Palms, Ring-tailed Pigeons, the rushing river, and janga soup: Castleton Gardens on a Sunday morning

A curled palm leaf about to open in the glorious Palmetum. (My photo)

Happy (belated) Biodiversity Day! Or if you prefer the long-winded version, International Day for Biological Diversity.

It’s interesting how one creature can capture your imagination – and make your day. In my case, that creature is most likely to be a bird. This happened a few weeks ago, as the BirdLife Jamaica “posse” set out to see as many endemic bird species as possible (that is, those that live only in Jamaica – and there are twenty-nine of them, more than any other Caribbean island).

The bird in question was the Ring-tailed Pigeon. And not just one, but a “plenty of pigeons.”

Sunday, May 22 was the last day of BirdsCaribbean’s Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival (CEBF), which began on Earth Day, April 22. This year’s CEBF theme has been “Loving Birds is Human Nature,” and nothing could have expressed this more eloquently than the recent trip I took with a happy band of birders to Castleton Gardens, about a twenty-minute drive from Kingston.

We loved the birds like crazy. Especially those pigeons.

The Gardens are bisected by a main road, and though it was a Sunday, the numbers of day-trippers in mini buses and private cars steadily grew throughout the morning. It was a beautiful, richly blue, damp underfoot morning, perfect for a day out of town.

Rooted to the spot, and moving slowly, we browsed at our leisure through the gardens, finding so much to look at and study. I still feel we just skimmed the surface. (My photo)

We were not moving half as rapidly as those on four wheels, and we were happy for that. In fact, as soon as we stepped through the wrought iron gate on the “hillside” part of the Gardens (the other side of the road is the “riverside”) we stopped in our tracks, gazing up at the lacy intricacy of tree ferns above us. A couple of minutes later, we met up with a statuesque welcoming committee of several Ring-tailed Pigeons, looking down at us from a branch. What a good start!

After that, we regularly looked up, hearing the flapping of their wings and seeing fragments of palm fruit drifting to the ground from treetops. The Ring-tailed Pigeons (the largest pigeon native to the Caribbean) were enjoying a substantial breakfast, and paid little attention to us.

BirdsCaribbean’s Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival has a daily feature, “From The Nest,” which is continuing online. It is creative an archive of Caribbean endemic birds, with lots of information, photographs, descriptions and even games and activities for kids.

And there were the trees. And the flowers. And the palms, and more palms of almost every shape and size – many of them native to former British colonies. Castleton Gardens is an oft-forgotten place that people pass by, and don’t stop. It requires your time, and attention, and we gave it plenty of that. It’s a treasure trove of biodiversity.

The grass was thick and damp, and the paths littered with fruit, seeds, leaves. Above, we heard the repetitive call of the “John Chewit” (the Black-whiskered Vireo) – a sound of the summer. Some Jamaican Crows were having a discussion, perhaps over the morning news, from tree to tree, in their usual argumentative tone. The call of the Gray Kingbirds (Petcharies) was a persistent clatter, and high above a dozen Turkey Vultures (John Crows) circled high in the blue. You can hear them in this video – my first attempt at posting one – please forgive the quality.

I haven’t uploaded a video before. This was a quick capture on my iPhone.

The shadows crept back, and the overnight rain was already giving way to a sleepy, gentle warmth. Some birders stopped suddenly, pointing down a path. Another endemic bird was spotted – the White-eyed Thrush, or “Glass Eye,” foraging among the mossy stones.

There was so much to see and absorb that our steps slowed. Scarlet flowers dripped with moisture. A Ylang Ylang tree stood tall and fragrant.

I decided to skip over the road (looking carefully left and right first) to the side of the gardens where the Wag Water river flows. I had left my friends behind, and the pathways were inhabited only by me, a mongoose, and a man with a wheelbarrow picking up a bit of trash. The river was flowing fast, an opaque metallic grey in colour, among the huge boulders scattered in the riverbed. Memories of our son’s skinny brown legs straddling those boulders (and my motherly entreaties to him to be careful) came back to me. I remember also picnicking with my parents on that same shallow spot by the river. My mother had made fish sandwiches.

I turned away from the memories, feeling suddenly tired, and walked back up to the road – where I met Daniel, a young man who was quietly stirring porridge at the rest stop opposite the blue and white police station. Next door, an older, tight-faced woman was working on the beginnings of janga soup. Janga is a kind of crayfish that lives in Jamaican rivers; if caught, it often ends up in a battered metal pot, bubbling over a roadside fire, along with pumpkin and Scotch bonnet pepper. I sat down with Daniel and enjoyed his porridge – a combination of plantain, peanuts and something else. It revived me. So did cold home-made pineapple juice, and a cup of peppermint tea.

Photos showing just a very small part of the riches of Castleton Botanical Gardens – one of the oldest in the Caribbean (established 1862), which once had over 4,000 species of plants, many of them from Kew Gardens in England. Among these were 180 species of palms. I am not sure how many of them survive. Nevertheless, the Palmetum is a treasure trove. All these photos are mine, except for the middle one in the top row, which was taken by Doris Gross.

The Ring-tailed Pigeons peered down at us from every perch. And there were more endemics having breakfast at Castleton, including the Orangequit. (Photos by Ian Gage)

We chatted by the roadside, and watched as a mini bus arrived. The passengers, who came out and stretched their legs, were dressed in very fashionable (and extraordinary) clothing. They immediately descended on the famous janga soup. I waited, and heard that the birding group was on the river side now, investigating, among other things, snails. Yes, Jamaica has an extraordinary diversity of creatures, besides birds. I believe there are some 562 species of land snails on our island – most of them endemic to Jamaica.

The charming White-eyed Thrush – not to be confused with the White-chinned Thrush, which is a regular in our garden and I believe more common generally. Both are endemic birds that spend a lot of time pottering around on the ground. One of our wonderful photographers, Ian Gage, took this photo at Castleton Gardens.

It was a long morning, full of discoveries. A return visit is on the cards soon (I hope). Castleton Gardens is a trip for the senses – early morning walks are recommended.

Indeed – loving birds, as well as basking in Nature – comes naturally to us. Thank you to our beautiful endemic birds, who give us so much, all year round. However, they are not prepared to share their Sunday morning breakfast with us. And who can blame them?

Down by the river. (My photo)

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