And so our ship continued through the night between St Thomas and Sint Maarten/St Martin (depending on whether you are Dutch or French – more about that later) and we arrived at the Philipsburg dock at around 8am (ship time). Adam and I were prompt with breakfast, lathered with sun cream as the tropical heat was now very much apparent, and we were down at the disembarkation exit with cameras, bins and a few bottles of water, ready to meet Binkie, our guide for the day.
I had managed to get hold of Binkie through some simple “birding/Sint Maarten” google searches and, on an island like Sint Maarten where local knowledge is key, it was important to have made the contact and arranged the day of guiding with someone like Binkie.
Binkie grew up in the Netherlands but moved to Sint Maarten in the late ‘80s through a work contract (working as an agent for a French wine distributor) and, now retired, he works as a freelance bird guide and is heavily involved in Caribbean birding and youth birding, conservation and education. The best thing about being with Binkie was that he didn’t only show us the birds but made sure he gave us plenty of info about the island, it’s history and its recent decimation by Hurricane Irma.
I found the frequent anecdotes and references to Irma to be fascinating. Sint Maarten is situated in the far eastern extremities of the Caribbean and it was possibly the heaviest hit island during one of the most vicious hurricanes in the recent past. The storm’s eye made landfall early on the 6th of September 2017 and Binkie’s house, being situated in the furthest eastern suburb of the island, was right in the path of where the storm raged the strongest. He and his wife had lived through many hurricanes but he said Irma was the worst. At 5:30am they locked themselves in the bathroom, which has a concrete shell unlike the rest of the house, and they waited out the wall of the eye. A thundering crack from outside the bathroom was a tell-tale sign that the roof had been ripped off. What I found remarkable was that he and his wife emerged during the eye of the storm to inspect the damage and check on the neighbours for 20 minutes before the wall hit again and they were back in the bathroom to wait out the next phase. Binkie described an eerie dead calm beyond which was the whirling chaos.
A lot of our discussions during the day referenced the impact that Irma had on the birdlife of the island. We had the pleasure of watching hummingbirds, bananaquits and grassquits at Binkie’s beautiful fern-filled back porch but it was not so beautiful post-Irma. He told us that it is not the hurricane itself that kills the birds but rather the lack of available food in the aftermath as with Irma every piece of green vegetation was stripped from the branches of trees and bushes, leaving no sustenance as a base to the food chain. With this high risk of starvation for the birds, within a day of the hurricane, Binkie distributed 500 hummingbird feeders at the central shopping mall with instructions on how to fill it with the right mix of sugar water to provide food for the birds. I am sure this didn’t save every bird but I am pretty convinced it saved many of the small birds of the island. Despite Binkie’s efforts, the hummingbird population, particularly the very special little Antillean Crested Hummingbird, suffered enormously and we were very fortunate that his home was a haven for the survivors as we were able to observe a single male buzzing around as well as a number of other great new birds for the list.
Another anecdotal birdy story related to an aviary of parrots we passed on the way back to the ship. I made a flippant comment that these kinds of aviaries with exotic species must be a recipe for disaster on these fragile islands that are so prone to alien invasions, especially when damaged by hurricanes, allowing birds to escape.
Binkie told me the story of the aviary owner during the hurricane, making me realise the level of responsibility of the owner towards the integrity of the island’s birds.
The aviary was populated by about 200 birds that the owner knew individually. Obviously, most being exotic parrots. About five days before the hurricane hit, the owner stopped feeding the birds, allowing him to capture them very easily the day before as they were so hungry that they came to feed out of his hand. He put every single bird in smaller portable cages and stored all of them in a safe place for the duration of the storm. The entire aviary was completely destroyed, but not a single bird died or escaped, and, once rebuilt, all the birds were returned safely to the aviary.
It was small anecdotes like this, along the way, that made it a great day out. We even managed to visit a small French patisserie on the French side of the island for a baguette with jambon and fromage, as well as an orangina and a pastry. Very suitable simple sustenance after all the different food that we had indulged in on the ship.
So, moving on from Irma stories, a bit of history.
The island of Sint Maarten/St Martin is split almost in the middle between the Netherlands and France. The history is very interesting.
The island was named by Christopher Columbus in 1493, although he never landed there and therefore it was a low priority for the Spanish. The Dutch and French coveted the island more than the Spanish: the French wanted it as they wanted to colonise everything between Trinidad and Bermuda, whilst the Dutch found it to be a convenient midway point between New Amsterdam (now New York) and Brazil, as a trade route stopping point.
Once the island was colonised by the Dutch and French, naturally it then became more appealing for the Spanish who reclaimed it in the early 17th century when it was starting to prosper as a pivotal trade stopover. However, the end of the 80-year war marked the end of the Spanish interest in the island and it lapsed back to the Dutch and the French.
A continual wrestling match between the two nations to claim sole ownership would have resulted in conflict and full-blown war so a treaty called the Treaty of Concordia was signed in 1648 which divided the island (fairly) in two. It would be inaccurate to suggest that there were no more squabbles and claims and counter claims on parts and the whole of the island but, for the most part, the island has remained fairly evenly split over time, which is how it remains to this day.
