Travels with a Canadian, Part 1: Native Plants, a Mystery Duck and the Discovery Centre at Salt River

Yes, we have been on an extended hiatus. Not only have we been dashing up and down with many chores and obligations to fulfill, but we had the honour of a visit from a fellow blogger. “Always a Redhead” hails from Hamilton, Ontario. Yes, we actually met online. It was a week of adventures, mishaps, hilarity, and general good companionship.

C-CAM’s Discovery Centre, from the boardwalk. (My photo)

After picking up our guest at Montego Bay Airport (which seems such a muddle compared to its relatively orderly Kingston counterpart), we pottered along (if it’s possible to do that on the race track that is the “North Coast Highway”) to a seaside restaurant, where we had a good meal and friendly service. We then dropped by to see our friend Wendy Lee. Wendy operates a rescue centre that receives, cares for and rehabilitates (if possible) wild birds and reptiles, including protected species, that have been confiscated or rescued. You can find the Seven Oaks Sanctuary for Wildlife (SOS-Wildlife) here – and donations are always welcome! It’s not cheap feeding an assortment of parrots, owls, hummingbirds, herons, and more… Wendy has a heart of gold, working incredibly hard to protect our fragile and vulnerable wildlife. She is also an expert bird guide, eco-tourism believer and passionate environmental advocate (join her Protect Cockpit Country Facebook group for regular updates on that campaign).

We saw this destruction by fire on the way to Salt River. (Photo: C-CAM/Facebook)

Our first trip out of Kingston was to Salt River in Clarendon, in the Portland Bight Protected Area. Yes, I have written about this place before, and I am sure I will do so again. Along the way, we passed charred areas of land, the ground white with patches of ash, the trees burned. The area is not just wetland – it also consists of dry limestone forest (especially in the Brazilletto Mountains) and there are often extended droughts. Thanks to the efforts and dedication of Ingrid Parchment and her team at the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), Salt River is undergoing a slow but steady transformation in terms of environmental awareness and education. We had a fascinating land-and-river tour with Moya Black and Courtney, accompanied by summer intern Sashika.

We did the land part first. C-CAM’s Discovery Centre is a work in progress. Thanks to the diligence of C-CAM and the substantial support of the European Union (EU) among others, a great deal of work has been done since we last visited. It is transforming into a valuable, one-of-a-kind environmental education center, with several dimensions apart from the tower-like building itself. The shade house is where rare native plants are being propagated, with funding from the GEF Small Grants Programme. Right next to it is a planned education center to focus on the dry limestone forest, in particular, its unique plant life.

The climate change monitoring station recently installed near the C-CAM Discovery Centre with funding under the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR). (My photo)

Other aspects of the Centre are gradually being built out, from the original plans. Stone paths lead to and from the shade house, the turtle pool and so on. At the turtle pool, a large duck studied us from a short distance away; motionless and only slightly curious, it was not clear whether this was someone’s pet duck who had discovered the shaded area and found it more pleasant – or was it a wild duck? No one had a clue where the duck came from; it simply appeared, one day. The turtles were much shyer.

The boardwalks are simply wonderful. One ends at the bird hide, and another at the river itself, its waters startlingly clear. Mangroves are deeply fascinating places to walk through. I heard a burst of birdsong from deep inside (Yellow Warbler?) The shapes of the mangrove roots, drooping and graceful, remind me of medieval church architecture. The waters are deep chocolate brown or sometimes, the darkest metallic blue as if a can of oil paint has been emptied in them. Other parts of the river itself are a translucent aqua, almost swimming pool-like in color. Then we reached the bird hide, where you can look out on a tranquil, chestnut-colored lagoon, patterned with the shadows of the surrounding mangroves. We practiced throwing neat mangrove seeds into the mud so that they fell sticking upright. We also saw where baby mangroves were being nurtured and acclimatized, before being planted on an outlying cay that was severely damaged during Hurricane Ivan.

C-CAM members gathering the seeds of native plants and trees. (Photo: C-CAM/Facebook)

On the boat, we put on our obligatory lifejackets, and I apparently selected the smallest one, which was a little tight on the upper regions of my body. I could just about breathe! My husband (who is not too fond of boats) looked a tad nervous, but he had nothing to worry about. There had been plans for a trip to a nearby island, but the sea was too rough. We pottered off down the Salt River, with Courtney giving us a great introduction to the environment we were moving through. He was very good at identifying the waterbirds that decorated the river banks, all the way along. We saw a remarkable number.

A stately Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the bank of the Salt River. (My photo)

For the bird lovers amongst you, we saw: Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Blue Heron (including a moulting juvenile), Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Turkey Vulture, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Wilson’s Plover, Killdeer and Royal Tern.

Salt River has a never-ending fascination. The rusting remains of old sugar barges stick out of the water, almost like crocodile teeth. Did I say “crocodile”? Our guest had been hoping to see one, and in fact, we saw two sitting on the river bank. One was at fairly close quarters and perhaps not fully grown. Its back feet twitched and it descended suddenly into the water with a smacking sound, pushing off hard with those strong back legs until it reached safety. Yes. The crocodile was afraid of us, not the other way round.

Crocodile #2 displaying his impressive teeth. (My photo)

Another crocodile was simply chilling on the bank, his jaws open, displaying impressive rows of teeth. A discussion ensued on the American Crocodile’s jaws, and the fact that the upper jaw was stronger than the lower one (or was it the other way round?)

Sargassum seaweed covers what is left of Welcome Beach in Clarendon. (Photo: C-CAM/Facebook)

As we reached the end of the Salt River where it emptied into the sea, we passed Welcome Beach. It is hardly a welcome place, these days. Huge ridges of sargassum seaweed cover the beach, which has already eroded considerably.

Climate change has taken its toll in this area and will continue to do so. All we can do is take care of what we have left, to the best of our ability.

Many thanks to all at C-CAM for a great tour.

3 thoughts on “Travels with a Canadian, Part 1: Native Plants, a Mystery Duck and the Discovery Centre at Salt River

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