EXCERPT from The Ghost with Trembling Wings
The overnight rain had stopped, leaving the forest heavy with moisture and the trail slick with mud. I moved down the path in the dim, green predawn light, beneath palms and tall mahogany trees hung with vines, keeping half an eye on the ground - mindful that a snake, one of the big, venomous fer-de-lances that blend so well with fallen leaves, might be returning late from a night of hunting.
The air was overflowing with bird songs, only a few of which I recognized; the clear, piercing whistles of rufous-throated solitaires, and the buzzy, hurry-up-and-wait melody of the tiny bananaquits, which flitted ahead of me like yellow insects. The path wound its way down into ravines, across small, clear jungle streams and back up again, and wrapped around the base of sodden cliffs covered with ferns, from which choruses of tree frogs still called, unwilling to relinquish the night.
After an hour of hiking, I rounded a bend and the forest fell away suddenly into a deep gash. I could finally see what I'd already known -- that I was high on the side of a steep mountain, overlooking narrow valleys enclosed by craggy, tree-covered hills, their summits made indistinct by ragged gray clouds that whipped across them on the strong breeze.
St. Lucia lies midway down the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, where the chain crooks like a bent finger toward Venezuela, four hundred miles to the south. It is a volcanic island, heavily mountainous and covered in forest -- the very picture of a tropical paradise, known down through history as "The Helen of the Caribbean" for its natural beauty. Tourist resorts rim the coasts, while the interior is largely protected in a series of government forest reserves; unlike many of its neighbors in the Caribbean, St. Lucia has maintained much of its native habitat, making it an emerging mecca for ecotourism.
The northeast trade winds, which blow almost constantly through the winter dry season, wicked the sweat from me as I settled down at the edge of the overlook for a rest, unslinging my binoculars. In 1994, when a hurricane swept the region, torrential rains loosened the soil, producing catastrophic landslides across the island. The damage was far less in the forest reserves, where the thick jungle held the soil in place better than farmland or scrub did, but this hillside had nevertheless torn loose, entombing hundred-foot-tall trees in a slurry of heavy mud that roared into the valley below. Now, years later, the dizzyingly steep wall of the old slide zone was covered with fresh, green growth, edged by a few old canopy trees that somehow escaped the carnage and stood lonely and tall.
A pair of large parrots, growling and squawking like preschoolers, flew out of the mist and down into the valley, blue and yellow flashing on their wings before they were swallowed by the trees. A broad-winged hawk wheeled overhead, giving a high, thin scream, then landed near the top of one of the tall trees and began to meticulously preen its feathers.
Sometimes, in the forest, it pays to play a hunch. I don't know why, but as I watched the hawk I froze, binoculars halfway to my eyes, then very slowly turned my head to look behind me. An agouti was emerging from the dark tunnel of the trail. It is hard to describe an agouti; to call it a rodent, however biologically accurate that may be, conveys an entirely inaccurate impression, for there was nothing at all furtive or slinky about it. It weighed about ten pounds and was the size of a fox, and looked like a cross between a sleek guinea pig and a deer -- slender legs, a solid, squared-off body with no visible tail, and large, dark eyes. It stopped and looked around, its Roman nose twitching, the low sun casting a green iridescence over its glossy brown fur.
I had seen agoutis before in the rain forests of Central and South America, but only as indistinct shapes hurtling across the trail in the twilight, or scuffling in the dark just beyond my flashlight beam. The head had a rabbitish look despite the small ears, and the hair around the rump was coarser and longer than the fine pelt on its neck and shoulders; when an agouti is alarmed, it flares this corona of bristles like a grass skirt.
The agouti padded forward on its small, pink feet until it was within a foot of the pack lying by my side. Only then did it seem to notice me, staring up with those luminous eyes. It did a graceful pirouette of a hop, stopping to look back as if in disbelief. It flared its rump hair, skittered a few more yards and stopped once more to peer at me. Then it finally seemed to resolve things in its own mind, and trotted off with dignified deliberation.
