Thankful for Life

This fall season has brought so much loss and devastation. Friends and neighbors are working wearily to restore some sense of normalcy, while many from our Virgin Islands community have dispersed and are facing the onset of unwelcome winter chills. Some are really struggling for feelings of gratitude.

Nevertheless many people are saying “Thank God for life”. Even when times are hard, there can be joy in hugs from family and friends, the pleasures of meals and music, and hopes for the future.

Also birds.

Up in New York City I have been searching for peace by going out looking for birds, and trying to catch them in action with my new telephoto lens. In Jamaica Bay, next to Kennedy Airport, the shoveler ducks made me laugh by sticking their fat butts in the air as they pulled up weeds on the bottom of a pond. They were happy to be face down in icy water.

 A great blue heron was much more dignified, a cool character I saw as a model for coping with turbulence.  

The dark coots reminded me of the ones I saw in Chocolate Hole at last year’s Christmas bird count on St. John.

And I did feel a bit sad to see the snowy egrets heading south - wondering if any birds will find their way to the Fish Bay pond, or if they will just pass by St. John to find a better place this winter. 

Closer to my apartment, I met unfamiliar migrant birds in the small park at the tip of Manhattan.

My favorite was the yellow-bellied sapsucker (a type of woodpecker) that ignored me as it punched holes in cedar trees, waiting to slurp up the sap with its long tongue, along any insects trying to share the sweet treat.

A northern flicker, another type of woodpecker, stopped for a moment on a nearby oak tree.


Meanwhile a tiny hermit thrush posed bravely on a different part of the cedar tree, watching me warily.


As Thanksgiving Day approaches, most of the migratory birds have already moved south, and chilly winds make bird walks less appealing. There is no electricity in Fish Bay, though, so while I am here I still need to get out and look. I have heard that November is a good month to find rare birds in the city, as they sometimes get blown off course on their way to their usual wintering places.   

Have You Seen These Secretive Hunters?

There are some black-crowned night herons on St. John, but few people have seen them - maybe because they are crepuscular.

When I first heard that word I thought it meant that they creep around in the bushes, possibly in a muscular way. More experienced birders know that it means they are most active at twilight and therefore are hard to spot.

In Fish Bay we often hear loud ‘kwaaks’ around dinner time indicating that the night herons are coming on duty. The black mangrove pond near our house is a good place for them to catch small fish and crabs. By the time I hear their calls it is too dark to go out with look for them. The only time I have seen the black-crowned night herons is in the early morning, before they take off to hide during the day.

Since they are so rare and reclusive on St. John, I was surprised to learn that the black crowns are the most widespread type of heron, found all around the world except in Antarctica and Australia. In the tropics, these herons generally stay in the same place all year, while northern ones tend to move to slightly warmer areas for the winter. In New York City during the summer they breed in great numbers out on small islands in the harbor, and often show up in Central Park in broad daylight to entertain the tourists.  

 Why do ours have to be so shy?

The yellow-crowned night herons are not as secretive. They hunt at night and have heavy bills that they use to punch holes in the backs of the large land crabs, which actually do creep around in the dark in a muscular way. During the day the yellow-crowns hang out in the mangrove trees, not really hiding, and occasionally come up into the yard to check out our pool. In the evening we sometimes see them out along the Fish Bay road when we come back from dinner in town. 


The two herons are easy to distinguish by their looks – except when they are young. The juveniles have quite similar plumage. I find the heavier, blunter bill on the yellow-crowned one to be the best way to tell the difference. 
Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron
Juvenile black-crowned night heron


Talking About Trees in Dark Times

Is it wrong to focus on trees when there are so many challenges and injustices in the world that need attention?

After immersing myself in a Virgin Islands tree identification project with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John, I found myself paying much more attention to the natural world. Not just trees, but birds making nests and eating berries, plus bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators and seed dispersers. 

Watching and learning about the complexity of woodland ecosystems brings me joy and makes me appreciate the miracle of being alive. What a gift. But is it okay for me to spend time this way when I could be responding to so many desperate calls for political action?

