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Fireworks of Feathers Grace a Jamaican Hilltop

Showing birds to tourists gives her a name, but saving endangered fowl is her real game

LISA SALMON'S little home nestles like an eagle's aerie atop a wooded hill 900 feet above the waves of Montego Bay.

In the shade of her small patio, a dozen hushed onlookers armed with cameras and binoculars perch on metal folding chairs. Still as storks, with craning necks, they have gathered here to witness Miss Salmon's unique brand of feathered fireworks.

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For more than 30 years, amateur and professional birders and curious tourists alike have bribed local taxi drivers to risk lock, stock, and shock absorbers to hazard the long, rocky, unpaved road up the hill to Rocklands Bird Feeding Station. For it's here at Miss Salmon's tiny cottage - hardly bigger than a purple martin birdhouse - that she has patiently coaxed Jamacia's Tiffany-toned wild birds to come each afternoon to ``take tea.''

Ornithological oglers

Saffron finches, mango hummingbirds, blue tanagers, banana quits, barble doves, and Jamaica's national bird - the exquisite red-billed, streamer-tailed hummingbird - are just a few of the species that gather to feed, bathe, and preen for the group of owl-eyed guests.

But Miss Salmon's concern this day is on some feathered friends thousands of chilly miles away. Her 80-plus years have not dulled her concern or her pluck.

``Do you know what the French are doing in Antarctica?'' she asks rhetorically. ``They're building an airstrip that will destroy the breeding grounds of hundreds of thousands of penguins!'' she fairly shouts in protest.

``Now, Greenpeace is there. They built a hut to stop the bulldozing but they [the French] destroyed it and beat them up! It's an international agreement,'' she continues, ``that they are not to do anything until 1995. It's terrible It's just ... ''

An enthusiastic birder interrupts in a stage whisper. ``Miss Salmon, there's a hummingbird! Quickly, Miss Salmon, it's coming!''

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``All right, all right, come and sit here,'' Miss Salmon says, dropping her decibels just a bit and tapping the empty chair beside hers.

The anxious woman scurries to the chair as Miss Salmon takes her hand. ``Now just hold out your finger like this and be still. He'll come back.''

`Oh, my!'

Moments later - quick as a dart, and not much bigger - a black hummingbird with iridescent emerald throat and long black scissor-tail whirrs down and perches on the excited guest's index finger.

``Oh, my. Oh, my!'' the excited woman gasps as the exquisite creature bends over and sips sugar water from a small bottle held by Miss Salmon.

``Oh, my!'' she breathes again in disbelief as everyone's cameras start clicking away.

After an endless few seconds the little creature flits off and settles amid the scarlet and purple blossoms of a nearby clerodendrum vine.

``Now that's the national bird of Jamaica,'' Miss Salmon says as everyone cranes to watch the tiny thing preen in the sunlight. ``It's called a `doctor bird' because the tufted head and long black feathers resemble the hat and tails doctors wore long ago.''

``All right, who wants to be next?'' she asks. ``And someone else can sit on the other side here and feed the finches some seed. Just hold out your two hands. I'll put some seed in them and they'll come. Come on, come on now, don't be shy,'' she coaxes.

Later, after the dazzled and delighted tourists have left for their sea-side hotels, Miss Salmon talks enthusiastically about her lifelong passion for birds.

``Now young man,'' Miss Salmon admonishes as I leave. ``Now whatever you write, I want you to emblazon right across the paper what I told you about Antarctica. Emblazon it right across the front page! Do you hear me?'' she says, shaking her finger in my direction.

Miss Salmon is an honorary member of the Natural History Society and has received many awards for her recognized conservation work in saving rare species of birds.

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