Category: Irma’s Island

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.