The Virgin Islands
Wild Night Life
by Susan Zaluski
It is the sun-kissed waters and sugar sand beaches that typically spring to mind when we think about the Virgin Islands' natural beauty, and while it is easy to get lost in the panoramic splendor, we sometimes forget that much of "Nature's Little Secrets" are discretely hidden in the diminutive details of our unique flora and fauna that extends beyond the typical coral reefs that we associate with the environment. For those who are loathed to leave the lazy beach scene, believing that an outdoor nature adventure in the Virgin Islands requires a sweaty trek in the hot Caribbean sun or rising at the crack of dawn: fear not. While most "wild" night life in the Virgin Islands refers to Foxy's, the Bomba Shack or another rowdy, rum-filled beach bar, the natural beauty of wildlife in the BVI persists even after the sun has slipped past the horizon.
Whether you are with family and want to help your children explore the natural world or on a romantic getaway, consider taking an evening nature walk or hike. The stars are spectacular, and whether you choose to ramble along the waters' edge or venture along the verdant tropical bush, grab a flashlight or headlamp and plan to move about quietly. Below is a guide to some of the special "night life" you may want to be on the lookout for "after hour".
Known locally in the Virgin Islands as "strawberry," this plant has a tangle of brilliant-green spiny vines, and was once (and occasionally still) used to make a natural shampoo for hair. Among homeopaths, the plant is also known for its medicinal qualities such as treating angina and other heart-related problems.
Night-blooming cereus can be found along the edges of paths and roadsides, creeping along rocks and boulders, and bears a beautiful large white blossom that can be as wide as a foot across and has bright yellow stamens. True to its name, the plant only flowers after dusk, for one single night, wilting before dawn and earning its occasional nickname as "Queen of the night" and making its sighting a particularly special occurrence. In place of where the plant's flower blossoms, Night-blooming cereus bears a radiant sweet red fruit that is about six inches long and tastes similar to a kiwi. With a distinctive vanilla scent, the plant is pollinated by other nocturnal BVI creatures, such as nighttime insects and fruit bats.
There are several different species of bat found in the BVI, the only native mammal found in the Virgin Islands. Although fruit bats are occasionally unpopular with farmers, these animals are important pollinators of popular local fruits such as mango, papaya, guava and breadfruit, and also help spread the seeds of forest plants. If you walk past groves of fruit trees, you are likely to see these tiny winged creatures swooping about. Other bat species help humans by controlling insects, with some species, such as the "Roof Bat" being able to eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. Of the hundreds of bats found worldwide, the vast majority are herbivores or insectivores. The BVI's "Fishing Bat" is one of a handful of bats that is a carnivore. Using its echolocation abilities to detect small ripples on the ocean's surface to pounce over the sea like a miniature bird of prey, the fishing bat can be seen at night feeding on small fish. When they miss their oceanic prey, these bats prove to be good swimmers, using their wings as oars. This remarkable night-time creature makes its roosts in seaside crevices of cliffs and due to habitat loss has sadly made the Federal Endangered Species list in the nearby USVI.
Probably chasing the same schools of fish that attract the fishing bats, you'll often notice the imposing silhouette of these impressively large fish which are about five to eight feet in length congregated around well-lit docks, seaside restaurants or the back of your charter yacht at night. The tarpon, often called simply "bass" by local Virgin Islanders has been roaming our oceans' waters since prehistoric times, and is one of the oldest species of fish on the planet. Nicknamed the "Silver King" for their striking size and agility, tarpon feed predominately on schools of small fish and the occasional crab. Tarpon can reach weights of up to 280 pounds and are known to live in excess of 50 years, with some captive specimens living up to 70 years.
While they can be found in the open oceans of the Atlantic and Caribbean, venturing 100s of miles offshore to spawn and diving to depths of over 400 feet, you'll often see them close to shore. Juvenile fish often venture into protected mangrove areas, traversing deep into the interior where they are safe from predators. As a result, some of the salt ponds in the Virgin Islands that only occasionally open to the sea are home to relatively large tarpon, which remain in the pond seeking easily available food and living out a predator free existence in their confines.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
Agile and crafty, these relatively large (about two feet tall) wetland birds are known to build large nests – which can be as wide as four feet in diameter in Red Mangrove and other wetland trees. As high as 60 feet off the ground, the nests are part of a strategy to keep eggs and young safe from predators like rats, cats and mongooses. Although these nests, made of large sticks and twigs, take just over a week for a pair of herons to build, they may use the same nest for several years once built, and many colonies will remain active in a relatively small area for decades.
Sometimes called the "Crab Bird" by locals, this wading bird lives at the edge of mangrove swamps, where it waits to stealthily sneak along the waters' edges, stalking frogs, crabs, small fish, aquatic insects and mollusks with its powerful, thick beak. Night Herons have a white head with a distinct black stripe, giving our feathered friend the appearance of wearing a burglar's mask as it creeps through the mangrove forest and may startle you with its call which is described as a "wok-wok" noise, and sometimes sounds almost like a barking dog. The heron can eat particularly hearty pray, such as thick crabs and even small turtles, since it has a special stomach acid to help it dissolve and digest hard shells.
Land crabs, blue gray and sporting formidable claws, dig deep homes in the land built up around mangrove swamps with a single tiny entrance. You can occasionally glimpse these large alien-looking creatures during the day, when they are posed like soldiers standing sentry beside their burrows, and slight movement in their direction may send them scurrying into the safety of their muddy dens. Although they are land-dwellers, the female crabs will sidle to the salt-water's edge during full moon (when you may often spy them crossing roads and other open areas) sometimes traveling distances of a few miles and occasionally entering the sea to release eggs or larvae. These animals were once an easily available food source in the Virgin Islands, when islanders would go "torching" (carrying flaming lanterns) in the days before the advent of electricity to seek the animals that would be cooked and mixed with rice. They remain a favorite food of the Yellow-crowned night heron, which sometimes sticks its thick beak into their holes, attempting to grab their bodies in an area where the crab's claws are confined and unable to snap back.
The Virgin Islands' Coqui
One of the most enigmatic of BVI animals is the diminutive Virgin Islands Coqui. In the Virgin Islands, the night air explodes into a chorus of chirps, peeps and whistles. As an example from one of our tiny islands, little 3.5 square mile island of Jost Van Dyke alone has five different species of frogs! One of the rarer of Caribbean frog species, the Virgin Islands coqui, which is internationally listed as a critically endangered species is found on Jost Van Dyke, as well as some of the smaller islands of the BVI. The Virgin Islands (including some of the US Virgin Islands) comprise the entirety of this species' global range, and the frog is believed to already have gone extinct in the USVI.
Some might find the abundance of frogs surprising, given the fact that there is little available in the way of fresh water as compared to some of the larger Caribbean islands. The Virgin Islands' coqui is a true Virgin Islander, showing its ability to adapt and thrive on a small island. The frogs lay their eggs in the tops of bromeliads, where tiny pools of water collect. These eggs will hatch directly into froglets, skipping over the tadpole phase and defying everything most adults may remember reading about frog development in their middle school science textbooks. This small-island adaption is also seen in places in the South Pacific that have relatively little fresh water.
Woodslave (House Gecko)
A naturalized species, the house gecko, sometimes known as the woodslave can be seen in native forests, but is mostly found in homes or near inhabited areas. The woodslave is a relative newcomer to the Virgin Islands, believed to have been introduced by accident on slave ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. While not everyone may be used to seeing lizards inside your home, be thankful, as these creatures play an important role in controlling insects.