Category: Irma’s Island

Planting Ahead

In the aftermath of a major hurricane like Irma, we all pause to take stock of our own preparedness. Who hasn’t bought an extra flashlight over the last few months? Generators, camp stoves and tarps: we’ve probably bought many things that will hopefully gather dust for many years before they are needed.

The key to our survival?

Local government and other organizations are also thinking towards the future, even if it is not always as much as we might hope. In Grand Case, power lines are being buried. The safety of coastal areas on the French side is being assessed to determine how and where we rebuild.

Will the island recover stronger than ever? Will we rebuild smarter and safer? Will governments and companies make decisions that will reduce the impact of future hurricanes? History will be the judge of that. In the meantime, there’s at least one important thing we can do.

Mangrove sprouts, called propagules, can be gathered on the beach for planting.

Native trees benefit both wildlife and humans. They provide food and shelter for birds and other animals. They also protect the island—and those who live on it—from some of the dangers of hurricanes. Planting them now can help us prepare for future storms.

On our hillsides, native trees help retain soil. When a brushfire sweeps across a grassy hill, we can see the state of the land without trees. It is a mosaic of stones with just the slimmest veins of soil between them. Reforesting these areas can help to bring them back to life. It can also reduce the chance of landslides or loose stones causing damage during or after a storm.

On our ponds and coastlines, mangroves and trees like the sea grape can help form a barrier against storm surge. These trees can absorb some of the energy of the waves, protecting homes further inland. They can also help save beaches and coastlines from erosion.

A freshly-planted mangrove propagule.

We need to replace many trees that were lost during Irma. If we are being honest with ourselves, we also need to replace many trees that were lost before Irma as we cleared and developed the island. There are few other tasks so simple and so necessary.

With some luck, our next major hurricane will be years away. The emergency radio you just bought will be so old you’ll have trouble finding it, and maybe it won’t even work anymore. But the trees you plant today will be standing tall and protecting us.

Changing Landscapes

St. Martiners know all about changing landscapes. Ponds are filled, bush is cleared, roads are cut into the hills. But people aren’t the only ones changing the landscape. As the Christmas winds push the swell in different directions, the beach in Grand Case fills up and disappears. Ponds expand and contract between the wet and dry seasons.

A new channel connects pond to sea at Le Galion.

Hurricane Irma made changes in the landscape. There’s a big one down on the beach at Le Galion. A channel was opened through the beach that links the bay to the salt pond behind it. The pond, Salines d’Orient, has been transformed by the clear seawater that can now flow in more freely. The point that once connected Orient Bay and Le Galion is now an odd-shaped peninsula at the end of Orient Beach.

How will this impact the plants and animals living there? Salines d’Orient may benefit from its connection to the sea. In the past, this pond has suffered from massive die-off events that left piles of dead fish and crabs along the shore. Usually these happen when extra nutrients—like those in wastewater—cause rapid growth of algae and bacteria that use up all the oxygen in the water. Fish and other animals then suffocate and die.

Why not create a new island? Dig a channel at the very end of Orient Beach and leave a crescent moon of land just slightly offshore. Fewer people would visit, perhaps measures could even be taken to reduce rats and make it mongoose-free. Would seabirds nest there? Could we restore a diverse coastal forest? It is an idea worth considering.

The roots that hold our coastlines together.

If you stop by Le Galion, take a moment to look across the new channel. Imagine a tiny new island across from you. Also take a look at the sea grape tree across the channel from you. Its great nest of roots is exposed where the sand was washed away, but it still hangs on. Without this tree, the channel could have been much larger. Sand and stone and concrete was washed out by the raging waves, but that single tree would not be moved.

Island on Fire

Sometimes it seems like the whole island is on fire these days: a warehouse in Cole Bay, the hillside above French Cul-de-Sac, piles of yard waste, and St. Martin’s Olympic torch, the Philipsburg landfill. Fire is part of nature—we certainly didn’t invent it. It has also been part of land management in the Caribbean for hundreds of years.

A brushfire sweeps through the hills.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, there is plenty to burn. The island has been working do dispose of years worth of debris generated in a few short hours. The island’s struggle to handle its own waste has been known for years. The current situation merely brings it to light once again. Seeing our garbage in flames is inevitable, but still unacceptable.

Firefighters protect nearby homes.

Our role in brushfires is more complex. Human activity can trigger them, like when a burning pile of yard waste gets out of control. We may also contribute to the conditions that make them more likely. Healthy forests help retain rainwater. Cleared hillsides grow back with grass and wild tamarind seedlings that turn into tinder during the dry season.

In the aftermath of a hurricane, dead trees and shrubs have the potential to make brushfires more severe. The areas that burn may also be more critical to native animals that have already suffered loss of life and habitat.

