Bird Walking

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A green heron spotted in Road Town on assignment during previous bird count.

After wanting to participate for ages — and not just cover it as a reporter — this year I finally got it together and joined in the annual Christmas Bird Count. If you’ve never heard of it, the count is a bit like a census, with birdwatchers taking to the field (or sometimes their own backyards) to identify and count the bird species they see.

While the BVI is home to many different birds, the Christmas Bird Count is an international project, with volunteers from around the US, Canada, and parts of Central and South America and the Caribbean, all designating the last weeks of December and first few days of January as the time they will count in their local area.

Although there are places that have had counts all the way back to the year 1900, the history of the event here in the BVI is pretty respectable, with the National Parks Trust recording counts going back to 1988.

Being a novice when it comes to identifying birds, I tagged along with a more experienced birdwatcher in my neighborhood. Together, we spotted a sparrow hawk, a bird of prey that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen hunting from the treetops near my deck. I learned what an ani looks like. We also counted a couple of thrushies, which are more properly known as pearly-eyed thrashers, but which I personally think of as papaya thieves because I can never get to a ripe one before they peck holes in it. Naturally, the birds that were most common on our path were the chickens, which don’t get counted.

Between the sizable puddles from that morning’s rain and the rather small wheels on the stroller I was wheeling the baby in, we decided to cut our walk short, but I still count the morning’s adventure as a success: The little one and I got some fresh air, I learned a bit from my birding buddy about bird calls and behaviors, plus I got to contribute (albeit only a small bit) to a really cool global science project. I had so much fun that I’m already planning my next birding adventure.

A version of this column first appeared in the Jan. 10 edition of the Limin Times.

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Island Life in Space

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Moon sprouts (photo: AFP)

In a project that would have seemed farfetched just a few years ago, China recently landed a probe called Chang’e-4 on the moon. The most recent news from the project is that some cotton seeds planted inside the lander have sprouted*, along with hopes in the space exploration community that the moon could eventually be used as a home base for future explorers. The idea is that rather than coming home to earth, future astronauts could simply grow the food they need on the moon.

You might say this project is about as far from our little island as possible, but I’d argue that island life and space exploration share many of the same strengths. For one thing, space missions are right to start thinking about plants early. Relying on imports for basic necessities is the main reason island living is so expensive, and any disruption in transport channels trickles down to every other aspect of life here. Chinese researchers started with cotton plants since those can be harvested to make fabric. According to reports, the Chang’e-4 also carried potato seeds and yeast, so clearly staple foods are another priority.

Whether on islands or in space, it’s clear that teamwork is crucial. As many of us have seen time and time again, island folks know how to pull together to help each other out. We share rides and water; we check to make sure our neighbors are okay after a storm; and, if we see someone stranded on the road, we stop and help however we can. The most successful space endeavor so far (21 years in space!) is the international space station. The five space agencies who partner on the project represent the US, Japan, Russia, Canada, and 22 European nations. No doubt all these countries’ governments have some serious disagreements, but they are able to put such conflicts aside for the good of the greater mission.

As futuristic as space exploration still seems, both island dwellers and space explorers do best when they rely on their history to guide their decisions. In our case, specialized local knowledge of everything from seasonal weather patterns to tourism trends help us make smart decisions in the day-to-day. In space, knowing which missions landed safely on Mars since Russia’s partially successful 1971 Mars 3 were key to the NASA’s InSight touching down on the red planet in November.

What else do space explorers and island dwellers have in common? Let me know in the comments.

*Too bad the dark side of the moon is so cold. The sprouts have since died.

A version of this column first appeared in the Jan. 17th edition of the Limin Times.

 

Beeps of the BVI

One of the joys of island driving is the liberal use of the horn. For those unfamiliar, there is a whole language among drivers and instead of words and sentences, the language is made up entirely of beeps.

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It took me a long while to understand the nuances of the beeps, probably because I learned to drive in Southern California, where the horn utters sounds so rude they aren’t even called beeps. They’re called honks. The Southern California horn, I am not proud to say, is long, loud and always means one thing: “watch it, jerk!”

The BVI’s beeps, by contrast, are varied and sophisticated. Most of them are mild in meaning. There is the friendly beep to say to the vehicle waiting to join traffic that you are yielding so they can come in front of you. Or, there is the equally friendly beep to say thank you to the vehicle that has allowed you to come into traffic on the highway.

Slightly more impatient but still basically friendly are the shortish beeps to let you know that while you have looked away from the traffic light to admire the plumage on a passing rooster, the signal has changed from red to green. The lights stay red entirely too long for this honk to be ignored.

