Returning to St. John roads requires some adjustment. It’s not just remembering to drive on the left and handling the steep hills that turn into rivers when it rains. You also have to watch out for all the unusual traffic.
Like the bands of roving donkeys that block the North Shore Road and refuse to move because adoring tourists have trained them to think that jeeps mean treats - or else….Up on Centerline, it’s cow country.
They don’t want anything from you - just doing their own thing at their own pace.
There are also pigs up there.
Along the road by Frank Bay near town, you have to watch out for peacocks crossing.
While in Fish Bay, great egrets leisurely look for lizards.
And is it hard to miss the chickens.
Whole families of chickens like to run out into the road just as you approach.
Really, why do they do it?
Then there’s the slow-moving traffic in the low-lying areas.
You may have to be patient when you find an iguana taking a nap in your lane.
Or a hermit crab taking a stroll.
A deer knows to move out of the way of an oncoming car.
Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans)
I was happy to see some of my favorite trees blooming in the spring, even though there are still many bare and broken trees on St. John’s hillsides.
In front of our house most of the large black mangrove trees were knocked over and show no signs of life. But along the edges of the shallow pond smaller ones have grown up – and flowered. New flowers and sprouts are critical for the recovery of this wetland area habitat, which mixes salt water from Fish Bay with freshwater rain running down from the hills. Black mangrove leaves falling into the water provide nourishment for bacteria and microscopic marine life forms, which feed juvenile fish and crabs. They in turn attract the herons and egrets I love to watch from the deck.
There are five types of trees in the caper family around our house. These local trees are similar to the Mediterranean ones that are used in French and Italian cooking, but their buds are not so tasty. Some of the trees are missing now, while others have expanded into new spaces created by the storms.
Bees and butterflies enjoy their showy white flowers.
Leather Leaf Caper (Cynophalla hastata)
Limber Caper (Cynophalla flexuosa)
White Caper (Quadrella indica)
There is also one white cedar tree that is thriving. The white cedar trees are Caribbean natives, named for the color of their wood, which was used for building boats in earlier times. Their flowers are pinkish.
White Cedar (Tabebuia heterophylla)
The wild frangipani tree behind the house has grown tall in a now unshaded spot, with its bouquet of fragrant white flowers waving high above the road. So far it has not been attacked by the voracious caterpillars that regularly strip these trees of their leaves. Maybe some of the large Pseudosphinx tetrio moths that produce those caterpillars were dispersed by the storms.
A couple of small wattapama trees on Marina Drive delighted the neighborhood with their pale lavender flowers. Unfortunately, the blooms only lasted a few days, and the thin-branched trees again became invisible. They are special because they only grow on the north coast of Puerto Rico and the northern Virgin Islands.
Along the upper Fish Bay road I spotted bunches of Caribbean dogwood flowers on a leafless tree, along with some of this tree’s distinctive boxy seed pods. It is also known as ‘fish poison’ because the bark and roots were used by Amerindians to stupefy fish to make them easier to catch.
Then on the way to Coral Bay I saw a spindly, almost leafless orange manjack tree hanging off the side of Centerline Road, with its distinctive bright flowers and fruit. These trees only grow in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, so it was good that some of them have survived.
Meanwhile, on the beaches the sea grape trees have blossomed and fruited, playing their part in the long-term process of restoring shade and protecting the shorelines from erosion. A welcome sight.
In early May 2018 I had an opportunity to participate in a presentation about the state of the birds on St. John, along with Elaine Estern and Phyllis Benton. It was held at the National Park Visitors Center, and was sponsored by the Friends of the VI National Park. The Friends had organized two earlier events on post-hurricane conditions, one on the state of St. John’s reefs and the second on the island’s trees.
The Friends had also just completed the restoration of the boardwalk at Francis Bay, and the Audubon Society had made a financial contribution to that work because it is an important bird watching location. So it was a bit of a celebration of that as well.
Elaine began by describing the desperation of the birds around Frank Bay immediately after Hurricane Irma, when everything was mashed up and there was very little food available for them. She poured sugar out along her window ledge to feed the ravenous bananaquits, and was also approached by a hungry moorhen from the Frank Bay pond. Meanwhile a yellow-crowned night heron with an injured foot looked over the devastation.
Phyllis Benton then spoke about her efforts to organize the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count under very challenging circumstances. Most people still had no phone or internet access, and travel was difficult. An unexpected cell signal allowed Phyllis to connect with the president of the local Audubon Society, and with Laurel Brannick from the National Park Service who usually organized the count – she was temporarily relocated to New York due to the storms. Phyllis was able to email bird count forms to some birders, and handed out others to people she saw in person.
On December 23, 26 people participated in the count - a terrific turnout. For many, a focus on birds was a welcome relief from post-hurricane clean up. Though the overall bird numbers were very low, 52 individual species were counted.