Fire may also rob the island of valuable resources. Dead trees are an important part of the ecosystem. They are food for mushrooms, termites and the larvae of longhorn beetles. A rotting log can be as full of life as a living tree.

The larvae of longhorn beetles eat dead wood.

The termite feeds the lizard and the lizard feeds the Killy-killy. The rebirth of the island will spring from a fallen tree if we let it. On this busy, crowded rock, perhaps we don’t have the time and space to let nature take her course with every trunk and branch. But we should take care when playing with fire, and spare a few logs from the flame.

A slave wall stopped the fire from spreading across the hill.

Here for Now

Each island in the Caribbean is both unique and connected to its neighbors. The sea between islands forms a barrier between them that limits movement from island to island, but it isn’t an absolute barrier. The balance between separation and connection keeps our wild spaces in constant change. Major events, like hurricanes, can break down these barriers and cause sudden changes.

Birds can fly from island to island, but that doesn’t mean they will do it on their own. Many species are perfectly content to stay where they are. Seabirds travel great distances, and migratory birds fly thousands of miles each year. In both cases, they are moving to find food. Other birds, like sugar birds and doves, find the flowers, fruits and seeds they need right here. Few will ever leave St. Martin.

Year of the pigeon or the beginning of a new era?

Hurricane Irma brought White-crowned Pigeons, which aren’t usually seen here. They do live on Antigua and Barbuda. These birds are capable of flying here, but it took an exceptional event to actually bring them. In this case, Hurricane Irma took the perfect path to carry them from there to here.

Since Irma, White-crowned Pigeons have been seen in many places on the island. There are definitely enough to find mates and start raising chicks here. Will they become a permanent part of our local birdlife?

There are some reasons to predict they won’t survive here. Hunting is one of the main threats to White-crowned Pigeons. At some point in the past St. Martin probably did have White-crowned Pigeons. Hunting is probably one of the reasons why they disappeared. Along with the Scaly-naped Pigeon, it is one of the most popular birds to hunt in the region.

The White-crowned Pigeon also has pretty specific habitat needs. They prefer nesting in mangroves and coastal areas, but they usually feed up in forested hills. If they don’t have enough of one or both of these habitats, they may not be able to survive. They also tend to be afraid of humans. They are known to abandon their nests if there is too much human activity nearby. With so many people on St. Martin, it could be a real challenge to find places to nest.

It is also possible that they will stick around and prosper. There’s really no way of knowing, except to watch and find out. They broke through a barrier by crossing the sea, but there’s no guarantee they will find what they need now that they are here. Will we remember this as the one year St. Martin had White-crowned Pigeons? Or will it be the year they came back for good?

The Tree of Life Goes On

Gaïac, Lignum Vitae, Guayacán—there are many names for the tree of life. This tree is a Caribbean original, found only the islands of the West Indies and the Caribbean coast of South America. It is one of the most beautiful and precious trees on the island. It has survived Irma and many trials before.

Before Irma, a series of trunks joined to form a dense crown.

The Gaïac evolved here, and the climate of the Caribbean helped determine its form. These trees have deep roots so they can keep their green leaves during the driest of dry seasons. They have the hardest wood in the world, thick with resin to discourage insects that might try to eat it. Deep roots and a strong trunk also help ensure that the heart of the tree can survive a hurricane and be reborn.

Today, leaves are returning to a skeleton of bare branches.

Historically, we have been the greater threat to this wondrous tree. They were cut down for their strong wood, which was used in boats, mortars, billy clubs and even billiard balls. The bark of the Gaïac was known—incorrectly it seems—as a cure for syphilis. Today the tree is endangered. People often think of it as a small tree because all the huge old ones are gone.

Luckily, the Gaïac has many fans. It is a beautiful tree, bursting out into blue flowers once or twice a year. They have been planted in yards around the island and a few wild ones can still be seen in the hills. The storm has given us a chance to watch their recovery up close.

New growth came quickly after Irma.

In Grand Case, a tree near the sea lost almost every branch, but new leaves were growing right away. After a few weeks of growth, all the new leaves were eaten by caterpillars of the Bewitching Melipotis moth. Today, a balance has been reached and the tree continues to recover while also providing food for some caterpillars.

Caterpillars eat new growth down to the last leaf.

In Cay Bay, a number of twisting trunks reach up together. Bare patches reveal their form, new leaves point to the life returning. Previously, they formed a thick, shady crown together. Eventually, they will again.

This Is a Test

As we begin a new year, memories of Hurricane Irma are still fresh. On the island, there are still a million reminders of the destruction, big and small. But we’re also moving on. As we turn toward the future, we should try to make it a better one.