On the hills, there is also the very utilitarian blind corner beep. Especially during daylight hours when headlights aren’t available, this is a great way to make sure that you and another vehicle don’t enter the same switchback from opposite directions. This beep is, by necessity, louder. It’s also saved me from a hill crash at least once.

If you happen to be driving or walking near someone taking a driving lesson, you might hear the pedestrian beep. This is the beep all drivers are supposed to sound to let a pedestrian know a vehicle is coming, in case they don’t realize they are walking on a road that has vehicles on it. This one also has a more personal version, the “hail-up” beep, which is reserved only for pedestrians that are also friends or family members.

I also have one very special beep of my own, but anyone is welcome to it. It’s the accidental beep. Maybe I am trying to get something out of the baby’s bag before I exit a parking space or I have something in my hand or just have bad aim on the steering wheel sometimes, but it I beep the horn sometimes without meaning to. The trick is to style it out by giving an enthusiastic wave at whoever happens to be standing nearby like you meant to beep at them just to say “hey friend!”

This column appeared in the July 5 Limin Times.

Get Your Gratitude

I was having one of those mornings. You know the ones: it was raining, the roads were covered in rocks, puddles were hiding the new potholes, and to top it off I got stuck behind a trailer truck blocking both directions of traffic because its wheels had lost traction as it was backing into a driveway.

Then I remembered that not so long ago, it would have taken all day to get from where I live in Josiah’s Bay to Frenchman’s Cay and back because Irma mashed up so many of our roads. And not so long before that, I would have been making the trek via bus or several thumbed rides because I didn’t have a car. And then I remembered that I’m fit enough that even if there were no charitable drivers to be found, I could always walk, an option not everyone has.

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And thank you, Lil Jon.

In other words, I remembered how fortunate I am to have problems like an inconvenient commute. Suddenly I was giving thanks for the same thing that was annoying me just a minute beforehand. Getting in a grateful head space is an instant mood lifter for me, but did you know there’s a lot of science showing that gratitude is good for you?

There’s the Northeastern University study that found a link between gratitude and more patience and better decision-making. One Swiss study found that people who were more grateful also took better care of their health. A UK study showed a link between more gratitude and more sleep. Yet another study on people with chronic illness found that those who kept a daily gratitude journal experienced fewer painful symptoms than their counterparts who didn’t journal. Then there was the study that found grateful people also have better self esteem than those that aren’t as grateful. There have also been a bunch of studies that show that the more you count your blessings, the happier and less depressed you feel.

So grateful people feel better and happier, which is pretty great, but in all this research I saw another theme emerge: gratitude actually makes you a better person! In one study of people in Germany and the US, those who said they “regularly and often” experienced gratitude were also more likely to do “pro-social behavior,” social scientists way of talking about good deeds. Another study, this one in Kentucky, found that grateful people are kinder to others, even when faced with unkind treatment themselves.

All these PhDs seem to agree that the best way to get more grateful is to practice gratitude daily with something like a gratitude journal. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m going to start mine tonight!

This column appeared in the May 3, 2018 edition of the Limin Times.

Returning to Paradise

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From #docklife to #decklife, the view from my new place.

The BVI had Irma-geddon, then I had a baby. Baby, hubby and I escaped (okay, evacuated) to California for a while, which was both delightful and difficult.

People have asked when I will be writing about all of that, but the truth is that it’s still hard to talk about and I’m not sure I’ll ever write about it… So I guess the answer to that question is: not yet.

Anyway, seven months on and things are feeling almost normal around here, including at work, where the Limin Times is back!

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Here’s my latest Island Life column, which ran April 19th.

Island life means sharing your mornings with roosters, goats, cows and all kinds of other creatures, but recently I had my worst island wake up call ever. I was roused from my slumber by the feeling of something cold and wet on my shin. Without thinking – let’s be honest, I wasn’t even fully conscious yet – I grabbed the offending object and flung it away into what turned out to be the closet.

This was not a quiet process, so soon I was trying to explain to my groggy husband what the commotion was all about. As my mind cleared I gradually realized that it must have been a frog. I cannot articulate my disgust. A cold, damp frog had been in my bedroom, on my bed, on my leg, and then, shudder to think, I had held it briefly in my hand.

Hubby, hero that he is, wasted no time hopping out of bed and handing me the hand sanitizer. He advised me to take the baby and leave the room, heavy shoe in hand.

“Are you going to kill it?” I asked, realizing that there is indeed something more icky than a live frog hopping around the bedroom.

