English Immersion on the Nature Island: French Students Learn about Dominica’s Flora and Fauna*

Students Carole (l), Victoria and Marie-Agnes from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

Students Carole (l), Victoria,Marie-Agnes and Charles from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to only Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

During a class held at the University of  the West Indies Open Campus in June, the English immersion students from Ludicademi in Martinique grasped the significance of  relevant and meaningful vocabulary  that could be directly applied to plants and animals on the Nature Island. Over the course of three hours, they began to understand  the meaning of biodiversity, the importance of wildlife conservation, as well as how, why  and what endemic, migratory,  endangered and vulnerable species are found here.

By the amount of questions that they posed, it was clear they were tremendously interested in the less common  and threatened species that exist on Dominica. That afternoon,  renowned author and  Forestry and Wildlife Officer Arlington James (retired) would be taking them on an interpretive tour of the Syndicate Forest Nature Trail (located above Dublanc on the west coast, in the foothills of Morne Diablotin). I was assured that they would come away from this day’s topic with a great appreciation for and understanding of Dominica’s flora and fauna.

The Fragile’ Mountain Chicken’ Frog

They were particularly fascinated by the ‘Mountain Chicken’ frog (aka Crapaud), which is critically endangered (almost extinct!) due to a persistent fungal infection. It is a regional endemic, as a very  are few found on Dominica and Montserrat. Those that manage  to survive are being closely monitored by Forestry and Wildlife Division officers, with much appreciated assistance from specialists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Birds, Birds, Birds!

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica.  This is a female.  Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica. This is a female. Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

I referred them to the classification system of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where they would discover the survival status of specific species. They had no idea that Dominica’s two parrots, the Sisserou which is endangered and the Jaco which is vulnerable are only found on Dominica.  That means that they are endemic to this country alone!  However, some of the students wondered if they might have seen Jaco parrots on Martinique.  I could not confirm this, of course.  I do hope that they queried Mr. James.  The Jaco’s numbers are increasing and the distance between Dominica and Martinique is not great, so I wonder if it is possible…I will certainly check with my friend, Forestry Officer/Bird Specialist Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste when I next see him!

Certainly, Dominica can be described as a bird enthusiast’s ‘heaven’.  Over 200 species of our feathered friends have been sighted here, although only about 50 are resident year-round (reference:birdlife.org).  Of course, the others are migratory.  The class was intrigued when I showed them a photo of a Blue-Headed Hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique.  That means it is a ‘regional

The vibrant colouts of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique.

The vibrant colours of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

endemic’!  I was very surprised that no one in the class had ever seen one on our sister island to the south.  I could only hope that they might catch a glimpse of one in the Syndicate area, as I had with ‘Dr. Birdy’.

Snakes and Lizards

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called 'Tet-Chien' in Creole) on Canada day 2012.

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called ‘Tete-Chien’ in Creole) on Canada Day 2012.

I showed the class a number of other photographs of animals on Dominica – at least my favourites!  They were really astonished by the possible length of the endemic species of Boa Constrictor snake – which can reach 10 feet!  I assured them that it was not poisonous, nor were the other three species that are found here.  While the confirmed numbers of this reptile are not exactly known, it is felt by some experts that they might be vulnerable, especially due to habitat loss and hunting.  They do play a vital role in keeping down the rat population.  I am always thrilled to come across one in the forest, which is not that often!

DSCF4538

The endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana (called Leza in Creole) is the largest lizard on Dominica. Recently some other types have colonized here from other countries.

The other reptile that I enjoy watching up close is the Lesser Antillean Iguana.  

Amazingly, the class had seen a bright green juvenile in the Botanical Gardens the previous day but didn’t know what it was!  It is the largest of about nine species that thrive on the Nature Island. Again, it has been suggested that  their numbers are in decline and that they are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List.  However, on Dominica, these creatures are protected by law, so I hope they fare better here than on other islands.  I have seen them  in various locales along the west coast, including Champagne Beach, Mero Beach and  seaside at Coulibistrie.

This 'stick insect' is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

This ‘stick insect’ is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

Whales and Dolphins  and Other Mammals

Of course, I told them a little about the sea creatures as well, including a resident year-round pod of Sperm Whales, and plentiful dolphins.  A number of other types of whales are migratory and pass through Dominica’s waters annually.  Dominica is known as the ‘Whale Watch Capital of the Caribbean’, as the likelihood of spotting some cetaceans  on an excursion is very high.

