Swatting mosquitoes and brushing spider webs from my face, I slogged through prickly branches that ensnared my clothes. The sun rose, but few rays penetrated the dense bush. My feet slithered through mud pools.
In Grenada — a Caribbean island renowned for luxury resorts and million-dollar views — I had deliberately chosen this punishing expedition. I wanted to spot the Grenada dove, one of the world’s most endangered birds. And my best chance meant setting out at dawn with forestry conservationist Anthony Jeremiah (www.guidedbirding.com), an expert on Grenada’s national bird.
The Grenada dove’s shaky future has been making news around the world. And the story is closely linked with Canada. Two years ago, the bird’s nesting grounds were threatened by a proposed eco-resort to be operated by Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels. International birding groups chirped their disapproval, and Canada’s literary power couple, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, helped lead the protest. Now, thanks to Grenada dove expert Bonnie Rusk, another Canadian, a compromise solution will allow the resort and the dove to co-exist.
Four Seasons — along with the resort’s developer, U.K.-based Cinnamon 88 — are now committed to preserving the estimated 136 remaining Grenada doves. Someday the resort, birding groups and Grenada’s government may create easily-navigated trails for dove lovers. In the meantime, searching for the birds is an adventure.
“You have to shed some blood to see the dove,” Jeremiah cautioned as we set out. But the bites and scratches were worth it. Almost immediately we heard a series of “hoooo” sounds at seven-second intervals — the trademark call of the Grenada dove. It is the male bird’s attempt to lure females and define its territory during the July-to-January breeding season.
I spotted my first Grenada dove engaged in its favorite activity, pecking for seeds on the forest floor. There was time to note its distinctive white breast. Then, true to its skittish nature, it scuttled away on foot. Later I caught brief glimpses of other Grenada doves perched on branches.
Wildlife biologist Bonnie Rusk grew up in Montreal and now lives in Colorado. She began studying the Grenada dove in 1990 for her Master’s thesis. A census she conducted last year found only 68 male doves on the island, down from 91 before Hurricane Ivan ravaged Grenada in 2004. There is no way to estimate the number of females, she says. She tallies the males by counting their calls.
With World Bank assistance, Grenada set aside three hillsides as a Grenada dove sanctuary in 1996, calling the area Mount Hartman National Park. Ten years later, Grenada’s government secretly promised to sell part of the park to Cinnamon 88.
In Toronto, authors Atwood and Gibson sprang into action. As the honorary presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club, they set up a protest website (www.grenadadovecampaign.com/important-update.html). And to get Four Seasons’ attention, they brown-bagged their own food to two high-profile literary dinners held at the chain’s Yorkville hotel. That brought a call from a Four Seasons vice-president asking for a meeting. “What came out of it was real co-operation,” says Gibson.
“When we came to Grenada, we didn’t realize the importance of the dove,” says Darren Arekion, development director for Cinnamon 88. It didn’t take long for the developers to realize they had stumbled into a public relations minefield. So they hired Rusk for advice on how to save the dove and still build the resort.
The result was a land swap that sees the national park become one contiguous area that is home to most of Mount Hartman’s doves. Four males left stranded on resort land can probably be shooed in, says Rusk. To save the dove, the developer compressed its planned 18-hole championship golf course, reduced the number of vacation homes and promised funding for dove preservation and research. The $500-million (U.S.) resort is to open in 2012.
Bird groups still want an additional dove sanctuary elsewhere on the island plus legislation to protect doves on private land. But, except for a few outstanding details, the flap over the Four Seasons resort appears to be settled.
“I don’t think Four Seasons was going to go away,” says Rusk. “We made it work for the dove. It didn’t have to be one or the other.”
Photo Credits: Doug McArthur, Anthony Jeremiah, Doug McArthur