Salt is a curious substance. We humans need it in our bodies, but not too much. Too much raises our “pressure” and often Jamaicans put too much salt in their food (our local cook shop, for example!)
When you see it all laid out in front of you in liquid form, it takes on a different character. At the Yallahs Salt Ponds recently, the water continuously changed color, from a limpid olive green close to the mangroves to a glossy azure, reflecting the hot sky. Sometimes, too, it was creamy brown (like that suit of President Obama’s∗ that everyone hated).
We (Birdlife Jamaica, that is) were on a special birdwatching expedition – special for one person in particular, who is currently celebrating his ninetieth birthday. And yes, he has been wined and dined and cake has been eaten. His name is John Fletcher and he is a “veteran” of Birdlife Jamaica. Yallahs Salt Ponds is where his birding life began in earnest, and he has never looked back.
John is known for the fascinating snippets and observations on human/bird interaction that he throws out with a little chuckle, as you are walking around. He is a mine of information. He is happiest (as most birdwatchers are) quite still and contemplative, eyes glued to binoculars. On a very warm Saturday morning in Yallahs, he did just that.
The ponds are divided by a fairly narrow strip of mangroves. The larger pond on the other side borders on the sea – a long, empty strip of coastline – as does the smaller one at the other end. Seen from the road, the ponds have a bleak feel about them. Close up, they are full of diversity and interest. The salt rules everything.
That morning, we saw no less than 21 different species of birds – most of them shorebirds and migratory, or just “passing through” on the way somewhere else. So naturally, they were busy eating. They picked their way daintily in the shallows, with the smallest ankle-high to the tall Black-necked Stilts, with their spindly, elegant red legs. The Stilts do live and breed here, unlike the blotchy brown-black-and-white Ruddy Turnstone, who visits for the winter and actually, amazingly, breeds in the Arctic; and the tiny Least Sandpipers, who visit in fewer numbers and like several others, fly down to South America for the winter.
Stretches of the pond had shrunk away and turned into very sticky mud, as the weather has been dry. The beautiful vista of the forested hills behind us, folded into one another in the background, was still deep green, with water channels marked by even brighter green trees.
A Yellow Warbler accompanied us from one thorny bush to another, reminding us of his presence with his penetrating, sweet song. “They call him the Seaside Canary!” said John. Glowing bright in the foliage, the Yellow Warblers live in Jamaica all year round, and really do prefer the coast. It’s nesting season for many of these birds at this time of year, so perhaps he had family nearby.
The salt rules the landscape. The dried mud was littered with desiccated fish and bones. As the water receded it also became more concentrated with salt, with the fish unable to breathe beyond a certain point. The Youngest Member of our group was saddened; we made some unamusing jokes about saltfish. (Note: BirdLife Jamaica is both lively and diverse – all ages, all walks of life and levels of expertise).
Dried tree stumps stuck out of the mud, and some mangrove trees seemed marooned and doomed to die. In parts, the landscape seemed like the backdrop to an episode of “Breaking Bad.” But the shorebirds seemed happy as the heat rose (along with an underlying humidity from the water). Parts of the pond were fringed with foamy white salt. A Great Egret on a tall tree stump in the mangroves coolly observed the pottering birds from the other side.
We walked along a channel, dug by a hapless government agency (according to John) to drain some of the salt pond into the sea. That was when the ponds were smelling so strongly that the good citizens of Yallahs were complaining. It did not seem to have worked and was doubtless a bad idea in the first place. When humans start tampering with fragile ecosystems such as this, they generally make matters worse.
And then, a soft sea breeze began to blow, and we emerged onto a perfectly pristine beach. Now, perfect, pristine beaches are not as common as you might think on our fair island. Here it was as if no human had stepped there: not a trace of garbage, which is our regular footprint. The fine, slate-grey sand was not of the tourist variety. The sea was only gently ruffled, and clear mint green in patches. It was delicious.
John wandered off down the beach, picking up this and that and turning things over in his hands: some “sea egg” shells, the skeletons of the black sea urchin that lives on our reefs (although in fewer numbers than there once were). Only one member of our group paddled in the sea. I wish I had done so. It must have felt good.
As we stood and chatted, another human came into view: a Rastaman of indeterminate age and substantially bearded walked up the beach towards us. We were more curious than he was – he passed with a brief, friendly greeting, then disappeared into the adjoining bush, heading out further towards the sea. He was on a mysterious and lonely mission.
I stood and watched a Magnificent Frigatebird, poised in the air, black and immobile. I wish I could do that, I thought. He was alone, too, like the Rastaman, and equally at home in his environment. Balance!
Did I mention the Wilson’s Plovers? Ah, but who is Wilson, I asked myself? Well, this eccentric shorebird, which nests on the ground and spends the winter in Brazil (or elsewhere) and is fond of Mexico trips, is “named for early ornithologist Alexander Wilson, who collected the type specimen in May 1813 at Cape May, NJ, where this species is (and was) only a rare visitor.” I am quoting from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website. I call it eccentric because it has a way of pattering across the mud quite fast, and then suddenly stopping in its tracks – as if it has just remembered that it had left something at home. Then it starts off again in the same direction, realizing that it could really do without that thing. It’s a charmer.
Meanwhile, Youngest Member had a visitor – a “News Bug,” which is a round, brown beetle with a long nose, speckled delicately with black. Youngest Member cradled it in her cupped hands. According to Jamaican folklore, if this little fellow lands on you, it means there is news. We told Youngest Member that would definitely be news of the “good” variety. Not fake either.
As we left the ponds, the heat was rising. The salt was cooking. The beach is the place to be.