Reason for Hope?

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I ran across a most compelling 10/29 tweet this afternoon via

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Has the Sisserou survived post-Maria? I hope this report proves credible! I will report back here as soon as I receive confirmation either way.

 

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Sisserou Post-Hurricane Behavior: A Note from Sydney Porter

Carl Plath 1931

As the search for the Sisserou continues today on Dominica, I thought I’d share a few pertinent passages from Sydney Porter’s article “In Search of the Imperial Parrot (II)” from Avicultural Magazine, November 1929:

I paid a visit to a small shack belonging to the lady who so kindly sponsored me during my stay on the island. It was situated in the high mountains 8 or 9 miles from Roseau on the leeward side of the island. While there I met a cultured young man…and during our conversation I mentioned the “Ciceroo” and asked him whether he knew anything about it. To my surprise he gave me a rather interesting piece of information. He stated that just after the terrible hurricane of the autumn of 1928 when great damage was done on Dominica, a flock of these birds numbering from one to two hundred, which he thought was the entire population of this species, appeared in the valley where he lived, apparently seeking food, owing to all their own being destroyed. The flock stayed for a short time and then broke up into small parties and dispersed in different directions, but not before ten had been shot and eaten.

I was able to get information upon which I could account for over thirty-eight birds being killed and captured during the last three months of 1928 and during the first two months of 1929. This includes twenty birds killed by two men, including the ten mentioned above. Of course, it must be accounted a very exceptional year, for the birds were driven out of their haunts by a hurricane, but thirty-eight birds out of a total of less than two hundred is a very heavy toll, and if the killing were to go on at this rate the birds were to stand very little chance, as they are slow breeders. The natives say that they lay only one egg, but they really don’t know much at this point. I am sure that the birds have no natural enemies except man. Only two escaped with their lives, my own bird and another which is also in England but I cannot trace where. Several birds would have escaped the death penalty had there been prospective buyers on the spot.

A horrified Porter witnessed the shooting of an Imperial while exploring the steep mountain haunts of the rare bird, observing:

…what gave me a great thrill was the sound from numerous throats which I knew belonged to A. imperialis, and gazing up I saw these wonderful birds flying round with the equally rare A. bouqueti feeding upon the fruits of the huge forest trees or climbing about the creepers which festooned the tops. I watched through my glasses one old hen who climbed about with the agility of a monkey. I liked the look of her because she looked such a sophisticated bird, but all at once I heard the report of a gun and saw her fall fluttering to the ground. My men had brought guns to shoot wild pig and agouti, and they had gone off apparently in search of such game, at least I thought so, but in a few minutes they came back looking highly pleased with themselves. ” We got you a Ciceroo, sar, her no die, only wounded in de wing,” was what they greeted me with. I hoped this might be so, and for a short time gazed entranced upon this glorious creature which I had traveled so far to see, and I ardently prayed that she might live, but alas! in a short space of time I could see by her eyes that she was mortally wounded. I picked her up and with a lump in my throat saw the lovely shining purple head sink back and the beautiful orange eyes close in death and heard the last few short gasps as she breathed her last. I cannot tell how I felt, it seemed as though I had broken some sacred trust. I had wandered into these Elysian fields and behaved like a vandal, for I felt that the crime was upon my own head, and I would have given anything to have seen her back in the tree tops. My shame was increased when, later on, I saw the poor thing plucked and dressed for the pot.

The flight feathers of this bird were worn and frayed. In fact, I have never handled a wild bird whose feathers were in such poor condition. Not a single wing or tail feather was perfect. Every one was broken or frayed. Evidently, it was one of the birds which had been driven out by the hurricane and had returned to find a worse fate. When this bird was shot, a pair of Bouquet’s Parrots [now known as Red-necked parrots (Amazona   arausiaca)] flew down and screamed their rage at the hunters.

Since Maria hit Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane on September 18, no Sisserous have been sighted in the devastated forests of the once-verdant Nature Island of the Caribbean. Like the Imperials in Porter’s article, Red-necked amazons have been spotted ” apparently seeking food, owing to all their own being destroyed.” Exhausted, starving, and disoriented, the lovely Jackos, as the Red-necks are known on the island, have been spotted flying down to fallen citrus and to food put out for them by those able to help the birds to survive their most desperate hour.