For over 20 years I devoted myself to advocacy about climate change risks and the need to replace fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. I presented scientific information about increased greenhouse gas emissions causing higher temperatures, rising sea levels and fiercer storms – and outlined actions to prevent damaging disruption of global atmospheric conditions.

Over the years, scientific predictions about the consequences of failing to make drastic cuts in emissions have become more and more alarming, even as the impacts are already being widely experienced. Now I brood about what will become of us, and our children, as political leaders rush to undo national climate change response measures – along with many other elements of a just and caring society.

What more can I do at this point?

I find that I am most drawn to go for a walk in the woods.

A much-quoted poem ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’ written by Berthold Brecht in 1939 on the brink of World War II, starts out “Truly I live in dark times” and goes on to ask:

      “What times are these, in which
        A conversation about trees is almost a crime
       For in doing so we maintain silence about so much wrongdoing?”

It is certainly a privilege to have the time and opportunity to talk about trees and birds when others are struggling for mere survival. But it may also have political significance. In a world of violently partisan politics and alternative facts, talking about trees may be a valuable way to try to find common ground – or at least your own bearings.    

For me, a walk in the woods usually offers quiet and calm, an escape from anxiety, talking heads and bitter arguments. I become observant, looking at live things rather than figures on a screen or the pages of a book. I listen to birds and wonder at the beauty and complexity of everything around me – feeling fully present.

Trees are mysterious. It seems miraculous how they make food out of sunlight, carbon dioxide and water – supporting almost all other forms of life on earth. Many cultures have celebrated the spiritual significance of trees – as God’s creations, as manifestations of the universal life force, as links between the seen and unseen worlds. They create forest communities in which individual trees both support and compete with each other, while also providing sustenance for many other species – including us.  

Many trees have life spans much longer than ours, standing as durable markers of cultural history within the landscape. At the same time their lost leaves and new sprouts, short-lived flowers and falling fruit mark the seasons and remind us of our own ephemeral existence.

Still, we have power over trees – cutting them down to burn them or build with them, or just to clear the land, cultivating them for food and medicines, cross-breeding them and even modifying their genes.  

Quietly standing there, the trees do not judge or criticize. But sometimes they do manage to provoke a sense of responsibility, calling on us to preserve the natural world we depend on.

How does this talk about trees benefit people in need - growing populations faced with enormous inequities and injustices?

One thought is that communities focusing on preserving and cultivating trees and edible plants can help people feed and support themselves – while also organizing themselves to address other economic, social and environmental challenges. This may sound like a silly and inadequate response to today’s widespread distress, but it does seem more interesting and productive to me than many other suggestions.   
In connection with my work with the United Nations, I met Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 after she saw local forests being cleared to make space for commercial plantations. The result for her community was not just loss of firewood and forest products, but also the water that had been held in the land by the trees. By the time she won the Nobel Peace prize in 2004, members of the Green Belt Movement had planted over 30 million trees, which restored the land and provided fuel, food, shelter, and income. In her Nobel Prize lecture, she reported:

 “Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside'. … We developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. … They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.”

In the current US world of cell phones and online shopping, planting trees may not seem very practical or appealing – like something for poor countries, or from our ancestors’ distant past. But growing your own food does have a lot of advantages – including the American virtue of self-reliance.

It may make the most sense in rural areas, but can also be feasible in urban settings. In Detroit, which has been experiencing de-urbanization, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is using agricultural activities as a way to strengthen communities and address socio-economic disparities. Meanwhile public orchards have been established in Seattle, Boston, Asheville and Madison, Wisconsin. In San Francisco, the Urban Orchard Project helps community-based organizations plant and maintain publicly accessible fruit trees, including in Golden Gate Park. 

Trees are also important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as they absorb carbon dioxide. New York City recently finished planting one million new trees as part of an effort to help offset climate change, while also capturing storm water, removing pollutants from the air, and cooling and shading the city.

