Secluded in a little known hideaway in Josiah's Bay resides a couple who love birds. Working with what Mother Nature has already created, this couple – Vernon and Marie Blyden– offer a sanctuary for all to enjoy.
Off the beaten track but following the paved road that leads down to Josiah's Bay, just before the entrance to the beach parking lot are their small cluster of wood buildings with a distinctive green sign that says Near-D-Beach Limin Bar and Hostel and just below that "bird watching." Although I had heard word of mouth about the youth hostel, I had never taken the opportunity to explore the bird watching part, and a treasure of Nature's Little Secrets went unnoticed by me for years. I finally took the time one afternoon to visit the proprietors and explore the sanctuary for myself.
Vernon and Marie laughingly say that they have been together "forever." Their humour and easy manner with each other suggests that is true. Vernon was born in St Thomas, lived in the BVI until he was five years old when his family moved to Brooklyn. Marie's path started out in the southern US; she eventually migrated to Brooklyn and at a tender 19 years old was swept away by the charms of Vernon. Four children and nine "grands" later – the rest is history. After years of working and feeling the stress of life in New York and with the children all grown, the couple decided in 2001 to move to the BVI, where Vernon had family land from his mother's side – the Frett family clan.
"Most people say to us, 'Oh you moved back,' but the fact is though Vernon's roots are here, we had never really lived in the BVI only visited, " Marie explained. "I also can't figure out why folks don't instantly pick up my Brooklyn accent," she laughed.
The couple's intent on moving to Tortola was to take life a bit easier, slow down the pace and take time to smell the flowers. They bought a piece of family land that boarded the tip of the salt pond closest to Josiah's Bay and built a simple home for themselves and added on a few rooms in a separate section to rent out as a "hostel," which they appropriately named Near-D-Beach.
Marketing themselves as a hostel was really a unique ploy. A hostel is defined as an "inexpensive lodging place for travelers, especially young travelers." They are the only hostel listed in the BVI and Google search puts them on the first page with an 87% and above overall review for categories such as character, security, location, staff, cleanliness and fun. The "fun" part is what most people seem to remember, as guests of all ages feel right at home with the Blydens.
"We loved being close to nature and right on the salt pond," Marie explained. But they really knew nothing about the varieties of indigenous birds of the BVI. "We started out with about 30 moscovys (domesticated ducks) that my husband's cousin had and started feeding them. The noise at feeding time brought other birds over."
Although familiar with commonly seen birds such as Cattle Egrets and Turtle Doves who frequented the sanctuary, they began to attract with hanging feeders the local hummingbirds and the yellow-breasted bananaquits. However, Marie began to notice birds nesting and feeding among the mangroves and salt pond banks that she couldn't identify.
At one point a couple of professional conservationists from Kenya, who were stranded due to weather, stayed over at the hostel and were wowed by the variety of birds. They took endless pictures and encouraged the Blydens to learn more about the wealth of birds that made their home in and around the salt pond. "I used to try and go online and do my research that way," Marie said, but later she was gifted by other hostel guests, conservationists from the Netherlands, with the Helm Field Guide, Birds of the West Indies. A great resource book with beautiful color plates depicting bird species native to this region, Marie soon became an expert in her own right.
As I walked back towards the salt pond where the shaded pergolas and outdoor tables that make up the Limin' Bar and Restaurant were located, I was eager to hear the expert "bird lady" call her flock for the mid-morning once–a-day feeding. "These are birds in the wild, so we only supplement their feeding," Marie explained, "we don't want them dependent on us." Then of course there are her "pets"– a large male and two female moscovys that follow Marie around in a webfoot march, especially at feeding time.
Marie purchases crushed corn from the Agricultural Department in fifty-pound sacks. Utilizing a ten-foot section of plastic gutter upturned as a grain trough, Marie pours the grain onto a floating dock close to shore that has two wide metal trays. She then cups a hand to one side of her mouth and lets out a loud "quack, quack, quack." Her voice echoes around the salt pond and amazingly flocks of birds start flying in droves. The White-cheeked Pintails flap so close to the surface it looks like they're actually walking on top of the water, followed by the moorhens with their distinctive red bill tipped with yellow. Off to the side is a Black-necked Stilt with its long legs gracefully stepping in the shallows accompanied by small sandpipers. The floating dock is soon turned into a feeding frenzy.
Looking on nonchalantly in the distance of the salt pond are tall white egrets and grey herons in statuesque poses by pieces of driftwood. And on fortunate bird watching days they are joined by the Roseate Flamingoes, which fly over for a visit from the salt ponds of Anegada. Frigatebirds and boobys have been known to dive down along with an occasional pelican or two, and we have only begun to scratch the bird watching surface. Photos of the birds are captured in two large albums on display, courtesy of long time resident and businessman, Phillip Fenty. He pursues his photographic hobby on Sundays joined by his wife, who enjoys this bird watching time with a breakfast Marie serves on weekends, from 8am to 11am.
Vernon and Marie love the weekend mornings when friends, hostel guests and visitors drop in for a bite to eat, a chance to chat and naturally a hope to see one of the unusual bird sightings for the day.
A chat with the Blyden's will reveal their love for this bird sanctuary and their hope for its preservation from encroaching development all around. "We can't do much about what happens with Mother Nature (the salt pond has totally dried up twice in their ten years here), but we hope to work with government agencies like Conservation and Fisheries and possibly the National Parks Trust," Vernon said, "to help create a working system to regulate the salt pond flow and preserve this special bird sanctuary in the BVI."