The enchantment broke, and I turned back to stare at the valleys and mountains spread below me, gauging my next move. I wasn't in the Caribbean to commune with rodents -- I was there to solve a mystery. Somewhere down in that intensely green, intensely vertical landscape, a lost soul had been hiding for more than half a century. I was trying to find it.
* * * * *
Biologists estimate there are between 10 and 30 million species of living things on our planet, only a fraction of which have been described and cataloged. New species come to light every day, from obscure beetles to unknown birds and even a few large mammals. The two centers of this biological diversity are tropical ecosystems, which support almost incomprehensible numbers of plants and animals, and islands, which by their isolation promote the rapid evolution of unique life forms. Tropical islands, like those of the Caribbean, are thus doubly blessed by nature.
Prior to European discovery, virtually every island in the Antilles held species that were found nowhere else in the world -- endemics, as they are known. Hispaniola had to itself three species of shrew, two kinds of ground sloths (one of which weighed 150 pounds), seven species of chunky rodents called hutias, a squirrel-sized insectivore with a ratlike tail and an impossibly long, pointy snout known as a solenodon, as well as more than two dozen unique birds. Jamaica had roughly 30 endemic bird species, as well as a hutia, five endemic snakes, a unique tree frog, two species of endemic bats, an iguana and several smaller lizards called galliwasps. Cuba, the biggest island in the Caribbean basin, had the greatest diversity of life, including more than two dozen endemic birds, one of which, the bee hummingbird, is at a shade over two inches long the world's smallest bird. (Cuba's natural wealth is a textbook example of the principles of biogeography, a main rule of which is that the larger an island, or the closer it lies to the mainland, the greater the diversity of life it will support. But the Antilles also showcase a corollary: The further from the mainland an island is, the more uniquely evolved its flora and fauna tend to be.)
Unfortunately, island species tend to be a bit less adaptable than their mainland counterparts, especially when confronted with new predators, and because of their limited range and population size, they are all the more susceptible to extinction. At the end of the last ice age, the West Indies were populated with an assortment of animals that would appear bizarre to modern eyes: giant ground sloths; rodents the size of small bears; several species of flightless owls on Cuba that were three feet tall, with long, heron-like legs for running down their prey; and a condor rivaling today's Andean condor in size. Many of these became extinct after the end of the ice age, 10,000 years ago, an extinction wave that intensified after Amerindians settled the islands, starting between 7,000 and 4,500 years ago. Paleontologists call these "first-contact extinctions," on the assumption that human hunting drove the losses. (But if humans took away, they also gave; agoutis like the one I saw were not native to the Caribbean, but were apparently brought from South America by natives as a food supply.)
The large, the flightless, the tasty and the unwary winked out on island after island, a trend that repeated itself with smaller and fleeter species when Europeans began to colonize the region in the 16th century. For instance, at least 15 or 16 species of parrots, including eight species of large macaws, became extinct after 1600, most of them now known only from notations in the logbooks of early explorers, who found them as palatable in the pot as they were colorful in the air. One species, from St. Croix, is known from only a single bone. The Cuban macaw, a stunning bird nearly two feet long, with a red head and body and blue wings, lasted a bit longer, finally disappearing at the end of the 19th century.
St. Lucia is very small -- only twenty-seven miles long and, at its most expansive just fourteen wide, covering barely 240 square miles -- and neighboring islands like St. Vincent and Martinique provided stepping stones for colonizing wildlife. Consequently, its endemism rate is fairly low; there is a colorful ground lizard, a nonvenomous grass snake, a unique race of boa constrictor, and five species of endemic birds. The endangered St. Lucian parrot, or jacquot, which numbers barely five hundred individuals, is large and noisy, with a cobalt-blue face, a rich suffusion of red down the chest and belly, and splashes of blue, yellow and red on the wings. There is the St. Lucian pewee, a species of flycatcher with a cinnamon breast, and a black-finch with bubblegum-pink legs. The St. Lucian oriole is vivid orange and black; like the parrot, it epitomizes the dazzle we expect from tropical birds.
