Blame it on La Niña. That’s what most people do here. That temptress of a weather system is the atmospheric counterpart to the macho El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern in the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean. This year she overruled El Niño and has taken control of our weather patterns. The results have been demonstrative.
La Niña has warmed up southern Caribbean waters to the extent that much of our shoreline coral is experiencing extensive bleaching, the loss of the reef’s color due to rising sea temperatures. My diving buddy, Bruce, and I dove the Wild Side of Bonaire last month since we had a day of little wind. That allowed us to enter the shore sans the rough, churning waves that the eastern trades typically produce there. But we discovered a water world below that looked like the slopes of the Taos Ski Basin mid winter. Large sections of brain coral and other types were bleached like ivory snow. Bruce said only two words to me upon returning to the surface. “La Niña.”
This southern chiquita has also brought on the rain, buckets of it. Our normally parched island resembles vine-entangled Costa Rica in some places. When I walk out of my home at night to walk the dog, I find a gathering of beasts under the outside light in the hallway. Clearly, the gecko is leading the group in some kind of reptilian discussion while the tiny brown frogs, relatives of the exquisitely colored dart frog, are jockeying for a rebuttal. We only see these frogies during wet weather. Yes, it has rained gobs and it does now almost everyday. I hear some warn of global climate change, the gecko not withstanding. But I’m putting my money on the gal from south of the border.
It was in this time of heavy precipitation that my friend, Fernando Simál, gathered us volunteers for a preparatory meeting before our quarterly shorebird count. Fernando works for the national park, and Dutch ladies Esther and Elli, and myself assist him with counting shorebirds four times a year with each session running three days. We split into two groups to accomplish this and cover all the saliñas, semi-salt water lakes that dot the island. Monitoring shorebirds has the caché of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ tradition. A lot can be deduced about changes in the environment by tracking these birds over time.
Fernando’s big concern was the Goto, our largest of saliñas located in the north of the island. We usually walk its mud flat shores for two hours and scan for birds. That covers about 90% of the lake. The remainder is done by stopping at places along the road by the second team.
This year, however, the Goto has swelled its banks due to excessive rain and is perhaps 20-30% larger than normal. The mud flats are submerged and the perimeter is pushed up into elevated rock areas choked with impenetrable cacti and thorny scrub. Fernando’s solution? We survey by kayak. Esther and I are chosen for the paddle duty. This is a rare treat since Goto lies within the national park boundaries where boats are prohibited in order to reduce disturbance to the huge flocks of pink flamingos that feed there.
We put our 2-person kayak into the brown water about 8:30am. The golden light is just beginning to spill over the surrounding hills. Esther and I begin the count. We learn quickly to simply glide into the small coves and glass the shores with our binoculars. We are silent coming in and the birds don’t flush. The flamingos, normally very skittish, find us a curiosity and simply stare rather than flee. We count 14 adults and 6 juveniles. Normally we count hundreds of flamingos here, but the deep water doesn’t allow for easy feeding. The mass of the flock has moved to other parts of the islands or perhaps to South American shores 38 miles to the south.
A belted kingfisher, the punk rocker of the bird world with its standup head feathers, swoops overhead. I always laugh when I see this bird with its apparent attitude. Deep in the shadows we find the peeps—least sandpipers by the dozens, greater and lesser yellowlegs, a black stilt with the longest pink legs I’ve ever seen. From the waist down, it looks like a sunburned Angelina Jolie. The rising sun must be hotter than I had imagined.
Esther and I make it to the end of our count after scanning kilometers of shoreline in record time. But now comes the adventure. We must paddle back across the Goto and into the wind. The breeze has picked up and small waves smack into the bow. I get salt water in my eyes and immediately put on my shades. It is tough paddling. We can see a spec of metallic reflection across the water. That’s the truck, our goal. It is simply time to gut it out and paddle. It is difficult to talk now due to the sounds of wind and water. We both drift into our own separate worlds.
In times like this of physical repetition, I usually let me mind wander. As we push through the waves, I glance around at the surrounding peaks. There’s Mount Brandaris, the tallest peak on Bonaire, that on a perfectly clear day offers a faint glimpse of far off Venezuela. To the right are the cliffs that guide the saliña’s waters toward the sea. I realize that these views are all new to me, completely different perspectives. No one gets to see the land around here from the middle of the water like this. I find it captivating. Now I know how the flocks of pink see their world called the Goto. I, for the first time, am seeing my island through the eyes of the flamingo.