The Abaco National Park on the south end of Great Abaco in the Bahamas is twenty thousand acres of pine flats and a slender scrubby zone of salt-tolerant hardwoods along the ocean. The park protects, among other indigenous birds and wildlife, the foraging and nesting range of eight thousand endangered Abaco parrots. These parrots are unique among their New World kin as they nest in limestone sinkholes among the pines. Once found on Abaco, New Providence, San Salvador, Long Island, Crooked Island, Ackins and Great Inagua, they are now isolated on only Abaco and Great Inagua. Columbus had reported them in 1492 when he landed in the New World, so they have quite a distinction of being one of the first species reported in the explorer’s journals, making them sort of like those Americans who look for their names on the roll of the Mayflower.
Many think that the Abaco and Great Inagua parrots are a distinct population, though they are still not deemed a separate species. They have been protected since 1952, and so their conservation story has an upside: the parrot population is now considered stable, with maybe over five thousand birds on Abaco and maybe as many as twelve thousand on Great Inagua. Now the threat to their numbers comes mostly from encroaching development, feral cats, land crabs, and the pet trade. On the roundabout when you leave the Marsh Harbour airport the first thing tourists see is a giant colorful concrete Abaco parrot in the mowed center circle.
This was my fifth trip to the six-mile long island of Elbow Cay in the northern Bahamas, a twenty-minute ferry ride across the water from where the planes land in Marsh Harbour. The first two times I was here was in the mid-80s accompanying January short-term college psychology/group dynamics classes for three-week residences in beach houses in White Sound. On those trips, taught by a good friend, I was a guest, a sort of writer-in-residence, and my thoughts were often public, focused both inward (because of the class) and outward toward the exotic surrounding sea. I had never spent time snorkeling on coral reefs or watching the ocean every day from a porch facing the wild Atlantic, so my observations with the classes often focused on how we might get more in touch with the place. On Elbow Cay was the first time I ever really understood what Rachel Carson, someone familiar with coastlines, really meant when she titled her 1951 book, her first, The Sea Around Us. Of course all islands are surrounded by the sea, but Elbow Cay is small enough (four miles long and a quarter mile across at its widest) that you feel the sea’s right there, always in your face or at your back.
Twelve years later in 2000, after Betsy and I married, we came back for a week with three of her friends, renting a boat out of Marsh Harbour and sailing to Elbow Cay, Man of War Cay, and Great Guana Cay. On that trip I explored the coral reefs even more intimately, my attention focused on what still seemed off-shore wilderness, a landscape below the surface, vast and protected from the horror of on-shore inland development and industrial tourism that had by that time become a cliché in the Bahamas.
The fourth return, in 2010, Betsy and I rented a house for a week in Hope Town on the settlement’s historic district between the lower and main ferry dock and explored the north end of the island as our two boys went out daily to be certified as sailboat captains by a local outfit.
I’ve kept journals and poems on every trip to Elbow Cay and I remember what they contain—the expected sense of wonder for a nature writer, the discovery of a new world, an alien landscape. I am a man who grew up far from easy access to such a watery realm, and for me they have always contained the sense of otherness and strangeness, that flush of natural riches. “Keats Never Snorkeled” I embroidered onto a white cap after visiting the Abacos the first time in the 1980s and I wore that cap for years, perplexing my friends. This statement, for me, summed up my sense of artistic privilege in the late 20th century.
Now, eighteen years into the next century, it’s different. In the eight years since we had last been on Elbow Cay, I’d become aware of many other layers to my own privilege and how much I had taken for granted on my first trips here. I had come to own some of the ways that the very life I lead degrades and diminishes the very island where I vacation, where I had experienced my poetic reveries. Something as simple as buying a gallon of milk or going out for a meal becomes an exercise in your own privilege.
Add to all that, a shift in my teaching life from English to environmental studies and the result was a basic deepening of my perspective. Because of climate change it was now also downright impossible to visit this low carbuncle of limestone, sand, and coral without thinking about the coming challenges of sea level rise—to all affected, land, sea, and air creatures, including the long-term human settlers of the island, both black and white.
So, when I returned this time, I did some preliminary research on how the native conch reserves in the Bahamas have been depleted 80% since I was here in the late 1980s. The conch fishing had collapsed in Bermuda and in the Florida Keys in the 1970s. It’s looking likely now the same might happen in the Bahamas. The culinary symbol of the cays—that first order of conch fritters—went down a little uneasily once I was conscious of the pressures on the fishery.
