Walking on a Salty Morning with John and the Shorebirds

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 and binoculars at Yallahs Salt Pond. (My photo)

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.

Shorebirds of various shapes and sizes. (My photo)

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.

A dead and salted fish. The little lumps on the ground are pure salt. (My photo)

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.

The beach. (My photo)

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!

John looking at sea eggs. In the background, a Snowy Egret is looking at him. (My photo)

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.

The road to somewhere…beautiful. (My photo)








6 thoughts on “Walking on a Salty Morning with John and the Shorebirds

  1. This provided a lovely opportunity to take a cyber stroll with the Birdlife Jamaica group! I read it once while online in a restaurant, and now at home with the serene soundtrack of doves (quiet) and Chachalacas (loud but in the distance) and one Scrub Blackbird. Your narrative invites us to see through your eyes and through your heart – from the youngest one who felt sorry for those desiccated fish to John, who plays a strong role as the elder and mentor of many.

    I appreciated your statement: ” When humans start tampering with fragile ecosystems such as this, they generally make matters worse,” especially when you explain how easy it is to see how it backfired. Yes, leave those fragile ecosystems alone!

    The Snowy Egret would not have been easily noticed in the photo, but your caption helped us to see the balance – ah, humans in harmony with nature! On my Global Big Day walk, I also noted one lone Magnificent Frigate; this one was soaring the air currents high above the reservoir.

    Your Big Day and my Big Day contrasted in many ways:
    Your group rejoiced in finding a pristine stretch of beach — which seems like a gift from the Universe, considering the pollution that might have originated from far away.
    I noted the subtle changes that man inflicts on this protected forest, still green and lovely, yet being whittled away monthly.
    You walked with kindred spirits of many backgrounds and ages, while one lone Bird Warrior in Ecuador hoped to see the return of the most-common species that are presently MIA.

    Three times people stopped to ask what I was doing, what I was looking for – and I explained about Global Big Day, my concern for the health of the planet – and I even managed to slip in my concern for the pesticides sprayed on the pastures. I said that the Seedeaters (“Little Black Birds”) and Ground Doves were no longer around – and I asked them to look for doves when they drove – they are gone. I said that if the cattle eat the same grasses, the chemicals are in the milk and cheese and that I had stopped eating those products. (My choice, however, is out of compassion to the birds)

    One man on a motorcycle said that he lived on the other side of the reservoir, and that he had cattle and pastures, and he was recently elected to a position in the community – and wanted to learn more! I’ve already given his name/number to someone who can send him misc info in Spanish – and we hope to bring some speakers to help mentor the locals.

    It’s my hope that by this time next year, I’ll share about a larger “Community” Global Big Day walk!


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments (and your observation about the Snowy Egret – he was just observing John comfortably from a distance, recognizing him as a dear, bird-loving human and not in the least perturbed). I am glad you did a Global Big Day. We have a fierce competition for it in the Caribbean, dominated by the Bahamas vs. Puerto Rico – Bahamas won this year. We Jamaicans need to step up to the plate! I would LOVE to share your words with my birding friends. Would you mind? It does sound as if your walk was quite productive though, as you got to speak with people and talk about the poison that we are putting into our environment and thus into our own bodies (something I need to write about as there is growing concern here over RoundUp, which is quite widely used). Thank you, again!


      1. Of course you may use my words, but thank you for your professionalism!
        We are lucky here to have a visiting biologist from the Andes who also is my friend. She haves ways to scare the daylights out of them – and it sticks for about a month, then they go back to doing things how their fathers did and their fathers did… She took water samples in various places and showed the results.. those with bacteria in the samples, she asked, “Do you know why yours has bacteria and theirs (a neighbor) does not?” then she said, “look up.” higher in the hills were pastures.. and the neighbor had forest.’

        It would be wonderful at some point to visit when your group has an event – to meet and mingle and exchange ideas!


      2. We have the same kinds of issues here. People just go back to the “right way” of growing their crops, etc. that they have learned from previous generations and from general practices around them. Often “worst practices.” You would have to keep coming back EVERY month for what you are telling them to sink in. Caring for our environment needs to be a habit and a tradition (it was not always a tradition, anyway, because 50-odd years ago we weren’t thinking about sustainability!) It would be absolutely wonderful if you could come over at some point…You would be out​ guest of hono​ur and of course, our house guest! 😉


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