St. Martin faces many challenges, but at the heart there’s really just one question: How do the people of St. Martin prosper in the long term?

Where will we go in 2018?

Of course, the island is prosperous in many ways. Over the last 50 years, it has built up a huge tourism industry for such a tiny island. But, like many places, the prosperity has been unequal and unsustainable. Poverty and unemployment are too high, and issues like pollution and waste management are threats to both health and the local economy.

Unlocking the value in St. Martin’s nature and heritage could make a big positive impact. Irma reminded us we live here at the grace of mother nature, but we need to take that to heart. Our health and survival depend are tied to the health of the island. Air we can’t breathe and seas we can’t swim in are bad today. If they continue, these environmental issues will eventually bring down the entire economy.

Nature and heritage are also undervalued as assets. St. Martin makes money from the beach and the sea, but other things are mostly ignored. History, architecture, birds, archaeology, wetlands and lizards that live nowhere else on earth all have unused potential. There are efforts to highlight and share these things, but they have yet to get the attention they deserve.

Nature and heritage can be part of a tourism offering that is unique and sustainable. Education on these topics should be available to everyone. Today’s schoolchildren should be tomorrow’s experts on everything that makes the island unique. They should enter the workforce with the skills to take on rewarding jobs or start their own businesses.

Understanding and valuing nature and heritage also gives us the incentive to protect them. Many on the island are frustrated with the lack of progress on environmental issues, or the failure to preserve historic sites. When it is strong and widespread, the will of the people will ultimately bring change.

In Irma’s shadow, we have choices about how to rebuild, what to protect and how to tell the story of the island. It’s a chance to build a better future. This is a test.

Eye on the Invaders

It is a sad and common story in island ecology: humans bring new species that eat or outcompete native species. Usually we bring them by accident. Hitchhiking animals are the unintended consequence of global trade.

While their arrival may be accidental, there are a number of factors that contribute to the success of these invaders. Animals and plants from large islands or continents are adapted to more complex, more competitive ecosystems. Arriving on a small island they find it easy to excel—imagine Rihanna showing up to karaoke night at your neighborhood bar.

House Sparrows make a home in some of the least natural places on earth.

Often, successful invaders are also well-adapted to life in degraded habitats. House Sparrows are a good example. We find them living in airports, train stations and other places that would be unthinkable for most species. It’s no surprise many invaders can live in landscapes that have been changed by humans. Living around humans makes them more likely to be transported and more likely to find success in a new home.

A devastating hurricane is a big opportunity for species skilled at living in marginal spaces. Post-hurricane conditions have a lot in common with human-altered landscapes. Vegetation is cleared and new growth may be at least temporarily dominated by a handful of fast-growing species. That’s a lot like land cleared for development or agriculture—a forest replaced with a handful of plants.

On St. Martin, a couple of introduced species have been living on the edge for years. These two tree lizards have established populations, but each has been stuck in a little corner of the island. The Puerto Rican Crested Anole has lived at Port de Plaisance, and the Cuban Brown Anole has lived at the cruise ship terminal.

The Puerto Rican Crested Anole is still here.

Each of these lizards has found limited success in a very unnatural habitat. Neither has made it into wild scrub or forest areas. In those areas, our two native tree lizards—the Anguilla Bank Anole and Bearded Anole—still rule the roost. All four species occupy very similar spaces in the local ecosystem, which may be on reason the introduced species have had trouble spreading.

Hurricane Irma posed a challenge to our invaders: either small colony could have been wiped out. It also may have opened an opportunity. Widespread destruction may have given them a chance to spread.

The Cuban Brown Anole, living on the edge in St. Martin.

Like so many other things, the status of these invaders on post-Irma St. Martin deserves some attention. Do natural disasters and human activity work together to speed the invasion of non-native species? For now, we know that the colony of Puerto Rican Crested Anoles has survived. To see if it spreads, we will have to keep an eye on these invaders.

The Case of the Missing Wasp

If you’ve ever wandered the hills of St. Martin, you’re sure to be familiar with the Jack Spaniard. It is a red, yellow and black wasp that builds nests of paper and defends them fiercely. Too often, the first sign of a nearby nest is a piercing, electric sting. A couple days of itching and swelling follow. Any dry spot is a likely nest location: a big branch, a wide leaf, an awning or a rocky overhang.

But where are they now? In the days immediately after the hurricane, Jack Spaniards came to our hummingbird feeders, but then they stopped. They’ve been conspicuously absent in the months since. We have bees and we have butterflies. We have had plenty of flies and mosquitoes. But the Jack Spaniard seems to be gone.