The island also suffered an embarrassing phase in its history as a stronghold for slave trafficking and labour as the island was put to pasture for traditional colonial crops like cotton, tobacco and sugar. The Dutch and French imported many slaves from Africa to perform the hard labour on the labour-intensive crops. The continual importing of slaves resulted in them eventually outnumbering the colonialists, who revolted and brought about change leading to the abolishment of slavery by the French. The Dutch followed, albeit it a good 25 years later.
The profitability of agriculture declined following the end of free labour and the economy was in free fall until it became a duty free port, which brought tourists to the island en masse. And that is how it we found it when we disembarked with the port populated wall to wall with high end retail stores.
So, there is a brief history of the island in a poorly told replication of what you might be able to find on Wikipedia.
Now, a brief intervention for a bit of Geography.
The French side of the island is slightly bigger and has a slightly higher population, but is a significantly poorer part of the island. Interestingly, the border between the two sides is a rough straight line running from west to east almost perfectly in the middle of the island. During our day of birding we crossed the line on two occasions and, as Binkie told us, it was the only way to go from the Netherlands to France without having to travel through Belgium, which then sparked a wonderful story of him as a student where he and a good friend travelled by bicycle from the real Netherlands to France in a space of a day, skipping out a night in Belgium, but having to suffer 200kms on bicycles without gears. Our crossing was far easier than that!
The island is typically tropical as you’d expect in the Caribbean, with palm trees swaying in the constant breeze alongside the beaches, and a mountainous topography with a surprising covering of indigenous bush on the slopes of the volcanically formed high areas. I would have bet my bottom dollar that the trails on the hillsides would have been the most productive birding areas but Binkie said the forests were pretty species-poor and so we concentrated on a few discrete sites for our efforts. I had sent Binkie a wish list and he set about doing his best to find as many birds as possible.
The birding following Irma is relatively poor now but we still managed to tick a fair number of our targets. Stepping off the ship we had a number of Zenaida Doves around our feet before we even met Binkie and, then shortly after pick-up, we ticked the Carib Grackle which is a bird that is expanding its range throughout the Caribbean, being more successful in populated areas than most island birds.
We first stopped off at the Great Pond and Freshwater Pond sites and enjoyed the ducks, pelicans and frigatebirds that were a constant feature.
Then it was a stop at the Emilio Wilson park in amongst the suburbs of Philipsburg for two new birds. The first was a spectacular looking pigeon – Scaly-naped Pigeon. Reminiscent of White-crowned that we had seen on New Providence Island but without the white crown. The pigeon was my 1 499th world bird and it was a matter of time before I cracked number 1500. Sadly, the pigeon evaded my camera.
We didn’t wait long for 1500 which turned out to be a rather common bird on the island – Pearly-eyed Thrasher. I shared a congratulatory high five with Adam which may have seemed a little over the top to Binkie, given the fact that 1500 world birds is a pretty paltry number in the context of world birders.
Our next stop was the highlight of the day. Binkie took us to his house on the eastern side of the island, which is situated on a hillside overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The views were spectacular but we were really after the views of the birds on his beautifully fern-adorned back porch where he had a number of seed and sugar water feeders to attract some of the island’s trickier birds.
The most regular visitors were the multitudes of Bananaquits, followed by the Lesser Antillean Bullfinch and the Black-faced Grassquits.
The two hummingbirds stole the show, however, and it wasn’t long to wait before our main target, the Antillean Crested Hummingbird, zoomed in and fed on the flowers and bathed. We also enjoyed decent views of a perched Green-throated Carib. Photography of hummers is always a little tricky but we managed to spend a bit of quiet time and certainly managed a satisfactory return of our efforts.
As an aside I remarked to Jeanie that the Antillean Crested Hummingbird reminded me of a cartoon character from one of the kids’ animated movies that they tend to watch but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Jeanie took one look at my pic and said – it’s Toothiana, the tooth fairy from Guardians of the Galaxy. And so it seems to be!
The rest of the time out was spent at a few more sites where we added species rather slowly but we finished off the day at a small sewerage settling pond where my last lifer was a Black-necked Stilt.
Nothing marked the success of the day more so than our return to the ship, walking past the touristy and over-priced retail stores at the port where we saw day-time revellers loaded up with trinkets and bags of alcohol. In many cases their bodies were also loaded up with alcohol and some people battled to negotiate their way through the security checkpoint when embarking the ship. I remarked to Adam that many of the people that disembarked and spent the day on the beach and amongst the shops would have been oblivious to the entrenched history of the island and the life-changing impact Irma had brought about for most of the inhabitants. It reminded me why birding is not only a pastime that leads to seeing more birds in new places but also leads to a much broader education of the places we visit.
Sint Maarten was our last stop of the cruise and we faced two days of birdless travel through the Caribbean Sea back to Port Canaveral. We had certainly made the most of our time off the ship and I can confirm that we made the most of our time on the ship in our remaining two days. I had been sceptical about the sedentary nature of a cruise and whether it would suit my rather “ants in the pants” personality but there was just so much to do that we never felt bored. And the down time gave me a chance to write a few things down.
Next stop, the icy climes of New York city!
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