There is precious little dazzle to the fifth species on St. Lucia's list of endemic birds, the Semper's warbler, which may be the dullest tropical bird on Earth. It is notable not for its plumage (which is the color of oatmeal, and as exciting), nor its song (which no one has ever described or recorded), but solely for its rarity.
When the French and English first began squabbling over who got to keep St. Lucia -- a disagreement that would last 150 years and see the island change hands fourteen times -- Semper's warbler was fairly common in the lush mountain rain forests. It was first collected for science in the 1870s by a St. Lucian clergyman, the Rev. John E. Semper, and eventually named in his honor, though the Creole inhabitants of the island knew it long before as the pied blanc, or "white foot," because of its large, pale legs. The bird's scientific name acknowledges the same feature, merging the Greek words for "white feet" to create its genus name, Leucopeza.
Semper's warbler is about five inches long and gray -- dishwater gray, battleship gray, old-movie gray. Dull, bland, flat; even the adjectives that best describe it are monosyllabic and boring. It is the kind of creature that birders dismiss as an LBJ, a "little brown jobbie," but even that suggests too much pizzazz. And yet, despite its lackluster appearance, birders have been combing St. Lucia's forests in search of it for years -- drawn, not by looks, but by the cachet of extinction. For within a few decades following its discovery, Semper's warbler went from common to kaput.
Judging by the number of specimens found in collections from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Semper's warbler must have been widespread, but by the late 1920s, the Caribbean ornithologist James Bond spent weeks looking for it without success. (This was the same James Bond whose name was later appropriated, with his permission, for Ian Fleming's fictional secret agent.) Some worried that the species was extinct, but kept on hunting. A single female was located in 1934 and promptly shot; at that time, stuffing a specimen for a collection was sometimes considered more important than preserving the living species.
Stanley John, the St. Lucian who collected the 1934 specimen, spent further decades searching for the bird, which vanished for another twenty-seven years. On May 21, 1961, John spotted another -- left alive this time -- along the eastern coast near the village of Louvet. Like all the other recorded sightings, it was found in virgin forest with a heavy understory of ferns; John and other hunters said the species made a "soft tuck-tick-tick-tuck" call, pumped its tail up and down when perched, and sometimes quivered its wings when flushed.
Since then, Semper's warbler has been a cipher. Nothing is known of where, when or how it built its nest, how many eggs it laid or what markings they bore, what the juvenile plumage looked like, or even what the male's song sounded like. Most importantly, nothing is known of its status -- whether it is alive or dead. It has been written off on many occasions, only to pop up again in tantalizing but unsubstantiated reports.
One sighting came in 1969, another in 1972, still others in 1989 and 1995. The trouble with sight records, of course, is the lack of any form of objective proof. The 1972 sighting, for instance, is largely dismissed by experts because the two people who claimed to have seen Semper's warbler were inexperienced with Caribbean birds in general, and the area in which they said they saw it was completely unlike the habitat in which it had always been found. By contrast, the 1989 sighting was made by Donald Anthony, an experienced wildlife biologist in the St. Lucian Forestry Department, who was hiking on Gros Piton, a high, sharp spike of a mountain along the southeast coast. On the face of it, this would seem good proof of the species' survival -- yet it was a quick, fleeting glimpse, and despite another twenty-six ascents of Gros Piton in the years that followed, Anthony has never seen another Semper's warbler, leaving some to wonder if his brief, original sighting was a mistake.
