Coming out of a cold western-Canadian spring, I’m not sure exactly why I’ve opted to climb up into the rain forest during rainy season. The humidity is nearly 2 million per cent and the temperature is boiling out at a mere 380,000° centigrade. For the last eight weeks I’ve done nothing but sit in front of the computer tapping out enough copy to make a pitiful living. Now, I’m humping a 50-500mm lens affectionately called “The Bigma” by photographers, and a backpack full of gear along ridgelines up to the roof of St. Vincent.
Before starting my usual whingeing, I need to state clearly that I have a love affair with rainforests. But sometimes enough is enough. The rainy season has just started in the Eastern Caribbean basin so the air is mud-thick, the mossies are doing tactical training exercises in squadrons and the ground underfoot is break-neck slick.
Not, you will agree, the best time to indulge in backcountry trekking.
My host, a delightful man named Andy Lockhart, is passionate about the Vermont Nature Trails that sit above the St. Vincent’s capital city of Kingstown. He should be — he’s the guy in charge of the parks. His official title is Superintendent of Marine and Terrestrial Parks of the National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority.
We met the day before on a trip to the Black Point Tunnel on the eastern side of the island and at the time he dangled the Vincy parrot in front of me.
The St. Vincent parrot is one of the rarer parrots. There are only an estimated 650 pairs left and about 100 live in the valley we were going to hike to.
Efforts are underway by Andy and his department along with the Jersey Trust, of the UK, to stop the decline in population and to build a DNA bank as a life preserver for the species.
Part of the problem facing these birds is their own sex lives. First off, they’re monogamous. A little infidelity wouldn’t go amiss here. But that might prove more difficult than it would seem.
They mate for life and when one of a couple dies, the other doesn’t take up with the next available mate.
Also, apparently the difference between boy parrots and girl parrots is barely distinguishable and there’s some thought that even they might have trouble telling each other apart. Two-legged experts exhibit a 60 per cent success rate in gender distinction without clinical testing.
Like other species, they are also challenged by disappearing habitat.
Driving up to the Vermont Nature Trails, we pass through meager subsistence farms. The men heading to the fields have the perennial hungry look of those who scratch their sole living from the earth. With hoes and spades draped over their shoulders they eye our air-conditioned van as we hurry past them. They’re heading to the small patches of ground they’ve cleared along the edges of the forest.
Given the option of feeding their families or preserving habitat for a handful of birds, their choice is clear.
For a big man, I suddenly feel very small.
Beyond the farms we pass the reservoirs used to collect rainwater for Kingstown’s needs.
“They’re only half-full right now,” observes Andy as he catches me trying to judge their contents. “We had a drought last year and the supplies are getting very low. We need rain in the mountains.”
From the sky, it looks like he is about to get his wish. As we climb into the white cloud, the trees drip with humidity. It makes the feral breadfruit trees glisten and the soccer ball-shaped breadfruit stand out against the deeper green foliage.
As Andy tells me about the connection with St. Vincent, Capt. Bligh, the Bounty and breadfruit, the first Vincy parrot goes streaking across the cloud-soaked sky. It’s so high I need the Hubble telescope to get a decent shot.
Encouraged, we park the van at the head of the trails and grab our packs. Just the effort of swinging it up onto my back kicked my sweat glands into gear.
One of the loveliest things I find about a rain forest is that it dampens man-made sounds from beyond the forest’s edge and traps and amplifies the sounds generated within. This means there is a raucous cooing from the local pigeons and a great sigh as rain begins to fall through the canopy’s leaves.
The trails are very narrow, basically ridgeback paths, and there are a lot of stairs to help us ascend the ridges. The trail is a mile and three quarters or slightly over 2k, and it climbs 500 feet (slightly more than 200 metres) but it feels like a thousand miles long and ten thousand feet up.
There is water in the first small river we cross – a good sign for the reservoirs. Up we climb passing great trees whose roots are spread over hundreds of square metres in order to take hold in the thin soil, and huge German Joe ferns that would frighten the hell out of anybody making snide remarks about fern bars.
Because of the forest canopy, it is unlikely we will see any parrots until we make it to the viewing platform. There is still a lot to see and photograph. At one point we encounter the biggest leafhopper I’ve ever seen. Sitting motionless on a large frond, the hopper is half an index finger long and perfectly camouflaged. It took Andy’s sharp eyes to find it.
After 15 stops to catch my breath and drink two litres of water, I reach the observation deck.
“They eat mangoes,” Andy tells me, “and mango season is just about done. Still we may see some birds.” Just then a pair goes streaking across the sky in close formation like a fighter jet and his wingman. They are a little too high to capture their image.
The morning proceeds like that. We see lots of parrots way up high and a couple of warblers on branches a hundred metres away. The more hopeful hikers try to capture their pictures with small point-and-shoots. For me, even the Bigma won’t bring them in close enough for a money shot.
I’m not disappointed. I don’t need to succeed every time I go out and I saw lots of subjects along the way to photograph. Their distance turns me back into a tourist instead of a working photographer. So, I do get to see the beautiful Vincy parrot at a distance, and maybe – for the birds’ sake – that’s the best way.
“Huge trees spread their roots out over hundreds of square metres to maintain their hold in the shallow forest soil.” © Bruce Kemp Photography/www.C2CMedia.ca
“Andy Lockhart, the Vincy Parrot’s passionate supporter.” © Bruce Kemp Photography/www.C2CMedia.ca
“A fellow hiker and bird watcher trying to lure the parrots in close enough for a picture.” © Bruce Kemp Photography/www.C2CMedia.ca
“The biggest leafhopper I’ve ever seen.” © Bruce Kemp Photography/www.C2CMedia.ca
“St. Vincent Parrots” Photo Courtesy of Birdlife International