From the “where are they now?” files…the Jack Spaniard.

Hurricanes seem like the perfect tool to get rid of these wasps. The winds were strong enough to rip their paper nests down to be soaked and destroyed. Adult wasps feed on nectar—which is why they were at our hummingbird feeders—and most of them may have starved in the aftermath of the storm. These wasps feed their young on caterpillars, another resource that would have been absent immediately after Irma.

This triple threat may help explain why Jack Spaniards vary so much from island to island. Pre-Irma they were extremely common here. On St. Kitts, I only saw them a couple times during weeks of field research. If recovery after a major storm takes years, perhaps differences between islands can be connected to hurricanes.

I imagine many would say “Good riddance!” to the Jack Spaniard. Personally, I don’t mind being able to walk down a trail without being stung. But they do play a role in the local ecosystem—a few, in fact. They pollinate flowers when they are feeding on nectar, and they kill a lot of caterpillars to feed their larvae. They’re also a popular food for the Gray Kingbird.

Dedicated parents, Jack Spaniards hunt caterpillars for their young.

What will happen next? Chances are, they’re only mostly gone. I would guess that some nests survived in very protected areas, like caves or abandoned buildings. If there are some still here, we will start to see them as the population grows. This could be a very fascinating chance to watch and learn as a unique phenomenon happens.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any Jack Spaniard specialists working on the island right now. I guess it is up to all of us. If you see Jack Spaniards or their nests, contact Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook or at lesfruitsdemer.com. Let us know where and when you saw them, and take a photo if you can. Perhaps together we can make a new discovery about how an animal population recovers after a hurricane. That’s gotta be worth a sting or two!

Helping Hands

Hurricanes have shaped Caribbean ecosystems for millions of years. Any plants or animals that couldn’t survive the periodic damage from these storms would have disappeared from islands like St. Martin. The native species that live here today are hurricane-ready by design.

Hundreds have been feeding birds in the last few months.

But things have changed in recent centuries. Humans have altered the island tremendously. We have cleared forests and filled ponds. We have brought new plants and animals, and some of these compete with or consume native species. Wild spaces have become smaller and more vulnerable. Already pushed to the edge, our local habitats can use a helping hand.

Irma was a world-class showcase in the raw destructive power of nature. Somehow, in Irma’s aftermath we also became closer to nature. We were humbled by the storm. We were astounded by the speed of nature’s rebirth, especially compared to our own labored steps towards rebuilding. We realized that our existence here is a partnership with nature.

Volunteers clear debris from a hillside.

In the last few months, amidst the surviving and struggling and rebuilding, so many St. Martiners have found time to help nature. Hundreds came to get bird feeders so they could help local birds survive. Hundreds have participated in clean-ups all around the island, from the beaches to the hills. Dozens have helped plant local trees to restore habitats.

Most of these efforts existed before Irma, but have gained momentum recently. The Clean St. Martin Facebook group was started in 2016, but only began organizing weekly clean-up events this fall. Environmental Protection in the Caribbean has done a series of habitat restoration projects through the years. Their current work planting native trees on hillside and wetlands sites has captured the interest of many volunteers eager to make a difference right now.

Planting mangroves at Little Key.

Joining in as we clean the island and restore habitat is a great way to help nature recover from Irma. In the long term, healthier habitats are stronger when facing future hurricanes and other threats.

We also benefit when we work for nature. Healthy native forests prevent erosion. Healthy wetlands keep our seas clean and our coral reefs alive. Beautiful hillsides and beaches boost the tourism value of the island. On a more personal level, a morning outdoors planting or cleaning can make you feel really great.

We Will Never Know

Hurricanes are a great force of transformation. In the Caribbean, they are often the milestones in our collective memory: before Donna, between Luis and Lenny, after Irma. Towns change after a hurricane and nature does, too.

There are many natural changes that are associated with Hurricane Luis in 1995. Many will tell you that the bright red Oleander Moth arrived at this time. Others add the Green Iguana and the Giant African Land Snail, too. Some trace today’s Vervet Monkey population to individuals that escaped during Luis. Many recount the lack of birds after Luis, particularly hummingbirds and Sugar Birds.

It is hard to tell how accurate these stories are. Some may be coincidences. It is natural to connect events from the same time period with a major event like Luis or Irma. In other cases, these stories can be true. Hurricane winds and waves do bring animals from island to island on occasion. Huge amounts of material are also shipped in during the rebuilding period. New species often hitch a ride with building materials and trees for landscaping.

At this very moment, there may be changes happening that will change nature on the island forever. But we will never know exactly what they are.

How are Ground Lizards doing after Irma? It’s hard to say.

