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.
At the trailhead, Daley notes a pair of critically endangered endemic plants: a yellow-flowered Montserrat orchid growing on an old mango tree and pribby, an evergreen shrub from the coffee family. Within a few strides, we enter healthy mesic forest, passing stands of "stinking toe"--actually locust trees covered in air plants--and old tree ferns. Through the tangle floats the staccato chant of a black-whiskered vireo and the haunting, whooping cry of a forest thrush.
After a quarter-mile walk, we find an oriole nesting hotspot--a large stand of Montserrat's national flower, the red- and yellow-flowered heliconia. Acid rain from a month-old ash fall has burned holes in many of the broad leaves. This could affect the hanging-cup nests that will soon be constructed by the females, which usually lay a pair of speckled eggs--a low rate compared with similar Caribbean oriole species.
For now, however, Montserrat's orioles are in full courting mode. Daley makes an ascending looping call. Within seconds, a female oriole replies, followed by the flat, insistent whistle of a male. It isn't long before we spot the colorful, curious birds in the understory. Daley also notes the iridescent flash of a purple-throated Carib hummingbird nearby; the heliconia is their preferred food source.
"Close to the oriole nests there is always a Carib hummingbird nest," Daley says. "The Carib actually helps keep away predators. They are very, very aggressive birds."
We follow the trace up a steep ridgeline, flushing a brown trembler, and pass the remains of Underwood, an old farming village abandoned in the 1950s and now reclaimed by the forest. The rains have gradually washed away the four inches of ash left from the previous month's volcanic "event," which rose in a mushroom-shaped cloud to 50,000 feet, disrupted regional air traffic, and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to crops on Guadeloupe and Dominica.
"I came through here with some birdwatchers and we were not able to see one bird," Daley relates. "All we saw was the dust when the bridled quail-doves flew away."
Volcanoes are conflicted creatures, with the ability to annihilate or to nurture, to wear both a fatal and a fertile character. Initially, the acidic volcanic ash kills almost everything; ultimately, the rich nutrients allow the land to regenerate, and even thrive. That's certainly the case at Washington's Mount St. Helens, where stands of willow and alder now color a landscape scoured clean by an immense May 1980 lateral blast.
"Eventually it's fertile," Cole observes. "The thing to remember is, this island has had events like this before, it's had ash fall as bad as this before, and it will recover. [The orioles] will survive."
The trail spills into a clearing, affording a view of mist-shrouded Katy Hill, and then passes through an old, tree-clogged cricket ground that hasn't seen a wicket in a half-century. We skirt a small clearing with freshly tilled soil and newly planted banana trees.
"By the time the rainy season comes in," predicts Daley, "the provisions we'll be getting, mon, massive."
As we near the trail's end, Daley emits one last call. Almost immediately, a female oriole alights on an overhead branch, perhaps 10 feet away, and begins singing. And singing. A rich, melodic, insistent solo that continues for several minutes, borne on the warm wind like a cheeky taunt toward that ash-wreathed volcano.
Making the Trip: Montserrat
There are no direct flights to Montserrat from the United States. Several U.S. airlines offer non-stop flights from the East Coast to Antigua (ANU), approximately 25 miles northeast of Montserrat. From Antigua, local carriers WinAir and FlyMontserrat offer multiple daily flights to Montserrat, just a 15-minute hop away. A ferry also operates between Antigua and Montserrat, except on Sundays.
On Montserrat, it is possible to rent a car to negotiate the sinuous roads, but a local driver will help you delve deeper into this island's laid-back charm and affable character. There is a single, western-style hotel, Tropical Mansion Suites (www.tropicalmansion.com), near the airport. Most visitors opt to stay in smaller B&Bs or private-villa accommodations; both offer very good values by Caribbean standards.
No visit to the island is complete without a visit to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (www.mvo.ms), which has an interpretive center and is open to the public Monday through Thursday. Several hiking trails in the Centre Hills Important Bird Area provide an excellent chance to see the Montserrat oriole and other regional specialties; bird guides such as James "Scriber" Daley can be hired through the Montserrat National Trust. Green Monkey Inn and Dive Shop offers boat tours of Plymouth, the Caribbean's modern-day Pompeii, which is off-limits to land visitors.
Few island businesses accept credit cards. The national currency is the East Caribbean dollar ($US1 = approximately EC$2.70).
U.S. and Canadian citizens require a valid passport. There is an EC$45 (US$17) departure tax for international visitors.