Birds Brighten the Grey Gardens

As you may know, I am just not good at getting up in the morning; and yesterday was particularly damp and grey, with no sign of the sun. So it was, I confess, a bit of a struggle.

Yet at 6:30 a.m. there I was, in a taxi cab, roaring up Old Hope Road for a birdwatching session at Hope Gardens (also called the Royal Botanical Gardens). Now, unearthly hours of the morning are when you are likely to see the most birds in Jamaica. So, the early bird catches the…bird.

BirdLife Jamaica's Damany Calder gets in a quick binocular session before we start.. (My photo)
BirdLife Jamaica’s Damany Calder gets in a quick binocular session before we start.. (My photo)

We met up near the “fountain” (which has actually not had any water in it for many years, although it used to have a few frogs). Doris Gross, who organizes the walks, was there with a few other members of the public, waiting for a few more people to arrive and for our guide, President of BirdLife Jamaica Damany Calder. We took a look at a White-Crowned Pigeon, hunched with his back to us near a tall palm. We heard the rowdy cries of the Loggerhead Kingbird and the piercing calls of two Jamaican Woodpeckers. Then we got started.

Hope Gardens are, to me, the well-trodden paths of memories. If I was to name my favorite place in the whole of Jamaica, this would be it. As I step in the gate, its sweet atmosphere embraces me, very gently. The trees breathe, “Welcome back. We are still here.” Every step is familiar; I know exactly what is around each corner. The hills enclose us. Our son first started walking there. I remember leisurely strolls with my parents when they visited us. One day I must sort all my photographs.

My favorite corner of Hope Gardens has always been the sunken garden. (My photo)
My favorite corner of Hope Gardens has always been the sunken garden. (My photo)

The 200-acre gardens, once part of the Hope Estate and acquired by the Jamaican Government in 1881, have changed in the past three decades or so, since we first started taking walks there. Places do change. The adjoining Zoo has been through many trials; Coconut Park, where children flocked in the summer time, has faded away. Now we have an ugly concrete structure in one of my favorite spots, where the pond is (and where I have in the past spotted three species of heron in the space of five minutes). This edifice is called the Chinese Garden and it was inflicted on us by our benefactors, the Chinese Government, as a gift. Very nice, but couldn’t they have put it somewhere else? I am hoping that when the next hurricane comes it will blow the so-called garden away over the hills, but leaving the magnificent trees intact. Or perhaps it will look better with age, when it cracks and is covered in mold and moss. One hopes so.

Our youngest birdwatcher with her very own yellow binoculars. (My photo)
Our youngest birdwatcher with her very own yellow binoculars. (My photo)

Yesterday, though, we ignored the concrete and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We wandered. We consulted bird identification cards. We took photos of everything – people, plants, trees, birds, selfies. We were a group of around fifteen or so; all ages from a little girl who brought her own mini binoculars, to restless teenagers and some slightly more staid, but enthusiastic older ones. A group of “twenty-somethings,” brought by Nicolette (who was a local volunteer at BirdsCaribbean’s International Conference last year in Kingston) checked their cell phones at regular intervals in between sightings. We all loved standing under the twisted, leafless Silk Cotton Trees, heavy with scarlet blossoms, thick petals under our feet. I waded through leaves like pieces of folded brown paper that had fallen from the “French Peanut” tree, a friendly old thing where doves cooed.The gardens have their seasons.

The Northern Potoo, looking very aloof. He basically pretended we weren't there. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)
The Northern Potoo, looking very aloof. He basically pretended we weren’t there. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)

We found a Northern Potoo, sitting high up in the crook of two branches of a large tree, streaked like the tree’s bark. He had just settled down for his daytime roost when a crowd of rather noisy humans gathered round his tree, pointing at him. Northern Potoos are nocturnal, and during the daytime they do an excellent impersonation of a piece of dead wood. When animated and awake, however, they have eyes like headlights and a gaping mouth. Damany had to make the distinction between these curious birds and “patoos” (the local Jamaican name for owls, in general). Remarkably, one young man realized he has his very own Potoo in his yard and sent me a photo when he got home; he just never knew what it was.