Unfortunately, no Sisserous have been spotted as yet making a similar bid for survival.

I will keep reporting as I receive more information. Hopefully, the regal Imperial, largest of all amazon parrots, will be given one more chance at a future.

The Parrots of Eden, Part I: Fire and Ice

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Green parakeets (Psittacara holochlora) take wing. Photo: Charles Alexander

A flock of wild green parakeets just flew over my house, circling and screaming. I can hear them as I sit at my desk, in the home that I’ve made for myself here in the Rio Grande Valley of Deep South Texas.

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The parakeets arrive in the early afternoon, often as many as a hundred at a time, to feed in the hackberry trees just outside my studio door. At this moment, their voices sound especially frenetic. Possibly, they’ve spotted a Harris’s hawk and have burst into flight to announce the raptor’s unwelcome presence. The penetrating voices of the parakeets, chanting in unison and clearly audible through the walls of my old adobe home, are a daily phenomenon here, just two miles from the Mexican border.

The Valley is home to thousands of wild parrots. I know because I have counted them often. Since first visiting this most southerly outpost of the Lone Star State eight years ago, I have been drawn ever deeper into the lives of the amazons and parakeets of the Texas frontera. My name is Charles Alexander. I am a wildlife painter, writer, and naturalist. Though born in East Texas and raised in West Tennessee, I feel right at home now in this land of green jays, great kiskadees, and parrots—a place where the birds of tropical Mexico meet and mingle with the birds of the United States.

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Recently, Hurricane Harvey threatened our world here. On the afternoon of the 24th of August 2017, the door to my studio suddenly flew open as I was rushing to pack away valuables. An unwelcome visitor was calling. The newscasts were unequivocal: Harvey was coming. That afternoon, the storm had undergone rapid intensification in the Bay of Campeche, morphing from a tropical storm into a Category Three hurricane, tracking north by northwest.  The wind was picking up.

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A relative newcomer to the Valley, I had never experienced a hurricane, much less a tempest of Harvey’s magnitude. My girlfriend Natalie Lindholm—Supervisor of Birds at the Gladys Porter Zoo here in Brownsville—was safely away at a wedding in Washington, D.C. Alone with four cats at the end of our rural road, I began to prepare for the worst: battening down the storm shutters, storing away family mementos, packing away anything fragile or electronic, making that last-minute grocery run —all the while fearing that my studio, archives of photos, paintings, years of wildlife research, all could be wiped out overnight. More urgently, I feared for the lives of our Valley birds, especially the wild parrots. I already knew what could happen in a storm.

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The dread of what was approaching took me back five and a half years, to March 29, 2012. On that day, a Thursday, I was nearing the end of my first three weeks of green parakeet field work, a study that I was conducting independently, on my own dime and initiative. Those inaugural days with the Valley’s wild parrots were among the most memorable of my life. I was just getting to know the birds, just beginning to look deeper into the secrets of their turbo-charged existence in McAllen’s urban jungle. The sudden appearance of large flocks of wild parrots in an otherwise ordinary city landscape felt utterly surreal. Every time I turned down 10th Street in search of the birds, I felt as if I had entered a highly-charged corner of my own imagination.

At 10th and Violet in McAllen, literally thousands of parakeets were gathering every evening along the power lines over the street, mesmerizing me with the chaotic din of their collective voices, their comic antics, their flashing, aeronaut wings. Within seeming chaos, however, patterns of behavior were beginning to emerge. Small squadrons of parakeets were constantly arriving to join the nightly roost-rally, with occasional birds diving recklessly down toward heavy traffic, almost touching the tops of vehicles, then zooming at top speed across sidewalks and parking lots to buzz me as they passed. Neatly spaced family units huddled together on the wires overhead, preening each other furiously.