In dark times it is critical to find sources of hope for the future. While trees might help provide practical responses to public challenges, they can also provide spiritual inspiration. The joy that disparate people find in trees and flowers and birds sometimes brings them together in unexpected conversations, quietly acknowledging the interdependent connections we share as living creatures coexisting in the natural world.

Low Water Leads to Bird Fights

By April, the bottom mud was exposed in the shallow pond near our Fish Bay house. During months without rain there is no freshwater runoff to capture from the hill behind us, while a seasonal drop in the Fish Bay water level cuts off the flow of salt water through the inlet.
Small fish come into the pond along with the flow from the bay, and get trapped as the water starts drying up. The easy fishing attracted egrets and herons and other wetland birds – and one morning there was some unusual squawking and a flurry of wings so I went down to investigate. A couple of great egrets seemed to be quarreling over fishing rights.

                                        This pond’s not big enough for both of us.”

                                                Then a third great egret dropped in.
                                           Maybe I got a little bit too close to the action.
Meanwhile other smaller birds were busy snarfing up the fish.
A green heron

                              A spotted sandpiper
A clapper rail

     An adult little blue heron

         And a juvenile little blue heron – their feathers are white for the first year.
                           The juvenile little blue heron got chased off by the adult.

                                      But was tolerated by one of the great egrets

                                           A busy and exciting time in the pond

Why the Red Face, Gallinule?

This winter I lay in bed wondering about the strange sounds I was hearing from the pond below our house. I had learned the calls of the night herons and the clapper rails, and some of the frogs, but this was different – a high-pitched, drawn-out series of squawks.  

What could it be? The cries of some poor creature being tortured in the night? A witch’s laugh?

I finally found out when NPS ranger Laurel Brannick identified a similar sound at Francis Bay during one of the Friday morning bird walks. It turned out to be the call of a Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata – formerly known as a Common Moorhen.
Check out recordings of some of its cackles, yelps and squawks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Audubon Society.

It is not a rare bird, and is native to the Virgin Islands as well as many other places in the western hemisphere. The gallinules are related to clapper rails, and also American coots. Though common, they aren’t always easy to see because they usually hang out in dense swampy areas.

Besides alarming me, their loud calls are supposed to help them find their friends in the dark, or warn competitors to stay out of their territory. 

Eventually I was able to spot one of the gallinules down by our pond. It was sneaking through the pneumatophores – root-like projections that help the roots of black mangrove trees get oxygen – looking for snacks. They eat both plant parts and small aquatic creatures.


When you actually see one of the birds, its face is even more distinctive than its call. The bill is bright red with a yellow tip, and then the red bill seems to extend up the front of its face.

The red part that goes up its forehead above the bill is called a frontal plate or facial shield. It isn’t the same material as the bill, but a type of hard skin that grows from the base of the upper bill, and can swell up and get brighter in response to hormonal changes. This is not a common feature for a bird. (The related American coots do have a similar plate, though theirs is white rather than red.)

What a strange look. Why would anyone want to wear a red mask? 

One idea is that the gallinules’ facial shields help protect the birds’ faces when they are foraging in the swamp or defending their territory. Is that really effective or necessary?


Like so many other strange affectations, a red mask could just be a way of attracting prospective mates.

 Male and female gallinules both have a shield, so it is not a sign of male differentiation from – or dominance over – the females. Both sexes are socially aggressive, and they share parenting duties. For both, a bright shield is an indicator of good health and social status.   

Still, there is an element of courtship display and competition. A study of the some gallinule relatives in New Zealand (Pukeko swamphens) concluded that the size and width of the facial shield in males was strongly correlated with testes mass, suggesting that a large red mask is a sign of masculine strength.


But they also found that male social status can shift quickly. The gallinules’ testosterone levels (and facial shield size) quickly decrease if they do not respond successfully to challenges by other birds.



Baobab Trees on St. Croix Have Fruit

So why doesn’t the one on St. John? 