Nature on St. Martin is special. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. There are species that live only here. There habitats that don’t have an exact match on any other island. It should be something worth studying, but we don’t really study it a lot.

To understand the impact of a hurricane like Irma, we need to study the plants and animals of St. Martin all the time. We need to know what a normal year is like and what a dry year is like. We need to measure changes over time. Scientists might call this the baseline data—the normal, the before.

Ideally, there would also be research teams on the ground immediately after Irma to study what is happening to natural systems. How are trees and plants growing back? How did bird numbers change after the storm? How has debris changed water quality in ponds? Are invasive species spreading? This work would be in addition to rescue efforts to help the people of the island, and some of the information might help keep people safe and healthy.

We missed an opportunity to learn about nature, and it happens all the time. As our most urgent recovery needs are met, we should work towards understanding our own island better. We will never know exactly what Irma did to nature on St. Martin, but perhaps next time we will.

Out of the Woodwork

Nature lovers—and perhaps even casual observers—may have noticed some unusual animals on St. Martin after Hurricane Irma. There are a few different reasons why animals we don’t usually see here may be on the island, or more visible than usual.

Hurricanes can bring animals with them, especially birds. Birds can be trapped in the eye of a hurricane for hours or days, forced to move with the storm. There have been many cases where hurricanes have deposited birds far from their home or migratory destination.

The Scaly-naped Pigeon is not rare, but is rarely seen in town.

Some unusual sightings after Irma could be birds brought from islands the storm passed on its way here. However, this would be difficult to know for sure because those islands—like Barbuda—mostly have the same birds that live here.

Migratory birds can be thrown off course by hurricanes. Needing rest after flying near or through a storm, they may stop in unfamiliar destinations. A small flock of American Golden Plovers was seen for the first time on Statia just after Irma. This species prefers wetlands, which Statia lacks, so they moved on quickly.

A White-crowned Pigeon near the beach is an odd sight on St. Martin

Birds can also change their behavior after a hurricane in ways that make them easier to see. Scaly-naped and White-crowned Pigeons have been seen in urban areas on several islands after Irma, including St. Martin. While these species are native, they prefer forested hilltops. The destruction of their habitat may have brought them down in search of food.

Domesticated animals set loose by the hurricane aren’t exactly wildlife, but they could become wild. Free-roaming pigs made headlines several times before they were recaptured. We were visited by a Cockatiel and a Lovebird during the weeks after Irma. Like many native birds, they had come to us for food. Friends saw a rabbit hopping around Simpson Bay.

Our exotic bird friends entertained us, but they don’t belong in the wild.

Native species tend to find their way after a storm. They will continue their migration or head back to their homes in the hills as the forests recover. Hopefully lost pets and livestock will find their way home as well. If they don’t some—feral pigs, for example—can have the potential to become dangerous to both man and nature.

Welcome Back!

Every fall, birds come to St. Martin—thousands of individual birds from dozens of different species. These migratory birds come from North America. As it gets colder up there and food begins to get scarce, they head to the Caribbean. Many of them will stay until April or May.

Migratory shorebirds forage at Guichard Pond in Friar’s Bay
This year, Hurricane Irma hit St. Martin with a fury, right during the migration season. Some birds had already arrived here when the storm hit. Others were caught in the storm while they were flying. Many birds made their migratory flights after, arriving on an island with heavy damage. What happened to all these birds?

Migratory birds that were already here may have left before the storm. Although they can’t read the weather report, birds can sense changes in air pressure. Feeling the storm coming, they may have traveled to another island out of Irma’s path. For these long distance voyagers, hopping over to a nearby island is easy.

Although birds tend to avoid storms, some do get caught in hurricanes. They can be trapped inside the calm eye of the hurricane with high winds forming a wall around them. In some cases, there are so many birds they can be seen in the radar images of the storm. When this happens, birds that survive may end up well off course.

The larger duck, a Northern Pintail, is rarely seen on St. Martin.

Thanks to tiny satellite trackers small enough for a bird to wear, we have actually seen what happens when birds get stuck in a hurricane. Several Whimbrels—a medium-sized wading bird that eats small crabs—have been monitored as they passed through major storms. Some skirted the edge of a hurricane, while others struggled against strong winds for hours before eventually making it out. After their ordeal, they will often stop to rest, even if they are not at their usual destination.

Many birds have also arrived after Irma. Visiting St. Martin’s ponds, one can see a variety of different species. Shorebirds, like the Whimbrel, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper and Black-bellied Plover can be seen foraging along the shore. Out in the water, Blue-winged Teals mingle with local ducks. High above, the Osprey hunts for fish.

