White Birds and Gunfire on the Old Harbour Mudflats


As we climbed out of the car – next to Auntie’s Hot Spot and an azure blue beauty salon – shots popped not far away. It is the bird shooting season in Jamaica.

Ironically, perhaps, it was also time for the Global Shorebird Count, and BirdLife Jamaica was not going to let the opportunity to count birds pass by. We love counting, and of course, the more the better. The only good thing was that the shooters were not after shorebirds, or at least that is what we wanted to believe.

The Laughing Gulls and terns kept to themselves, in their own little community. (Photo: Claude Fletcher)

The Game Bird Shooting Season for 2019 began on August 17 and will end on September 22. During this period, Jamaicans are allowed to kill four different species: the Zenaida Dove, the White-crowned Pigeon, the White-winged Dove and the Mourning Dove. They are allowed to kill 20 birds in one session (15 in the case of the gorgeous White-crowned Pigeon).

While the rules are strict, many shooters try to get around them. Now, to add a little intrigue to this account, there is also a “State of Emergency” in the parish of St. Catherine, where Old Harbour Bay is located. A police car crunched its way slowly up and down the narrow, rutted road near our birding site…and in the direction of the hunters. Were they monitoring them, us, or just the neighbourhood in general?

I wasn’t sure, but sensed that something of a cat and mouse game was developing. Having finished their killing at 9 am, as required by the law on a bright Saturday morning, the brave hunters returned a while later with guns bristling, in the back of a pickup truck. The police car reappeared. Hmm. Incidentally, an added complication for me was the sudden appearance of said killers, all in camouflage gear, rattling down the road. State of Emergency! I thought. Soldiers! But no, these men were just pretending.

The Black-necked Stilts are such funny little characters. (Photo: Claude Fletcher)

Back to our birding. A veritable bird city awaited us on the mud flats. On some stretches, several different species jostled for space, with the elegant long necks of the Great Egrets rising above the dumpling-shaped sandpipers – surprisingly delicate in flight. The Least Sandpipers, living up to their name, pottered like tiny clockwork toys in the mud. When they ventured into a patch of water, the sandpipers became entirely legless. By contrast, the Tricoloured Herons and Little Blue Herons maintained their dignity at all times.

We missed the flamingoes – again, as a woman with a baby on her arm informed us immediately upon arrival. These were the “pink birds,” according to an eight year-old boy with a shy smile, who decided to accompany us in the mud. Boys that age are not averse to mud. At one point, the Boy became tired of the adult-sized crocs he had been wearing, and stretched his bare feet. “It soft,” he said.

The delightful Least Sandpiper is a migratory bird, which can also be found in South America at this time of year. They all fly together in a small flock when they are ready. They also enjoy hanging out in mud. (Photo: Claude Fletcher)

The Boy did not smile very often. He seemed disturbed by the regular popping of the Camouflaged Ones down the road, referring to them as “the gunmen.” Well, a man with a gun, by definition, is a gunman. He also spoke of dead crocodiles with their skins removed, in the mangroves.

I thought his imagination had over-reached itself when he told me, with conviction, that sometimes the bird shooters fired at “the white birds.” Why would they do that? I asked him. He shrugged, but I later learned that if any other bird is suspected of eating the feed the shooters put down to attract the doves and pigeons (how cowardly this all seems) – they will shoot at them.

Caution. Birders at work. (My photo)

Amidst these stories of death, we counted – first identifying the species, which took some time, and then counting them in batches, from one side of the mudflats to the other. For the record, we counted 27 different species and hundreds of birds. One or two were not strictly shorebirds, such as a Vervain hummingbird which flew overhead, furiously twittering in its tiny voice. The second smallest bird in the world always goes to great lengths to make itself heard.

As I was walking back, the Boy leaned down and picked out a small shell, embedded in the mud. As he put it in my hand, he reminded me, “You can wash it when you get home.”

We departed, to do just a little more counting at some sewage ponds. I was happy to hear that the Boy and his brother were looking forward to a birthday celebration that afternoon. Will you have cake? I asked. Yes, they said, adding with emphasis, “And ice cream.”

It was a hot day, and men with guns were around. Cake and ice cream sounded just fine.

Biologist and BirdLife member Gavin Campbell shows the Boy and his brother what’s in the pot of murky water he collected. There were wriggly creatures inside (the birds’ breakfast). My photo

 


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