Up and down the lines, the birds were jabbing, squealing, and squabbling with others who dared to infringe upon their clearly-marked and well-understood kinship boundaries. Parakeets were leaping from local rooftops and street signs, balancing airily on the wind, then dashing off to play in the tall palms in another section of the neighborhood. As those initial weeks passed, I realized that I knew so little about wild parrots, that the reality of their lives was far richer than I could have ever imagined. The wild parakeets were teaching me about their true nature. Night after night, I left the birds only when it became too dark to see them anymore.

The March 29 storm hit just after the McAllen parakeets had gone to bed in the palms and live oaks along 10th street, huddled in their close-knit family groups beneath the perpetual twilight of the street lights. The devastation was instant, the storm’s fury unexpected. Between 848 and 941 pm, winds gusting up to seventy-four miles per hour drove quarter to baseball-sized hailstones at hurricane force along 10th Street, defoliating every tree within the impact zone, covering the ground with six inches of pelting ice, and accumulating hail drifts up to four feet high. Torrential rains accompanied the hail, creating ice-water rivers that choked city streets and submerged scores of vehicles in flood zones six feet deep. Lightning flashes electrified the highly-charged night sky from north to south, with strikes setting at least two apartment complexes on fire.

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As the storm passed and the hail began to melt, steam rose from the drifts of ice, creating a haze that soon reduced visibility across the city to zero. The storm had knocked out power to more than 25,000 Hidalgo County residents. Over 1,000 homes and businesses were impacted in McAllen. In all, the storm created as much as $300 million dollars in damage, making it one of the costliest to hit the state of Texas since 1950. Before the night was over, more than two hundred people required rescue from hail and wind damaged homes and from the rapidly rising flood waters. Fortunately, few injuries and no fatalities were reported—at least among the city’s human residents.

The next day, I arrived to find my familiar study area along 10th Street reduced to a war zone. Restaurant and office park windows were shattered, a local car dealership totaled. Buildings everywhere looked as if they had been strafed by machine-gun fire. Every leaf on every tree had been plucked, every palm frond shredded, creating a winter-bare landscape in a South Texas spring.

I feared the worst as I walked from 6th Street down to 10th and Violet. Mounds of hail were still melting everywhere I looked, up and down the street. Soon I began to see them: parakeets half-buried in debris, scattered across parking lots and sidewalks, tossed and broken by the storm. Many of the birds had no feathers on one side of their bodies—the hail had plucked them as neatly as it had stripped the leaves from the trees. The smell of death pervaded 10th Street as I searched the neighborhood, picking up parakeets one by one, until I had a garbage-bag full. Each bird looked as if it had been smashed by a hammer. Darkness fell before I could get them all.  Driving home exhausted that night, I was reminded of the Robert Frost poem:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

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The horror of the McAllen storm became a fresh wound in my memory as Harvey approached the Rio Grande Valley on 8/24/17, five and a half years after impact. If hail could take out so many of the birds that I loved, what would a Cat 3 hurricane do to them, to the many other species of wildlife that call South Texas home?

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Aurora, a newly-discovered color morph, photographed in McAllen, 9/10/2017

I had spent years following parakeets by the time Harvey came to call, had come to know individual family groups, had named any oddly marked birds that I was able to identify at a glance. Though many had died, a surprising number of the Valley parakeets had survived the hail in 2012. Could they survive Harvey?

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That sleepless night, the great spiraling arms of the hurricane skirted South Padre Island close to home, as Harvey’s eye passed near the Rio Grande Valley, though remaining offshore. I waited for the power to go, braced myself for impact. Neither came, though satellite and wifi were temporarily offline, preventing me from accessing breaking news. I stepped outside to see what was happening, sheltered beneath one of the adobe house’s arched loggias.  The atmosphere was sultry, thick with heat and humidity, the night air hard to breathe. At 3am, a strong gust picked up. A squall of near-horizontal rain began, seeming to confirm my worst fears, but the wind almost immediately died away. Near dawn, I drifted off to sleep, waking up suddenly at mid-morning as if expecting the roof to be gone.

