No Bird Is an Island

Conservationist Paul Reillo has waged a one-man campaign to save Dominica's parrots from extinction

Despite the seemingly critical problem of not being able to reach the nest cavity, Reillo is determined to get a picture. He and Sheets heave a decaying log, about four feet long, lengthwise against the carapite tree, and Reillo climbs atop it. Termites swarm at his arms. Balancing the pole overhead, he somehow manages to maneuver the camera into place -- only to lose power.

The probe is brought back down to the ground, the batteries and wires checked to make sure everything is in place, and Reillo again guides the camera into the nest cavity. But once more the camera blacks out. Finally it's determined that the problem is a splinter in the fishing pole. After some electrical tape repairs, power returns to the camera, and this time Reillo successfully snaps a picture of the jaco nest. By the end of the process, he is sweaty and caked with the rich soil of Dominica.

All for what? A black-and-white image of something blocking the nest cavity. It could be termites, or it could be wood ants -- which are less problematic -- or it could be something else entirely. The picture is inconclusive.

Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"
Paul Demko
Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"

We drive on for a few minutes and climb a hillside overlooking a citrus grove. Almost immediately a squawk is heard and Reillo stops in midsentence to survey the scene. He can spot a parrot and discern its origin as easily as most people tell their left shoe from their right. Two jacos then dart across the sky in tandem, Reillo tracing their path with his finger. The birds are mostly green with a splash of blue on their heads and another swatch of red across the neck. After a few minutes, accustomed to our presence, more jacos soar by, sweeping down to perch momentarily and steal a bite of tangerine off the trees.

"I guarantee you, at least 20 birds can see us right now," Reillo says in awe. "Here we're looking at one of the rarest parrots on earth and yet on any given day you can come up here and see one."

What we don't see, though, is perhaps more telling: Throughout a day of traipsing in and around the proposed area for Morne Diablotin National Park, not one sisserou parrot is spotted or heard.

Paul Reillo has known greater frustrations than tottering on a rotten log in the bush while balancing a camera prone to power outages over his head. At a similarly remote location more than a decade ago in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, Reillo was studying the breeding habits of stalk-eyed flies, which feature exaggerated eye stalks that grow to almost twice their body length. As Reillo descended from a forest shrouded in clouds after a day of field work, logging trucks rumbled by headed in the opposite direction. The trucks were on their way to systematically remove the very habitat that enabled stalk-eyed flies to survive.

At the time, Reillo was engaged in postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland at College Park. He had earlier earned a doctorate in zoology from Maryland's Baltimore County campus and was on a career path that could have led to a tenured faculty position. Reillo describes the encounter with the logging trucks in Malaysia as a "cathartic moment" in his thinking about conservation work and academia. He came to the realization then that the "continued pursuit of esoteric academic questions was absolutely ludicrous in light of the fact that the ecosystem as a whole was being destroyed." And Malaysia was far from an aberration: Similar environmental destruction was being repeated all over the globe -- especially in poor tropical countries, where the vast majority of the world's biodiversity exists.

Reillo decided to bolt academia, but he wasn't sure how else to direct his energies. While in South Florida to interview for a job, he made the rounds of local bird sanctuaries. One of these was in Loxahatchee and owned by a medical doctor, John Vaughn. The preserve contained an eclectic group of endangered birds, such as red-browed Amazon parrots and white-bellied caiques. "I knew my birds well enough to know that what was there was very, very unusual," Reillo recalls. In 1989 he moved to Loxahatchee and took over as director of the facility. The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1994, and the group purchased the sanctuary -- birds, equipment, land, and all -- from Vaughn a year later.

The preserve is down a washboard-rutted dirt road, just beyond the reach of strip-malled South Florida. Loxahatchee Groves is one of the last South Florida outposts of eccentricity. The kind of place where having a several-hundred-pound East African bongo on your property -- or 20 of them, as in Reillo's case -- doesn't prompt howls of protests from the local homeowners association.

Like most properties in Loxahatchee Groves, the 20-acre Rare Species preserve is enclosed by a fence and adorned with numerous signs warning "No Trespassing." What sets the property apart is that the fencing is draped in foreboding black nursery cloth and topped with barbed wire. From the exterior it has the look of a place where you wouldn't be surprised to spot a plane dropping off the latest black-market agricultural exports from Central America.

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