22 Oct 2001
He who drinks from the spring at Runaway Ghaut
Will surely return to Montserrat
By Larry Manfredi and Dennis Buss
We wanted to visit Montserrat to see the beautiful Montserrat Oriole. We had heard stories of the volcanic eruption on Montserrat in 1997. And we had heard that the Oriole had been reduced in numbers, but had survived the destruction. But we did not think travel to Montserrat was possible: Travel websites showed no flights to Montserrat, and listed no hotels: The website of Montserrat Dept of Tourism was eerily inactive. Fortunately, we called the Department of Tourism and got the facts from Esther.
We discovered that it is possible, and indeed very enjoyable, to visit Montserrat. The southern half of Montserrat (the Exclusion Zone) is a ghostly desolation, covered with volcanic ash. But the northern half contains a colorful and determined population, many relocated from the southern half, who are in the process of rebuilding their lives. We were also very happy to learn that the Montserrat Oriole, thanks to the dedicated efforts of 8-10 naturalists in the Forestry Division, is surviving well in the Centre Hills, which are in the safe, northern part of the island.
To travel to Montserrat, it is necessary to go first to Antigua. From Antigua, you can fly to Montserrat by helicopter or take the ferry. The helicopter runs three times a day (except Sat). The trip takes 30 min, and costs $150 USD round trip. The ferry runs twice a day (except Sun). The ferry is a high-speed catamaran. It travels at 32 nauts, and makes the crossing in an hour. The cost is $30 USD round trip.
We made arrangements with James "Scriber" Daley to show us the Oriole. James is a naturalist in the Forestry Division who has been studying Montserrat Orioles for 16 years. He told us that there are an estimated 2000 Orioles in existence, all in the Centre Hills, except for a small, remnant population in an isolated part of forest that escaped destruction in the southern Soufriere Hills
We arrived on the ferry at 7:30a, and were met by Scriber. He took us in his jeep into the Center Hills, and by 9:30a, we had a male and female Oriole, which we observed and photographed for 30 min. We found the Oriole on Baker Hill, but we won’t attempt to give directions. The trails are totally unmarked. After observing the Oriole, we continued to bird in the Centre Hills. Our bird list is attached.
About 2:00p, we drove across the Montserrat Golf Course, now devastated by a mud-slide, and up Garibaldi Hill past the now abandoned mansions of the area formerly known as the Beverly Hills of Montserrat. From the top of Garibaldi Hill, we looked down on Plymouth, the former capital of Montserrat, now buried in pyroclastic lava ash, and we looked up at the cause of the destruction, still emitting a sinister plume of smoke.
Scriber told us nostalgically that his town, St Patrick, was completely buried under 30 ft of pyroclastic lava. Like many other residents who lost their homes, he was insured, but the insurance companies left the island, and no one has ever received payment. He loves Montserrat, and he is determined to start over; to buy a new property, and to build a new home for himself and his family. He is not alone: There are 4,500 hardy souls still living on Montserrat. During our short stay, we met more than a few of them (including the resident Voodoo doctor), and the stories were hauntingly similar, of their piece of paradise, now buried in the lava, of their calm resignation, and their good-humored optimism the future. Scriber told us that the residents of Montserrat are "God fearing people." It is easy to understand why.
If you are inclined to visit Montserrat to see the Oriole, Scriber is a must: The 2000 Montserrat Orioles are distributed over the trackless wilderness of the Centre Hills which would be very difficult to search without his expert guidance. Roland Wauer (A Birder’s West Indies) reports seeing Montserrat Oriole at Runaway Ghaut in 1989, but Scriber says that he has never seen an Oriole at Runaway Ghaut. Scriber takes pride in showing the Montserrat National treasure to visitors from all over the world, and he "guarantees" success: He knows the location of all 2000 Orioles, and he keeps looking until he finds one. In all his guiding experience, there have been only two occasions, he says, when he has not found a Montserrat Oriole.
We wistfully left Montserrat on the 5:00p ferry. We had experienced in full one of the world’s unique avian treasures. But we had experienced only a fraction of Montserrat’s colorful human endemics. While we were there, we drank from the spring at Runaway Ghaut, so we will certainly return some day to visit with our friends in Montserrat.
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