It is a long path from the low, rolling hills of Ada, Oklahoma to the shores of Bonaire. In between those two disparate points, naturalist Jerry Ligon has spent his life admiring nature.
He fled the Oklahoma plains for a Rocky Mountain high where he worked as a National Park Service naturalist at Estes Park. Later, he became a certified dive instructor and spent five years on Saint Thomas, the heartbeat of the US Virgin Islands. During that stint, Jerry was offered a job as a resident naturalist aboard a small, 150-passenger cruise ship that plied the Caribbean Islands and the long coasts of South America. This was career utopia for Ligon. He learned all the birds of these ports by visiting the numerous botanical gardens often found on the islands.
Paradoxically, his last stop was Bonaire, an island without a botanical garden. With his contract all ran out, the cruise ship offered him a plane ticket back to the States. He never flew home. That was in 1994. Since then, Jerry has become the only bird guide on Bonaire. “In the land of blind men, the one-eyed man is king,” he declares. But if only one eye is dedicated for the birds, Ligon uses the other for fish. He also gives reef fish ID tours underwater as well.
My friend, Nathalie, and I joined Jerry recently for a terrestrial tour. It was as much about plants as birds, and I learned about some unique flora. Take manzaliña di bobo for instance, the ‘little apple of the fool’. It is more commonly called manchineel or poison guana, and is known as one of the more poisonous trees in the world. Unaware tourists often seek the shaded shelter under this tree during rain. Bad move. Toxic chemicals wash off the tree’s branches and leaves producing a severe, blistering rash for those sitting below. The Arawak Indians, the original bad boys of the Caribbean, used to coat their arrow points in the plant’s nasty, white sap to ensure a quick kill. Take that, Jack Sparrow!
But Jerry turned us on to other less notorious plant members of Bonaire’s mondi. My favorite was another don’t-touch badass, bringamosa or ‘pretty girl who can fight’. He also pointed out a red cedar complete with drooping, yellow oriole nests; an evening roosting spot for hundreds of yellow-shoulder Amazon parrots along Kaminda Santa Barbara; and a brilliant orange butterfly, the Tropical Julia. No, this was not the 2010 tropical storm labeled by NOAA. Rather, this elegant insect, native of verdant Costa Rica, is surprisingly found here on our arid island.
The list went on as the morning grew old—least grebe (a South-of-the-Border, fresh water diving bird), spotted sandpipers (“that’s the only sandpiper that bobs continually”), and a tri-colored heron (“Can’t miss its white belly!”).
Five hours later, I was steeped in the lore of island plants and enlightened to the nuances of our local birds. I spoke to Jerry about my upcoming trip to Peru to check out the country’s thousands of exotic bird species. He just smiled and said, “I couldn’t do that. After a week or two, I just couldn’t leave. That would be teasing myself. I would have to stay and explore for years.” Something tells me that Ligon’s job here is far from done. I expect the Birdman of Bonaire to be around for a while. Hopi bon.
Post Script—This has nothing to do with Jerry Ligon. Rather it is about my friend, Bruce. We were returning from a dive today at the Invisibles and rounded the traffic circle near the airport. The tires of Bruce’s truck were squealing the entire time that we traveled the circumference.
“Sounds like your tires are a bit low on air, Bruce.”
“Yeah, I actually have two tires with slow leaks. I have to fill them up with air every three or four days.”
I just look at the man. Here is a competent dive leader and former health care manager/professional in a former life. “Man, you have really gone down island.”
We glance at each other and just laugh hard.