Baobab trees are viewed as strong, spiritual presences – but they can also be sexy and fertile.

In its native Africa this type of baobab (Adansonia digitata) is known as the Tree of Life. It can retain water in its pulpy bark, and during dry periods it is an attractive hub of activity for birds and animals, insects and humans. Some people also think baobabs harbor ancestral spirits that can intercede to bring them love and good fortune.   

Yet on St. John, our lady of the L’Esperance Trail appears to be virginal. Well, even if she gets pollinated, she doesn’t bear viable fruit.

What is the problem?  And is it any of our business? Probably not, but we can speculate.

Is she too young?

In semi-arid environments, baobab trees may not start flowering until they are 125 years old. (They are said to be able to live up to 1200 years.) Well, this one is growing on a ridge where there isn’t great soil or a steady water supply, so that may have allowed her to keep a girlish figure, but really she is probably well over a hundred years old, maybe closer to two hundred. Definitely not too soon to be thinking about babies.

Is she really male?

Some people in Africa identify baobab trees that produce a lot of fruit as females, and call the others males.  However, one study of baobab trees in Africa found that there were no genetic differences between the producers and non-producers. Nor did tree size or environmental conditions appear to account for the differences.

Do pollinators find her unattractive?

The baobab’s flowers open at night and hang down from a stalk, just right for bats. The flowers are said to smell sweet at first, but then turn rancid. Perfect. Bats like things that smell like carrion. (On St. John the flowers are high up so it is hard to smell them until they fall, which usually happens within a day or so.)

St. John has plenty of potential bat pollinators. You can see Jamaican fruit bats nearby, roosting on the ceiling of the old Reef Bay sugar mill at the end of the Reef Bay Trail.

Does she need a boyfriend?

Some species actually do have different male and female trees. Nature often insists on sexual reproduction because variety is good – particularly in the gene pool. Sometimes it’s not entirely different trees, but different male flowers and female flowers on the same tree.

Well, it turns out that these baobabs, like many other trees, have what is called a ‘perfect’ flower - male and female parts on the same flower. That seems a bit incestuous, but it works fine for lots of trees.
                                                     Photo Cheryl Magdaleno

Not all of them though. Some trees just don’t believe in self-pollination. Or they do give it a shot, but then abort the fruit before it matures.

The diagnosis – most likely our St. John tree is suffering from a case of ‘self-incompatibility’. Hmmm…I think I feel that way sometimes too.

Anyway, yes, it does seem like she needs another tree – or several – for companionship and pollination.

My friend Joan suggested that I should try to bring back some baobab fruits from St. Croix when I went to the AgriFest, so I took that on as a quest. Maybe we could germinate the seeds and raise more baobab trees on St. John.

At one time there were over one hundred baobab trees on St. Croix. How did they all get there?

I was told that the captured slaves brought seeds over on the ships from Africa, but I wondered how they could have carried them, given the cruel conditions under which they made that passage. One writer reported that the Africans may have carried the seeds in small pouches tied around their necks as nutritious emergency rations, as this was a common practice for travelers at home. Or the fruits could have been carried on the ships by the crew since the pulp is high in vitamin C and could be used to prevent scurvy during long sea voyages. In any event it was a sad trip across the Atlantic for the unwilling passengers from Africa.

Some of the baobab trees were fruiting on St. Croix when I was there, and I was able to get one seed pod from the Ridge-to-Reef Farm stand at the fair. But I wanted more. 

The next day we went to the St. George Botanical Garden and just as we were leaving I snooped around under their baobab tree out by the parking lot.

I found a small ratty-looking fruit hanging on a bush by its tail.

Later my friend Mandy drove us to Grove Place to see the really magnificent baobab there, with three big trunks and a fourth smaller one. It supposedly dates from the 1700s and is currently the oldest baobab tree in the Virgin Islands.

Over 50 feet around. And so muscular looking.


It had lots of fruit, and we picked a nice clean one off the tree - so beautiful, with its soft rusty-colored fur not yet looking moth-eaten. A real treasure. 