Although most of our usual migratory friends are here, it does look like they are fewer in number this year. Some may have found less food if they arrived right after the passing of Irma. Others may have been disturbed by human activity. Large piles of debris were made near many of the ponds, with the constant activity of heavy machinery.

For those birds that are here, rapidly recovering ponds and mangroves should offer quite the buffet of fish, crab and other foods. We welcome them back to our island to share in its recovery.

Still Hanging On

Extinction has always been a part of island life. Why are smaller islands home to fewer species? In part, because of extinction. Small islands have less habitat, so they have smaller populations of plants and animals. If something bad happens—a severe drought or terrible storm—these small populations are at risk.

On a continent, if a habitat is temporarily unlivable animals can move to a nearby place that is still okay. Once the habitat recovers, they can move back in. On an island, the sea blocks this kind of movement. If a species gets wiped out, it may be gone for good.

These natural extinctions are a key part of Caribbean ecology, but they are also rare. Without humans, extinctions and new colonizations of plants and animals balance each other out. Both happen rarely, and the mix of animals and plants on an island changes very slowly.

The Spotted Woodslave is found only on St. Martin.

Humans brought extinction with them when they arrived in the Caribbean. The first wave came as Amerindian people colonized the region. Evidence suggests that many prehistoric animals, like the giant sloth, Jamaican monkey and some large rodents died out during this time. The extinction of large animals after prehistoric hunters arrive in a new land is a pattern seen all over the world.

European colonization brought a second wave of extinction. The victims included smaller mammals, birds and reptiles. The introduction of foreign species—like rats and mongoose—led to many extinctions. The widespread clearing of land to grow sugarcane and other crops was also a key cause.

Today, the threat of extinction continues, with a new twist. On Dominica, the passing of Hurricane Maria set off a desperate search for the Sisserou, a parrot that lives only on that island. Before the hurricane, the population was estimated at just a few hundred. Scientists made an expedition to check on another rare bird, the Barbuda Warbler, after that island was devastated by Hurricane Irma.

Animals native to the Caribbean have survived hurricanes for millions of years before people arrived. But things have changed. Many Caribbean animals are barely hanging on. A hurricane that might be a hardship to a healthy population could be the end of the line for a species already on the edge.

On St. Martin, it has been a relief to see the two lizards that live nowhere else in the world. The Bearded Anole is common and seems to be doing just fine. The Spotted Woodslave is more mysterious. It hides during the day, often under the peeling bark of a large tamarind tree. It survived, but many large tamarind trees were knocked down by Irma. This species should be watched more carefully, and the habitat it requires should be protected.

Will climate change bring a third wave of extinction to the Caribbean? Stronger and more frequent hurricanes will put many species at risk. Our best defense is to preserve habitat and boost populations of rare species between storms. The time to start that is now.

The Path of Succession

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

Grasses are often first to bounce back.

For the people of St. Martin, rebuilding after Irma will involve many plans and decisions. For nature, the path to recovery flows from the interactions between plants and animals. How an ecosystem changes over time is called succession.

When a new island rises from the sea, or a lava flow destroys an area completely, the process of colonizing this new land is called primary succession. It is a long process from the first pioneers to a rich community of life, and happens rarely. Secondary succession is more common. It happens when a disturbance disrupts an ecosystem, and it is happening right here, right now.

The hurricane had a huge impact on St. Martin’s nature. Leaves were ripped from plants, trees were broken and uprooted and animals perished. Yet amidst this chaos, nature began to recover in an orderly fashion.

The process usually starts small. Grasses and other fast-growing plants sprout up quickly. In places once shaded by trees and shrubs, they drink in the sunlight. Their speedy recovery helps hold soil that could be washed away, and provides food for animals that survived.

In turn, each species takes advantage of the opportunities offered by disruption. On Pic Paradis, seedlings are racing towards the light. They will compete to replace fallen trees until the canopy above the forest floor is full again.

The recovery of surviving trees is part of succession.

After a hurricane, although the destruction can seem devastating, it is rarely complete. The regrowth of surviving trees and plants is often a part of the succession process. The species that survive may dominate the landscape for a time, until new seedlings of other species mature.

Although the process is quick to begin, it can take years to complete. Some plants may be particularly hard-hit by hurricanes, like bromeliads that grow on tree limbs. Some, like ferns may depend on shady, moist habitats that take time to develop after a storm. Species that are slow to grow, like hardwood trees, may take decades to recover.

Birds and bats bring seeds to areas cleared by hurricanes.

The path of succession also depends on the state of landscape before the disruption. Are there rich communities of native plants ready to colonize the land? Are there healthy populations of birds and bats to spread seeds? As nature takes her path to recovery, we have an opportunity to influence the future. We can plant native trees and protect natural spaces or we could destroy them. How we participate in the process is up to us.