Beginning to be fully awake himself, hubby put down his shoe and, as if in answer, we heard a rustle in the closet. The frog appeared on the ledge of our son’s play pen and hubby lunged for it. The wily frog, evidently drawn to the sound of his friends outside the bedroom window, started climbing the curtain.

Watching the frog awkwardly make its way up the curtain was like watching a muppet flail its arms and legs. Suddenly, it wasn’t so icky. It was just Kermit. I watched as my resourceful husband coaxed Kermit into the play pen, covered it with a mosquito net, and carried the pen onto the front porch. Kermit was clearly no genius: after he hopped out of the pen he lingered on the porch until hubby made some noise before rejoining the other frogs that love to hang out croaking in the yard.

Even though I fervently hope Kermit never again finds his way inside, I do find myself wishing him well in a way. Now excuse me while I go scrub down everything he might have touched while he was there.

Beating the Island Heat

Between the high humidity, the drop in winds and the ever-present sun, there’s no doubt about it: island summers can be brutal. As I gear up for my least favorite weather of the year, I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of my tried and true methods for cooling off.

Note the hat, which I do swim in because this Caribbean sun is not playing around.

  1. Hit the beach… Not only is the beach a great place to enjoy a cool sea soak, but since the BVI beaches are nearly all lined with sea grapes and other trees, there’s also bound to be a shady spot to sit and enjoy what breeze there is to be had. Carry a cooler full of drinks and you’re set for the day.
  2. …Or the pool. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare in your pocket, you could opt for the sand-free version and spend a day by the pool. There may not be as many pools as beaches around here, but those who don’t want to worry about watching waves or think a swim-up bar is the bees knees still have several to choose from.
  3. Catch a movie. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, a long, hot day in the house can seem like the last thing you want to do. Break up the day with a matinee at the cinema, where you can sit in the dark, chilly theater while you watch one of the latest summer releases.
  4. Take your time with the shopping. This might just be me, but if it’s a really hot evening, I love getting the week’s grocery run out of the way. As long as the post-work rush has come and gone, you’re not likely to face many other shoppers, so you can take your time in the cooled aisles, or, if you’re really heated, the open-air cases of dairy foods. Obviously, shopping is not as Instagram-worthy as 1 or 2 on the list, but hey, we all have to eat, right?
  5. Have a cold treat. I know we all scream for ice cream, but if you’re trying to avoid junk food like I am, frozen fruit can be a nice alternative. Pineapple, mangoes, berries, papaya and other fruits freeze nicely and taste great on their own. If you want to get a little fancier, you can make your own fruit popsicles. Just grind up your fruits in a blender, pour into some inexpensive plastic molds and put them in the freezer overnight.

So, how’s the summer treating you? How do you beat the heat in your neighborhood?

(This column first appeared in the July 27, 2017 Limin Times.) 

Connecting to Nature

It’s no secret: We in the BVI are blessed to live in one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth. Since it’s Environment Week, I’m thinking about all my favorite ways to connect to nature here in Nature’s Little Secrets.

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At the top of Beef Island

Top of the list, for me anyway, has got to be hiking. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I actually love spending a few hours hauling myself up the side of a mountain. You can take your time and check out all the odd flowers and bugs you’d never see on the flats in town, plus when you get to the top you get to take a sweet selfie with a view. Something about the view from over 1,000 feet gives me a better perspective of the shape of the place I live, and really does let me feel more connected to the nature and geography of these islands. Another perk of hiking? By the time you get back to the bottom, you might be exhausted and sore, but you can also justify the biggest, baddest brunch imaginable afterward.

A close second is a solo beach trip. As nice as it is to catch up with friends in the sand near the sea, I find it much more meditative to go on my own to the most isolated beach I can get to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should just try it. Go early in the morning or on a weekday (summer in the BVI is great for these trips because with way fewer tourists we lucky residents have the beaches to ourselves). Sit in the sand. Smell the water. Listen to the waves. Watch the ants, chickens or other critters that are sharing the beach with you. No kidding, it’s downright magical.

My other favorite isn’t for everybody: a leisurely float in the sea. I don’t want to brag too much here, but I’m an excellent floater. In the right mood, I can stay on the surface so steadily and easily you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and a buoy. The feeling of being out on the water and watching the seabirds overhead, the fish underneath and even feeling the occasional bit of kelp brush along past me is so relaxing I can almost feel my worries escaping into the ocean around me. Maybe those not blessed with natural buoyancy could achieve the effect with a sturdy life jacket?

I’d love to hear how others make their own connections to nature wherever they are.

(This post first appeared in the Limin Times Island Life column June 8.)