Then we talked about  a few of the other 16 mammals that exist on Dominica:, including 12 species of bats, the rodent-like agouti, and manicou (opossum).  They are similar to, if not the same varieties on Martinique, according to some of the students.

Sea Turtles

There was a very lively discussion when I showed the class some video clips about the three types of endangered sea turtles that regularly nest on Dominica’s beaches (Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Green).  To see the females come in to  dig a nest and lay many eggs, or to watch hatchlings run into the sea are awesome sights.  As these animals are protected by law on Dominica, some students queried the balance between tradition and conservation.  Historically, turtle meat and eggs have been eaten by some people here.  There was  some concern  in the class about being denied one’s rights to eat a traditional food or to protect an endangered species.  It can be a delicate subject, but I urged the students to consider that if they were plentiful, and if there were no other food sources, I could understand the need to hunt them.  Most definitely, that is not the case these days, and anyone caught interfering with the turtles is arrested.  I also told the group that a number of community associations, especially on the east coast, patrol the beaches at night when the turtles come in.  They also offer turtle  watching tours!

Flora/Plants

There was so much to say about the flora and fauna found on Dominica that I ran out of time.  It was important to point out that the Smithsonian Institute In Washington D.C. has previously described Dominica as “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years” (Fodor’s Caribbean, 1996).  I made sure to emphasize that there are over 1,000 flowering plants in Dominica, of which 11 species are only found here, and nowhere else!

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were originally introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the monocotyledons class, of which tere are 186 species on the Nature Island

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the class of ‘monocotyledons’, of which there are 186 species on the Nature Island

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the caribbean region.  There are about 200 forest trees in Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the Caribbean region. There are about 200 types of forest trees in Dominica.

I quickly showed them a few more photos of my favourites and then they were off for their excursion with retired forestry and wildlife expert Mr. Arlington James to learn more in the forest at the Syndicate Eco-site.

This "chicken of the forest' mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

This “chicken of the forest’ mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

I think they were truly amazed about the extraordinary amount of biodiversity on the tiny lush Nature Island!

* This mini English immersion programme was organized by Tina Alexander, Executive Director of Lifeline Ministries, Dominica.

Reference: Overview of the Flora and Fauna of Dominica [notes] prepared by Stephen Durand For Dominica State College Basic Skills Training Programme, October 2006.

‘Dr. Birdy’ and the Kachibona Lake Adventure on Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail*

The trail is well marked by prominent signs on every segment.

The trail is well-marked by prominent signs on every segment.

On Sunday April 14th, friends Wendy, Liz and I tagged along with tour guide extraordinaire Bertrand ‘ Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste on a true Dominica adventure: a long  section of a hike  regarded by experts as extremely difficult and highly challenging on Segment 9 of  the Waitukubuli National Trail.  A few days later, I am proud to acknowledge that  I realized a dream that  I  had once thought impossible to achieve!

We set out early on a beautiful day in paradise with no rain in the forecast.  Birdy’s son Yuan drove us high above the village of Morne Raquette near Coulibistrie on

It took several hours to hike from the heights of Morne Raquette to Kachibona Lake, which is located a short distance off of Segment 9 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.

It took several hours to hike from the heights of Morne Raquette to Kachibona Lake, which is  about 3,000 feet above sea level.  It is located a short distance from Segment 9 of the Waitukubuli National Trail. The name of the lake is derived from a Kalinago word for escaped slaves/maroons.

a farm feeder road.  After about half an hour, he dropped us off a short distance from the actual trail.  We admired the stunning views all around us before disappearing into the cool and inviting rainforest.  Our objective was to hike for several hours until we met up with an intersecting trail that would take us to the intriguing Kachibona Lake.  We were curious to see the small body of water, which played a role in the island’s history.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s,  escaped slaves/maroons (called Negres Marons) hid in this area. Under the leadership of their chief named Pharcelle,  they supported Republican Frenchmen  during the French Revolution and  raided the British  who occupied the country at that time.  But then Pharcelle is also documented as having liaised with “British black rangers.”  Interestingly, his alliances were never consistent!

The views looking inland en route to the WNT Segment 9 junction above Morne Raquette.

This view of the south side of Morne Diablotin (Dominica’s highest mountain), was photographed from the southwest side of middle Morne Raquette Heights en route to the WNT Segment 9 junction.

Bridy (l), his son Yuan (our driver), Wendy and Liz relax for a moment before the big hike.

Dr. Birdy (l), his son Yuan (our driver), Wendy and Liz relax for a moment before the big hike.