Opening my shuttered studio door, I stepped tentatively onto the front gallery, emerging from the house in the still-overcast light of a new day to discover that everything was as it had been before the storm. Nothing had been touched. The huge old ebony trees that shaded the walkway to the road were undamaged, their heavy seed pods still clinging to every bough. Chachalacas were braying from the private wildlife refuge behind our property. Cormorants, egrets, wood storks, and anhingas were perched and preening as usual across our tree-lined road, where a federal refuge protected a wetland fringed with South Texas bushland, a habitat teeming with life and sound. I stood in the middle of the road, marveling that not a single branch was down anywhere, that our Valley world had escaped unscathed. Returning to the house, I paused to watch a column of ants filing across our walkway, putting their world in order. Our mockingbird was singing in an ebony above. Sunlight filtered through the filigreed branches as the clouds began to break.

Our small corner of paradise had been spared. I could continue painting. The parrots would survive, at least for now. In that moment of pure elation, I could never have imagined how many other wondrous wild Edens were about change forever.

To Be Continued…

Part II: Crucible of Storms

Part III: Why Does The Sisserou Matter?

Looking for Sydney Porter

Many thanks to my good friend and fellow zoological detective– Josef Harold Lindholm III— for sending me a treasure trove of vintage Sydney Porter articles on the Imperial amazon of Dominica, material which has not seen the light of day for almost 90 years now!

Josef

Searching for historical material about Dominica and its parrots, I had found a few Imperial articles listed in a musty bibliography– and of course Josef, being the world’s premier collector of avicultural desiderata, had the original old documents at hand. He also found additional materials to send along, including a 1930 article about Dominica’s other endemic amazon, then known as Bouquet’s parrot, now named the Red-necked amazon. Josef also happens to be the Curator of Birds at the Tulsa Zoo.

A sample of Sydney Porter’s thoughts on Dominica c. 1929:

A matter of between four and five thousand miles away and a three week’s journey from the shores of England lies the world’s most incredible island…There is a strange, sinister atmosphere about Dominica, which some say is an evil spirit which broods over the island. But leaving native superstitions aside, it is a strange fact that on this lovely island very few seem to succeed, something happens, and in time the jungle swallows up again the efforts made by man…After nearly three hundred years, while most of the other West Indian Islands seem to prosper, this island remains almost as wild and mysterious as ever. It certainly is the wildest and most impressive land I have ever seen, and its grandeur and beauty will remain a life-long impression. Dominica will ever be as a dream, one of those strange, mysterious, and lovely lands which we see only in our dreaming hours, and I shall always feel that there is nowhere else left to see, for in Dominica I have seen the world’s nearest approach to Paradise.

Born in 1900, Sydney Porter became a well-known and much-loved figure in avicultural circles in Britain until his untimely death in 1958. In bad health throughout his life, he fled England’s cold winters at every opportunity, venturing to the tropics in part as a remedy for his chronic, degenerative asthma. His passion for birds carried him to many far-flung corners of the globe, including trips to East Africa, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, South America, and the Caribbean. Of his arrival on Dominica in February 1929, Porter wrote:

When I had set sail at the beginning of February, after several months of indifferent health, in search of sunshine in Jamaica, I had not the slightest intention of ever setting foot on the lovely island of Dominica, but it was in this latter country that I did eventually arrive, and not in the former. I will explain. Our boat– which was bound for Barbados, the jumping off ground for passengers bound for the lesser-known West Indian islands– carried as passengers several residents of the Lesser Antilles, who were returning after a trip to Europe, and as I got to know them I questioned them about the rare parrots from the respective islands. But few of them knew anything about the birds except the Parrot from St. Vincent, which they regarded more or less as a myth; but two days before landing at Barbados, I was introduced to a charming lady who resided on Dominica, and who knew Amazona imperialis well. She said it had always been very scarce, but now was excessively rare…So upon this information I decided to alter all my arrangements, and come to the island and try my luck at securing a specimen– or at least seeing these magnificent birds in a state of freedom. Fortunately, I was able to do both.

Intrigued? Fear not: I will be sharing Porter’s articles in their entirety here in a series of future posts.

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