The Silk Cotton trees were an attraction. (My photo)
The Silk Cotton trees were an attraction – for birds and humans who watch birds. (My photo)

Then there were the migratory warblers; at least twenty of them fluttered back and forth in one large tree, including my favorite, the American Redstart (always the first to arrive in this area, and the last to leave). We watched an American Kestrel gliding from tree to tree and returning to the very pointed tip of a tall palm. Hope Gardens is famous for its parrots: mostly the more common endemic Yellow-billed Parrots, which racket around the place with a few Olive-throated Parakeets in tow. To our delight, though, we also saw a pair of the much rarer endemic Black-billed Parrot, quietly feeding in a “bottlebrush” bush nearby with little concern for our presence. Yes, maybe we are listed globally as a “Vulnerable” species, they seemed to say. But hey, this bush tastes really good. I had never seen this charming bird before.

Red-billed Streamertails were enjoying themselves in the sunken garden, along with Vervain hummingbirds and Bananaquits. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)
Red-billed Streamertails were flitting in the sunken garden, along with Vervain hummingbirds and Bananaquits. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)

Gradually people departed for their Saturday morning chores (and breakfast) and the thought of a cup of hot steaming coffee weighed heavily on my mind. Mist shrouded the hills, and I found myself with Damany and Kahlil Francis, the wonderful photographer who joined us and whose photos grace this page. Although the sun seemed to have no intention of coming out, more birds appeared. It was as if some of them had been sleeping late. I was peering at what I thought was a particularly fancy Loggerhead Kingbird, perched on a wire above the old water channel that still feeds the gardens. “That’s no kingbird,” Damany said. I felt a quiver of excitement when he told us that it was a Belted Kingfisher – a winter visitor. His flamboyant spiky crest reminded me of the unkempt punks that I used to see in Camden Town on a Saturday morning. He was my second “first” for the morning. I had not expected this, at all.

It was a thrill to see the quite unusual Black-billed Parrots. This one was very busy in the Bottle Brush tree. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)
It was a thrill to see the quite unusual Black-billed Parrots. This one was very busy in the Bottle Brush tree. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)

I must add one thing: my binoculars are my pride and joy. They are the most wonderful thing I have acquired for years. Even if you don’t love bird watching as much as I do, binoculars are a thoroughly rewarding, gorgeous toy. Everything looks different. Individual feathers are ruffled by the breeze; a bird’s glittering eye turns itself in your direction; a small lizard wriggles in its beak. Binoculars are a superb invention. I found myself gazing at the ordinary mango trees in our yard for no particular reason the other day. Through my binoculars they take on an almost magical aspect. I lent mine to several members of our group yesterday. Not surprisingly, no one was in a hurry to give them back. Binoculars are joyful things!

The "Hopping Dick" (White-chinned Thrush) was hopping along this branch. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)
The “Hopping Dick” (White-chinned Thrush) was hopping along this branch. (Photo: Kahlil Francis)

As a fine drizzle came down from the hills, we found ourselves again, rather damply, at the fountain, lingering no more. In the parking lot, as usual, a man was setting out some soft drink bottles, packets of crackers and sweeties on a battered wooden stall. He didn’t look optimistic that business was going to be thriving, that day.

Just appreciating nature. (Photo: Hope Gardens)
A member of our group, just appreciating nature. (Photo: Hope Gardens)

It was past 9:30, and time for home and that cup of coffee. Next month may bring a brighter morning; but the birds lit up the grey skies for us, anyway.

The monthly tours are organized by Hope Gardens; a contribution of a mere J$200 is requested. Check their Facebook page for further information. The Nature Preservation Foundation is the non-governmental organization responsible for the management and operations of Royal Botanic Gardens and Plant Nursery. 

A little youthful "reasoning" going on here. (My photo)
A little youthful “reasoning” going on here. (My photo)

3 thoughts on “Birds Brighten the Grey Gardens

    1. It’s not actually an owl although Jamaicans get confused by its name “Potoo” which sounds like the local name for an owl, “Patoo.” The Potoo is nocturnal, too…

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