Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Life and Times of Portland Ridge

From February 12th-15th and April 12th-15th we traveled to the dry, coastal forest of Portland Ridge, a peninsula on the south-central coast of Jamaica. To the east of it lies the Portland Bight, which is a bay full of cays and reefs, on the other side of which lies Spanish Town and Kingston. Our purpose there was to do point counts in the dry forest, which entailed visiting fixed points in the woods and recording which species we heard and saw. This gives us a glimpse into the species composition and density in the dry forest as compared to the other habitats we are working in. We also took bug samples and vegetation measurement at these points.

These two photographs were taken by Laura from the top of the fire tower on Portland Ridge. The first is looking towards the Portland Bight with mangroves in the foreground. The white structures out on the water are bauxite processing plants. Bauxite is a key component of aluminum foil, and Jamaica is the world's leading producer of it. The strip mines needed to access the bauxite are a common eye sore of the Jamaican landscape. The second photograph is of the Portland Ridge itself, an extensive tract of tropical dry forest under the protection of a local gun club.

Unfortunately, large sections of this relatively pristine forest were burned a few years ago when a woman clearing land for an illegal ganja plantation let the fire get out of control. The forest’s equilibrium is also tested by feral pigs, cats, and mongoose.

The dry forest, is, in its mature state, an impressive ecosystem. In February, giant red birch-like trees were fruiting, and in the crowns of these trees we saw the local frugivores gorging throughout the day. The lower levels of the forest were filled with an assortment of prickly plants, from cacti to agave to the barbed branches of acacia. There was no relief on the ground either, as the substrate was made of ancient coral beds, whose razor like edges could cut through the best of hiking boots. As we arrived at the actual coastline, an impenetrable wall of mangrove appeared. Mangroves, the natural shock absorber of hurricanes, are also home to many birds. Migrant Northern Waterthrushes and Spotted Sandpipers bobbed their tails down mangrove legs, while breeding Yellow Warblers and Clapper Rails let out their distinctive calls.

While visiting, we stayed at a private hunting lodge owned by the PWD Gun and Sporting Club in Kingston. Their main targets are the local dove and pigeon species, for which they set up artificial drinking holes and feeding stations in the woods to lure them in. We paid for the cost it takes to run the generator. Not a bad deal, when you consider that it is right on the water, has no other houses within five miles of it, and is fitted to host large, spoiled groups of rich businessmen. No businessmen were present on either of our visits however, just the local caretaker, Newton.

Here is a photo of the hunting lodge we stayed at. We snorkeled along the cement dock and submerged rock walls, where hundreds of fish abounded in the crevices. One morning Laura spotted a seahorse, another day a barracuda.

The dock at the lodge was used by some local fisherman, and during the day a variety of swarthy, barefoot men would come in on their rickety boats to drink freshwater and commiserate. When they weren’t tending to the boats or prepping fish the fisherman sat on the porch, playing dominoes and speaking in patwah. From time to time, I could see the snorkels of spear fisherman working the submerged strata offshore.

Here is a crew of one fishing boat sorting through their net, pulling out fish as they went. Taken by Laura.

Their colorful catch. Note the spiny lobster in the first. Taken by Laura.

Here is a typical sight of Newton the Caretaker's porch. Local fisherman join him for a game of dominoes, a glass of freshwater and story-telling. Taken by Laura.

Newton was a very kind, quiet fellow who spent most of his time reading, thankful that we were not as demanding or high-maintenance as the lodge's usual clientele. Some Jamaicans still have a fair share of East Indian blood in them from a time when the English empire brought them over for manual labor in the 1800's. You can see a hint of this lineage in Newton's face.

One morning he called me over with a proud look on his face, and showed me this Green Moray Eel that he had just caught. He had spied it lurking off the side of the dock in the mangroves and had spent the morning fishing for it. He said it was one of the biggest he'd ever seen - it was around three feet long.

Because it got hot so quickly there, the birds were largely silent by eight a.m. Thus, for the few days that we were there, we had large parts of the day free to do what we like. We paid a local fisherman named Bigfoot to take us out for a few hours to one of the nearby cays to relax and look for seabirds. After we landed, Bigfoot quickly disappeared onto the island to harvest coconuts. Laura and I went snorkeling for a while, while Shawn and Ashley chased down lizards, who, due to the lack of predators, had the island covered. Shawn, a reptile buff, taught us that the best way to catch a lizard is to chase it until it tires, since lizards use the same muscles to run as they do to breath. They can’t do both forever!

On our second visit to Portland Ridge, Shawn and I called upon the services of Bigfoot once again, this time to take us out to Half Moon Cay. This cay was supposed to harbor a nesting colony of noddies and terns, a specatcle that both of us were eager to witness. Tragically, the island was bare. We were still too early, no birds had arrived yet. Instead, all there was to see was the shanty of a fisherman and a solitary heron. We walked around the island in ten minutes, amusing ourselves with the single Gray Kingbird and Yellow Warbler that had claimed this isolated territory.

A view from Half Moon Cay.

Captain Bigfoot motors on home following a brief downpour.

The next evening Laura and I took a walk down the entrance road. The road weaved through dry forest and along the coastline before emerging along the border of extensive mangroves. We saw a distant group of fisherman coming ashore to camp for the night, lighting up a fire to keep the insects at bay. They whooped and hollered through all of it, and Laura and I speculated on the source of their amusement as we continued on.

Where the waterline met the roadside lay an endless mat of plastic bottles and trash, intermixed with silt and sticks to create a crunchy, artificial substrate. The gentle slope of Portland Ridge was to our backs, a rough-hewn bow echo jutting southward. Aside from enjoying the walk itself, we were listening for West Indian Whistling-Ducks that might be leaving the mangroves at dusk to feed, though we never found them. While walking, we noticed the migrant warblers moving out from the forest into the spindly acacias as darkness descended, utilizing the last few rays of light for a final meal. Prairie Warblers, Northern Parulas and American Redstarts. Nighthawks and swallows put on an aerial display as they swooped in and out of the swarms of insects in the sky, seining the air as a baleen whale does the ocean. We watched as egrets and herons congregated in a stand mangroves to roost for the night. For as long as we watched they continued to trickle in until there were dozens covering the limbs. Meanwhile, Clapper Rails let out their characteristic rattling calls, unseen as they worked the marshy borders.

That afternoon, we had watched as towering, dark clouds rolled off the center of the island towards us. After a gusty prelude the rain had hit, turning dust to mud and cooling the normally scorching air. Now at dusk, the skittish goats and cattle were emerging from the woodland to drink from the puddles in the road – fresh water was a treasured resource in such a dry place.

As the sun disappeared over the ridge, no-see-um flies appeared out of thin air to attack our bare skin and exposed orifices. In response we ran back towards the house, half laughing half crying at the misery as we slapped our arms and faces, tracing our steps on the vague outline of the road.


  1. Omg...this is beautiful! I feel like I was there! I love your vivid, intimate descriptions - not at all the Jamaica we imagine from travel agencies and music. Would love to meet Newton and the gang on his porch. Photos are spectacular, especially the last one, and the catch...and Newton. And the bauxite plant. Thank you for taking the time to write (and photograph) such a detailed account for those of us who don't know the place, the people or the science...thanks to both of you. What a pleasure to read...

  2. You certainly have a way with words MisterK. Very enjoyable read.