exist.
More easily seen is the red-necked Amazon, which numbers perhaps 800, according to Paul Reillo, director of the Florida-based Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, which runs a parrot-conservation program on Dominica. A smaller, more gregarious bird, the jaco has a blue face and distinctive scarlet patches on its wings and throat, and grows to 12 inches. It can nest at lower altitudes and lay larger, more frequent clutches than the sisserou, which usually produces a single chick only once every two breeding seasons—a positively puritanical rate of procreation.
Jno Baptiste, who can casually toss off the scientific name of everything we encounter, is a self-taught ornithologist. He got the bug shortly after joining the Forestry, Wildlife & Parks Division in 1982, when he found himself assigned to a parrot-monitoring program. “Other things were flying around,’’ he says, picking out the calls of a black-whiskered vireo and a plumbeous warbler that lives only here and on neighboring Guadeloupe. All told, 176 bird species have been recorded on Dominica. After getting to know the parrots, Jno Baptiste figured, “Why not just try to learn them, too?”
He likens his pastime to “a chronic disease”: ‘’I can’t stop birding. I do it for business, I do it for pleasure. I do it all the time.’’
In the aftermath of 1979’s Hurricane David, however, his birding was serious work. The parrots suffered grievous losses from the Category 5 storm, which killed several dozen islanders, destroyed three-quarters of all homes in Roseau, and drastically affected the parrot populations. The imperial, which had a pre-storm population of 600 to 800 by Reillo’s estimation, was wiped out across Dominica except for the northeastern slopes of Morne Diablotin, where just 50 to 60 birds survived. The number of jacos, which Reillo put at more than 2,000, dropped to 250 after David. However, the deadly tempest also brought new life. Jno Baptiste shows me the delicate lavender-colored flowers of Spathoglottis plicata,locally known as “David’s orchid.’’ The ground orchid, which is native to Southeast Asia, popped up on Dominica only after Hurricane David; islanders believe its spores were borne by the storm’s winds all the way across the Atlantic from Africa.
As Dominica’s hurricane-ravaged forests rebounded, so, too, did the sisserou and jaco. In the past decade a small number of sisserous have even returned to the southern part of their original range, taking up residence in the Morne Prosper highlands a few miles east of Roseau. Neither parrot species has yet to match its pre-David head count, primarily because of habitat lost to small banana plantations in the 1980s. Catastrophic storms also remain a threat, along with the pet trade. Dominica can level a fine of $5,000 eastern Caribbean dollars (about $1,870) or a three-year prison term on parrot poachers, but the potential windfall—Jno Baptiste estimates a pair of sisserous would fetch $50,000 on the black market—still tempts clandestine hunters.
Soon enough a pair of jacos takes wing, their cries floating across the valley. We also see a steady flyby of other species—Antillean flycatchers and scaly-breasted thrashers, brown tremblers and ruddy quail-doves. But no imperials. Not even their distinctly eerie, trumpeting call. It’s been a very dry summer, Jno Baptiste says, with few fruiting trees in the forest to feed the sisserous, which are finicky eaters.
We shift to another stakeout, and then another, pausing only to fill our water bottles from a clear-running jungle brook. Still no sisserous. Jno Baptiste finally packs his scope, and then disappears into the forest. I watch a broad-winged hawk swooping in tight circles above me, a lizard locked in its talons. When my guide reemerges, he’s cradling a half-dozen plump grapefruits, collected from a forgotten tree of an old, overgrown plantation. “Where else in the world can you do that?’’ he says with a grin.
Beyond the picturesque parrots and the feral fruit, the scope and scale of Dominica’s natural bounty is astounding: hundreds of species of fern, 700-year-old trees, and, it is said, a river for every day of the year. So, too, is its volatility. The fact may never be touted in a travel brochure, but Dominica has more than seven live volcanic centers. The island simmers uneasily atop a ring of fire that also fueled recent, devastating eruptions on Montserrat as well as the cataclysmic 1902 explosion of Mont Peleé, just 22 miles southeast on Martinique, which killed 29,000 people. “The church loves when there are tremors,’’ says William “Billy” Lawrence, 39, a wry, powerfully built Dominican who owns ALDive, a scuba shop. “Everybody goes back to church and the collection box is spilling over.’’