Bend or Break

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

Gaïac trees may survive countless countless storms in a lifetime.

The majority of plants and animals on St. Martin never experience a major hurricane. Consider the many insects with lifespans measured in months, not years. Many plants die in the dry season leaving seeds to sprout when the summer brings new rain. Most small birds will pass several generations between serious storms.

The lifetime of a tree, on the other hand, may span many hurricanes. Without being cut short by the axe, the life of a Gaïac tree can be more than 500 years. All of the large trees that survive in the Caribbean—whether native or introduced—have proven their ability to withstand storms.

The Beach Almond loses branches to save itself.

The Beach Almond has brittle branches that snap off, leaving the tree in place to regrow. Spread far and wide by humans, it is hard to know where it evolved this talent. Perhaps it was in Asia, where tropical cyclones haunt coastlines as hurricanes do here.

The big, round leaves of the Sea Grape are lost to the wind, but this beach specialist has roots that are wide and deep. Today, Sea Grape trees still stand where the wind stole roofs and the storm surge toppled concrete buildings.

Palm trees are masters at hurricane survival.

Palm trees have many adaptations to survive storms. They have flexible trunks that bend with the wind, and they have no branches. The a palm frond can fold together like a paper fan to offer less resistance, and the palm can still survive if it is torn off. A wide network of roots anchors a palm in the soil, even on a sandy beach.

Some palms won’t be growing back, a testament to Irma’s strength.

Of course, Irma was no ordinary storm. Many palms were snapped in half, and will not recover. Tamarind trees have survived enough hurricanes on St. Martin to grow to great sizes, but many were felled in this storm. Unlike the Beach Almond, their huge canopies have flexible branches and high winds tore them from the earth despite their massive roots.

Even mighty Tamarinds have fallen.

As we look around the island today, the shape of each tree gives us clues to how it survived the storm. New growth sprouts from a tilted palm. The vast network of roots sent out by the Sea Grape is exposed where Irma tore the sand from the beach. The stubby network of branches reveals what the Beach Almond gave up in order to survive. It is a rare chance to see these wonders of adaptation all around us, a lesson in evolution delivered in the brilliant green of new growth.

The Survivors Flourish

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

Today’s young Sugar Bird will soon have chicks of its own.

For the animals that survived Hurricane Irma, what happens now? For many, the time of hardship will be followed by a time of plenty. To the survivors go the spoils, and the task of rebuilding the local ecosystem.

As luck would have it, the peak of hurricane season comes as the island ramps up to its rainiest months. After the destruction and defoliation, rains have brought a burst of fertility to the island. The hills are already lush and green again.

This timing is important. In the Caribbean, many native animals can breed year-round due to the warm weather. However, most do this less in the spring dry season. During the wet season, animals may bear young more frequently, or raise more offspring at once. With an abundance of food available, more newborn animals survive to adulthood.

As plants and trees regrow, they will begin to provide in abundance for our hurricane survivors. Flowers and fruits and leaves will feed insects, insects will feed lizards, lizards will feed birds. For a time, the survivors of Irma will face less competition for these riches. Their offspring will rise to keep the island buzzing and singing with life.

Recovery after a major disaster is built into the very nature of the ecosystem here. Species that were not adapted to this task would have disappeared long ago. Our native species are not only island specialists, but recovery specialists. Adaptations that help them bounce back from the dry season each year also help them prosper at times like this.

We have the unique opportunity to see an island spring back to life.

All around us, we have an amazing window into the self-healing capabilities of nature. It is on display here at a scale and pace that is easy to watch and appreciate. We can see the way the barren stumps around us begin to regrow. Have you seen a butterfly since the Irma? If not, surely you will soon.

Of course, it will take time to make a full recovery. Giant trees have fallen that will take hundreds of years to replace. Many kinds of bird may take years to get back to the numbers that lived here before Irma. Perhaps some things will never be quite the same. Though the ending is distant and uncertain, this story is ours to witness and enjoy.

Flies Like Us

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

After hanging a few days, there’s barely space left on the flypaper.

It took a few weeks for the flies to build from occasional guest to pest to plague, but by the one-month anniversary of Irma, they were everywhere. What caused this outbreak, and when will it end?

In nature, sudden changes in the population of a plant or animal are often linked to unusual conditions. Usually it’s a bad sign. Deer populations get too high when there are no wolves to hunt them. Seaweed grows out of control if there are too many nutrients in the water.

Flies begin their lives as larvae—often called maggots. Like caterpillars, they are eating machines. Young flies eat all sorts of things, depending on the species. There are poop-eaters, garbage-eaters and carrion-eaters. Common Housefly larvae eat all three, so it’s not surprising they are perhaps the most plentiful right now.