I looked up the parrots too.
Sometimes I long for the innocence of my first trips to the islands, when I was in my thirties and believed that, when I visited places like Abaco, I was witness to a play that would never close. I know there is no rolling back time, no recovering the innocence of travels enjoyed in my thirties, no “easy in the islands,” no more living in a Jimmy Buffett song. Now every issue is only a click away from ecological studies and current research into the ways the world has been compromised in the water weary Anthropocene. And, as if to complicate things even more, the morning we went over to look for the parrots, off the ferry trudged all the early island workers, black Bahamians from Marsh Harbour, twenty minutes and $11 across the Sea of Abaco each way, the day laborers on construction sites, the restaurant workers, the custodians in the tourist lodges. No one looked up as we passed. No one greeted us with the usual lilting “hello” you get on the streets of Elbow Cay as we traipsed off on our adventure in search of a feel-good siting of the rare Abaco parrots.
But I never considered not going to look for the parrots. What would that prove? I was here and so were the parrots. The parrots didn’t need me but a forty-year bio-blitz confirmed that I needed them. We were in the islands, easy or not, and why not take a morning and go back over the water to Abaco to commune with the island’s rarest wildlife?
We met our naturalist guide, Reg Paterson, at the Marsh Harbour ferry landing. Reg too was descended from original white British settlers of the Abacos, though Reg’s Loyalist pedigree is European rather than African, unlike the workers we’d seen depart in Hope Town. His “day job” was that of surveyor, but his passion was showing those like us interested the natural history of the Abacos around. Reg is a slender man with glasses, a neat moustache. He was dressed in khakis, soft brown boots, and light blue plaid shirt, maybe so he could pass for surveyor or nature guide, depending on the appointment. He’d come prepared with an Igloo of chilled water, his binoculars, and a map falling apart from being folded and unfolded. What do the locals think of the parrots? I asked Reg. “Generally, Bahamians, black or white, are mostly indifferent to conservation,” he explained. “It’s baby steps—grouper fishing now has one closed season a year. We’re beginning to understand we have to protect the resources.”
As we exited the harbor area Reg filled us in on his life. He’d lived in the Abacos fifty years, coming to Elbow Cay when he was thirteen with his family which had roots there in the 1780s. His father had been in real estate and was also an amateur botanist and naturalist who’d written a book about Bahamas native flora. As a child Reg had accompanied him on field trips. Now his double TripAdvisor stickers in the pickup’s back window announced his tilt back toward his father’s avocation.
Driving out of Marsh Harbour, on the only road south, the parking lot and low-rise sprawl of a tourist town quickly turned to the native pines, mostly thin pencils with flourishes of needles at their crown and bases scorched by a recent wildfire. As we passed into this more rural country Reg outlined the land use history of Great Abaco. After World War Two mechanical clearance with bulldozers made industrial scale agriculture possible in the limestone and pine flats. Sugar cane farmers made a go of it, but the crop was only minimally prosperous and ultimately unsustainable. Now all those fields had returned to the pine trees we saw as we drove toward the island’s south end.
Reg has guided many ecotourists like us, so he knew what we really wanted to know—how likely was it we’d see parrots? “The park’s so huge—you can often hear the birds squawking,” he said. “But they’re often in the distance and you can’t see them.”
In order to hedge his bets, Reg had an almost guaranteed parrot encounter in an unsuccessfully developed subdivision just north of the Great Abacos national park. We’d go there first, Reg explained, drive the almost deserted roads, roll down the windows and just listen. I was used to this rolling form of nature survey, so I wasn’t surprised. I looked forward to seeing the island at whatever pace Reg would provide.
As we covered the dozen or so miles south the sun climbed quickly in the subtropical skies and the air itself seemed naked. It was dry and hot by the time we reached the breezy sounding development called Bahama Palms Shores. As we entered Bahama Palms, Reg rolled his window down and I did the same. We were listening, mostly for parrots, the air conditioning blasting to keep Betsy cool in the truck’s jump seat.
