An Ornithological AdventureA Plenty More Mango Adventure
I’m not and never will be a ‘twitcher’, that is someone who waits patiently, sometimes in hostile weather and cramped viewing conditions to catch sight of a bird on the wing or record a mating call.
But when the opportunity to seek out the elusive Oriole bird, unique to Montserrat, came up, I couldn’t resist.
A faded notice at the National Trust suggested I contact Scriber who would guide John and I through the wooded centre hills in our search. As he was vacationing in Canada he put me in touch with his colleague Calvin.
“Meet me at 6.30 outside the old Bank of Montserrat.” He meant a building that before the volcano blew was a night club, which subsequently became a bank and is now a café come museum.
The few people we spoke to beforehand were enthusiastic.
“It’s a great walk. Nothing to it.”
“It’s only two and a half hours and you’ll get some great pictures.”
“Start early, it gets hot later on,” was the only practical advice I was given.
I might mentally still be in my twenties, but my creaking bones tell a different story.
Calvin was lean and fit and carried only a small bag and a pair of huge binoculars. We, on the other hand, are loaded with water, cameras, money, mobile phones, sun cream and one ski stick.
The sign ‘Welcome to Oriole Walkway Nature Trail’ looks promising. The path, although quite steep, is well paved and I am proud that I seem able to keep up with our athletic guide.
“I took a man over 90 once,” he said. “And a blind man and a man from Australia.”
No pressure then as the made up track suddenly turns into something only a goat would find attractive. I stumble over loose stones and try to avoid twisting an ankle in the trailing vines. I’m already a dripping specimen of human flesh. Calvin nobly takes my hand and hauls me over another ghut.
“Will we really see an Oriole?” I ask childishly.
He stops suddenly, purses his lips and makes a soft trilling sound. Something similar comes echoing back to him from the canopy of leaves. We wait expectantly, but the Oriole bird, for that is their calling notes we hear, is being coy.
We press on, now one and a half hours into the trek. If I’m honest, I’m not enjoying this adventure very much. Sweat is stinging my eyes and I think the ball in one of my hip sockets is about to break free. But we make it to the summit and are treated to spectacular views of this beautiful rugged little island and the air is cool and clear.
Calvin spots some goat droppings and launches into a diatribe about the perpetrators. He tells us that, unless caught, they could strip the hillsides bare. I know what he means, as many a goat has feasted on my lovingly tended plants. The only difference between us is that I have only a loud voice to shoo them away, whereas, as an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture, he has a sniper rifle.
We still haven’t seen an Oriole and I am dreading the descent. John is even quieter than usual and I know what he is thinking about his non-athletic wife.
But, about ten minutes into our return journey, Calvin stops again and calls. And there it is. A male Oriole, complete with bright yellow chest and ebony black head and tail. There’s no time to get out the camera so I do what many Montserratians used to do when they were watching the incandescent rocks rolling from the mouth of the volcano. They ‘told me mind to snap a picture’ and so I did. I know I am just looking at a bird on a branch, but this bird is unique to this tiny volcanic island and that makes it special. I am curiously elated to have seen it.
Calvin tells us how, during the volcanic eruptions, several pairs of Orioles were carefully flown to Gerald Durrell’s Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey to breed. Now, nearly twenty five years later, their numbers have swelled to nearly a thousand.
Something hops in front of me. Maybe that’s a mountain chicken. Celvin laughs. “Noo. Mountain frogs, what people used to call mountain chickens, are an endangered species now, that’s a cane toad. They were used on sugar plantations to kill the beetles who destroyed the sugar canes. Trouble though, the beetles got smart an climb higher, so the toads can’t get them.”
We stop again, this time to watch a young male, who hasn’t yet achieved ‘yellow breast’ status and a female, of similar subdued greens. I’ve never quite forgiven nature for giving the male species all the colourful trappings of seduction.
Suddenly we come to a shaded glade full of wild Helliconia, beautiful waxy fan shaped flowers in red and yellow; the former being Montserrat’s national flower.
“This where the Oriole nests” explains Calvin, pulling a strand of fine webbing from the base of an elephant ear plant showing us how the bird weaves it into a nest which it then hangs from the V cup of the petals.
The bounty of the wood has one more surprise, an orchard of mammee apples. These are large round hard skinned fruits which, when cut open, reveal a flesh not unlike a mango.
“I make ‘smoothies’ out of them,” says our guide, picking up several.
At last we make it to trusty tarmac. I am a crippled sweaty wreck, but triumphant and already composing the stories.
There’s a map on a board that suggests the route we’ve taken. I’m not a topographer but 12,000’ seems a bit of an exaggeration.
John composes himself to take the “I was there” photograph, takes a step back to focus, slips on a moss covered rock and seems to do a back flip on his way to terra firma.
Apparently my reaction would put a Covent Garden diva’s dying aria in the shade as I suffocate him with endearments, at the same time tearing off my white T-shirt to try and stem the blood flowing from his head. Calvin looks away in baffled embarrassment and mutters something about getting to hospital.
As our starting point is now several miles away, we have to walk a good mile to the main road to catch a bus. Not your good old red London double decker, you understand. This is a people carrier that I think you can flag down.
Calvin, obviously glad to see me back clothed, albeit in a very bloodied T-shirt, is convinced that the bus driver will insist we go to the hospital. His concern doesn’t prevent him asking to take a photograph of said T-shirt.
“They’ll think is a Tie-dyed shirt,” I say to no-one in particular.
The people carrier does arrive. We don’t go to the hospital. But John, not surprisingly, is even quieter.
“We’re too old for this,” he says.
And, of course, he’s right. But we did, thanks to Calvin, get to see an Oriole bird and give him yet another story to tell over Friday night goat water. John looked like a boxer after 12 rounds for a few days, but he does have a dramatic blurred photograph of the fall. And me? Twenty lengths in the pool, followed by a rewarding Mountgay and coke is probably more my style.