Sweet singing, here and abroad.
For the last couple of weeks, beginning about 4:30 every morning, the rousing, pre-sunrise chorus of songbirds has made alarm clocks unnecessary. Our neotropical migrants have returned from the jungles, passionately expressing their readiness to breed. Some of their wintering grounds, which they recently vacated, may surprise you.
Last month, I visited the Caribbean, studying "our" migratory songbirds, exploring the "other" Jamaica, a world of birds and unexpected wildlife largely unknown to tourists.
Surprisingly, bird hunting is more popular than bird watching there. For six consecutive weekends beginning with the third week in August, plump and tasty white-crowned pigeons, and white-winged, mourning and zenaida doves, are Jamaica's only legal game. Shooting is from sunrise to 9 a.m., and from 2:30 p.m. till sunset. On Sundays, only the morning session is allowed. Hunters can shoot 20 birds a session, or 60 birds per weekend.
Jamaica has never had any deer hunting - until now. An exhibition pen of eight nonnative whitetails was breached during Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. They escaped, much to the chagrin of local farmers, and developed an expanding herd now numbering about 200.
Most visitors come to this sybaritic island, though, for other hedonistic reasons. Actor Errol Flynn fell in love with Jamaica, buying thousands of acres for his enormous estate. Ian Fleming lived there, too. One day, curiously perusing the field guide, "Birds of the West Indies," authored by James Bond, he became intrigued by the ornithologist's strong name, which he gave to 007. Today, for a hefty fee, you can stay at Fleming's former mansion, Goldeneye.
Opportunities for self-indulgence are numerous along the powdery beaches of Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Most visitors seek Blue Mountain coffee, fine rums, spicy jerk chicken and pork, roasted yams, empanada-like patties, saltfish, Red Stripe beer, and romantic partying at all-inclusive resorts. But I was looking for Jamaica's jungle jewels, the dazzling songbirds that sing largely unnoticed above the revelry.
While bird banding this week at the Auburn Sportsman's Club, where members and their guests observe the capture of hundreds of newly arriving migratory songbirds, I was reminded of several of the same species that I had just encountered in Jamaica.
From September through April, Jamaica's mountains, gardens and coffee plantations are home to many of our warblers like the northern parula, Cape May, black-throated-blue, myrtle, black-throated green, prairie, redstart, prothonotary, worm-eating, ovenbird, northern and Louisiana waterthrushes, and common yellowthroat. But there were even rarer jungle jewels among these Jamaican natural treasures.
Isolated islands tend to evolve unique species found nowhere else in the world. Years ago, when I studied Madagascar's birds, I found all 105 of its endemic species. But Madagascar is about 1,200 miles long. Jamaica is a comparative postage stamp in size, yet it has an amazing 28 endemics. (Two other of its endemic birds were extirpated by the tragic introduction of the Indian mongoose, which was supposed to kill rats in the cane fields and coffee groves. The rats remain abundant.)
Surprisingly, I was able to find all 28 endemic species in just four days, birding in the coolness of early morning, beaching in the afternoon, and celebrating at night, a pleasurable schedule easily replicated by serious naturalists.
Seventy-five percent of Jamaica's forests have been cut down, symptomatic of the natural destruction of most of our world's tropical habitats. Half of the world's tropical forests have been cut since World War II. That should concern us.
For our songbirds to survive, we need not only to preserve open space here in America on their breeding grounds, but also to help support their critical wintering grounds, some of which are small and vulnerable in the tropics.
In the 1970s, America's last songbird to go extinct was the Bachman's warbler, a species genetically programmed to winter only in Cuba. When I visited Cuba to try to find them, it became clear that the total conversion of their essential dense shrub wintering habitat to sugar cane fields was responsible for their demise. The Castro regime basically traded its crown jungle jewel for sugar's hard currency.
Even if we protect their breeding grounds here in America, many of our songbirds remain vulnerable to extinction by virtue of threats to their wintering grounds. We need to support international efforts to secure those critical habitats.
Ecotourists visiting Jamaica can support the preservation of their special wildlife, and at the same time help perpetuate the enchanting birdsongs that joyfully wake us here each glorious morning in May.