To discover a completely new place, a fresh landscape one’s eyes have never before seen. Not traveling the world, but right here on one’s own beautiful island. This is what we did recently, visiting new and familiar places in Portland.
BirdLife Jamaica recently went on a special weekend excursion to eastern Jamaica. I dragged my husband along. We got up at that unearthly hour that birders in the Caribbean love, departing in a convoy from Harbour View – minus coffee, somewhat frayed at the edges. Actually, the convoy broke up several times and there were some “where are they?” moments, but we all reconvened at the top of some cliffs in Hector’s River, a beautiful spot along the south-east coast of Jamaica. Well, it’s beautiful in an abandoned kind of way. I cannot call it a town, because very little commercial enterprise seems to go on there. It’s on the main road, but somehow a lonely place, perhaps dreaming of better days. People sit on their verandahs, as country folks do, goats wander, and there are one or two bars. There used to be an ice cream parlor of sorts in the “square” – but no more. Hector’s River is sad.
I could write a lot more about Hector’s River. I know it is steeped in history. However, this time we were interested in the cliffs, for a specific reason: White-Tailed Tropicbirds. When I first caught sight of them and sized them up in my binoculars, I cried out in admiration. Someone said, “Oh, that’s always the reaction when you see one for the first time.” They gleamed white in the morning sun, as white as the foam below them. They dipped and soared in the wind, trailing their exquisitely tapered long tails behind them. I understand they have to make several passes before landing on the cliffs where they nest; it’s not an easy feat. But in the air, they are effortless. There were only a few, as the birds spend almost all their time well out at sea. I was glad to see some near to shore.
I wandered round the playing field at the top of the cliffs, and what I saw dampened my spirits: several large garbage bags, brimming over, dumped right near the edge (as if in hopes of the garbage simply blowing over into the sea?) I also noticed, at the opening of a large cave under the cliffs, at least 100 plastic bottles washed up. Why are we doing this?
The cliffs have a darker history, but the tropicbirds don’t know or care about human tragedy. Twenty-five years ago, a truck carrying workers in the back went over the cliffs there. Nine people were killed. Only an arm belonging to one of them was allegedly found near an area called Sharks’ Rock. One night in 1994, a 34-year-old aspiring screenwriter from Chicago, Terry Runte was murdered and his body allegedly thrown off the cliffs near the same spot (but he was never found – only his clothes and watch, tied to a concrete column used to weigh him down). A man who confessed to the murder was convicted and sentenced to death.
We drank some delicious strong coffee kindly provided by one of the birders, and moved on, deep into the John Crow Mountains. It was exciting to turn off the main road, head towards Reach Falls, and then on and on, an unknown road, adventurers in search of birds. By this time, it was actually a little late in the morning to see many birds, but Ecclesdown Road proved to be quite a treat. In fact, it is more of a well-worn track, with grass and moss running down the middle. Away from the sharp winds of the coast, it was quiet and humid; a muting of the atmosphere. Apart from us, we saw no one until near the end of the road, when we met two farmers: friendly men of few words, who apparently tilled some land along the road. Agriculture was not a major feature of the walk, however; far from it.
It felt as if we were walking up someone’s driveway, and that sooner or later we would turn a bend and see a grand house and a garden. Of course it was nothing of the sort, although it seemed almost homely. But at night, I wondered? Among the night sounds of tree frogs and the creaking owl’s wings, one might hear footsteps, shouts, horse’s hooves on the road, a sudden rustling on the hillside…
To our left were expansive and ever-changing views of the John Crow Mountains, forested valleys and hills. We were traversing the edge of a valley. On each side of us were banks containing small treasures; I actually started paying more attention to the flowers and plants than to the birds, although a very vocal and excited Jamaican Tody – a small bundle of emerald and ruby – was a real treat.
Below, you can find a few photos I took of just a little of the beauty I saw by roadside. Perhaps you (or my highly knowledgeable friend Wendy Lee, who was with us) can identify them.