We cruised slowly past a few neat houses tucked back into the thick coastal scrub including one called “Parrot Perch.” For every neat house though there were dozens of undeveloped lots, though some were not at neat as others. We passed a double wide trailer with a wormy cat out front. Then one of the lots had a small yellow house on it with seven cats just hanging around. Reg explained a woman everybody called “the cat lady” had lived there, and quickly segued into how feral cats, like these, had always been one of the primary challenges in stabilizing the parrot population further south in the park. Reg said that the park wardens monitor the nesting sites and the cats are “humanely removed” when they become a problem. I watched these potential parrot poachers licking their paws and lolling around under the coco plums and thought about the world-wide problem of cats and wild birds. And here it was again. I hoped they could be controlled.
In spite of the cats licking their paws, parrots seemed to like it here in the subdivision, Reg suggested. There was plenty of food, fruit and seeds, and he saw a small group of birds so regularly that this was his go-to spot for bird groups.
“Why are the parrots here and not the park taking part in the nesting?” I asked.
Maybe they were bachelors, Reg speculated, or immature birds wandering north of the nesting ground in the national park.
“Did you hear that squawking?” Reg asked, as we turned back onto the main road into the subdivision and stopped the truck. We threw open the doors and we all three piled out. “Over there,” Betsy said, spotting the silhouettes of two parrots in a bare Australian pine tree between us and ocean. We drove closer, piled out once again, and it was indeed two rare Abaco parrots hanging out in a pine, their green coats flashing against the blue sky and the coral ascot under their chins flaring like skyrockets!
We crept slowly forward on a sand drive onto one of the few developed lots but were stopped by a gate. In spite of it, we were able to get close enough to watch one parrot grooming itself. The two parrots didn’t seem concerned we were there. One bird kept grooming but the other bird left the pine and flew lower to banana palm. It squawked, sounding like a creaking door. Then the grooming bird flew into a gumbo limbo and sat for a long time, as if posing for Betsy’s clicking camera. After we’d watched for ten minutes they both disappeared deeper into the brush. Reg pointed out how camouflaged they become if not squawking and how you can lose them amid all the green.
“What’s the most you’ve ever seen?” I asked Reg.
“Once, years ago,” he said, “I was hunting in the south near a water hole and a big flock of parrots came in for their evening drink. They were putting up quite a squawk, about fifty of them. It was almost intimidating. I gave up the hunt. With that noise I knew nothing would come in. I packed up and went home.”
After the brief parrot communion Reg drove us one street over to a friend’s private garden. At first I didn’t realize it was a garden, though once we were inside it took on a magical closed-in feel with dozens of blooming trees, some, like a giant fruiting papaya with green bowling balls, clustered near the top.
The friends maintained a small feeder and right away Reg pointed out a “greater Antillean bullfinch,” red on the throat with a red eyebrow, that wasn’t going to let our parrot tour deter its morning feeding. It hopped from limb to feeder perch immune to us.
Walking around the garden, Reg picked up a good-sized hermit crab creeping through the yard. “Soldier crabs, we call them. Fifty years ago my family would have eaten them. I don’t really have any memories what they would have tasted like.” I remember from my reading that crabs sometimes eat the parrot chicks, another worry besides the cats.
Then we walked to where the yard turned to a wall of brush. Reg pointed out a “thick-billed vireo in royal ponceana tree. Its mate won’t be far away always calling out to each other to reassure they are close.” The parrots squawked again and we were hopeful they would land in the garden and we’d see them. We could hear them squawking as they retreated. Reg explained that vulture overhead had probably startled them, and, “any large bird can be mistaken for a red-tailed hawk, one of their natural predators.”
Once the parrots were gone, our eyes and attention settled once again in the lower reaches of the garden. Reg pointed out a “lasagra’s flycatcher” and a “bananaquit” in quick succession, and then he began a remarkable botanical tour of our surroundings, and I thought how proud his father, the amateur botanist, would be. Reg touched each plant as he passed it and gave us its common name, “rough-skinned lemon, mahoe, called cork tree, sour orange, sapadillo, which the Bahamians call “dilleys,” scarlet plum, coco plum, red cedar—rare in the wild but still found in people’s gardens, sweetwood—of which the bark is harvested and exported to Italy, used to flavor Campari, horse flesh, used for boat building—and cinnamon bark, which I use as bug repellant when I can’t get anything else.”
It was only 9:15 and our three parrots would have to do for the moment. We had three or four more hours to go. Doesn’t it always happen this way? Whatever you anticipate happens unexpectedly or it doesn’t happen at all. So much of interaction with nature is waiting, and then savoring once it’s happened, whatever that is.