Liz, Wendy, Gwendominica and Birdy are set to start on their adventurous trek.

Liz, Wendy, Gwendominica and Birdy are set to start on their adventurous trek.

We hadn’t been moving for too long before Dr.  Birdy, who is a forestry and wildlife officer by profession and a leading authority on

    Trees welcomed us on the farm track that took us to WNT Segment 9. It was a beautiful day for a hike!

Tall Gommier trees  that can grow up to 135′ welcomed us on the farm track that took us to the WNT Segment 9 trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike!

birds in Dominica (hence the nickname) stopped us in our tracks.  “Look, look up there -in that tall tree – by  the mistletoe plant -do you see it?” he asked excitedly.  After a few moments and some more patient pointers, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a pretty Antillean Euphonia with its ” blue hood and hind neck.”   Only a few minutes earlier, we had been blessed to see the female blue-headed hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique – and we hadn’t even started the hike yet!

English: Blue-headed hummingbird photographed ...

Blue-headed hummingbird (male – which is more colourful than the female we saw!) photographed in its natural habitat in the Morne Diablotin National Park. Guide was local expert ‘Dr Birdy’ Bertrand Baptiste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Birdy and I have been acquainted since 1997, when he was recommended to me as a superb and knowledgeable guide.  Over the years, he has taken me all over Dominica and I credit him with teaching me more about the Nature Island’s flora, fauna, geology and geography than anyone else.  From our first few steps on the trail that day , I knew that  another learning experience would form part of  this

adventure – and Liz and Wendy would no doubt benefit from it too!

Wendy photographs the pretty    flower, which was found on the way to the trail.  It matches her shirt!

Wendy photographs a pretty David’s orchid, which was found by the farm feeder road en route to the trail. It matches her shirt!

As we traversed the dense  jungle, plentiful endemic Jaco Parrots  screeched overhead and Ground (Zenaida) Doves plaintively

Bertrand Jno Baptiste (aka Birdy) always takes time on the trail to' show and tell' about fascinating flora and fauna that are found on the route.

Bertrand Jno Baptiste (aka Dr. Birdy) always takes time on the trail to’ show and tell’ about fascinating flora and fauna that are found on the route.

cooed in the distance.  For the first time, I actually saw the melodious Mountain Whistler, which usually perches high in the treetops – all thanks to Birdy’s exceptional visual and auditory acuity!  House Wrens, Brown Tremblers,Thrushes, Flycatchers and other birds  accompanied us  through the tropical rainforest and the higher elevations of montane forest.

Liverwort (centre of the rock) is said to have detoxifying properties.

Liverwort (centre of the rock) is said to have detoxifying properties.

There was so much to see – innumerable plants, trees, herbs, mosses and fungi held our fascination when we paused for a breather.

One could never really starve in the rainforest if one knows what is safe to eat, such as this 'Chicken of the Forest.'

One could never really starve in the rainforest if one knows what is safe to eat, such as this ‘Chicken of the Forest’ mushroom

Wendy and Liz study  the 'chicken of the forest' mushroom' that Birdy has described.

Wendy and Liz study the ‘chicken of the forest’ mushroom’ that Birdy has described.

This chatannye tree is being "choled" by a parasitic vine. Look at the rainforest canpy above it!

This chatannye (sha-ta-ney)tree is being “choked” by a parasitic vine. Look at the rainforest canopy above it!

Cat's Claw is an herb which is used to treat a wide range of health problems.

Cat’s Claw (on the leaf) is a plant  which is used to treat a range of health problems.

Gommier trees are tall and strong.  They have a sap (lighter areas) that is a waterproof resin used in teh building of canoes by the Kalinago indigenous people.

Gommier trees are tall and strong and can thrive for hundreds of years. They exude a waterproof resin (the white substance), which is used in the construction of dug-out canoes by the Kalinago indigenous people.

Massive chatannye (cha-ta-nay) trees have huge buttresses and love for hundreds of years.  This one is said to be one of the largest on the island.

Massive Gommier trees have huge buttresses and can live for hundreds of  years. This one has a circumference of 28 feet! It is said to be one of the largest on the island.

Along the way, we occupied ourselves with good-natured  banter and even broke into song several times.  The deep breathing seemed to help us climb and crawl up steep ravines, where at their pinnacles, we  welcomed respites of breezy ridges and relatively easy walking on level ground.    This is where Birdy gave us a break and  a good deal of nature instruction.  Most challenging were the severely steep descents to small river valleys, where we paused a few moments before climbing up the next steep incline.