Why all the fuss over a dull little bird? Like a relative who isn't appreciated until she's gone, many creatures that were ignored, even vilified in life become icons in the grand death of extinction. In the 19th century, mountain lions (also known as cougars or panthers) were hunted down with such vigor that they were exterminated in every state east of the Mississippi, except for a small population in Florida and perhaps some in the wilderness of New Brunswick. Within a generation of their extinction in the Appalachians, however, people began to report lion sightings in places like New York, Pennsylvania and the southern highlands of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee -- reporting them not with the hatred once reserved for a large predator, but with barely contained excitement.
The question of whether or not cougars survive in the East illustrates many of the difficulties and subtle allure that go with such mysteries. The subspecies of the cougar that originally inhabited the Northeast, Puma concolor cougar, has been considered extinct since the early 1900s, even though it is officially listed as "endangered" under both the federal Endangered Species Act and CITES, the international treaty that covers threatened plants and animals; this status provides protection should a cougar miraculously reappear. And reappear they do -- private organizations that track lion sightings in the East say they get hundreds of reports every year, some from people like foresters, game wardens and biologists who are hard to dismiss as crackpots. Yet outside of New England, where Canadian cougars may have recolonized, there has been almost no physical evidence like warm, road-killed bodies or indisputable photographs. (There have been a few cougars that have been shot over the years, but close examination usually shows them to be of the Latin American subspecies common in captivity.)
I live in the Appalachians, and I know people who claim to have seen cougars here. Some are friends of mine, sturdy, reliable people. The idea is incredibly seductive -- the notion that these gentle mountains, long settled and so badly misused by people for centuries, could have reclaimed such a potent symbol of wilderness as the mountain lion. Sometimes, I think, we need to believe such things even when the evidence (or its absence) suggests we are deluding ourselves. Deep down in our over-civilized hearts, we need the world to be bigger, and more mysterious, and more exciting than it appears to be in the cold light of day -- especially in this age, when the planet shrinks daily and no place seems truly remote or unknown. People keep looking for the long-extinct Bachman’s warbler, or the marsupial Tasmanian "tiger," for the same reasons that they go to mediums in hope of contacting dear, departed Aunt Louise. We’re unwilling to accept that there isn’t more to the world than what we can see.
When it comes to charismatic wildlife science, too, sometimes blurs into wishful thinking. Nor is this a recent phenomenon; even in the 19th century, when wonders were being found around every bend, explorers often hoped to rediscover survivors of an even more glorious past. Thomas Jefferson suspected that the Lewis and Clark expedition would encounter giant ground sloths in the West, or mammoths like those whose fossilized bones he had unearthed in Virginia. And Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, about explorers who find dinosaurs on a remote South American plateau, was merely a fictionalized account of a situation Victorian naturalists still thought possible, though unlikely -- that in the deepest parts of the unexplored tropics, Cretaceous reptiles still lived. Indeed, to this day some people hold out this hope, and mount expeditions to the heart of the Congo to look for Mokele-mbembe, a legendary dinosaur-like monster of the swamps.
We paint the blank spots on maps with our deepest fears and secret longings, and today we still grasp at straws, unwilling to admit that we've wrung most of the mystery out of the world. Sure, there are still a few new species of large mammals coming out of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, where decades of war kept scientists at bay until now, but for many people, that's not enough. So they comb the wilds of Cornwall, looking for tracks from the big cat known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor, or spend their vacations scouting the Cascades for Sasquatch. When a surprisingly credible report of ivory-billed woodpeckers -- surprising because the species had been written off as extinct in the U.S. forty years ago -- came out of the swamps of Louisiana recently, people immediately descended on the area, a strange mix of the skeptical, the curious, the methodical and the overly credulous. One of the searchers was certain the birds were there, she said, because a friend was channeling their spirits, telling her they were at last ready to reveal themselves.
John Burroughs, the great 19th century naturalist, said that, "You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush." I was not channeling the spirit of Semper's warbler, but for months I had been combing through the scientific literature, talking to experts, visiting museums and looking at maps until my eyes teared. I had it in my mind, at least; the only way to see if it was in my heart was to go to St. Lucia and find out.