We drove farther south and passed the Abaco National Park sign, and next to it, a derelict picnic table. We parked Reg’s truck just off the main highway at a pullout for the Hole in the Wall GSM site where there is a tall transmission tower. Bahama swallows swirled in the heat, little black and white scissors doing laps around the transmission tower. The real beauty and surprise was hundreds of Atilla hairstreaks, tiny black and orange butterflies mobbing the dense underbrush.
I looked deep into the pines. As an inland soul I crave deep deciduous forests, but there on Abaco was an expanse of forty-foot trees rooted on a dry sponge of crusty porous limestone softened only by thickets of poisonwood.
Reg led us down a two-track logging road, a remainder of the latest harvest of the vast Abaco pine forest in the 1960s. Reg explained the loggers had left five seed pines per acre when they clear cut but that he thought the trees probably needed thinning now, fifty years later. I heard the trilling of pine warblers but mostly the woods were silent when we first entered them. Only as the forest swallowed us did it begin to enliven. To speed things along, Reg stopped, played his iBird pro and said, “a grasswit male is answering,” and then something less clear answered in the distance and Reg put his glasses on it. “It’s a warbler, I think. I glimpsed white wing bars.”
Reg trained his glasses into the pines. It was a more subtle landscape than I expected and reminded me of young longleaf pines. I looked around. Through the canopy I watched a swinging raft of vultures. There was red-shouldered calling and Reg said there was an old nest nearby, when the nest had been active they’d divebombed him as he walked below. I spotted a hummingbird a bright red vine flower, and Reg soon confirmed, “Bahama woodstar.” Then it flitted away right over the top of us. As we walked, Reg points out poisonwood we’d seen back in the subdivision. “Be careful. Black sap. That’s when you know you have it, and by then it’s too late.”
Reg spotted the pine warbler we’d been hearing, sitting in a sapling pine, and then he pointed me toward a Bahama warbler in a pine working up and down the trunk like a nuthatch. And then, we heard a mockingbird and soon we got a good look at it and it was indeed a Bahama mocker! I’d really wanted to see the Bahama mockingbird, a little larger and a little darker than its northern cousins. Two of them were right before us, in residence in a pine and they decided to really put on a concert of many unfamiliar songs.
A little farther along the two-track, Reg cued up his iBird pro one more time and a warbler song repeated over and over. Then finally he heard the bird he hoped would answer, “An olive cap warbler!” Then he saw it in the nearby brush! Back at the truck we poured some water out of the Igloo and watched a Cuban peewee sitting on a pine stub watching us, so close we could see the distinct white halfmoon around its eye.
We drove a little further south and turned onto another gravel two-track and Reg showed us on the map how the road continued eighteen miles to the remote Hole-in-the-Wall lighthouse. Reg explained how he liked to drive a few miles on the road, but not all the way in, as the last several miles were terrible and best walked. The red and white lighthouse itself, out of commission, sits on a rocky coast, as far south as you can get on Abaco. Reg said it’s hard to imagine the lives of the two families of keepers who lived there isolated for a hundred years.
We passed homemade national park signs nailed on trees. One said, “plane crash,” and another said, “parrot ridge.” Reg explained about the plane crash, and the island’s legacy in the 1990s as a drug smuggling destination. Columbians would fly old planes and crash land them in the pines, sometimes clearing a swath of trees to land them safely, and afterward the contraband drugs would be driven away for distribution. Betsy was in the back seat, enjoying the stories, but maybe a little uncertain as to why we were headed into the bush with no apparent destination. I’d spent enough time with naturalists to know the ratio between seeing something and nothing is sometimes fairly high. Sometimes in college I would drive five hours with a friend on rural roads to catch one or two snakes thermoregulating on the pavement.
A mile or two through the forest we finally stopped the truck on a high limestone ridge and stepped out and watched what Reg said was a dull female western spindalia in the poisonwood, and then a brightly colored male finally wandered through, the colors matching the bird on the cover of his bird guide. This spot worked as a nice culmination for our morning tide of pine forest birds.