We broke open one of the fruits and tasted the tart pulp inside. Some people think it tastes like a tamarind. I thought the small pulp nuggets were like sweet-and-sour candy with seeds inside.

So now I have collected some seeds. The next thing is to figure out the best way to germinate them and get them growing. I am hoping to get some help from my neighbors with that – I have begun handing them out and encouraging people to plant them in pots.

If that works out, we can try moving them into the ground, especially around Fish Bay, which is just down the hill from our baobab – not too far for the fruit bats to fly at night from one to another, carrying the gift of compatible pollen.

It might take a few hundred years, but we could be the ones to finally bring joy and fulfillment to the lonely L’Esperance lady waiting so long for love.    

Growing Your Own Food is Like Printing Money

That was Governor Mapp’s message for the annual AgriFest on St. Croix, held February 18-20. “As one of many in our territory who grew up on a family farm, it pains me to see the millions of dollars that leave our islands each year to pay for food that could be produced here in the territory, often with better results.”

That’s a great idea, but few in the territory are actually growing much of their own food. Given the current level of financial and political uncertainty, the smart move right now might be to invest in kitchen gardens and fruit trees. And to encourage farmers who provide healthy, locally-produced food. 
There was a special ferry from St. John to St. Croix for the Agrifest, which offers a food fair, local music and dancers, and cultural activities as well as displays of farm animals and produce.


It was hot to be walking around in the heat of the day, but fortunately there were tables set out under a big grove of mango trees where we could get some shade while eating our curried goat, fry fish, gooseberries and stewed golden apples. 

I was glad to have a chance to stop by the Ridge-to-Reef Farm stand for a visit. A couple of years ago we signed up for their Community Supported Agriculture program and picked up boxes of fruits and vegetables every week from their St. John drop off point at the Gifft Hill School. 
Besides familiar types of produce, the Ridge-to-Reef stand had some more unusual items.
I picked up a couple of baobab fruits - there are some huuge baobab trees on St. Croix. The fruits have lovely, fuzzy green fur, and you can eat the tart pulp inside surrounding the seeds. A friend of mine had asked if would bring back some seeds so she can try to grow some on St. John. There is only one large baobab on St. John, and it has been flowering but not fruiting.

I also got a couple of West Indian locust tree pods – known to some as old man stinking toe. The seed pods are very hard – like you need a hammer to break them – and inside there is a smelly but sweet powder surrounding the seeds. It makes your mouth very dry, so it is better mixed up with milk or in a smoothie. 

Unfortunately I didn’t have room in my bag for the big jackfruit. Originally from south Asia, it is related to breadfruit, and is the largest fruit that grows on a tree. An ordinary one can weigh up to 40 pounds, but there are reports of fruits over 150 pounds. Its taste has been described as a cross between a pineapple and a sweet potato.

The overall theme of this year’s fair - Agriculture: Our Heritage and Hope for the Future - was portrayed in various box displays made by schoolchildren for the event.

The Virgin Islands participates in the Farmers of America program, which helps schools train new students to become agriculture professionals. This national organization was formed in 1928, just before the Great Depression, to help prepare young people for the challenges of feeding a growing population. It has been reinvigorated by new interest in local and organic food. Students learn about agriculture as a science, as a business and as an art.

Students who grow food in school plots learn practical planting and harvesting skills. In some cases the schools use the produce to help provide healthier, less expensive lunches, or they may make money by selling fruits and vegetables. 

On St. John, The Gifft Hill School’s EARTH program promotes ‘Education And Resiliency Through Horticulture’, in a partnership with Iowa State University. Through hands-on work in the school’s kitchen and expanding gardens, students learn lessons about how food is produced, as well as about nature, the environment and their own health.
They also sell produce at the upper school on Wednesday afternoons starting at 3:15, and occasionally offer farm-to-table dinners as program fundraisers. That’s one way to help support a new generation of farmers on St. John.