The buttresses of the prolific Chatannye tree enable it to withstand hurricanes and remain firmly rooted in the soil.

The expansive buttresses of the prolific Chatannye (sha-ta-nay)tree enable it to withstand hurricanes and stay firmly rooted in the soil.

Wendy hangs on tightly to a supportive rope on a steep incline.  Liz follows a safe distance behind her.

Wendy hangs on tightly to a supportive rope on a steep incline. Liz is a safe distance behind her.

Fortunately, there were ropes placed at strategic locations to steady us in our precarious positions.  I was thankful for  a  dry day, because I think parts of this trail could be extremely treacherous when wet and muddy.

By the time we reached the junction of the trail with the track to Kachibona Lake, about 4 hours had elapsed.  It was time for lunch!

After about 20 minutes, we arrived at an oasis of complete serenity and stunning greenery. We seated ourselves on conveniently placed benches and admired the  verdant splendor of nature, as we rewarded ourselves with some sustenance for our gargantuan efforts to reach this intriguing goal.

Birdy takes a break at Kachibona Lake, after hours of patient instruction to his 'students' on the trail!

Dr.Birdy takes a break at Kachibona Lake, after hours of patient instruction to his ‘students’ on the trail!

The shades of green at Kachibona Lake are absolutely stunning.  It is hard to tell the land from the reflection!

The shades of green at Kachibona Lake are absolutely stunning. The plants are perfectly reflected in the clear, still water!

Once we were fortified, we hit the trail for the last lap before arriving at our destination, Savanne Gommier in Colihaut Heights, where Birdy’s son Yuan would pick us up.  While the terrain was drier in this area, we were faced with one last incredibly

Liz and Wendy tackle the final ascent towards the end of WNT Segment 9.

Liz and Wendy tackle the final ascent towards the end of WNT Segment 9 with hands and feet!

precipitous ascent.  It was definitely a final test of our stamina and we all passed with flying colours!  We were amazed that this area was once farmed extensively at this high elevation, as there were a number of ancient citrus trees that continued to thrive.

We enjoyed a southerly view after we emerged from the dense forest close to the conclusion of WNT Segment 9.

We enjoyed a southerly view towards Morne Trois Pitons (which may be the hazy mountain in the distance) after we emerged from the dense forest close to the conclusion of WNT Segment 9.

Exhausted but exhilarated after six and a half hours on the trail, we drove down the mountain with another objective in mind.

Birdy relaxes after a long day on WNT Segment 9 with Gwendominica, Wendy and Liz.

Birdy relaxes after a long, but fun-filled day on WNT Segment 9 with Gwendominica, Wendy and Liz.

After professing heartfelt thanks to Birdy for escorting us on this amazing “walk through the woods,” we headed for Mero Beach and soaked our sore muscles in the calm Caribbean as the sun sank slowly in the west.

A sunset swim on Mero Beach was a well-deserved reward after our challeging trek on the Waitukubuli national Trail.

A sunset swim on Mero Beach was a well-deserved reward after our challenging trek on the Waitukubuli National Trail.

We all agreed that we had passed that strenuous test and were now ready to take on Dominica’s annual Hike Fest, to be held a few weeks hence.

Stay tuned for our next  trekking adventures on the Nature Island!

* This post is dedicated to Brian, who recently departed this earth. We shared many fantastic intrepid adventures in Canada’s great outdoors. Happy  heavenly trails, Bri!

** Special thanks to Birdy for his endless enthusiasm, good humor and patience in assisting me with flora and fauna ID!

*** To contact Bertrand ‘ Dr. Birdy” Jno (pronounced John) Baptiste for an extraordinary hiking or birding experience on Dominica, email: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm or call (767) 245-4768 or (767) 446-6358.

**** DO NOT attempt this trail without a knowledgeable guide.  Use EXTREME CAUTION during inclement weather as  the trail can be very treacherous in wet conditions.

References:

Dominica’s Birds by Arlington James, Stephen Durand and Bertrand Jno Baptiste. (Produced by the Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division of Dominica in collaboration with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation, Wildlife Without Borders – Latin America & the Caribbean Program, and the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) 2005.

Dominica (Other Places Travel Guide) by Anna McCanse (former Peace Corps volunteer). (Other Places Publishing) 2011.

The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch. (London: MacMillan) 1995.

Plants of Dominica’s Southeast by Arlington James, in collaboration with the Southeast Environment & Tourism Development Committee. (La Plaine, Dominica). 2008.