Gilpin Point was our last stop on the way back to Marsh Harbour, a fully laid out subdivision on the Sea of Abaco. There was only one house, where one guy lives hermit-like within the grid of rough quiet limestone streets. Reg said the man is of Greek descent. His grandparents came to the Bahamas as sponge fishermen, sponge fishing being another industry, along with shipping, sugar cane, and pineapples, that has come and gone from the Abacos. The Greek now lives quietly in the concrete house, set back in what Reg called “the corpus belt,” the zone of scrub hardwoods yet uncleared where the parrots are known to feed. It was never clear whether the Greek owns all the undeveloped lots or whether he has taken on the role of caretaker, a sort of Robinson Crusoe in an island of failed real estate.
We stopped on the way to the beach to see a raft of white-cheeked pintail ducks on a briny mangrove pond. The Greek keeps a container of corn on the dock to feed them. The ducks may have been my favorite birds of the outing, outshining even the brief appearance of the Abaco parrots at the other subdivision. Maybe it was their white cheeks and red nose patch, or their mottled cream bodies that tilted as they dabbed for sinking cracked corn. At the pond there was also a sunken boat, making everything seem even more ruinous. Between its swamped gunnels the water had turned a milky blue like glacial till.
We saw two black-necked stilts on the salt pond too, likely a nesting pair, as one was very agitated and even came out onto the sand road on impossibly long legs to click at us as we continued on to the beach.
The Greek keeps up the beach access, Gilligan’s Island style, with objects he’s collected—whatever colorful or odd that floats in—and maintains a very nice flush toilet. He’d arranged the junk into a sort of outsider art installation, with yellow netting hanging in the trees, tripods of driftwood with blue and white buoy balls hanging as pendulums, lounge tables made from discarded wire spools. Black storage boxes, pulled off the high tide line, held detritus sorted into categories—four-stroke engine oil bottles in one, scraps of black matting in another, one half full of clear milk bottles; a one-man cleanup operation. Reg said people come out on the weekends, and the Greek doesn’t seem to mind the company or sharing his deserted corner of Abaco with others.
It took an hour to get back to Marsh Harbour, and another half hour to cross back to Elbow Cay again. Reg had his circuit down pat, five hours from door to door. Timing makes for high rating on TripAdvisor and a fine morning in the pines. Reg knows how to introduce the world to the island’s rare birds. Was I disappointed we didn’t see parrots after the first brief but electric encounter in Bahama Palm Shores? Was I dispirited that the parrots nest in the limestone far from the park’s two-tracks? I felt fine just knowing the parrots were out there, wary of the cats and land crabs, safe from the stealthy poachers who would steal their young chicks for the pet trade. I don’t have to lay eyes on everything in the world, I’ve concluded, and often what I see is more than enough.
Bird list for the day (not all mentioned in essay):
Abaco parrots (3), frigate bird, A. kestrel, hairy woodpecker, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, thick-billed vireo, black-whiskered vireo, Bahama swallows, bananaquit, black-faced grassquit, turkey vultures, Bahama wood star, red-tailed hawk, Bahama mockingbird, Cuban peewee, western spindalis, Bahama warbler, olive-capped warbler, white-cheeked pintail ducks, black-necked stilt.
John Lane is Professor of English and environmental studies at Wofford College and director of the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center. He is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including six from the University of Georgia Press. NEIGHBORHOOD HAWKS is forthcoming from UGA in March 2019. Lane’s first novel FATE MORELAND’S WIDOW was published by the late Pat Conroy’s Story River books in early 2015. A nonfiction book COYOTE SETTLES THE SOUTH, will be released in paperback in spring of 2019, and his latest poetry collection ANTHROPOCENE BLUES appeared in fall of 2017. He has won numerous awards, three stories selected for the South Carolina Fiction Project, the SC Arts Commission’s Individual Arts Fellowship in 1984, the 2001 Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment by the Southern Environmental Law Center. In 2011 he won the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and in 2012 his selected poems, ABANDONED QUARRY was named Poetry Book of the Year by Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance SIBA). Last year COYOTE SETTLES THE SOUTH was one of four finalists for the John Burroughs Medal and was named by the Burroughs Society one of the year’s “Nature Books of Uncommon Merit.” As an environmentalist in 2013 Lane was named Upstate Forever’s “Clean Water Champion,” and “Water Conservationist of the Year” by The South Carolina Wildlife Federation. In 2014 he was inducted into the SC Academy of Authors. He, with his wife Betsy Teter, is one of the co-founders of the Hub City Writers Project.
Featured photo credit: Betsy Teter