Clean-up takes all kinds of flies.

After Irma, the island was covered in fly food. When we think about the fly life cycle, the surge of flies a few weeks after the hurricane makes a lot of sense. For about two weeks, the larvae were eating and growing. Then they spent a week as pupae, transforming into adult flies.

The sudden creation of all this fly food at once was like a ticking time bomb. Looking back to the days just after Irma, each adult female fly was probably laying hundreds of eggs. Millions of flies were growing for weeks, hidden in the piles of trash. We only realized their full numbers when they emerged as flying adults.

Though they may be annoying, the flies actually serve a very important purpose. They have been consuming garbage, poop and dead animals at an incredible pace. By doing so, they help return nutrients to the soil while also making our grossest garbage disappear. They may seem like a plague in the kitchen, but they are also our saviors in the trash pile.

And they won’t be here forever. As they do their part in the island’s recovery, they prepare for their own decline. After exploding in numbers to eat a year’s worth of garbage in weeks, their population will ebb as soon as the problem is fixed. Of all the aid workers on the island in the past few weeks, flies have done some of the dirtiest work. For this I give thanks, while also looking forward to when things get back to normal.

Helpers at heart.

Closer to Nature

After a major hurricane, it can take years for an island to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, how the island recovers and how it impacts us.

A sphinx moth was one of countless house guests.

Even in this modern world, living in the Caribbean means being close to nature. We spend time outdoors in the wind and sun. The beach is our backyard and our summer never ends.

A hurricane brings us closer to nature in many ways, both big and small. The storm itself was the immense power of nature brought to life. It taught us how small we are, and how vulnerable.

The aftermath brought nature to us and us into nature. Windows that were shut for years to keep in the air conditioning were flung open. Insects and other animals crossed freely between their homes and ours. Moths, beetles and bees were everywhere, perhaps as disoriented as we were.

The storm pushed us into nature. We headed out to clear zinc and branches, to prune trees and shrubs. Once hidden, the animals around us were suddenly out in the open. Birds and iguanas perched on bare branches and headless palm trunks.

As days turned into weeks, the dull brown hills began to explode into green. Grasses were quick to sprout again from their roots. Battered skeleton trees began to sprout new leaves. Flowers began to bloom. Day by day, in the colors of life are returning.

Watching nature recover as hills turn green again.

Though we are busy rebuilding homes, businesses and lives, we have an eye on nature and it gives us strength. To watch the color of the hills and the sea return to normal reminds us that life on St. Martin will go on. All of the island’s native plants and animals are hurricane survivors. If they weren’t, they would have been gone long ago. And if nature can find a way to grow again, so can we.

Still Humming

After a major hurricane, it can take years for nature to recover. In this series, we look at the ways Irma has changed St. Martin, and how the island recovers—day by day and week by week.

An exhausted hummingbird rests on a railing after the storm.

Are there any Irma survivors more amazing than our hummingbirds? For starters, these tiny birds survived the strongest storm winds in Caribbean history. They managed to hang on—unprotected against the elements—while giant tamarind trees were uprooted.

When Irma’s winds died down, the hummingbirds that remained were far from safe. Across the island, every flower had been torn from every plant. Although trees and plants would bounce back quickly, the clock was ticking for our hummingbirds. With a high metabolism, they need to eat frequently to survive. For them, starvation looms in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

One of our first goals after the storm was to provide food for these birds. We had prepared feeders and sugar water to be ready as soon as it was safe to go outside. I had heard many stories from people who didn’t see hummingbirds for years after Hurricane Luis in 1995.

This time, it would be different. As soon as the feeders were out, they were swarmed by hungry birds. Our two hummingbirds—the Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Green-throated Carib—were there in large numbers. Sugar Birds arrived by the dozen and soon there were more than 100. They perched on every tree around the feeder, screeching to each other.

The frenzy at the feeders was a delight during difficult times.

We even had a rare visitor to the feeders, the Purple-throated Carib. Found on many nearby islands, it prefers altitudes higher than what St. Martin has to offer and it is seldom seen here.

A Purple-throated Carib.

Often protective of nectar sources, the multitude of hummingbirds seemed to make peace at the feeders. Especially during the first two weeks, the feeders were busy and magical, with a dozen hungry hummers hovering around a each feeder in the morning.

Three weeks after Irma, the feeders are still busy, but flowers have started blooming again. We helped our hummingbirds bridge a gap that few would have survived on their own. The extra food we provide now gives these survivors a boost as they start new families. With a little luck, no one will talk about the years after Irma when they didn’t see a hummingbird.