I was off-island until March, and was very interested in seeing how the birds were doing when I returned. For several years I have been going on the Friday morning bird walks at Francis Bay with Laurel Brannick, learning about St. John birds. Some friends asked me to take them birding so we made several trips to Francis Bay to see what we could find. It is a great place to look because there are different types of habitats to look in – including a large freshwater pond behind the beach, as well as upland woods and mangrove wetlands.
was happy to be able to report that there were lots of different ducks swimming in the pond, including white cheeked pintail ducks, ruddy ducks and blue-winged teals.
white cheeked pintail
male ruddy duck
Black-necked stilts waded in the shallow areas, and around the edges there were great egrets and little blue herons.
little blue heron
Down below, nesting among the mangroves, I found a pair of common gallinules (moorhens) and some very noisy clapper rails.
On my first trip to Francis Bay there were no birds at all visible around the beach, so I was excited when the laughing gulls showed up in April, along with a group of brown pelicans, all happily feeding on a big bunch of fish.
Things seemed pretty fun and normal that day, except for the lack of shade on the beach because of blown down trees.
It turns out we have local varieties of both, and need to protect them.
When Angie Dunson and Michael Riska, frequent St. John visitors, were walking on Bordeaux Mountain in March, they saw bunches of tropical milkweed along the side of the road. They are self-described “plant nerds” and recognized the pretty flowers as Asclepias curassavica, because they have planted it at their home in Delaware, along with several other types of milkweed.
As they continued their walk they were dismayed to see someone clearing the side of the road with a weed-whacker, tearing up the little milkweed plants. They asked him to spare them, explaining that the plants were important for the monarch butterflies, which were flitting around on the flowers. They were pleased when he complied – and then contacted the Tradewinds to spread the word about protecting these plants.
Though monarchs butterflies can get nectar from different flowers (I have seen them on my bougainvillea), they exclusively use milkweed for laying their eggs. When the young caterpillars hatch, they eat up almost the whole plant.
What’s in it for the milkweed? I thought they must get their flowers pollinated so they can reproduce successfully and spread their seeds, but was told that milkweed is mostly pollinated by bees. The milkweed seems to just be helping support the monarchs, which are being seriously challenged by loss of habitat and widespread spraying of pesticides on crop fields.
I knew there are special monarch butterflies in the Virgin Islands, ones that do not migrate in the complicated way the continental ones do. Because there is usually food here all year, they don’t need to engage in those exhausting and treacherous travels.
However, the tropical plant looks nothing like the ones I know from the Northeast, with their thick leaves, heavy pods, and lavender flowers, even though genetically it is a close relative. Common Milkweed is Asclepias syriaca. Apparently there are 12 varieties altogether.
Monarch on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Right after I heard the story about the tropical milkweed on the Bordeaux road, my friend Joan Wilson mentioned that she had a whole mess of monarchs at her place up there, so I invited myself over for a photo shoot.
Joan had liked the pretty flowers, so she planted some seeds in her yard, not knowing about the plant’s special relationship with the monarchs. Now she has a spectacular butterfly breeding center.
Besides the caterpillars, I saw adult monarchs hooking up and mating.
And the fascinating chrysalis – the magic pod that emerges from the split-open body of the caterpillar and then is transformed into an adult butterfly. I wanted to stay all day.
The skin of the monarch caterpillar breaks open and reveals the chrysalis, where the butterfly will form.
When I finally left, Joan gave me a few seeds to take home. I am hoping the plants will grow down at our salty sea level lot, as well as up on the mountain.
If you see them, or the monarch butterflies, anywhere around St. John, please be sure to treat them with proper respect, recognizing their roles in the ongoing miracle of metamorphosis.
What a joy to see the great egrets again, chasing each other around in the pond below my house in Fish Bay. I knew most of the black mangrove trees had been stripped of leaves and blown over, but didn’t know how the birds had fared.
When I arrived I saw there was some water in the pond, and one day there were five great egrets down there at once. These seem to be resident birds because they have the long feathery frills and green patches on their faces that indicate they are breeding.
The water attracted a variety of other birds too.
The clapper rails were particularly noisy, calling out to each other loudly, and easy to spot because the pond edges were so exposed.
A little blue heron came to fish in the pond.
And a gray kingbird perched on a dead branch, swooping out to catch bugs flying by – with plenty to choose from.
One morning I was very excited to see some movement by the edge of the pond that turned out to be a red-faced common gallinule (formerly called a common moorhen).
It was a mother and a baby. No wait, two babies.
They swam across the pond and then were hidden again. But not well enough. In a few minutes I saw out of the corner of my eye a pearly-eyed thrasher flying by with a black fuzzy ball dangling from its sharp beak. Oh no! Immediately the mother gallinule went chasing after the kidnapper, clucking and crying out in the bushes where I couldn’t see what was happening.
Finally I saw the mother creeping out of the bushes, and I imagined her heartbreak - but then I saw that miraculously both babies were with her.
Unfortunately one baby was hopping – its leg seemed to have been injured during the thrasher capture.
The unrepentant thrasher watched from a branch.
I haven’t seen the gallinule family since then, so I don’t know if the baby recovered.
But I have seen green herons, and black smooth-billed anis, adapting to the changed, less-leafed environment.
It has been great to see so many old friends still here, despite all the changes and turmoil.